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Why spyware IDS alerts are useful

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As you may know, our company provides 24x7 Network Security Monitoring services to many customers. Our clients vary widely in size, industry, and information security maturity. Even so, we see many similar successes, failures, and trends in security monitoring alerts between these customers. Spyware infections tendsto be a significant number of the incident reports we generate. Today, I would like to write about the reason spyware alerts are a threat to your organization, why you should take them seriously and respond timely, and what you can do to decrease these incidents on your network.

The danger of spyware is two-fold. First, it indicates a deficiency on the part of the user in general information security knowledge and specific corporate information security policies. A spyware infection means that the user likely installed unapproved software on his/her system. Perhaps the user was doing non-business related web surfing and found the "Totally Awesome Change Your Life Toolbar" from hAcme Software, Inc. Or maybe the user was tricked into installing this software via social engineering. ("Click here to install a media player to see Jane E. Celebrity in a bikini!") Either way, the user was not aware of the dangers of his/her actions wrt. information security and wrt. corporate security policies. (You do have policies defining acceptable use of corporate information resources and punishment for misuse, right?)

The second danger (related to the first--in fact, the first is a consequence of the second, so maybe I should have reversed these points--oh well) indicated by a spyware infection is that the user has sufficient rights to execute unapproved software on his/her system that can modify his/her settings and hijack information. With these rights the user may be delivered and subsequently execute much more damaging malware that exfiltrates personal and/or corporate information or receives and executes instructions from external attackers. This malware may be delivered by the spyware itself. Regardless of how it is delivered, your organization has a problem, and it needs to be fixed.

For these two reasons above you should take spyware infections seriously and respond to them in a timely manner. But what can you do to limit future infections?

  1. Limit user rights. Do not make them a member of the local Administrator or Power Users groups. If you have applications that require Administrator privileges to run (QuickBooks, I'm looking in your diretion), get rid of them. That is a poorly designed application and is likely going to have far worse flaws.
  2. One word: Education. Provide it to your users. If you don't have a sufficiently trained and knowledgeable employee who can teach one day classes on information security, there are plenty of companies that provide that service--and you won't have to develop the curriculum. Google is your friend, here.
  3. Follow the hardening guidelines from MicrosoftNIST and NSA on how to secure your Windows systems and networks.
  4. Use Group Policy or other enforcement mechanisms available from companies like Cisco, Symantec, etc., to whitelist applications. Only applications listed in the whitelist can be executed by the user. Use Group Policy to disable all but a few approved Internet Explorer BHOs (Browser Helper Objects). This will prevent a lot of the toolbar spyware software from infecting your systems.
  5. Get serious about your corporate information security posture. Convince upper management to dedicate sufficient time and money to sustaining a CISO position.