Far from getting a handle on the issue of spyware, two events this week have demonstrated the growing problem.
Sunbelt Software, maker of the CounterSpy spyware remover program, announced its researchers had discovered a new spyware distribution that installs itself via an Internet Explorer security exploit and is powered by the CoolWebSearch spyware application.
The code uses components of the VX2/Transponder spyware application together with an unknown Trojan horse application to steal sensitive financial and personal information and send it to a remote server.
Sunbelt researchers discovered sensitive personal information (including bank account log-ins, credit card information, and billing addresses) belonging to thousands of people stored on a server that is physically located within the United States and that the data thieves were using as a dead drop for their ill-gotten data.
Alex Eckelberry, Sunbelt's president, explained: "It's a little Trojan that sits there and [reads data stored in] the Protected Storage area."
Windows XP uses the Protected Storage area to record sensitive information, such as your browser's AutoComplete histories for URLs, passwords that you instruct Explorer to save and enter automatically, and data you submit to websites on SSL-protected forms. The Trojan horse reads this information, including "search terms, stuff you enter in forms, passwords, everything you enter at a bank," according to Eric Sites, Sunbelt's vice president of research and development - and then forwards the data to the server.
As yet, there's no fix for the problem, although alternative browsers, such as Firefox, do not store their auto-complete information in the Protected Storage area, and are therefore are immune.
Investigative curiosity also led researchers at anti-spyware company Webroot to a bizarre discovery of a symbol of hate embedded in a spyware distribution.
Late last week, Webroot's researchers discovered a file compressed into a new variant of the SARS Trojan horse containing the words "ein Volk, ein REICH, ein Fuhrer !!!" beneath a Nazi swastika rendered in ASCII text.
The phrase, "one people, one nation, one leader," quoting Adolf Hitler is a popular slogan at websites run by white supremacist groups.
The Trojan itself is dangerous. "Normally, it sits on your machine, resident in memory, and waits for some kind of trigger," said Paul Piccard, Webroot's director of threat research. "If it sees a secure connection starting, it begins logging that connection. It then reports to a central location."
The malware file that Webroot discovered had been compressed using the UPX compression method. Accompanying the executable Trojan horse was a text file containing the swastika and the Hitler quote. "This is the first hate speech we've heard of [in spyware]," Piccard said. "I'd hope this is just an isolated thing. This just came out of nowhere - you don't expect to find it in spyware or adware. It took us by surprise."
"It could be there for the shock value, or it could be [that the Trojan was distributed by] people who really believe in this thing," Piccard said. "It's probably not a joke."