93% SOC Managers flooded by ransomware threat alerts: McAfee Labs Report

New Update

Intel Security released its McAfee Labs Threats Report: December 2016, which provides insights into how enterprises are using security operations centers (SOCs), details key 2016 developments in ransomware, and illustrates how attackers are creating difficult-to-detect malware by infecting legitimate code with Trojans and leveraging that legitimacy to remain hidden as long as possible. The December report also details the growth of ransomware, mobile malware, macro malware, Mac OS malware, and other threats in Q3 2016.


“One of the harder problems in the security industry is identifying the malicious actions of code that was designed to behave like legitimate software, with low false positives,” said Vincent Weafer, Vice President of Intel Security’s McAfee Labs. “The more authentic a piece of code appears, the more likely it is to be overlooked. Just as 2016 saw more ransomware become sandbox aware, the need to conceal malicious activity is driving a trend toward ‘Trojanizing’ legitimate applications. Such developments place an ever greater workload on an organization’s SOC—where success requires an ability to quickly detect, hunt down, and eradicate attacks in progress.”

The State of the SOC in 2016

In mid-2016, Intel Security commissioned a primary research study to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which enterprises use SOCs, how they have changed over time, and what they will look like in the future. Interviews with nearly 400 security practitioners across several geographies, industries, and company sizes yielded valuable information on the state of the SOC in 2016:


Alert overload. On average, organizations are unable to sufficiently investigate 25% of their security alerts, with no significant variation by country or company size.

Triage trouble. While most respondents acknowledged being overwhelmed by security alerts, as many as 93% are unable to triage all potential threats.

Incidents on the rise. Whether from an increase in attacks or better monitoring capabilities, 67% of respondents reported an increase in security incidents.

Cause of the rise. Of the respondents reporting an increase in incidents, 57% report they are being attacked more often, while 73% believe they are able to spot attacks better.

Threat signals. The most common threat detection signals for a majority of organizations (64%) come from traditional security control points, such as anti-malware, firewall, and intrusion prevention systems.

Proactive vs. reactive. The majority of respondents claim to be progressing toward the goal of a proactive and optimized security operation, but 26% still operate in reactive mode, with ad-hoc approaches to security operations, threat hunting, and incident response.

Adversaries. More than two-thirds (68%) of investigations in 2015 involved a specific entity, either as a targeted external attack or an insider threat.

Causes for investigation. The respondents reported that generic malware led the list of incidents (30%) leading to security investigations, followed by targeted malware-based attacks (17%), targeted network-based attacks (15%), accidental insider incidents resulting in potential threats or data loss (12%), malicious insider threats (10%), direct nation-state attacks (7%), and indirect or hacktivist nation-state attacks (7%).

Survey respondents said that the highest priority for SOCs growth and investment is to improve the ability to respond to confirmed attacks, which includes the ability to coordinate, remediate, eradicate, learn, and prevent reoccurrences.

Emergence of “Trojanized” Legitimate Software


The report also detailed some of the many ways in which attackers place Trojans within commonly accepted code in order to obscure their malicious intent.

⦁ Patching executables on the fly as they are downloaded through man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks

⦁ Bundling “clean” and “dirty” files together using binders or joiners

⦁ Modifying executables via patchers, seamlessly maintaining application use

⦁ Modifying through interpreted, open-source, or decompiled code

⦁ Poisoning the master source code, especially in redistributed libraries

2016: The Year of Ransomware?

Through the end of Q3, the number of new ransomware samples this year totaled 3,860,603, leading to an increase of 80% in total ransomware samples since the beginning of the year. Beyond the leap in volume, ransomware exhibited notable technical advances in 2016, including partial or full disk encryption, encryption of websites used by legitimate applications, anti-sandboxing, more sophisticated exploit kits for ransomware delivery, and more ransomware-as-a-service developments.


“Last year we predicted that the incredible growth in ransomware attacks in 2015 would continue into 2016,” Weafer said. “The year 2016 may indeed be remembered as ‘the year of ransomware,’ with both a huge jump in the number of ransomware attacks, a number of high profile attacks that generated wide media interest, and significant technical advances in this type of attack. On the other side of the ransomware attacks, greater cooperation between the security industry and law enforcement, and constructive collaboration between industry rivals truly began to deliver results in taking the fight to the criminals. As a result we expect the growth of ransomware attacks to slow in 2017.”

Q3 2016 Threat Activity

In the third quarter of 2016, McAfee Labs’ Global Threat Intelligence network registered notable surges in ransomware, mobile malware, and macro malware:


⦁ Ransomware. The count of total ransomware grew by 18% in Q3 2016 and 80% since the beginning of the year.

⦁ Mac OS malware. New Mac OS malware skyrocketed by 637% in Q3, but the increase was due primarily to a single adware family, Bundlore. Total Mac OS malware remains quite low in comparison to other platforms.

⦁ New Malware. The growth of new unique malware dropped 21% in Q3.

⦁ Mobile malware. We cataloged more than two million new mobile malware threats in Q3. Infection rates in Africa and Asia each dropped by 1.5%, while Australia increased by 2% in Q3.

⦁ Macro malware. New Microsoft Office (primarily Word) macro malware continued the increase first seen in Q2.

⦁ Spam botnets. The Necurs botnet multiplied its Q2 volume by nearly seven times, becoming the highest-volume spam botnet of Q3. We also measured a sharp drop in spamming by Kelihos, which resulted in the first decline in quarterly volume we have observed in 2016.

⦁ Worldwide botnet prevalence. Wapomi, which delivers worms and downloaders, remained number one in Q3, declining from 45% in Q2. CryptXXX ransomware served by botnets jumped into second place; it was responsible for only 2% of traffic last quarter.

mac-os-malware mcafee-labs soc ransomware trojan