JPMorgan Chase Breach Puts Renewed Focus on Malware Attacks at Large Organizations

The recent breach into JPMorgan Chase’s network — one of the biggest data breaches in history — may have been caused by malware, according to The Wall Street Journal. At this point, full details on the breach are still unavailable, but according to the article, published on Oct. 2:

“The attack appears to have been caused by malicious computer code, known as malware, people familiar with the matter have said. … Hackers appear to have originally breached J.P. Morgan’s network via an employee’s personal computer, a person close to the investigation has said. From there, the intruders were able to move further into the bank’s systems. Employees often use software to tap into corporate networks from home through what are known as virtual private networks.”

Unfortunately, possible malware involvement in the JPMorgan breach is not a surprising development. An IBM Trusteer-sponsored Ponemon study titled “The State of Advanced Persistent Threats” reveals that malware is the top method used in APT-related incidents. Ninety-three percent of the respondents say malware was the source of the attack.

Ponemon Study: Top 6 common APT attacks

Malware Use Grows Among Cybercriminals

The sophistication of new malware variants, coupled with continuously evolving evasion techniques, makes advanced malware a powerful tool. Over the last few years, new developments have enabled cyberattackers to silently infect user PCs with malware, using techniques like drive-by downloads, watering-hole attacks, malvertising and exploitation of vulnerabilities in other end-user applications. They enabled cyberattackers to silently grab information from compromised PCs. This information typically includes login credentials, Web-application data as well as data from emails and documents. In some cases, malware can even provide full remote control over the infected machine. Sophisticated evasion techniques ensure that the malware remains undetected and the breach progresses stealthily.

Employee PCs Used as Pivot Points into the Network

As for employee PCs, they continue to be an easy target. One reason is the users. Many employees use their PCs to access external websites, open email attachments and download documents and applications for work or personal reasons. Using sophisticated social-engineering schemes, cybercriminals manipulate these users to open weaponized or compromised content, which can silently download malware on employee PCs. User awareness programs have helped reduce risky behaviors of employees, making employees aware of the risk associated with accessing untrusted websites and opening untrusted files. Still, user awareness programs have not completely eliminated the risk of malware infections.

PC Protection Needed

The second reason is lack of effective protection on the PCs. Most employee PCs are still protected only with antivirus software, which cannot provide the defenses needed for preventing advanced malware infections on its own. Much has been written about this already. However, concerned with computer performance impact, organizations falter to add protections on employees PCs.

Until recently, organizations invested much more heavily in network protections rather than endpoint controls in order to protect against advanced threats. While network detection solutions can help reduce the number of malware infections, they do not eliminate malware infections completely. Evasion techniques added to advanced malware were specifically designed to bypass these detections, for example, by verifying that a real user PC has been reached before the malware starts executing. This is why it is important to add advanced malware protection on the employee endpoint.

External Access to the Corporate Network

Additionally, network controls are ineffective at protecting off-network and semi-managed employee endpoints. Today, many employees continue to work while outside of the corporate network, using their corporate-provided PCs or home computers. Surfing the Web on unprotected public Wi-Fi networks increases the risk of malware infections. If employees then use infected PCs to access corporate resources and sensitive business data, the cyberattacker can grab information that will allow network infiltration.

Today more than ever, it is critical to protect employee PCs against advanced malware with effective endpoint security tools. While this is especially critical for employee endpoints that are used for accessing sensitive systems and data, this is important for all employee endpoints. Once a machine that can access the network is compromised, it enables the launch of an attack from within the network. This enables the attacker to do a lot more than from the outside. By using a compromised system to launch attacks, the attacker has not only better access to systems and resources, but also more chances of remaining undetected.

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Dana Tamir

Director of Enterprise Security at Trusteer, an IBM Company

Dana Tamir is Director of Enterprise Security at Trusteer, an IBM Company. In her role she leads activities related to...