As the New Year has just begun we must prepare for new internet security threats. Every year, new and innovative ways of attacking computer users emerge and continue to increase in volume and severity. Finding trends in internet security has become a valuable, if not necessary, action for firms developing software to protect computer users.
Attacks have increased in sophistication and are tailored to their specific victim. Trend tracking has shown in 2008, the web became a primary conduit for attack activity. According to Symantec's Top Internet Security Trends of 2008, attackers have become more difficult to track as they have shifted away from mass distribution of a small family of threats to micro distribution of large numbers of threats.
In 2008, the Identity Theft Resource Centre (ITRC) documented 548 breaches, exposing 30,430,988 records. The significance of this data is truly spotlighted after realising that it only took nine months in 2008 to reach the 2007 total.
What is most interesting about data breaches is that most are not malicious. In many cases, inadvertent employees' mishandling of sensitive information and insecure business processes are the most common ways data is exposed.
Spam and phishing: This may be the most well-known form of computer breaching, and yet it is still the healthiest and fastest growing of attacks. In 2008, we saw spam levels at 76 per cent until the McColo incident in November 2008, at which time spam levels dropped 65 per cent.
Spammers take advantage of current events. They use widely socialised issues as headlines to lure people into clicking on a link to malware or sending money for unrealistic charitable campaigns.
Phishing walks hand-in-hand with spam as it utilises current events to make their bait more convincing. Another phishing tactic particularly recognised over the past year is by offering users a false sense of security by targeting government and educational domains. Although cybercriminals cannot register under these domains, they find ways to compromise the web servers to grant them control. Once control is gained, it becomes harder to fix because the domain cannot be simply deactivated. Lengthy measures are taken to remove the page from their website. The time it takes to make these changes allows the phished page to hit more victims.
Fake and misleading applications: Fake security and utility programs aka 'scareware' promise to secure or clean up a user's computer. The applications produce false and misleading results, and hold the affected PC hostage to the program until the user pays to remedy the pretend threats. Even worse, such scareware can be used as a conduit through which attackers instal malicious software onto machine.
Important security trends to watch in 2009: Some new attacks are starting to show up. In 2009, the economic crisis will be the basis of new attacks. We expect to see an increase in e-mails promising easy-to-get mortgages or work opportunities.
Social networks: Social networks will enable highly targeted and personalised spam by phishing for username accounts and/or using social context as a way to increase the 'success rate' of an online attack. In 2009, we expect an upgrade in spam to the use of proper names, sophisticatedly segmented according to demographic or market. The upgraded spam will resemble legitimate messages and special offers created from personal information pulled from social networks and may even appear to come from a social networking 'friend'. Once a person is hit, the threat can spread through their social network. Enterprise IT organisations need to be on the alert for these types of attacks because today's workforce often accesses these tools using corporate resources.
Advanced web threats: The number of available web services is increasing and browsers are continuing to converge on a uniform interpretation standard for scripting languages. Consequently, we expect the number of new web-based threats to increase. User-created content can host a number of online threats from browser exploits, distribution of malware/spyware and links to malicious websites. The widespread use of mobile phones with access to the web will make web-based threats more lucrative. We have seen attacks disguised as free application downloads and games targeting Smartphones. We expect to see more truly malicious mobile attacks in 2009.
The battle against internet security threats will continue to rage on and tactics on both sides will become more sophisticated over time. Although no one can be certain of what the future holds, we can look back and learn from our past to identify trends that can help make educated predictions for where future attacks may be heading.
-The writer is Regional Director for Symantec Mena
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