Segura often studies malvertising, which involves seeding ad networks with harmful online advertisements that then appear on websites, potentially delivering malware to a person’s computer.
It’s a particularly insidious type of attack, since a person merely has to view an advertisement to become infected if his or her computer has a software vulnerability.
“We knew there was something different that malvertisers were doing,” said Segura.
The problem was his team couldn’t replicate the attack by viewing the malicious ad. It’s almost as if the attackers knew they were being watched.
Cyberattackers often profile machines — known as fingerprinting — in order to attack ones that are being used by security researchers. Machines on certain IP addresses or VPN networks or those running virtual machines won’t be attacked.
Segura couldn’t get another look at the attack until he went home and used his home computer rather than the ones in Malwarebytes’ lab.
If a computer checked out, its user was redirected by the advertisement to a server running the Angler exploit kit, Segura said.
It is not unusual for cyberattackers to do some quick reconnaissance on potential victims. But Segura said this time around, the attackers are also taking other steps that make it very difficult for ad networks and security researchers to detect bad behavior.
The malicious ad, including the one-by-one pixel, was also delivered over SSL/TLS, which makes it harder to detect potentially malicious behavior, Segura said.
The malicious ad was carried by Google’s DoubleClick and dozens of other ad networks. It appears the attackers had set up fake domains and even LinkedIn profiles months before to appear they were legitimate before supplying their malicious advertisement to the online advertising companies.
“It shows you how deceptive they can be and how many fake advertisers are out there,” he said.
Concerns regarding cyberterrorism was front and center this week among security experts at the RSA security conference in San Francisco, who find that some people with extremist views have the technical knowledge that could be used to breach computer networks.
Cyberterrorism does not exist currently in a serious form, but some individuals with extremist views have displayed a significant level of knowledge of hacking, so the threat shouldn’t be underestimated, said F-Secure’s chief research officer Mikko Hypponen on Thursday at the RSA security conference in San Francisco .
Other security experts agree. “I think it’s something that we should be concerned about. I wouldn’t be surprised if 2012 is the year when we start seeing more cyberterrorism,” said Mike Geide, a senior security analyst at security vendor Zscaler.
Extremists commonly use the Internet to communicate, spread their message, recruit new members and even launder money in some cases, Hypponen said during a presentation about cyberterrorism at the conference.
Based on the data Hypponen analyzed, most groups of radical Islamists, Chechen terrorists or white supremacists seem at this stage more concerned about protecting their communications and hiding incriminating evidence on their computers.
They’ve even built their own file and email encryption tools to serve this goal and they use strong algorithms that cannot be cracked, Hypponen said. However, there are some extremists out there that possess advanced knowledge of hacking, and they are trying to share it with others, he added.
The researcher has seen members of extremist forums publish guides on how to use penetration testing and computer forensics tools like Metasploit, BackTrack Linux or Maltego. “I don’t think they’re using these for penetration testing though,” Hypponen said.
Others have posted guides on website vulnerability scanning, SQL injection techniques, and on using Google search hacks to find leaked data and more, he said.
Although such extremists have mainly succeeded in unsophisticated Web defacements so far, Hypponen believes that cyberterrorists could become the fourth group of Internet attackers after financially-motivated hackers, hacktivists and nation states engaging in cyberespionage.
The closest we’ve come to a real cyberterrorist attack was the DigiNotar breach which resulted in rogue digital certificates being issued for high-profile domain names, said Richard Moulds, vice president of strategy and product marketing at French defense contractor Thales.