A Yahoo-owned advertising network became the unwitting ally of cyber crooks after it spewed millions of Trojan-laced banner ads on MySpace, PhotoBucket and other websites.
The banner ads, which were brokered by Right Media, were served an estimated 12 million times over a three-week period starting in early August, according to ScanSafe, a managed security provider. Earlier this year, Yahoo paid $650m to acquire the 80 percent of the company it didn't already own.
The banners contained a Flash file that silently installed a Trojan back door on unpatched Windows machines that visited the popular web destinations. Using an unpatched version of Internet Explorer while visiting MySpace or PhotoBucket was all that was necessary to become infected. The ads also ran on TheSun.co.uk, Bebo.com and UltimateGuitar.com.
Security Fix reported the story earlier.
Right Media, "the industry's largest emerging online advertising exchange," is a big believer in the power of open markets. It bills itself as a transparent platform that brings together buyers and sellers of online ads so they can find more favorable terms.
But this gutting of big, long-established intermediaries can have serious consequences for your security. By catering to more than 20,000 advertisers, publishers and networks, it's not always possible to separate legitimate advertisers from the scumbags looking for a new way to push malware onto the machines of millions of unsuspecting people.
While Right Media does attempt to weed out fraudulent advertisers by downloading banners and testing them for malicious code, hackers were able to circumvent these checks by programming the flash file not to attack machines associated with Right Media's internet domain. With this sole safety net removed, it seems there was no other mechanism in place to filter out the hostile ads.
"No one in the chain seems to be validating that these ads are good," said Dan Nadir, ScanSafe's vice president of product strategy. "It will continue to be a problem until there is some verified way of guaranteeing you know who is delivering this ad."
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Indeed, the technique of cloaking malicious payloads in legitimate-looking ads isn't new, especially if you're MySpace. In July 2006, an estimated 1 million users of the social network were infected with adware when they were fed tainted banners. Such ruses are particularly pernicious because they attack users as they visit trusted sites, so their guards are down.
In a statement issued by a company spokeswoman, Yahoo said: "The ad has been identified as a high risk creative and banned from the exchange. However, we cannot control what happens elsewhere on the Net. We continue to enhance our protective tools and are committed to finding ways of keeping this type of activity away from consumers and publishers."
She declined to say what Right Media plans to do to prevent this episode from replaying in the future.
We put the same question to representatives of MySpace and PhotoBucket, both of which are owned by Rupert Murdoch's Fox Interactive Media. We had not received a reply as of time of writing.
The Trojan, identified by some security firms as Trojan Downloader.VBS.Agent.n, was distributed on more than 70 ad servers, which alternated between serving legitimate banners and those infected with the malicious payload. The Flash file checked to see if users were 1) using IE on a Windows machine that 2) had not installed the patch described in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS07-009 and 3) were not attached to a domain that belonged to Right Media.
When all three conditions were met, the Flash file dropped an iframe that directed the vulnerable computer to download the Trojan from a server located in the Netherlands, Nadir said. He couldn't say how many people might have been infected.