Trending 'Fireball' adware raises botnet concerns

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Last week, security researchers reported on a trending adware infection known as "Fireball". Sourced to the Chinese marketing firm Rafotech, reports indicate a footprint of more than 250 million infected machines worldwide. While the infection currently appears to only make changes to victims’ browser homepages and search engines, analysis suggests that the software could be remotely leveraged to act as a malware dropper.

If true, it’s possible that infected systems could be made part of a botnet and used to carry out new types of attack over the Internet.

The Fireball adware is being distributed via freeware software installers through a method known as bundling. You’re likely to have seen bundling yourself at some point. Legitimate software developers use bundling as a way to monetize the release of otherwise free software. When you download and install such a program to your computer, you may notice that you’re being asked to install additional, unrelated software, like toolbars or free trials of a different company’s programs.

While annoying, most cases of bundling are simply a way for developers to make money while releasing a free product. However, this can also be used to deliver PUA (Potentially Unwanted Applications), like adware, software that can track your behavior online and serve advertisements based on this data.

Because of this, it’s important to remain mindful of the sources of programs you install. Cracked versions of paid products frequently include malicious files that can be used to infect your systems. For website owners, this also applies to pirated versions of software that you might want to install on your website, like premium WordPress plugins and themes. Even if the pirated files are free of malware, they do not typically receive security patches from the original developers, or they could be configured to download a malicious component at a later time. This can open your website to a myriad of vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers to cause further damage to your online reputation.

Another point to consider, in the wake of Fireball’s massive online footprint, is the potential for damage caused by a botnet of this size. Malicious tasks that would be practically impossible for a single machine to perform (bulk hash cracking, login bruteforcing, denial of service attacks, etc.) become trivial when an attacker can utilize a quarter billion machines simultaneously to accomplish their goals. The potential for mobilization on this scale means it’s as important as ever to ensure tight security on all of your systems.

Strong passwords are a good start. Changing passwords regularly is another important step, given the frequency of major data leaks across the internet. By changing your credentials, you render a previously leaked password useless.

veenstraheadshotMichael Veenstra is a Research Analyst at SiteLock with more than 7 years of experience in the security technology industry. He works to uncover breaking trends in web-based malware and uses this to teach scanners to identify and clean code automatically. He’s especially proud of earning the prestigious GWAPT certification and his membership on the GIAC Advisory Board.

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