Linux Malware on the Rise: A Look at Recent Threats

Jonathan MathewsPublic


Over the past few years, anecdotal evidence has suggested that security threats to Linux devices are on the rise. Last fall’s Mirai botnet attacks, which turned thousands of Linux devices into a zombie army used to attack infrastructure via Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), were particularly effective in waking up the Linux community.

Now, we’re seeing quantitative statistics to support the Linux malware trend. On the heels of a WikiLeaks release detailing the CIA’s OutlawCountry and Gyrfalcon hacking tools aimed at Linux, both AV-Test and WatchGuard have released reports claiming that Linux computers are among the fastest growing targets of malware over the past year and a half.

According to AV-Test, MacOS computers saw the largest increase in malware targeting in 2016 with a 370 percent increase, but Linux was close behind with a 300 percent rise from the previous year — triple the number in 2015. WatchGuard’s Internet Security Report, which instead focuses on Q1 2017, claims that Linux malware made up more than 36 percent of the top threats.

A decade ago, Linux was obscure outside the server world, but Tux lovers could at least console themselves with the security of their beloved OS compared to Windows. This helped reinforce the generally true, but somewhat counterintuitive, claim that by inviting anyone to bug check the code, you could build a more secure platform than with a proprietary OS.

A worthy target

The first crack in the Linux armor came in the Android world where many apps revealed themselves to be pestilent. It wasn’t just the app platform — and Android fragmentation — that fueled the increase, however, but Android’s popularity. In recent years, as more and more Linux-based routers, home automation gizmos, and other devices entered the relatively unprotected home scene, hackers have increasingly found Linux to be a worthy target.

The problem is not that Linux is unsafe compared to other platforms. The Linux kernel and other components are regularly updated to meet the latest threats, which are more easily identified thanks to the greater participation afforded by open source. Developers are continually improving system update and integrity protection mechanisms, and protecting against other emerging security threats.

Although more remains to be done, the main issue is that vendors release routers, consumer electronics, and IoT gear with outdated Linux kernels and either no or limited security protections on top of the Linux stack. IoT vendors rarely offer kernel updates, and if they do, there’s usually no over-the-air (OTA) mechanism. The user must be sufficiently motivated to find out about the update, and then download and install it. In addition, consumers tend to leave their devices unprotected by passwords or else use easily hacked passwords.

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