AI: The Answer to Cyberthreats Existing Systems Cannot Perceive?

October 12, 2021

This article from The Next Web gives us reason to hope: “Computer Vision Can Help Spot Cyber Threats with Startling Accuracy.” Researchers at the University of Portsmouth and the University of Peloponnese have combined machine learning with binary visualization to identify malware and phishing websites. Both processes involve patterns of color.

Traditional methods of detecting malware involve searching files for known malicious signatures or looking for suspicious behavior during runtime, both of which have their flaws. More recently, several machine learning techniques have been tried but have run into their own problems. Writer Ben Dickson describes these researchers’ approach:

“Binary visualization can redefine malware detection by turning it into a computer vision problem. In this methodology, files are run through algorithms that transform binary and ASCII values to color codes. … When benign and malicious files were visualized using this method, new patterns emerge that separate malicious and safe files. These differences would have gone unnoticed using classic malware detection methods. According to the paper, ‘Malicious files have a tendency for often including ASCII characters of various categories, presenting a colorful image, while benign files have a cleaner picture and distribution of values.’”

See the article for an illustration of this striking difference. The team trained their neural network to recognize these disparities. It became especially good at spotting malware in .doc and .pdf files, both of which are preferred vectors for ransomware attacks.

A phishing attack succeeds when a user is tricked into visiting a malicious website that poses as a legitimate service. Companies have used website blacklists and whitelists to combat the problem. However, blacklists can only be updated once someone has fallen victim to a particular site and whitelists restrict productivity and are time-consuming to maintain. Then there is heuristics, an approach that is more accurate than blacklists but still misses many malicious sites. Here is how the binary visualization – machine learning approach may save the day:

“The technique uses binary visualization libraries to transform website markup and source code into color values. As is the case with benign and malign application files, when visualizing websites, unique patterns emerge that separate safe and malicious websites. The researchers write, ‘The legitimate site has a more detailed RGB value because it would be constructed from additional characters sourced from licenses, hyperlinks, and detailed data entry forms. Whereas the phishing counterpart would generally contain a single or no CSS reference, multiple images rather than forms and a single login form with no security scripts. This would create a smaller data input string when scraped.’”

Again, the write-up shares an illustration of this difference—it would make for a lovely piece of abstract art. The researchers were able to train their neural network to identify phishing websites with an impressive 94% accuracy. Navigate to the article for more details on their methods. The papers’ co-author Stavros Shiaeles says the team is getting its technique ready for real-world applications as well as adapting it to detect malware traffic on the growing Internet of Things.

Cynthia Murrell, October 12, 2021

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