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What the FBI and Others are Doing about (and with) Malware

Digital Citizens, Friday, November 14, 2014

As cyber security threats are becoming more common, the U.S. government and other entities are ramping up their efforts to address issues like malware, which is on the rise nationally.

FBI Tackles Malware Head-On

The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a new online tool called Malware Investigator.  According to the FBI’s podcast, the tool:

  • Allows users (from the U.S. government, private businesses, law enforcement, and academia) to upload a file they believe to be infected with malware. 
  • Will “determine the damage the file can inflict” as well as what it would target specifically, and “provide a technical analysis report” to give law enforcement or a private individual the information they need to take action. 
  • Enables private businesses to “protect their company’s networks and help our state and local law enforcement partners further their investigations.”

The online tool—which can be accessed through any number of Internet-enabled devices—is live now; check it out at www.malwareinvestigator.gov.

Malware Used for…Good?

Interestingly, the FBI isn’t just finding new ways to identify, track, and assess malware threats—it’s also using malware to help catch cyber criminals.  According to one report, the FBI uses “highly specific, purpose-built malware” to help peel back the layers of anonymity on popular online services like Tor (which enables Internet users to surf the Internet anonymously by hiding their activities and location).

In fact, in 2012, the FBI was able to gain access to a child pornography site, “arresting the operator, taking over the servers, and delivering malware to visitors who thought they were protected by Tor,” using the malware to reveal the true identities of the criminals involved.

Unfortunately, in most cases, malware isn’t used for such lofty purposes.

Addressing Malware Problems for National Security

As we’ve discussed before, the most common ways to get Malware involve simple human error—opening infected email attachments, using infected removable storage devices, or following links in phishing emails—and content abuse, such as downloading illicit software, apps, or stolen content on websites or social media.  

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that federal employees or contractors across a dozen or so agencies themselves “are responsible for at least half of federal cyberincidents each year since 2010,” according to an AP study.  So what steps are they taking to combat malware?  Here are just a few:

  • Training programs.  The General Accountability Office issued a “scathing review of smaller federal agencies’ protections” and cited the lack of “fully implementing security training programs for staff” as one of the major problems, prompting many smaller agencies to beef up cyber security training.    
  • Email encryption.  As another way to improve its cyber security, the government is working to improve its email encryption services.  As of 2013, 51 percent of all federal agencies “reported using a federally approved encryption service, up from 35 percent in 2012.”
  • General awareness.  Employee awareness seems to be one of most basic ways the government is addressing growing security threats like malware.  Ensuring employees are aware of what a phishing scam looks like and the damage malware can cause is something every government agency or private company should do.

Private Organizations and Companies

Aside from the steps the government is taking to address malware both internally and externally, there are number of private organizations and companies making progress on this issue.

  • Founded in 2008, the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization is dedicated to “addressing the global need for improvement in the objectivity, quality and relevance of anti-malware testing methodologies.”  The non-profit develops standards for testing anti-malware products, providing anti-malware education and awareness, and improve anti-malware efforts globally.
  • Iovation, an online fraud and abuse detection services company, recently developed a software package “for mobile apps that allows [online] retailers using the company's risk assessment system to identify” phones accessing their site that may have been altered to include malicious software.
  • Then there are the usual suspects you can always count on for good advice as well as protection—anti-virus companies like McAfee, Norton by Symantec, and Malwarebytes all offer their own services as well as professional expertise to fight malware.

While the nature of malware threats is ever-evolving, the best way to protect against them is by increasing public awareness and educating people about how they can avoid coming into contact with malware. 

Read more from the FBI about how to protect your computer against malware threats.

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