With so many retail breaches, all eyes are on a McAfee Labs Threats Report that shines a light on the role of what it calls the “dark web” malware industry. Just released, the security Relevant Products/Services firm’s fourth quarter 2013 report calls this dark web a “key enabler” of the news headline-generating point-of-sale (POS) attacks and data Relevant Products/Services breaches that were exposed last fall.

According to the report, it’s getting easier to purchase POS malware online, then sell the stolen credit card numbers and consumer data online. In one disturbing finding, McAfee Labs reports the number of digitally signed malware samples rose 300 percent in 2013 thanks to the abuse of content distribution networks (CDNs) that wrap malicious binaries within digitally signed, otherwise legitimate installers. And that, the firm said, could prove threatening to the current certificate authority models for authenticating legitimate software Relevant Products/Services.

Vincent Weafer, senior vice president for McAfee Labs, pointed out that the fourth quarter of 2013 will go down in history as a time when cybercrime became “real” for more people than ever before. Most people were focused on holiday shopping while the industry wanted people to feel secure Relevant Products/Services making purchases online and in bricks-and-mortar stores.

“The impact of these attacks will be felt both at the kitchen table as well as the boardroom table,” Weafer said. “For security practitioners, the ‘off the shelf’ genesis of some of these crime campaigns, the scale of operations, and the ease of digitally monetizing stolen customer Relevant Products/Services data all represent a coming of age for both cybercrime-as-a-service and the ‘dark web’ overall.”

Relatively Unsophisticated

Here’s the scary news: the POS malware used in the high-profile fourth quarter credit card data breaches wasn’t especially sophisticated. In fact, McAfee reports that the malware was just the opposite. Most likely it was purchased right off the digital Relevant Products/Services shelf of a cybercrime-as-a-service community and then customized for specific attacks.

After tapping the dark web markets for malware, those same criminals successfully turned to the underground to sell their digital goods. McAfee research reveals the thieves offered some of the 40 million credit card numbers reported stolen in batches of between 1 million and 4 million at a time for sale.

Again, dubious CDNs are partially to blame. Even though McAfee reports the total number of signed malware samples includes stolen, purchased, or abused certificates, CDNs are clearly a weak link. McAfee issuing a strong warning: the increase of maliciously signed files could create confusion among users and administrators, and even call into question the continued viability of the CA (certification authority) model for code signing.

“Although the expansion of the CA and CDN industries has dramatically lowered the cost of developing and issuing software for developers, the standards for qualifying the identity of the publisher have also decreased dramatically,” said Weafer. “We will need to learn to place more trust in the reputation of the vendor that signed the file, and less trust in the simple presence of a certificate.”

A Call for Awareness

We caught up with Richard Westmoreland, team leader and analyst at cloud Relevant Products/Services security firm SilverSky, to get his thoughts on these issues. He told us the identified barriers to prevention highlight the perception problem.

“The return on investment with additional in-house knowledge and skill sets actually reduces final cost,” Westmoreland said. “Lack of CEO involvement in security matters is not uncommon.”

As he sees it, C-Level awareness of targeted attacks is insufficient, and quite shocking, considering the heightened attention over the last few years around security and the impact of a data breach. Given the high profile nature of the recent breaches, he expects this awareness -- and the demand for managed security services -- to climb in 2014.

“The bottom line: no matter what, attackers will constantly try to break down your barriers. The ongoing need for continued awareness, prevention solutions and the critical human element is always going to pose a challenge,” Westmoreland said. “Without constant monitoring and expert, 24x7 analysis, as another critical layer to complement security technologies, organizations can never be fully protected.”