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Digital Spy struggles to pin down tainted ad infection

Mystery malware assaults online gossips

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Updated UK celebrity gossip website Digital Spy has apologised after serving up banner ads laced with malware earlier this week.

Digital Spy site specialises in news about celebs and reality TV programmes, in particular Big Brother, in great (perhaps unhealthy) detail. Whatever you might make of that it's a winning formula that has made Digital Spy a high-traffic website.

News of the malware infected surfaced through numerous posts on Digital Spy's forums. In response to our request for comment, Digital Spy offered a statement confirming the attack and pledging to revamp its procedures.

We can confirm that over the weekend it appears that Digital Spy was attacked by one or more ads containing some form of malware.

As a result of actions taken by our advertising operations team, we are confident that Digital Spy is malware-free and a safe site to use. We think that the attack happened through a practice known as chain buying, where inventory bought on our site is then re-sold to another provider, and possibly then others, making it progressively harder to verify the integrity of creative. We have made it very clear to our advertising partners that we do not find this practice being used as an attack vector in any way acceptable.

We have also changed, with immediate effect, our procedures when it comes to detecting a problem or receiving reports from our users of an issue.

What we would like to say is that we're really sorry for the inconvenience and worry this has caused to some of our readers. We're very disappointed that this happened and are changing the way we work both internally and with our partners to ensure we are less vulnerable to attack and that we deal with these incidents much faster.

We alerted Digital Spy's ad team about the reported infection via a web-feedback form on Monday, alongside a request for comment on the apparent issue.

Hit and run

Confirming the banner ads are laced with malware is tricky in cases where, as in the Digital Spy example, an "occasional" third party ad is probably behind the problem. We passed on links to Digital Spy forum postings to UK-based security firm Sophos for evaluation.

Paul Baccas, senior threat researcher at Sophos, was not able to confirm anything but highlighted circumstantial evidence that ads served through the site contained malicious scripts.

"It looks like they have cleaned up and so cannot definitely confirm anything," Baccas told El Reg.

"The PDF linked to by mtwns DOT net is malicious and I will attempt to write some detection. The blueadvertise DOT com looks to be a GPT (Get Paid To) advertise site and they are notoriously dodgy," he added.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, criticised Digital Spy's handling of the incident and agreed with Reg readers that Digital Spy ought to have disabled banner ads while its investigated reports that they might be tainted with malware.

"It's a pretty bad show," Cluley told El Reg. "If there is a question mark regarding the safety of the web ads you are serving up to thousands of visitors it would seem to me to be the right thing to yank them off - at least temporarily."

Underlining that warning, Symantec said that surfers visiting Digital Spy risk exposure to malware because of two drive-by download attacks. Users are reporting "strange behaviour" and attempts to install rogue security software after visiting the site. Over on the forum itself there's talk of various types of Trojan associated with the compromise of Digital Spy.

The mechanism or exact strain of malware featured during the attack remains unclear.

Some commenters note the pattern of the attack against Digital Spy fits that associated with a much wider SQL injection based attack first spotted last week. More on that mass web infection can be found in our earlier story here. ®

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