“The original idea of browsing the Web from site to site without a global search capability didn’t scale,” said Greg Conti, associate professor of computer science at West Point. “Now we have search engines like Google with tremendous control over the flow of information. Actors are trying to influence the largely neutral search engine algorithms for their own benefit using search engine optimization and search poisoning techniques.”
While search poisoning has been around for years, it is still an effective technique for launching malware. In a recent 2011 campaign, increasing numbers of Google image search results were poisoned, redirecting users either to an exploit kit or rogue AV sites. Attackers compromised large numbers of legitimate sites and users had only to click on thumbnail images to launch the exploit.
In a typical search poisoning scenario, a user searches a term then clicks a particular link from among the search results. They are redirected multiple times and eventually land on a page with no relevance to the original search, which is used as a vector to deliver malware. Attackers are doing their own search engine optimization to try to get their malicious sites to rank highly in search results. Malicious sites are also getting better at hiding their bad payloads from the search engine crawlers. If they detect a crawler, they will present a clean Web page to remain undetected.
In the past year, we have witnessed cyber attacks of unprecedented sophistication and reach. These attacks demonstrate that malicious actors have the ability to compromise and control millions of computers that belong to governments, private enterprises and ordinary citizens. If we are going to prevent motivated adversaries from attacking our systems, stealing our data and harming our critical infrastructure, the broader community of security researchers — including academia, the private sector and government — must work together to understand emerging threats and to develop proactive security solutions to safeguard the Internet and physical infrastructure that relies on it.
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