Game Over Zeus and Banking Malware

This announcement by US-CERT made me think about the current status of the war (I think that at the moment this is actually the correct word) between attackers / thieves / fraudsters and ICT Security practitioners, Banks, FInancial Institutes etc.

Recently we have seen banking malware using Tor hidden services to hide C2C (Command-and-Control) servers, or as described in the US-CERT announcement, P2P (peer-to-peer) networks. The purpose is the same, to hide the controlling master of the malware, that is the attacker / thief / fraudster her/himself. This also means that recently security practitioners, law enforcement and bank personnel got very good in finding and at least disrupting the C2C servers, otherwise there would be no need to find new ways of hiding them.

But how is this war going, that is, who is winning? Let’s be clear, we, the good guys, are losing.

At first sight the reason for this is simple: there are just too many bugs in today’s software (and possibly in hardware, or at least in embedded software in hardware) and new bugs are added at such a rate that our efforts to ‘secure’ the software are improving the situation a little but not much. It is just a never-ending chase: find a bug, exploit the bug, fix the bug – repeat… It is true that bugs are getting more difficult to find, that software developers are getting better in writing software and fixing bugs, that Bugs-Bounties are awarded to bugs discoverers from software houses etc., but the same happens on the other side and a real market of exploits (to which even secret services and the like participate) of unknown (also called 0-day) bugs exists and flourishes.

In this situation the approach that it is often adopted to protect financial transactions online (web-based) is to balance the costs of defensive measures with the losses to attackers. In the losses one should consider both those direct and those indirect, like bad publicity and loss of customers. Investing too much in some defensive measures could work but could also be a waste of money since the next attack can just avoid the expensive defensive measure and exploit some other bugs or flow in the process or, even worse, human weakness.

This really looks like a never ending cat-and-mouse game.