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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

RAM Scraping a New Old Favorite For Hackers

Some of the best stories involve a conflict with an old enemy: a friend-turned-foe, long thought dead, returning from the grave for violent retribution; an ancient order of dark siders from the distant reaches of the galaxy, hiding in plain sight and waiting to seize power for themselves; a dark lord thought destroyed millennia ago, only to rise again and seek his favorite piece of jewelry.  The list goes on.

Granted, 2011 isn’t quite “millennia,” and this story isn’t meant for entertainment, but the old foe in this instance is nonetheless dangerous in its own right.  That is the year when RAM scraping malware first made major headlines: originating as an advanced version of the Trackr malware, controlled through a botnet, it was discovered in the compromised Point of Sale (POS) systems of a university and several hotels.  And while it seemed recently that this method had dwindled in popularity, the Target and other retail breaches saw it return with a vengeance.  With 110 million Target customers having their information compromised, it was easily one the largest incidents involving memory scrapers.

How does it work?  First, the malware has to be introduced into the POS network, which can happen via any machine that is connected to the network, or unsecured wireless networks.  Even with firewalls, an infected laptop could serve as a vector.  Once installed, the malware can hide in the shadows, employing encryption or antivirus-avoiding tools to prevent its identification until it’s ready to strike.  Then, when a customer’s card gets used at a POS machine, the data contained within—name, card number, security code, etc.—gets sent to the system memory.  “There is that opportunity to steal the credit card information when it is in memory, perhaps even before your payment has even been authorized, and the data hasn't even been written to the hard drive yet,” says security researcher Graham Cluley.

So, why not encrypt the system’s memory, when it’s at its most vulnerable?  Not that simple, sadly: “No matter how strong your encryption is, if the system needs to process data or process the code, everything needs to be decrypted in memory,” Chris Elisan, principal malware scientist at security firm RSA, explained to Dark Reading.

There are certain steps a company can take, of course, and should take, to reduce the risk.  Strong passwords to access the POS machines, firewalls to isolate the POS network from the Internet, disabling remote access to POS systems, to name a few.  All the same, while these measures are vital and should be used, I don’t think, in light of recent breaches, they are sufficient.  Now, I wrote a short time ago about the impending October 2014 deadline imposed by the credit card industry, regarding the systematic switch to chipped credit card technology; adopting this standard will definitely assist in eradicating this problem.  But, until such a time when a widespread implementation of new systems comes about, always be vigilant to protect your data from attack, because what’s old is new again, and a colossal data breach is a story consumers are liable to seek financial restitution for.


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