By Daniel Stirnimann and Serge Droz
Recently I was quoted saying “… .ch and .li are the most secure (top-level) domains!”. In the same meeting, Security Rock Star Mikko Hyppönen claimed, “Surfing the Web with your laptop is the most dangerous thing you can do in the Internet.” So what is true, what is false? Rather than speculate about obscure statistics I’d like to illustrate one of the big problems we face in .ch today, namely using ads as a back door to reach victims through reputable sites.
Ads: enter through the hallway
Malware distributors have one goal: spreading their stuff as widely as possible. This is achieved through different means. Malware was traditionally distributed – and still is – through e-mail attachments. This was the case, for example, with the Retefe malware. Alternatively, web pages can be hacked and used to spread malware by exploiting browser bugs. SWITCH has been very active, through its Safer Internet initiative, in working to reduce this infection vector. In fact, we’ve been so successful, that drive-by is very scarce in Switzerland, hence the statement that ” … .ch is one of the most secure ccTLDs”. Drive-by websites are always hacked, but in most cases they are not very popular websites, since popular websites are typically well protected. Many of the later ones offer a backdoor tough: ads! News sites in particular make most of their revenue by selling on line ads, which explains the “ad-war” arms race between ad-blockers an news agencies (see our Security Report on anti-anti-ad features). A very common way is malvertising, a term coined by William Salusky. Salusky found ads that were in fact carrying malicious payloads. Let’s look at a slightly different scenario, namely a legitimate but compromised ad server. While technically a different scenario it has the same effect on the end user.
Most people would think that visiting a website just serves you content from that site but this is not true for most of the large sites, in particular news sites. They import contents such as videos, trackers, counters, scripts and especially ads from third-party sites. These are not controlled by the original site, and often import content themselves from yet another site. Thus, a well maintained site with high security standards will often import stuff from sites with lower security. Think of it as sitting in a highly rated restaurant that has one bad food supplier.
The image below shows all the external sites involved whenever you visit three popular news sites.