RSA - Browser exploits getting more intense

Web-based attacks can even be more effective than individuals banging away at machines

Threats against browsers are getting more sophisticated and branching out into such exotic areas as gaming, experts told attendees at RSA Conference 2008.

New attacks from games and virtual-world Web sites can deliver bot-like control of browsers to attackers, said Ed Skoudis, a security consultant with Intelguardians, speaking at RSA. All that's needed is for the infected image of an avatar to appear. "The character walks into view of the screen, and I take over the box," he said.

Compromised browsers can act as a stage to launch further hacking of computers, Skoudis said. An attack could shut off corrupted machines' keyboard and mouse control, making it more difficult to stop. Or a compromised browser could escalate a machine's network privileges, and even change time stamps in registries to mask the attacks from later forensic investigation, he said.

Browser attacks can be layered so an infected site might divert a browser to another site that barrages it with a broad spectrum of attacks, seeking vulnerabilities to take advantage of, said Rahit Dhamankar, head of security research for TippingPoint Technologies.

Such Web-based attacks can even be more effective than individuals banging away at machines, Dhamankar said. At a recent hacking contest, participants tried to compromise laptops running Vista, Mac and Ubuntu Linux operating systems for an entire day without success. The next day those same machines were allowed to browse the Internet and became infected by Web sites they visited, he said.

Phones with browsers are subject to similar hijacking, Dhamankar said, and he has seen vulnerabilities found in specific phones posted for sale on the Internet.

The vulnerabilities extend to applications that plug into or integrate with browsers, such as flash readers. "They become a large attack surface," said Michael Montecillo, an analyst with EMA attending the conference.

Attacks are carefully crafted, Montecillo said. For instance, a criminal seeking to take over the machines of wealthy people might hack the Web site of a well-heeled church in an affluent community so it downloads malware to vulnerable machines that connect with it. "Such a site exploit might go unnoticed for a long time," he said.

Web 2.0 applications that let site viewers upload content give attackers yet another means to distribute malware downloads, Montecillo said.

A download could contain an entire, Java-based IP stack supporting a VPN endpoint, a tool demonstrated by Dan Kaminsky, a penetration tester for IOActive, Skoudis said. That would give attackers unfettered access to other systems within corporate firewalls. Administrative machines that use browser interfaces to view such transactions on user machines then become at-risk. "Now that becomes a script on an administrative user's browser," which increases the potential damage to a business, he said.

Such downloads also could contain browser scripts that enable attackers to scan other systems on machines to find further vulnerabilities to exploit, Skoudis said. The implications can be dire, depending on the business infected. Web-based cash-management applications in banks, for instance, could be at risk if an attacker can execute actions on an administrator's browser, he said.

"There's not a really solid answer for this," Montecillo said. "Protecting the browser against exploits really isn't there yet."

Defenses for these attacks include using software libraries that notify users that sites are known to be dangerous, as well as keeping antivirus software updated to catch malware as it is downloaded, Montecillo said.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Tim Greene

Network World
Show Comments

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?