When Adware Goes Bad: The Installbrain and Sefnit Connection
Figure 1. Motto taken from the InstallBrain website (http://www.installbrain.com) on July 3, 2014”
“Monetize On Non-buyers” is the bold motto of InstallBrain—adware that turns out to have been developed by an Israeli company called iBario Ltd. This motto clearly summarizes the potential risks adware companies can introduce to users, especially when they install stuff on systems without their consent.
Adware is often perceived as low-risk, because these usually display unwanted popups and pop under advertisements. However, they can pose serious security risks when used by adware companies to load malware onto systems wherein their adware has been installed. In our latest research paper, On the Actors Behind MEVADE/SEFNIT, shows that iBario’s InstallBrain adware installed MEVADE/SEFNIT Trojans in significant number of systems in 2013.
One of the major threat stories in 2013 was the sudden and dramatic increase of Tor users. In August 2013, the number grew from a million to five million users. Fox-IT was the first to publish the cause of the spike: the MEVADE/SEFNIT malware downloaded a Tor component related to its command-and-control (C&C) communications. This malware does click fraud and Bitcoin mining.
Microsoft was the first to point out the InstallBrain-SEFNIT connection—a connection also seen by Trend Micro. iBario Ltd removed the brand name Installbrain from its corporate website and replaced it with Unknownfile, which basically is just a successor of Installbrain. Feedback from Trend Micro’s Smart Protection Network shows that there are InstallBrain detections in about 150 countries—a clear indication of how widespread this adware is.
Adware Company Hosts Malware
In recent media interviews, iBario described itself an entirely Israel-based company with an estimated worth of US$100M. The 9-figure number is probably an exaggeration, and we also believe that iBario outsources a lot of technical work to Ukraine as there are clear links between iBario and Ukrainian contractors. In fact we found the organizational chart of iBario Ukraine on the Internet headed by the CTO of Installbrain.
Figure 2. Organizational chart for iBario Ukraine; screenshot taken on June 20, 2014
One interesting thing we noted is that while Mevade.C was widespread in more than 68 countries, even sparsely populated ones, there was virtually no infection in Israel. This is perhaps to avoid trouble with the local law enforcement.
It becomes even more interesting when we found that a domain name of a Ukrainian contractor called Denis R, also known as Scorpion, had one of its hostnames pointing to the IP address of iBario’s source code repository. The said file repository hosted Sefnit malware in 2011, so there was Sefnit malware on the corporate source code repository of iBario in 2011. We cannot provide the exact details of this finding publicly, but we are willing to hand over proof to law enforcement partners.
The fact that iBario’s Installbrain has installed Sefnit on systems, the presence of Sefnit malware in a code repository of iBario in 2011, and the links between iBario and several suspicious contractors from the Ukraine make us believe that iBario is involved with Sefnit.
Gateway to Infection
We believe that deceit, or any indication that a user has given no real consent to the download and installation of a file or to what that file is actually doing, is grounds for us in the security industry to block and detect a file as malware.
InstallBrain is one real example of the risks of having adware on user systems, and of how attractive and beneficial it can become for adware companies to abuse their access to user computers—to the point of discreetly downloading malware. In this case, the downloaded malware takes over computers to commit click fraud or to mine bitcoins.
For more information about the threat actors, download our research paper On the Actors Behind MEVADE/SEFNIT.