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Seeking web security, exploit operators prefer Firefox

Opera comes second

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Criminals running websites that push drive-by exploits overwhelmingly prefer the Firefox browser, according to a researcher who spent the past three months surveilling their browsing habits.

Mozilla's Firefox was used by 46 per cent of the exploit kit operators who were tracked in the study, according to Paul Royal, principal researcher at Purewire, a company that protects customers against malicious websites. One third of the Firefox users browsed using a 3.0 version, while 13 per cent had upgraded to the most recent 3.5 version.

Interestingly, Opera, which by some measures has only a 2 per cent market share, ranked second among the kit operators, with 26 per cent.

"I think that's probably because operators have a familiarity with the web threat landscape," Royal told The Register, suggesting that many black-hat hackers take a security-through-obscurity approach to making sure they themselves don't get hit. "It makes them wary of using mainstream browsers."

Royal gathered the statistics by casing 15 websites that push LuckySploit and UniquePack, two widely used do-it-yourself kits for infecting visitors with potent exploit cocktails that target dozens of vulnerabilities in programs such as Adobe's ubiquitous Flash and Reader applications, IE, and Apple's QuickTime. Just as legitimate sites log the search engines and other online properties that refer each visitor, rogue sites also check the referrer field of each visiting browser to measure which web-based scams are working and which ones aren't.

Royal was able to monitor the browser, IP address, and in some cases operating system of many of the operators of these sites by sneaking a line of JavaScript into the referrer fields of browsers he had visit the site. When the webmasters viewed the logs, their browsers secretly visited a website under his control.

Besides learning that Firefox and Opera were the top browser choices among exploit kit operators, Royal also found that most operators browse - and presumably live - in a country other than the one where their illicit website is hosted. Of the 15 sites tracked, only two were hosted in the same country where their operator resided. In both cases, the country was Latvia, where law enforcement is widely viewed as being lax.

But even in other eastern European countries where it's hard to enforce cyber security laws, the operators took steps to put space between them and their websites.

"Attackers are distancing themselves from their illicit activities geographically by at least one country," Royal said.

The US and Russia were the two most common countries for operators, with three in each. The US was also the top location of the illegal websites. Royal counted three of them, although the operators of each were located in different countries. Latvia, the Netherlands, and China tied for second place with two each. ®

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