Check Point Threat Intelligence and research teams recently discovered a high volume Chinese threat operation which has infected over 250 million computers worldwide.
The installed malware, that we named Fireball, takes over target browsers, turning them into zombies. Fireball has two main functionalities: one is the ability of running any code on victim computers and downloading any file or malware, and the other is hijacking and manipulating infected users’ web-traffic to generate ad-revenue. Currently, Fireball installs plug-ins and additional configurations to boost its advertisements, but just as easily it can turn into a prominent distributor for any additional malware.
This operation is run by Rafotech, a large digital marketing agency based in Beijing. Rafotech uses Fireball to manipulate the victims’ browsers and turn their default search engines and home-pages into fake search engines which simply redirect the queries to either yahoo.com or Google.com. The fake search engines include tracking pixels used to collect the users’ private information. Fireball can also spy on victims, perform efficient malware dropping, and execute any malicious code in the infected machines, thus creating a massive security flaw in targeted machines and networks.
· Check Point analysts uncovered a high volume Chinese threat operation which has infected over 250 million computers worldwide, and 20% of corporate networks.
· The malware, called Fireball, acts as a browser-hijacker but and can be turned into a full-functioning malware downloader. Fireball is capable of executing any code on the victim machines, resulting in a wide range of actions ranging from stealing credentials to dropping additional malware.
· Fireball is spread mostly via bundling i.e. installed on victim machines alongside a wanted program, often without the user’s consent.
· The operation is run by Chinese digital marketing agency.
· Top infected countries are India (10.1%) and Brazil (9.6%)
250 MILLIONS MACHINES AND 20% OF CORPORATE NETWORKS WORLDWIDE INFECTED
The scope of the malware distribution is quite alarming. According to our analysis, over 250 million computers worldwide are infected: specifically, there are 25.3 million infections in India (10.1%), 24.1 million in Brazil (9.6%), 16.1 million in Mexico (6.4%), and 13.1 million in Indonesia (5.2%). In the United States we have witnessed 5.5 million infections (2.2%).
Based on Check Point’s global sensors, the percentages of affected corporate networks are even higher: 20% of all corporate networks. Hit rates in the US (10.7%) and China (4.7%) are alarming, and even more so in Indonesia (60%), India (43%) and Brazil (38%).
Another indicator of the incredibly high infection rate is the popularity of Rafotech’s fake search engines. According to Alexa’s web traffic data, 14 of these fake search engines are among the top 10,000 websites, with some of them occasionally reaching the top 1,000.
Ironically, although Rafotech doesn’t admit it produces browser-hijackers and fake search engines, it does (proudly) declare itself a successful marketing agency, reaching 300 million users worldwide – coincidentally similar to our number of estimated infections.
A BACKDOOR TO EVERY INFECTED NETWORK
Fireball and similar browser-hijackers are hybrid creatures, half seemingly legitimate software (see the GOING UNDER THE RADAR section), and half malware. Although Rafotech seemingly uses Fireball only for advertising and initiating traffic to its fake search engines, it actually can perform any action on the victims’ machines, which can have serious consequences. How severe is it? Try to imagine a pesticide armed with a nuclear bomb. Yes, it can do the job, but it can also do much more.
These browser-hijackers are all capable on the browser level. This means that they can drive victims to malicious sites, spy on them and conduct successful malware dropping.
From a technical perspective, Fireball displays great sophistication and quality evasion techniques, including anti-detection capabilities, multi-layer structure and a flexible C&C, it is not inferior to a typical malware. Many threat actors would like to have even a fraction of Rafotech’s power, as Fireball provides a critical backdoor, which can be further exploited.
GOING UNDER THE RADAR
While the distribution of Fireball is both malicious and illegitimate, it actually carries digital certificates imparting them a legitimate appearance. Confused? You should be.
Rafotech carefully walks along the edge of legitimacy, knowing that adware distribution is not considered a crime like malware distribution is. How is that? Many companies provide software or services for free, and make their profits by harvesting data or presenting advertisements. Once a client agrees to the instalment of extra features or software to his/her computer, it is hard to claim malicious intent on behalf of the provider.
This grey zone led to the birth of a new kind of monetizing method – bundling. Bundling is when a wanted program installs another program alongside it, sometimes with a user’s authorization and sometimes without. Rafotech uses bundling in high volume to spread Fireball.
According to our analysis, Rafotech’s distribution methods appear to be illegitimate and don’t follow the criteria which would allow these actions to be considered naïve or legal. The malware and the fake search engines don’t carry indicators connecting them to Rafotech, they cannot be uninstalled by an ordinary user, and they conceal their true nature.
So how do they carry digital certificates? One possibility is that issuers make their living from providing certificates, and small issuers with flexible ethics can enjoy the lack of clarity in the adware world’s legality to approve software such as Rafotech’s browser-hijackers.
THE INFECTION MODEL
As with other types of malware, there are many ways for Fireball to spread. We suspect that two popular vectors are bundling the malware to other Rafotech products – Deal Wifi and Mustang Browser – as well as bundling via other freeware distributors: products such as “Soso Desktop”, “FVP Imageviewer” and others.
It’s important to remember that when a user installs freeware, additional malware isn’t necessarily dropped at the same time. If you download a suspicious freeware and nothing happens on the spot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that something isn’t happening behind the scenes.
Furthermore, it is likely that Rafotech is using additional distribution methods, such as spreading freeware under fake names, spam, or even buying installs from threat actors.
As with everything in the internet, remember that there are no free lunches. When you download freeware, or use cost-free services (streaming and downloads, for example), the service provider is making profit somehow. If it’s not from you or from advertisements, it will come from somewhere else.
HOW CAN I KNOW IF I AM INFECTED?
To check if you’re infected, first open your web browser. Was your home-page set by you? Are you able to modify it? Are you familiar with your default search engine and can modify that as well? Do you remember installing all of your browser extensions?
If the answer to any of these questions is “NO”, this is a sign that you’re infected with adware. You can also use a recommended adware scanner, just to be extra cautious.
THE RED BUTTON IN THE WRONG HANDS
It doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario in which Rafotech decides to harvest sensitive information from all of its infected machines, and sell this data to threat groups or business rivals. Banking and credit card credentials, medical files, patents and business plans can all be widely exposed and abused by threat actors for various purposes. Based on our estimated infection rate, in such a scenario, one out of five corporations worldwide will be susceptible to a major breach. Severe damage can be caused to key organizations, from major service providers to critical infrastructure operators to medical institutions. The potential loss is indescribable, and repairing the damage caused by such massive data leakage (if even possible) could take years.
Rafotech holds the power to initiate a global catastrophe and it is not alone. During our research we’ve tracked down additional browser-hijackers that, to our understanding, were developed by other companies. One such company is ELEX Technology, an Internet Services company also based in Beijing that produces products similar to those of Rafotech. Several findings lead us to suspect that the two companies are related, and may be collaborating in the distribution of browser-hijackers or in trading customers’ traffic. For example, an adware developed by ELEX, named YAC (“Yet Another Cleaner”) is suspected to be connected to Rafotech’s operation, dropping its browser-hijackers.
In this research we’ve described Rafotech’s browser-hijackers operation – possibly the largest infection operation in history. We believe that although this is not a typical malware attack campaign, it has the potential to cause irreversible damage to its victims as well as worldwide internet users, and therefore it must be blocked by security companies.
The full distribution of Fireball is not yet known, but it is clear that it presents a great threat to the global cyber ecosystem. With a quarter billion infected machines and a grip in one of every five corporate networks, Rafotech’s activities make it an immense threat.
HOW DO I REMOVE THE MALWARE, ONCE INFECTED?
To remove almost any adware, follow these simple steps:
1. Uninstall the adware by removing the application from the Programs and Features list in the Windows Control Panel.
For Mac OS users:
a. Use the Finder to locate the Applications folder.
b. Drag the suspicious file to the Trash.
c. Empty the Trash.
Note – A usable program is not always installed on the machine and therefore may not be found on the program list.
2. Scan and clean your machine, using:
· Anti-Malware software
· Adware cleaner software
3. Remove malicious Add-ons, extensions or plug-ins from your browser:
Small South African town goes smartphone-only
Vodacom partners with farming business to upgrade all residents of Wakkerstroom from 2G devices to smartphones
All residents of the small town of Wakkerstroom, which straddles Mpumalanga and kwaZulu-Natal provinces, have had their 2G feature phones upgraded to 3G devices.
The initiative is a result of Vodacom partnering with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of the people living in Wakkerstroom. It is now the first smartphone-only town in South Africa. This is a model the network provider says it hopes to replicate across the country as part of its mission to connect people who live in deep rural areas and are still dependent on 2G networks.
Wakkerstroom, is the second oldest town in Mpumalanga province, on the KwaZulu-Natal border, 27 km east of Volksrust and 56 km south-east of Amersfoort.
“There are growing expectations for big corporates the size of Vodacom to serve a social purpose, and for us to use our resources and core capabilities to make a significant contribution in transforming the lives of ordinary people,” says Zakhele Jiyane, Managing Executive for Vodacom Mpumalanga. “We are helping to remove communication barriers, so that citizens in the area can be part of the digital revolution and reap the associated benefits. By moving the more than 1400 farm workers from 2G to 3G devices, this will also free much needed spectrum and this spectrum can be re-farmed to provide for faster networks such as 3G and 4G.
“Crucially, the move opens a new world of connectivity for farm workers in Wakkerstroom. As a result, most people in the area will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect on the net and access online government services, eHealth services such as Mum&Baby and eCommerce. Learners can now surf the internet for the first time and access Vodacom’s eSchool free of charge and those who are actively looking for jobs can start using their smartphones and tablets to apply for jobs over the internet on Vodacom’s zero-rated career sites. This will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in this area.”
Vodacom has already deployed 4G base stations in Wakkestroom as part of this initiative.
For the next phase of this project, says Vodacom, it is going to educate the farm workers about data and the benefits of the Internet. Vodacom will also look at various ways in which it can help empower members of this community in areas of education, gender-based violence and health.
10 more African countries join Facebook fact-checking
Facebook today announced the expansion of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme to 10 additional African countries, which now join Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal in the project,
In partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the France 24 Observers, Pesa Check and Dubawa, this programme forms part of its work in helping assess the accuracy and quality of news people find on Facebook, whilst reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform.
Working with a network of fact-checking organizations, certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, third-party fact-checking will now be available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso through AFP, Uganda and Tanzania through both Pesa Check and AFP, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire through the France 24 Observers and AFP, Guinea Conakry through the France 24 Observers, and Ghana through Dubawa.
Feedback from the Facebook community is one of many signals Facebook uses to raise potentially false stories to fact-checkers for review. Local articles will be fact-checked alongside the verification of photos and videos. If one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, Facebook will show it lower in News Feed, significantly reducing its distribution.
Kojo Boakye, Facebook Head of Public Policy, Africa, said: “The expansion of third-party fact-checking to now cover 15 countries in a little over a year shows firsthand our commitment and dedication to the continent, alongside our recent local language expansion as part of this programme. Taking steps to help tackle false news on Facebook is a responsibility we take seriously, we know misinformation is a problem, and these are important steps in continuing to address this issue. We know that third-party fact-checking alone is not the solution, it is one of many initiatives and programmes we are investing in to help to improve the quality of information people see on Facebook. While we’ve made great progress, we will keep investing to ensure Facebook remains a place for all ideas, but not for the spread of false news.”
When third-party fact-checkers fact-check a news story, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.
Providing fact-checking in English and French across eight countries, Phil Chetwynd, AFP Global News Director said: “AFP is delighted to be expanding its fact-checking project with Facebook. We are known for the high quality of our journalism from across Africa and we will be leveraging our unparalleled network of bureaus and journalists on the continent to combat misinformation.”
Eric Mugendi, Managing Editor from Pesa Check who will provide fact-checking services in Swahili and English added: “Social networks like Facebook haven’t just changed how Africans consume the news. Social media is often the primary access to digital content or the ‘Internet’ for many Africans. They shape our perceptions of the world, our public discourse, and how we interact with public figures. This project helps us dramatically expand our fact-checking to debunk claims that could otherwise cause real-world harm. The project helps us respond more quickly and directly. We’re seeing real positive results in our interactions with both publishers and the public itself. The project also helps our fact-checks reach a far larger audience than we would otherwise. This has helped us better understand the information vacuum and other viral dynamics that drive the spread of false information in Africa. Our growing impact is a small but tangible contribution to better informed societies in Africa.”
Caroline Anipah, Programme Officer, Dubawa (Ghana) said: “Dubawa is excited to be in Ghana where the misinformation and disinformation have become widespread as a result of technological advancement and increasing internet penetration. Dubawa intends to raise the quality of information available to the public with the ultimate aim of curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and promoting good governance and accountability.”
Derek Thomson, editor-in-chief of the France 24 Observers, said: “Our African users are constantly sending us questionable images and messages they’ve received via social media, asking us ‘Is this true? Can you check it?’ It’s our responsibility as fact-checking journalists to verify the information that’s circulating, and get the truth back out there. Participating in the Facebook programme helps ensure that our fact-checks are reaching the people who shared the false news in the first place.”