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Adobe Reader Malware and Scareware Headlines

[NOTE: See Peter from Intego's comments below. I am electing only to respond to his correct observation that I'd conflated two security issues in this post and amend the post accordingly to address the valid elements of his critique. See prior comment thread here: http://blog.jonalper.com/2011/intego-untrustworthy/ for why I feel it both important to make the corrections Peter's comment demand and that I not engage in discussion with him about the remaining content of this piece. Note that the updates below continue to reveal my original error alongside the corrections marked between [UPDATED] and [/UPDATED].

When you sell ‘security products’ you have a a responsibility to exercise an over-abundance of caution in how you communicate with your customers and potential customers. Failing to do this makes you part of the problem and, again, I think Intego is falling far short of that standard.

The issue, as I see it, this time starts with the headline “New Version of DevilRobber Trojan Found In Three Mac Apps” of yesterday’s Mac Security Blog.

The headline implies you might find this nasty malware and be in jeopardy in software you’re likely to be using today. The headline implies typical Mac users are at present risk without an anti-virus application.

Au contraire mon frère, you’re not. As of now, you’ll only find yourself infected with DevilRobber.D if you use BitTorrent to try and pirate software.

Deeper still, the unwritten message is “you need our product to protect yourself” is just not true in this case. To be fair to Intego, this implication is a ‘sin of omission’ rather than a overt misdirection but, as I keep trying to say, I think the core problem is Intego falling short of a very high standard of communication and behavior that I believe comes with selling ‘security’ products.

Why do I pick on Intego? Aren’t all of these antivirus companies are basically a protection racket? Well, it’s pretty simple. Intego is a Mac shop and, having met and chatted with several Intego team members, I think they’re basically good people and they ought to do better. I expect this silliness from the “My super zippy PC TV ad” companies. I don’t expect this from a “Mac Company”.

Here are four simple truths Intego’s article either only indirectly addresses or completely ignores.

1) They found an ‘in the wild’ exploit on a BitTorrent tracker of pirate copies of three Mac titles.
2) Mac users who don’t use BitTorrent to pirate their software are, so far, immune as far as we know.
[UPDATED Points three and four below are not relevant due to my error pointed out by Peter in the comments]
3) Mac users who use Preview to read PDF’s rather than Adobe Reader are immune.
4) Mac users who use Adobe Reader can configure Adobe Reader to block the attack with a preferences setting now.
[/UPDATED]

Worst of all, from a marketing perspective, (the likely motivation for the misleading headline and, indeed, the whole point of their blog) Intego don’t even seem to give themselves full credit for the fact that they already blocked it with existing virus definitions.

Here’s the same post re-written by me as if I worked for Intego:

New Variant of DevilRobber Trojan found in altered MacOS apps distributed via BitTorrent

Intego’s malware researchers have found a new variant of the DevilRobber Trojan horse, which they first discovered in October. The latest variant – DevilRobber.D (there have been two others in between) – has been spotted in three deliberately altered Mac applications (Writer’s Café, EvoCam and Twitterrific) distributed via BitTorrent trackers.

The original developers’ distributions are not infected. (The files you can download directly from the developers’ sites are clean.) The malware has only been found in altered files distributed via BitTorrent trackers. If you use these applications, and have purchased them from the developers, you do not have infected copies of these applications.

[UPDATED *** As Peter from Intego correctly pointed out in the comments, I foolishly conflated the DevilRobber Trojan with another security issue with trojans distributed via PDF and exploits of the Adobe security flaw in Reader. The Links below relate to the PDF issue and *NOT* to DevilRobber]
For more information about this exploit please see:
Adobe’s Security Bulletin: http://www.adobe.com/support/security/advisories/apsa11-04.html
Topher Kessler’s article for C|Net’s MacFixit: http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-13727_7-57338524-263/security-threat-in-reader-and-acrobat-poses-threat-to-macs/
[/UPDATED]

For more information about this exploit please see:
http://www.thesecurityblog.com/2011/12/devilrobber-gets-an-updated-version/

http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2011/10/29/devilrobber-mac-os-x-trojan-horse-spies-on-you-uses-gpu-for-bitcoin-mining/

VirusBarrier X6 definitions addressing the previous versions of the DevilRobber Trojan successfully blocked this new variant (and two others) but we have updated our definitions to specifically block this new version as well.”
-30-

If the headline is too long or insufficiently sensational for your marketing guys to sign off on, split it up: New Variant of  Mac DevilRobber Trojan Found and then lead the article with “Three Mac Apps altered to payload the Trojan have been found on a BitTorrent Tracker”.

My prior rant re: Intego’s behavior is here:  http://blog.jonalper.com/2011/intego-untrustworthy/

[UPDATED Due to my conflation of DevilRobber with the Adobe Reader vulnerability and this story: http://www.thesecurityblog.com/2011/10/mac-trojan-posing-as-a-pdf-file/ the irony is far less thick in this post but PLENTY thick if you look at that link.] (The irony that that last rant addressed a behavior that socialized users to trust a file described and badged as a PDF that was really an application and that now we’re seeing an actual PDF Trojan is not lost on this writer.) [/UPDATED]

Here’s the deal. If you sell security products, I think you have to:

- Tell the truth about the level of risk.
- Tell the truth about what your product can do to protect from specific attacks.
- Tell the truth about what alternative measures users can take to mitigate risk.
- Fall all over yourself to protect the reputations of legitimate developers unless and until they distribute infected files or ship software that creates an attack vector.
- Be ‘low key’ about how you characterize risks so users can be confident in the maturity of your products and your business practices so they either buy your products (good for you and your customers) and follow good practices to reduce their risks even without your products (good for everybody).

[UPDATED Again, due to Peter from Intego pointing out my conflation of two issues, this not relevant to the post though still true.] As a final note, yeah, it sure seems like Flash and Acrobat are getting exploited pretty regularly lately. Maybe not leaving these plug-ins enabled in our browsers would be a good idea. [/UPDATED]

- Jon

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  1. Peter James
    December 8th, 2011 at 11:08 | #1

    Jon,

    I’m a bit confused. First, you seem to be conflating two different blog posts – the one about the infected Mac apps, and the one about the PDF vulnerability.

    Starting with the latter, I would like you to tell me exactly what’s wrong. Not only does the title clearly indicate that there’s currently no risk, but the article links to the Adobe security advisory. This seems about as clear as possible. It also ends by suggesting that users are better off using Preview. Preview is not affected by this vulnerability, and most of the PDF vulnerabilities – of which there are many – don’t affect Preview.

    Regarding the former, you’re certainly aware that while these apps are distributed via BitTorrent trackers today, they could be – even by the time I write this – distributed on other sites. The article says the following:

    “It is important to note that the original applications, obtained from the developers’ web sites, are not infected, but that malicious users distribute infected versions via BitTorrent trackers. If you use these applications, and have purchased them from the developers, you have nothing to worry about.”

    How much more explicit could it be?

    As for your suggested title, it’s too complex for a headline. If you didn’t understand all of this by reading the article, I’d really, truly like to know what you didn’t get.

    But, again, the infected Mac apps issue _has nothing to do_ with the PDF vulnerability. I’m confused why you think they are related.

  2. December 8th, 2011 at 12:14 | #2

    Actually, Peter has one important and valid point in his comment and I’ll update the original post to reflect it. The DevilRobber Trojan they’ve found in the pirate copies of those Mac apps uses an altered *app* as the transmission mechanism. I sincerely apologize for conflating the two extant issues. The core points remain valid.

    The remainder of my post will remain as written with updates flagged with [UPDATE***]

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