A ray of hope in the fight against malvertising

A new service offers to keep all your Web browsing on its servers. It could be the answer, despite the risks of contracting with a startup.

I recently wrote about how the Angler malware threat had affected my company. Adversaries have been buying space on legitimate advertising banner services, embedding malware in their fake ads, and using the unsuspecting ad agencies to serve their malware through legitimate websites to users, who might be innocently browsing major news and financial websites. It continues to be a problem for me.

Today, for example, I got an alert about an infection attempt via a training website. I’m also seeing an increasing number of Angler infection attempts coming via Web searches. The malware-bearing search results all look the same: seemingly random text from some old book, probably some classic of literature, that doesn’t make any sense in the context of the Web search. That doesn’t matter, though; it’s just there to serve up malware to any unsuspecting users who click on the search result. One of my users was hit yesterday while trying to find a hiking website in India.

I used to think my life would be much easier if I could just put a stop to personal Web surfing from my company’s network. But that was before legitimate Web browsing, such as checking financial news or even using a work-related training website, started serving up tainted advertisements. Of course, it never would have been feasible to block non-work-related activity, but now it wouldn’t even solve the problem. I certainly can’t block every website that has now become a threat.

So, what am I to do? Web-based threats have become so pervasive that it now seems as if any Web surfing at all poses a potential threat to my network. And though our firewalls are sophisticated, they are much more effective at blocking communications into our network than threats that result from internal connections out to the Internet. The criminals know this, of course, and that’s why they are focusing their efforts on compromising respectable websites.

There is a ray of hope, though. I recently found out about a company that offloads Web browsing onto its own network. It’s essentially a cloud-based Web browsing service. It performs all the actual Web traffic communications, so that all potentially dangerous traffic stays within the borders of the third party, where it can do less harm. All the service provides to the end user is a screen showing what is presented to the browser from the website. Much like a virtual computer or remote desktop session, only the input (keyboard and mouse) and output (pixels on the screen) are transmitted between the company’s service and my network. Browser settings, security, plug-ins and other customizations are all supported by its service, and it emulates all major browsers. So it doesn’t seem as if compatibility is an issue.

This is pretty cool, in principle. It seems like a workable solution for casual, personal Web surfing like those Web searches I was talking about. It may also be useful for work-related activities such as checking up on the news. I’m not yet sure how well it will support business-related applications like our payroll vendor and help desk ticketing system, both of which are run on third-party websites, but those are definitely less risky than websites we don’t have a third-party relationship with.

I haven’t heard about any other companies providing a service like this. This company is fairly new, so there is some risk in putting a lot of trust in its service. But given the day-to-day risks I’m currently experiencing, it seems like a life raft to me right now.

This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "J.F. Rice," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at jf.rice@engineer.com.

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