Countering security threats outlined in latest Microsoft report

Microsoft's latest report that found a big increase in Windows computers infected with malware signals the need for better tools and controls to secure computers at the network's endpoints, experts say.

Microsoft reported Wednesday in its biannual Security Intelligence Report that the average rate of infection of Windows computers jumped roughly threefold to about 17 computers per 1,000, when compared to the third quarter.

[Microsoft tightens restrictions on adware on Windows PCs]

A major contributor to the increase was the rise in malware called "Rotbrow," which was found in about 59 of every 1,000 computers using Microsoft security products. More than 800 million computers globally use the software.

The program, which masquerades as a browser security add-on called Browser Protector, is known as a "dropper." Once the application is installed, hackers wait a bit to establish trust in the software before using it to download malware.

The success cybercriminals has had with Rotbrow indicates that CSOs need to improve the capabilities or the configurations of network perimeter tools to detect droppers when downloaded, Jonathan Thompson, chief executive of Rook Consulting, said.

As a backstop, CSOs should also consider technology to pickup communications between a dropper and its command-and-control server.

"The report continues to reinforce that it's critical to deploy advanced tools at the endpoint that can detect anomalies, such as malware that evades signature-based tools like anti-virus," Thompson said.

Microsoft also found that criminals were getting better at using "deceptive downloads" to infect computers. Such tactics included bundling malware with free programs and software packages that can be downloaded online.

Given criminals' skills in evading malware detection technologies, CSOs should focus "on building cohesive security controls across their complete environment, filling in the gaps between defensive technologies," Conan Dooley, security analyst for consultancy Bishop Fox, said.

"This increases the chances of detecting new attacks, as well as those using previous methods," Dooley said.

Such security controls can include access restrictions to sensitive computer resources and change prevention that stops unauthorized modifications to existing programs.

In addition, system software controls can be added to limit and monitor access to programs and files that control computer hardware.

The Microsoft report also shows "the need to continually reinforce basic security principals, such as updating software and operating systems," Dooley said.

"Many attacks are simply opportunistic strikes against unpatched software," he said.

The report did indicate improvements in patching. Microsoft found a significant decrease in exploits used against vulnerabilities older than 30 days.

[Cybercrime trends point to greater sophistication, stealthier malware, more encryption]

"The most likely explanation is that attackers get little return from exploits against older vulnerabilities, as most organizations are already protected through proactive patching," Wolfgang Kandek, chief technology officer for risk management company Qualys, said.

Microsoft also found the number of vulnerabilities in its software that could be remotely exploited had fallen by 70 percent between 2010 and 2013.

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