Increase your malware vigilance during geopolitical conflicts

Companies across industries are likely to face a much larger malware threat during geopolitical conflicts, research shows.

Countries at odds with each other will turn to cyberspace to gain military advantage, placing companies in the crosshairs of both sides, research released Wednesday by security vendor FireEye indicated.

[How to use Syrian Electronic Army attacks to improve security awareness]

"Global malware activity is likely to rise and fall with geopolitical conflict," Kenneth Geers, a senior global threat analyst at FireEye, said.

In looking at the correlation between conflict and malware, FireEye took a look at malware callbacks to command-and-control (C&C) servers in Russia and Ukraine during the last 16 months. The countries have been at odds since pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February.

In ranking countries based on the number of malware callbacks, FireEye found that Russia went from number seven in 2013 to number 5 this year and Ukraine from number 12 to number 9.

The biggest jump for Russia was in March of this year, when the country was number three globally. March is when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill making Ukraine's Crimean peninsula a part of Russia, the U.S. and European Union froze the assets of senior Russian officials, and Russian military forces massed along the Ukrainian border.

During the same month, FireEye saw a rise in callbacks to Russia from companies across the 18 industries that have companies whose network traffic FireEye monitors for indicators of possible malware infection.

The 10 industries with the largest increases included education, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, government, high-tech, energy and utilities, chemical and manufacturing, retail, telecom, aerospace and defense and services and consulting.

FireEye recorded a total of 30 million callbacks over the 16-month period, but does not know the nature of communications between the malware and the C&C servers.

Nevertheless, the research indicates that companies are likely being used "by state sponsored hackers as conduits for state-sponsored operations," Geers said.

"System administrators should be on the lookout for increased malware activity during times of geopolitical tension," Geers said.

Companies' infected computers could be used as part of a botnet created by the countries to distribute malware or as part of the C&C infrastructure built to hide the source of cyberattacks, Geers said. The hackers could also be stealing intellectual property.

A company that can connect its operations, even indirectly, to a conflict between countries should bolster intrusion detection systems. Because conflict by nature becomes a national security issue for the countries involved, they are unlikely to show any restraint in the use of malware, Geers said.

[Danger looms at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but is Russia's security up to snuff?]

"If they (countries) are about to go to war, you're going to see the national security requirements increase significantly, as well as the authorization to collect information," Geers said. "You're going to see a loosened rein and more activity."

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