CISA's Malware Analysis Platform Could Foster Better Threat Intel

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The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has given organizations a new resource for analyzing suspicious and potentially malicious files, URLs, and IP addresses by making its Malware Next-Gen Analysis platform available to everyone earlier this week.

The question now is how organizations and security researchers will use the platform and what kind of new threat intelligence it will enable beyond what is available via VirusTotal and other malware analysis services.

The Malware Next-Gen platform uses dynamic and static analysis tools to analyze submitted samples and determine if they are malicious. It gives organizations a way to obtain timely and actionable information on new malware samples, such as the functionality and actions a string of code can execute on a victim system, CISA said. Such intelligence can be crucial to enterprise security teams for threat hunting and incident response purposes, the agency noted.

"Our new automated system enables CISA's cybersecurity threat hunting analysts to better analyze, correlate, enrich data, and share cyber threat insights with partners," said Eric Goldstein, CISA's executive assistant director for cybersecurity, in a prepared statement. "It facilitates and supports rapid and effective response to evolving cyber threats, ultimately safeguarding critical systems and infrastructure."

Since CISA rolled out the platform last October, some 400 registered users from various US federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government agencies have submitted samples for analysis to Malware Next-Gen. Of the more than 1,600 files that users have submitted so far, CISA identified about 200 as suspicious files or URLs.

With CISA's move this week to make the platform available to everyone, any organization, security researcher, or individual can submit malicious files and other artifacts for analysis and reporting. CISA will provide analysis only to registered users on the platform.

Jason Soroko, senior vice president of product at certificate lifecycle management vendor Sectigo, says the promise of CISA's Malware Next-Generation Analysis platform lies in the insight it can potentially provide. "Other systems concentrate on answering the question 'has this been seen before and is it malicious'," he notes. "CISA's approach might end up being prioritized differently to become 'is this sample malicious, what does it do, and has this been seen before'."

Malware Analysis Platform

Several platforms — VirusTotal is the most widely known — are currently available that use multiple antivirus scanners and static and dynamic analysis tools to analyze files and URLs for malware and other malicious content. Such platforms serve as a sort of centralized resource for known malware samples and associated behavior that security researchers and teams can use to identify and assess risk associated with new malware.

How different CISA's Malware Next-Gen will be from these offerings remains unknown.

"At this time, the US government has not detailed what makes this different from other open source sandbox analysis options that are available," Soroko says. The access that registered users will get to analysis of malware targeted at US government agencies could be valuable, he says. "Getting access to CISA's in-depth analysis would be the reason to participate. It remains to be seen for those of us outside of the US government if this is better or the same as other open source sandbox analysis environments."

Making a Difference

Callie Guenther, senior manager, cyber threat research at Critical Start, says it's possible that some organizations might initially be a bit cautious about contributing samples and other artifacts to a government-run platform because of data confidentiality and compliance issues. But the potential upside from a threat intelligence standpoint could encourage participation, Guenther notes. "The decision to share with CISA will likely consider the balance between enhancing collective security and safeguarding sensitive information."

CISA can differentiate its platform and deliver more value by investing in capabilities that enable it to detect sandbox-evading malware samples, says Saumitra Das, vice president of engineering at Qualys. "CISA should try to invest in both AI-based classification of malware samples as well as tamper-resistant dynamic analysis techniques … that could better uncover [indicators of compromise]," he says.

A larger focus on malware targeting Linux systems would also be a big improvement, Das says. "A lot of the current focus is on Windows samples from EDR use cases but with [Kubernetes] and cloud-native migration happening, Linux malware is on the rise and are quite different in their structure," from Windows malware, he says.

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