2010 was a breakout year for cybersecurity: from the revelations of the attack on Google, Operation Aurora, and the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks, to the Stuxnet worm, which targeted Iran's critical infrastructure and spawned a number of cyber conspiracy theories.
But like a block-busting, splashy Hollywood sequel, cybersecurity in 2011 promises to be even bigger and more expensive than ever.
In its 2011 Threat Predictions Report, McAfee Labs put together what it sees as the most compelling cybersecurity threats for this year. Dmitri Alperovitch, one of the reports’ researchers and vice president of threat research , spoke with The New New Internet to provide some insight into the report's findings.
While the threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated, he said, they are also, more often than not, hiding in plain sight.
Exploiting Social Media
Social media sites are quickly becoming one of the biggest areas for exploitation by cyber saboteurs. “In many ways, it is really replacing email as a primary vector for delivering malware and other threats,“ Alperovitch said.
Shortened URLs on sites, such as Twitter and Facebook could be the source of new threats, because they make it easy for cybercriminals to disguise links to malicious websites.
“You don't really know when you click on it what it is going to lead to,“ Alperovitch said, “so it's ideal for criminals to use in phishing attacks and for a malware situation because these links are generally clicked on without hesitation and can lead you to a very dangerous neighborhood.“
Also, the popularity of location services, such as foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places has opened up a security can of worms. These services peel away at the anonymity of the web, making it easier to search, track and plot the whereabouts of not only friends, but also complete strangers.
As mobile devices quickly become a necessity in the workplace, threats against them will only increase. Alperovitch said the lab expects an “explosion“ in such threats.
“The smartphone platforms, like the iPhone the Android devices, are reaching a tipping point with them becoming pervasive, not just in personal use but in corporate use,“ he said. “We believe that those cyber criminals and sophisticated nations sponsoring attackers look at that platform as a very lucrative opportunity to get access“ to consumer data and government secrets.
Apple: No Longer a Safe Zone
In the past, the Mac OS platform has been left “unscathed by malicious attackers,“ McAfee Labs finds. But not anymore.
As iPads and iPhones become more popular, many users still lack the necessary security knowledge for those devices, which has McAfee Labs predicting the widespread occurrence of Apple botnets and Trojans in the future.
Alperovitch said the Koobface worm, which originally targeted Facebook, has already crossed over to a Mac platform. “We believe others will follow in 2011,“ he said.
Privacy Leaks from Internet TVs
Are you watching it, or is it watching you? McAfee predicts new Internet TV platforms, which were on many Christmas shopping lists last year, could be the source of an ever-growing number of new threats. That's because McAfee says their skyrocketing popularity and what it calls a “rush to market“ thinking by developers left many of the devices vulnerable to malicious apps.
“Friendly Fire“ Cyber Attacks
How well do you know your friends? McAfee Labs foretells that in 2011, that may not matter much. Malicious content masked as legitimate emails and files from friends and colleagues is expected to increase.
Forget the latest M&A activity emanating from Silicon Valley or Northern Virginia. McAfee Labs says botnet controllers are merging together to bypass security and law enforcement monitoring. The merger of Zeus and SpyEye is the only the beginning, the lab says.
Also, McAfee Labs expects to see a significant botnet activity in gathering and removing data, rather than just for sending spam.
If you thought you'd seen the end of WikiLeaks, think again. The lab expects politically motivated cyber attacks to proliferate throughout the year. In fact, defacing a public website or issuing DoS attacks will likely be the 21st century equivalent of unruly street protests.
Alperovitch said while hactivism has received a lot of publicity in the weeks after WikiLeaks, it is not a new issue, having existed since nearly the beginning of the Internet. However, Alperovitch said the online groups were becoming increasingly organized and sophisticated.
McAfee Labs predicts hacktivism will become the new way to demonstrate political positions and opposition in 2011 and beyond.
Advanced Persistent Threats
Operation Aurora, the attack on Google allegedly perpetrated China, gave birth to the new vocabulary of advanced persistent threat–a targeted cyber attack directed by a nation state.
The APT “has been around for many years, and governments and companies involved in national security issues have been targeted for a number of years now,“ Alperovitch said. “What is different now is that they have migrated to the commercial sector as well.“
So, in the face of the increasing and diverse threats, what are Internet users to do?
“The first step is really to be a skeptic,“ Alperovitch said. Anytime you use a device that is connected to the network, be very wary of what you get from it.“
That goes for downloading new software and applications to accepting friend requests on Facebook, he said.
“Be careful about who you do business online with,“ he added. “That is probably the No. 1 recommendation.“