Malware Detection in the Cloud Computing Era

Malware, short for malicious software, refers to any software designed to cause harm to a computer, server, client, or network. The counter to this digital menace is malware detection. Malware detection is a set of practices aimed at identifying the presence and nature of malware in a system. It's a gatekeeper, tasked with identifying, isolating, and eliminating malicious software that could compromise the integrity of your environment.

December 6, 2023

Modern malware detection is complex, involving multiple techniques and tools designed to address the wide array of malicious software that exists. It’s a continual process of vigilance and adaptation, evolving as new types of malware emerge and old ones become more sophisticated.

This is part of a series of articles about vulnerability management.

In this article:

Common Types of Malware with Examples

Common Types of Malware

Here are some of the most common types of malware that detection mechanisms aim to track:


The term “virus” in the context of computers was inspired by biological viruses. Much like their biological counterparts, computer viruses attach themselves to clean files and infect other clean files. They can spread uncontrollably, damaging a system’s core functionality and deleting or corrupting files. They usually appear as an executable file and require human action to propagate.


  • Zeus Gameover: A sophisticated variant of the Zeus Trojan that steals banking credentials using peer-to-peer botnet capabilities.
  • DarkHotel: A cyber-espionage campaign targeting hotel Wi-Fi networks to spy on high-profile guests.
  • Triada: Mobile malware targeting Android devices, primarily for financial fraud and data theft.


Worms are a type of malware that can replicate themselves to spread to other computers over a network. Unlike viruses, they can propagate independently without any human action. They exploit vulnerabilities in operating systems, causing widespread damage by consuming bandwidth or overloading servers. Some worms carry more dangerous payloads, such as ransomware (see below).


  • Stuxnet: A highly sophisticated worm designed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by targeting industrial control systems.
  • Raspberry Robin worm: Initially a low-profile worm spread via USB drives since September 2021, it has evolved to be a precursor for severe ransomware attacks, impacting nearly 1,000 organizations.
  • HermeticWizard: Also known as Foxblade, it’s a worm distributed through “.DLL” files, primarily designed to distribute the HermeticWiper malware, with the ability to identify local network IPs and spread the “wiper” via WMI or SMB protocols.


Trojans, named after the ancient Greek story of the Trojan horse, are deceptive types of malware that disguise themselves as legitimate software. Once downloaded and installed, they create a backdoor in a system’s security, allowing cybercriminals to gain control and access sensitive information.


  • TOITOIN: A Windows-based banking trojan active since 2023, employing advanced techniques for infection and evasion.
  • PlugX: A remote access tool (RAT) associated with several cyber-espionage campaigns, often targeting entities in Asia.
  • Carberp: A banking Trojan known for stealing financial information from infected hosts.


Ransomware is a particularly malicious type of malware that encrypts the victim’s files, then demands a ransom to restore access. It holds the user’s data hostage, often threatening to delete or publish it if the ransom is not paid within a certain timeframe.


  • WannaCry: A ransomware worm that exploited the Windows SMB protocol and affected systems worldwide in 2017.
  • NotPetya: A destructive malware initially masquerading as ransomware, designed primarily to damage and disrupt systems.
  • Hive: Advanced malware associated with the APT group named Chafer, primarily used for espionage activities.


Spyware is a type of malware designed to spy on the user’s activity without their knowledge. It collects information such as keystrokes, browsing habits, and personal information, which can then be used for identity theft or other illicit activities.


  • PhoneSpy: A malicious software targeting mobile devices to siphon off sensitive user data.
  • Android/SpyC23.A: A mobile malware strain targeting Android devices, often used for espionage purposes.
  • Pegasus: A sophisticated spyware developed by NSO Group, capable of infiltrating smartphones and extracting user data without detection.

Techniques for Malware Detection 

Signature-Based Detection

Signature-based detection is the most common method for detecting malware. This technique involves identifying unique patterns or “signatures” in the code of known malware and then scanning files to look for these signatures. When a match is found, the file is flagged as potentially malicious.

However, signature-based detection has its limitations. First, it can only identify known malware. This means that if a new or altered version of malware is released, the system won’t be able to recognize it until its signature has been added to the database. Secondly, malware developers are always finding ways to evade signature-based detection by obfuscation or encryption, rendering their malware unrecognizable to the system.

Static File Analysis

Static file analysis is another method used for malware detection. This technique involves analyzing a file without executing it to understand its behavior and identify any potential threats. It examines the internal structure, the code, and other metadata of the file.

The advantage of static file analysis is that it can detect malware without having to run the malicious code. Another advantage is that it can detect unknown malware using techniques like heuristic analysis, which involves making an educated guess about the maliciousness of a file based on its characteristics.

However, like signature-based detection, static file analysis is not foolproof. Some malware can disguise itself so that it appears benign during static analysis. Others can thwart static analysis by encrypting their code or by using other obfuscation techniques.

Dynamic Malware Analysis

Dynamic malware analysis involves running the suspicious file in a controlled environment (like a sandbox) and observing its behavior. This method can reveal a lot about the malware’s functionality and the potential damage it can cause.

The advantage of dynamic analysis is that it can discover malware that static file analysis and signature-based detection might miss, especially if the malware uses advanced evasion techniques. It can also provide a more complete picture of the malware’s behavior, such as what changes it makes to the system, what network activity it initiates, and so on.

However, dynamic malware analysis can be time-consuming and requires a more sophisticated setup than the other methods. Moreover, some advanced malware can detect when they are being run in a sandbox and behave differently or refuse to run at all, thereby evading detection.


Checksumming is a method used to verify the integrity of a file. By calculating a checksum (a unique value derived from the file’s content) and comparing it with a known good checksum, you can determine if the file has been altered in any way – for instance, by malware.

Checksumming is a simple and effective way to detect malware, especially if you have a baseline checksum for comparison. It’s also very fast and doesn’t require much computational power. However, checksumming can only detect changes in a file, not the presence of malware per se. Therefore, it’s usually used in conjunction with other malware detection techniques.

Application Allowlisting

This strategy involves creating a list of trusted software applications that are permitted to run on your computer system. If an application isn’t on this list, it’s denied execution, regardless of whether it’s malware or not.

Application allowlisting is a proactive approach to malware detection. By only allowing approved applications to run, you significantly reduce the risk of malware infection. However, this technique requires careful management and regular updating of the allowlist to accommodate new, safe applications.


The next malware detection technique is blocklisting, which is essentially the opposite of allowlisting. Instead of creating a list of trusted applications, you create a list of known malicious or potentially harmful applications. Any application on this list is denied execution, protecting your computer system from known threats.

Blocklisting is reactive, as it depends on identifying and listing malware after it’s been discovered. It’s effective against known threats, but it can’t protect your system from new, unknown malware. Therefore, like allowlisting, blocklisting should be used as part of a multi-layered security strategy.

Machine Learning Behavioral Analysis

Machine learning behavioral analysis is a way to automatically analyze the behavior of applications and identify any abnormal or malicious activities.

Machine learning behavioral analysis differs from traditional detection techniques in that it doesn’t rely on predefined malware signatures. Instead, it learns from the data it’s fed and improves its detection capabilities over time. This makes it highly effective at detecting new, unknown malware.

Detecting Malware in the Cloud: Cloud Native Security Services

Cloud computing environments are more complex, and more dynamic, than traditional on-premise data centers. This makes it more difficult to deploy anti-malware technology and ensure systems are safe, raising the need for dedicated cloud native security solutions.

Cloud native security services are specifically designed to protect and secure applications running in cloud environments. These services are integrated within the cloud platform and offer a layer of security spanning across cloud resources, such as virtual machines, containers, and serverless functions. Some cloud native security solutions provide real-time malware detection.

These services provide a view of the security posture across multiple cloud resources, enabling you to monitor and respond to threats effectively. Many cloud native security services also perform automated security operations, such as automatically scanning resources for malware and cleaning systems when malware is detected.

Malware Detection Tools and Services for Cloud Environments 

Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASBs)

Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASBs) act as a gatekeeper between your on-premise infrastructure and the cloud service provider. They provide visibility into your cloud applications and enforce security policies to protect your data. CASBs play a crucial role in malware detection by monitoring data traffic and files passing between your network and the cloud.

CASBs can identify sensitive data, control access to it, and block malicious content and files. They provide real-time threat protection against both known and unknown malware by using advanced threat protection techniques such as machine learning and behavior analytics. Also, CASBs provide detailed logs and alerts, helping you respond promptly to any malware threats.

Cloud Workload Protection Platforms (CWPPs)

Cloud Workload Protection Platforms (CWPPs) provide security for workloads running in the cloud. They offer a suite of security capabilities, including malware detection, vulnerability management, and network segmentation. CWPPs monitor the behavior of workloads to detect any unusual activities that could indicate a malware attack.

CWPPs provide real-time protection against malware attacks, reducing the dwell time of threats and minimizing the potential damage. They offer a centralized view of the security posture across all workloads, enabling you to better manage the security of your cloud environment. Moreover, CWPPs provide automated response capabilities, helping you mitigate the impact of malware attacks more effectively.

Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) Tools

Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) tools help you maintain an optimal security posture in the cloud. They provide continuous visibility into your cloud configurations and assess them against security best practices, helping you identify and rectify any misconfigurations that could expose you to malware attacks.

CSPM tools provide real-time monitoring of your cloud environment, ensuring that malware detection and protection systems are enabled on every cloud resource. They offer actionable insights into your security posture, helping you make informed decisions about your security strategy. Moreover, CSPM tools automate the process of managing your security posture, reducing the manual effort required and ensuring a consistent level of protection against malware.

Learn more in our detailed guide to vulnerability management tools 

Best Practices for Malware Protection in the Cloud 

Regular Monitoring and Auditing of Cloud Resources

It is important to keep a constant watch over your cloud environment and analyze your security logs to identify any unusual activities that could indicate a malware attack.

Regular monitoring provides real-time visibility into your cloud resources, enabling you to detect and respond to malware threats promptly. Auditing, on the other hand, helps you understand the security events that have occurred in your cloud environment, providing you with insights into your threat landscape.

Implementing a Strong IAM Policy

Implementing a strong Identity and Access Management (IAM) policy is another essential practice for effective malware detection. It involves managing who has access to your cloud resources and what they can do with that access. A strong IAM policy can help you prevent unauthorized access to your cloud resources, reducing the risk of malware attacks.

A strong IAM policy includes principles like least privilege, where users are granted only the permissions they need to perform their tasks, and segregation of duties, where critical tasks are divided among multiple users. Implementing such a policy not only helps you protect your cloud resources from malware but also provides you with a clear view of who has access to your resources, enabling you to detect any unauthorized activities promptly.

Encrypting Data at Rest and in Transit

Encrypting data at rest and in transit is a crucial practice for protecting your data against malware attacks. It involves converting your data into a format that can only be read by those who have the decryption key. By encrypting your data, you can ensure that even if a malware attack occurs, your data remains safe.

Encrypting data at rest protects your stored data from malware attacks, while encrypting data in transit protects your data as it moves across networks. Both types of encryption are essential for a robust defense against malware. 

Keeping Cloud Software and Services Updated

Keeping your cloud software and services updated is a vital practice for effective malware detection. It involves regularly updating your cloud platforms, applications, and security tools to ensure that you have the latest security patches and features. By keeping your software and services updated, you can protect your cloud environment from known malware threats and enhance your ability to detect new ones.

Regular updates not only provide you with the latest security patches but also introduce new security features and improvements. This not only enhances your defense against malware but also improves your overall security posture. Moreover, regular updates to security software provide you with the latest threat intelligence, helping you stay ahead of the evolving malware landscape.