What is Exploit Kit

Exploit kits, pre-packaged software that uses vulnerabilities in software applications to spread malware, are not new to the information security community. Since 2006, when threat research organizations began seriously tracking their growth and distribution on a global basis, their popularity has increased within the underground steadily.

Characteristics of Exploit Kits

A key characteristic of an exploit kit is the ease with which it can be used even by attackers who are not IT or security experts.

The attacker doesn’t need to know how to create exploits to benefit from infecting systems. Further, an exploit pack typically provides a user-friendly web interface that helps the attacker track the infection campaign.

Some exploit kits offer capabilities for delivering payload that remotely controls the exploited system, allowing the attacker to create an Internet crimeware platform for further malicious activities.

For an overview of the key characteristics of common exploit kits, see Mila’s Overview of Exploit Packs, which includes a spreadsheet of exploit kit features.

What makes….

So if exploit kits aren’t new, what makes them successful year after year? As in many industries – and there’s no denying cybercrime is a global industry – innovation, features and ease of use win the day.

Taking a look at two of the most prominent exploit kits, the Angler and Nuclear exploit kits, quickly reveals three main characteristics that define a good exploit kit.

  1. They exploit a large number of vulnerabilities quickly. The Angler exploit kit set a high bar, exploiting the largest number of vulnerabilities – 26 – when compared to other exploit kits. The Nuclear exploit kit is also quite advanced with at least 19 vulnerabilities at its disposal. It isn’t just the number that makes these kits more effective, but also the speed at which these vulnerabilities are integrated into kits – in some instances within days of being written up in the National Vulnerability Database. That is an incredible rate of adoption for a recently discovered and patched vulnerability.
  2. They incorporate a wide variety of delivery methods for malicious payloads. Again, the Angler exploit kit set the standard with 10 different payloads including: ransomware, banking trojans, credential harvesters, and click fraud malware (malware used to generate revenue by clicking on a pay-per-click advertisement). The Nuclear exploit kit delivered seven payloads, primarily ransomware and banking Trojans.
  3. They make it easy for users. The very basis for exploit kits is that they are a user-friendly way for unsophisticated attackers to infect victims. Available for sale or rent in the black market, many kits even come with support services – much like products in other industries. More than that, they also incorporate capabilities designed for simplicity. Most recently, Remote Code Execution (RCE) allows the threat actor to run malicious code on a victim’s machine remotely – without being on the target’s device. It is the pinnacle of ease of exploitation, allowing the user to deliver whatever payload they like, regardless of where the device is physically located.