Follow this six-step malware response plan

Sometimes all the preventive care in the world won't protect your systems from the inevitable malware infection. What's the best way to handle it? According to Mike Mullins, an effective malware response plan includes these six steps.

As security administrators, we try to be as proactive as possible—applying patches and updates, conducting penetration testing, and establishing usage policies. Unfortunately, sometimes all the preventive care in the world won't protect your systems from the inevitable infection—be it virus, worm, or some other form of malware.

I've written before about the importance of creating an incident response policy, and I've told you specific steps to take in response to a security incident. But security incidents can vary widely in size and target. While it's imperative to have an overall policy in place, an actual incident response plan should depend on the actual event.

Case in point: The growing threat of malware infections. A malware incident response plan is not one that should focus on an active attack; instead, it needs to concentrate on the payload left behind on your systems.

What is malware?

Malware is malicious code or software secretly inserted into a system to compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of the data or applications residing on the network. Malware incidents can cause extensive damage and disruption to a network, and they require costly efforts to restore system security and user confidence.

We can separate malware threats into five broad categories. Here's a quick overview:

  • Viruses: Self-replicating code inserts copies of the virus into host programs or data files. Viruses can attack both operating systems and applications.
  • Worms: A self-replicating, self-contained program executes without user intervention. Worms create copies of themselves, and they don't require a host program to infect a system.
  • Trojan horses: This self-contained, non-replicating program appears to be benign, but it actually has a hidden malicious purpose. Trojan horses often deliver other attacker tools to systems.
  • Malicious mobile code: This software with malicious intent transmits from a remote system to a local system. Attackers use it to transmit viruses, worms, and Trojan horses to a user's workstation. Malicious mobile code exploits vulnerabilities by taking advantage of default privileges and unpatched systems.
  • Tracking cookies: Accessed by many Web sites, these persistent cookies allow a third party to create a profile of a user's behavior. Attackers often use tracking cookies in conjunction with Web bugs.

These are the main categories of the malware threats threatening your users and your network. What happens when they succeed? An effective malware response plan includes these six steps:

  1. Preparation: Develop malware-specific incident handling policies and procedures. Conduct malware-oriented training and exercises to test your policies and procedures. Determine whether your procedures work before you actually have to use them.
  2. Detection and analysis: Deploy and monitor antivirus/anti-spyware software. Read malware advisories and alerts produced by antivirus/ anti-spyware vendors. Create toolkits on removable media that contain up-to-date tools for identifying malware, examining running processes, and performing other analysis actions.
  3. Containment: Be prepared to shut down a server/workstation or block services (e.g., e-mail, Web browsing, or Internet access) to contain a malware incident. Decide who has the authority to make this decision based on the malware activity. Early containment can stop the spread of malware and prevent further damage to systems both internal and external to your network.
  4. Eradication: Be prepared to use a variety of eradication techniques to remove malware from infected systems.
  5. Recovery: Restore the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data on infected systems, and reverse containment measures. This includes reconnecting systems/networks and rebuilding compromised systems from scratch or known good backups. The incident response team should assess the risks of restoring network services, and this assessment should guide management decisions about restoration of services.
  6. Report: Gather the lessons learned after each malware incident to avert similar future incidents. Identify changes to security policy, software configurations, and the addition of malware detection and prevention controls.

Final thoughts

When it comes to responding to a malware incident, you can deploy all the detection and monitoring tools on the planet, but you still have to get your users involved! Educate your users on how to identify infections, and teach them the steps to take if their system becomes infected.

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Mike Mullins has served as an assistant network administrator and a network security administrator for the U.S. Secret Service and the Defense Information Systems Agency. He is currently the director of operations for the Southern Theater Network Operations and Security Center.