Understanding prevailing threats is key to building a successful identity and access management strategy. The best IAM protocols protect systems against as many potential attacks a possible by establishing and maintaining continual monitoring processes and granular access control.
Challenges come when hackers deploy malware designed to change form as it moves through networks. Known as polymorphic malware, these malicious programs must be detected and eradicated to prevent widespread data compromise.
What is Polymorphic Malware?
As the name suggests, polymorphic malware has the ability to rewrite itself with the goal of avoiding evading detection by standard security programs. Any type of malware can be created this way, which gives hackers a wide range of attack options.
Using a mutation engine and self-propagating code, polymorphic programs change parts of their own code as they infect devices and networks. One part of the code remains static during reproduction. This is in contrast to metamorphic malware, in which all of the code is rewritten as the program reproduces. Both types retain their basic functions no matter how many times the code changes.
Because there is one identifiable element, sensitive security software may be able to detect a polymorphic attack. However, this type of malware changes so fast that can spread without hindrance by staying at least one step ahead of most anti-malware programs. Since 93.6% of all malware was polymorphic as of 2018, this can pose a significant problem for businesses with complex networks.
How Polymorphic Malware Infects and Spreads
The first polymorphic virus was written in 1990 to illustrate the need for a more sophisticated approach to virus and malware detection. The first toolkit for hackers appeared in 1992 and opened the door for polymorphic attacks to be easily created and deployed.
The majority of malware, including polymorphic viruses, spreads through a few common areas of vulnerability:
- Phishing emails
- Malicious websites
- Unsecured connected devices
- Poor credential management
- Improper account provisioning or deprovisioning
- Zero-day vulnerabilities
- Obsolete hardware or software
Once polymorphic malware gets into a network, it begins to replicate itself, making slight changes through each iteration. The program continues to carry out functions characteristic of its type, but each change is enough to evade detection unless a comprehensive security protocol is in place. With the right tools, it’s possible to “learn” how the virus behaves, track its patterns and take steps to eliminate it from the network.
Biggest Challenges in Polymorphic Virus Detection
Due to the continual changes in code, polymorphic malware requires a different security approach than traditional malware. Businesses using basic defense methods or locked into legacy perimeter security protocols are more vulnerable than those with modernized systems. However, any weak spot in a network’s defense is a target for hackers, and polymorphic viruses gaining entry will evolve and spread without the right monitoring and detection tools to identify the activity.
Users are the most prevalent challenge to building a strong defense against polymorphic malware. Ignorance of hacker’s techniques, particularly phishing, leads to employee mistakes with the potential to compromise entire networks. Business executives themselves often lack cybersecurity knowledge, which can make it difficult for IT professionals to convey the importance of investing in updated security platforms and taking time to check for vulnerabilities on a regular basis.
User-owned devices and connected devices required for business operations introduce additional endpoints, all of which must be monitored for malicious activity. With numerous software platforms in use across these devices, it becomes difficult to keep eyes on every possible attack vector. Even businesses desiring to take steps toward better security may have a hard time finding knowledgeable cybersecurity professionals to provide guidance due to a continued shortage of cybersecurity talent.
How to Prevent a Polymorphic Virus: Best Practices
To reduce the likelihood of a polymorphic malware attack, business owners and IT teams should work together to:
- Implement strategic IAM policies to define and manage access and permissions
- Make behavioral monitoring an integral part of IAM
- Invest in security programs with tools to detect the viral “signature” of polymorphic malware’s unchanging code
- Use tools designed to detect viral behaviors, such as unauthorized downloads, unexpected program execution or unusual activity in user accounts
- Leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed up malware detection
- Put additional protections in place for email programs, productivity tools and collaboration platforms
- Replace legacy systems with more secure solutions
- Adopt endpoint detection and response tools to monitor, record and analyze endpoint activities
- Ensure third-party software complies with internal security standards
- Create and follow a strict updating and patching schedule for all devices and programs
Following these best practices to create a robust approach to security minimizes the risk of a polymorphic malware invasion. Because threats are continually evolving, flexibility and adaptability are essential. A combination of detailed access control, strategic identity management and smart security solutions gives businesses the tools to protect against attacks and preserve data privacy.