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Researchers at SRI International and Georgia Tech are preparing to release a free tool to stop “drive-by” downloads: Internet attacks in which the mere act of visiting a Web site results in the surreptitious installation of malicious software. The new tool, called BLADE (Block All Drive-By Download Exploits), stops downloads that are initiated without the user’s consent.

“When your browser is presented with an [executable file] for download, it’s supposed to prompt you for what to do,” said Phil Porras, SRI’s program director. But software can also be pushed onto an unsuspecting user’s computer without ever asking for permission.

In the fourth quarter of 2009, roughly 5.5 million Web pages contained software designed to foist unwanted installs on visitors, according to Dasient, a firm that helps protect websites from Web-based malware attacks. Such drive-by downloads target computers that are not up-to-date with the latest security patches for common Web browser vulnerabiltiies, or are missing security updates for key browser plug-ins, such as Adobe’s PDF Reader and Flash Player. Attackers use software called exploit packs, which probe the visitor’s browser for known security holes.

The research group has been putting BLADE through the paces since January, exposing a few virtual desktops equipped with the software to new exploit sites identified each day by security experts. Each malicious URL is tested against multiple software configurations covering different browser versions and common plug-ins.

So far, Porras said, BLADE has blocked all of the more than 5,150 malicious programs foisted by some 1,205 unique drive-by URLs tested. During the test period, Adobe’s PDF Reader was by far the most-targeted browser plug-in, accounting for more than half of the applications targeted by drive-by exploits. Sun Microsystems’s Java platform attracted nearly one quarter of all drive-by attacks, while the bulk of remaining exploits targeted vulnerabilities in Adobe Flash and Internet Explorer.

Robert Hansen, chief executive of the Austin, TX-based security firm SecTheory, said BLADE’s approach appears unique, and that it may be effective at stopping drive-by downloads in the short run. That is, he said, until the technique is widely incorporated into commerical products. “Tools like this are great–they’re another layer of protection, but they certainly aren’t a panacea,” Hansen said.

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Tagged: Computing, security, malware, malicious code, SRI International

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