Malvertising: An Emerging Security Threat
If you've disavowed yourself from suspicious email attachments and iffy websites, congratulations. You've taken one tiny step toward protecting yourself from malware.
One. Tiny. Step.
Unfortunately, protecting yourself from viruses and other security threats isn't as simple as knowing what not to click. Malvertising preys upon even the most pristine of Internet consumers, and it's extremely difficult to avoid.
Malvertising In Action
If you hover over an online ad that happens to be infected with malware, you could catch the infection. It's the digital equivalent of inhaling airborne sneeze droplets from the runny-nosed guy across the subway. As you scroll past a deleterious ad, its infected code seeps into your browser. Like a colony of fresh streptococcus, the infection transfers from your browser to the inner bowels of your PC. If your immune system isn't strong enough – or in the case of your PC, if your virus protection doesn't hold up its side of the bargain – you contract malware.
No Clicks Required
Old-school virus protection relied heavily on common sense. “Don't click suspicious-looking icons and you should be okay” was the common mantra. However, malvertising can strike your computer even if you don't click anything. Simply hovering over an infected ad can spread its germs.
Recent Huffington Post Attack
Just this month, innocent Huffington Post readers were exposed to a CryptoWall ransomware attack. Experts discovered the insidious malware on April 11 in a “booby-trapped” Hugo Boss advertisement. Mind you, the malware was not hurled into cyberspace by Hugo Boss, German fashion maker extraordinaire. Rather, it was launched by a third-party of ill intent.
If, while surfing HuffPo, you happened to mouse over a contaminated Hugo Boss ad (while simultaneously running an old Flash Player version on your PC), you could have been exposed to CryptoWall ransomware. This malicious software encrypts its victims' PC files with an un-crackable algorithm that prevents owners from accessing the files. In order to regain access, CryptoWall victims are asked to pay a hefty sum of money – in other words, a ransom.
Searching For An Antidote
Our society is still searching for a cure for AIDS, cancer, and influenza. We're also searching for an antidote against malvertisement. Granted, maladvertisement isn't poised to harm us physically the way AIDS, cancer, and the flu can. Nevertheless, it harbors the potential for plenty of headaches.
RiskIQ, a computer security company, recently won a “Most Valuable Product Award” in the category of computer security. But even RiskIQ staff scratch their heads at how to solve the problem of malvertisement. According to Elias Manousos, the company's CEO, security experts don't have sufficient tools to identify and dismantle these damaging malvertisements ... yet. “The Internet economy,” says Manousos, “is at risk of the very thing that powers it: Internet advertising.”
Knowledge Is Power
Internet consumers must empower themselves with knowledge about malvertising. With knowledge comes the understanding that the best ways to protect yourself from malicious advertisements include the following:
- Update your operating system. It's tempting to put those pesky automatic updates off. However, you should embrace them. Like your yearly flu shot, they protect you from disease.
- Use a firewall. Most Windows OS, including 7 and 8, feature automatic firewall protection. However, Windows XP users no longer receive updates.
- Continue to avoid suspicious attachments, files, and other click-able temptations. As it turns out, this antiquated advice is still in vogue.
- Scan your computer for viruses and malware. Viruses and malware aren't always the same animal. It's easy to scan for both, but doing so will eat several minutes out of your day. Considering what could happen if you're not protected – infection with CryptoWall ransomware or worse – these minutes are wisely spent.
- Install an ad blocker. One of the best is AdBlock, and it's free. However, this type of content-filtering system has seen its share of controversy, so do your research before installing it.
We know that human viruses mutate and become difficult-to-cure superbugs. With time, malvertising bugs also grow more sophisticated and sinister. Experts don't have all the answers yet, but knowing that these pesky bacterium exist is half the battle. Protect yourself from disease. Stay alert, practice the healthy prevention measures listed above, take your vitamins, wear galoshes in the rain, and by all means, get a good night's sleep.
Image via Sumall