Reputation Attacks: A Little Known Internet Threat
by Inaki Urzay - CTO of Panda Security - Monday, 18 August 2008.
Reputation attacks target both individuals and companies, and their goal is to ruin the victim’s reputation. While attack techniques are varied, the consequences are often the same: a damaged reputation resulting in many cases in financial loss. Attackers can use several methods to ruin a company’s reputation. Until now, most common attacks have been based on distributed denial of service (DDoS). The objective of these attack is to flood corporate online services by means of millions of non legitimate requests from botnets. In this way, business performance is affected, causing direct financial losses and the corresponding damage to corporate image and reputation.

Corporate websites are also the target of ‘defacement’ attacks. They consist of trying to exploit a server or Web application vulnerability to modify pages or introduce other content in the pages that shows the corporate web server. When users and potential customers visit a corporate web page and find it has been modified by a third-party, their confidence in the company is seriously affected.

Another method used by hackers that has proven successful is publishing false information on forums and blogs. Seemingly genuine news items, quotes included (false, of course) strategically distributed on several online sites can spread like wildfire, and achieve their goal: to convince a large number of users that the information is true. Many urban legends that are still popular today were originally created in a similar way, and have managed to affect highly prestigious multinational companies.

In a similar vein, there have also been false rumors aimed at manipulating stock market prices. Firstly, attackers send true stock market information as spam, to potentially interested parties. After several messages and once attackers consider they have sufficiently gained people’s trust, they send false information to manipulate stock prices.

Google, a reference point on the Web

Google’s strategic position on the Internet has seen it become a reference when searching for information, but also has a key role in establishing corporate reputations, good or bad. Consequently, Google is also used to attack the reputation of third-parties.

The best known method is ‘Google bombing’ which allows specific websites to appear at the top of search results. Attackers study the way in which Google indexes and orders web pages during searches, and try to introduce critical content regarding a specific brand or company in the first places of the results list. When users search for a specific brand in Google, the first links displayed include pages aimed at damaging their reputation. Although Google has improved its algorithm to avoid these attacks, they are still common practice.

PageRank is another Google-based method aimed at ruining corporate reputations. It consists of algorithms developed by Google to measure quantitatively the relevance or importance of web pages on a scale of 0 to 10. A company’s PageRank usually represents its popularity; if the value is high, it is usually considered to be a reliable source accessed by many important sites.

Google is currently penalizing companies who exchange links and artificially try to increase PageRank. Attackers are exploiting this to insert penalized links on legitimate web pages. This way, they get the site to be penalized, its PageRank to decrease, and thereby damage its reputation.

Other ways of attacking a reputation

CastleCops is a volunteer security community focused on making the Internet a safer place. Its free services include malware and rootkit cleanup, malware and phishing research, and malware and hash databases.

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