What is malware-as-a-service?

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Every year computers and devices around the world are compromised by automated hacking tools. Many of the attacks are carried out by groups of hackers who rely heavily on Malware as a Service (MaaS) networks.

So what is MaaS? How do hackers spread malware? And how can you protect yourself against malware?

Malware declared as a service

Just as big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, and Oracle have evolved over the years to offer cloud-based subscription services, the hacking underworld now offers similar subscription models.

In particular, malware-as-a-service platforms offer malware-for-rent services that enable anyone with an Internet connection to access tailor-made malware solutions. Most of the applications are cloud-based and do not require installation.

Some of the MaaS services even offer money-back guarantees, while others operate on a commission-based model, where part of the money raised through hacking campaigns is withheld by the platform administrators.

Breaking MaaS Networks

Image to illustrate a communication network.

MaaS networks typically operate on a model made up of three key groups.

The first and foremost are the programmers who are responsible for developing the malware kits.

The second group consists of the distributors. They specialize in identifying common vulnerabilities in computer systems that allow malware to be introduced during virus spreading campaigns.

The third group are the administrators. They oversee the day-to-day work of the network to make sure everything is running smoothly. They also receive ransom commissions for campaigns and ensure that all participants adhere to the internal rules and regulations.

However, a significant portion of the MaaS networks are subscriber-based. Payments are usually made in privacy-conscious cryptocurrencies like Monero. Such advances in money transfers have encouraged cyber criminals because payments are harder to track.

The scalability of MaaS operations also makes them impressive.

One of the most notable cybersecurity attacks carried out by MaaS syndicates is the infamous crypto worm WannaCry ransomware. It infected over 200,000 computers in 2017. Originally developed by the US National Security Agency (NSA), it was adapted and leased to hackers by a group called Shadow Brokers.

The malware was used to paralyze systems of Deutsche Bahn AG, the National Health Service of England, and FedEx, the international courier company.

Common malware-as-a-service delivery modes

Here are some of the most common modes of malware propagation used by MaaS platforms.

1. Email Schemes

Image to illustrate email distribution.

A significant number of these services rely on email programs to undermine vulnerable systems. They send emails to unsuspecting destinations with embedded links that lead to malicious websites.

If a victim clicks on the link, the chain of infection begins. Typically, the malware starts by writing firewall exceptions and initiating obfuscation processes before looking for vulnerabilities on the computer. The main goal is usually to damage primary CPU sectors.

After a successful initial infection, additional malware can be downloaded onto the system. The infected device can also be used on a MaaS-controlled botnet.

2. Malvertising

Malvertising relies on ad networks to spread worms and involves embedding malicious code in advertisements. The malware infection sequence is triggered every time the ad is viewed on a vulnerable device.

The malware is usually hosted on a remote server and is set up to take advantage of key browser elements such as Adobe Flash Player and JavaScript.

Malvertising campaigns are usually difficult to contain as ad networks rely heavily on automation to serve thousands of ads at once.

In addition, the advertisements that have been placed are exchanged every few minutes. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact advertisements that are causing problems. This weakness is one of the main reasons why malvertising campaigns are preferred by MaaS networks.

3. Torrent files

Torrent sites are increasingly being used by hackers to distribute malware. Hackers generally upload rigged versions of popular movies and games to torrent sites for malware campaigns.

Related: What Is A Torrent And How To Use It

The trend picked up at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in increased downloads. A significant number of files hosted on the websites have been found to be bundled with cryptocurrency miners, ransomware, and other types of malicious applications designed to compromise system security.

How to avoid falling victim to MaaS attacks

MaaS networks use common malware infection methods to implant malicious code. Here are standard precautionary measures that are used to thwart their attacks.

1. Install a reputable antivirus

Antivirus software is a great first line of defense when it comes to internet security because it can detect worms before they can do any major damage.

The top-rated antivirus suites include Avast, ESET, Kaspersky, Malwarebytes, and Sophos.

2. Avoid using torrent sites

Virus detected on a laptop.

The other precautionary measure to defend against MaaS attacks is to avoid downloading files from torrent sites. This is because a significant number of files hosted on the websites contain malware. The lack of file integrity checks makes torrent sites the preferred distribution centers for viruses.

In addition, some torrent sites openly mine cryptocurrency with visitors’ computers by exploiting browser errors.

3. Do not open any e-mails from unknown senders

It is always important that you avoid opening emails from unknown sources. This is because MaaS organizations regularly send emails to destinations that contain links to malware-laden websites. The websites are typically designed to scan visitors’ browsers for vulnerabilities and trigger intrusion attacks.

If you are unsure about the integrity of a linked site, disabling certain browser elements like JavaScript and Adobe Flash Player can help prevent similar attacks, but the best advice is just not to click them.

4. Use a secure operating system

Man pointing to a locked matrix.

Using a traditionally secure operating system helps ward off malware attacks. Many of them are simply more secure than Windows because they are less popular and therefore hackers spend fewer resources trying to figure out their vulnerabilities.

Operating systems that are inherently more secure include Qubes, TAILS, OpenBSD, and Whonix. Many of them include enhanced data protection and virtualization functions.

All is not lost

As malware-as-a-service networks grow, law enforcement agencies have put tremendous effort into eliminating them. These counter-strategies include subscribing to them to decipher how their hacking tools work in order to disrupt them.

Antivirus companies and cybersecurity researchers also sometimes use MaaS to develop prevention solutions.


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