Symantec Corp.’s (Nasdaq: SYMC) Internet Security Threat Report, Volume 18 (ISTR) recently revealed a 42 percent surge during 2012 in targeted attacks compared to the prior year. Designed to steal intellectual property, these targeted cyber espionage attacks are increasingly hitting the manufacturing sector as well as small businesses, which are the target of 31 percent of these attacks. Small businesses are attractive targets themselves and a way in to ultimately reach larger companies via “watering hole” techniques. In addition, consumers remain vulnerable to ransomware and mobile threats, particularly on the Android platform.
“This year’s ISTR shows that cyber criminals aren’t slowing down, and they continue to devise new ways to steal information from organizations of all sizes,” said Stephen Trilling, chief technology officer, Symantec. “The sophistication of attacks coupled with today’s IT complexities, such as virtualization, mobility and cloud, require organizations to remain proactive and use ‘defense in depth’ security measures to stay ahead of attacks.”
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Targeted attacks are growing the most among businesses with fewer than 250 employees. Small businesses are now the target of 31 percent of all attacks, a threefold increase from 2011. While small businesses may feel they are immune to targeted attacks, cyber criminals are enticed by these organizations’ bank account information, customer data and intellectual property. Attackers hone in on small businesses that may often lack adequate security practices and infrastructure.
Web-based attacks increased by 30 percent in 2012, many of which originated from the compromised websites of small businesses. These websites were then used in massive cyber attacks as well as “watering hole” attacks. In a watering hole attack, the attacker compromises a website, such as a blog or small business website, which is known to be frequently visited by the victim of interest. When the victim later visits the compromised website, a targeted attack payload is silently installed on their computer. The Elderwood Gang pioneered this class of attack and, in 2012, successfully infected 500 organizations in a single day. In these scenarios, the attacker leverages the weak security of one business to circumvent the potentially stronger security of another business.
Shifting from governments, manufacturing has moved to the top of the list of industries targeted for attacks in 2012. Symantec believes this is attributed to an increase in attacks targeting the supply chain – cyber criminals find these contractors and subcontractors susceptible to attacks and they are often in possession of valuable intellectual property. Often by going after manufacturing companies in the supply chain, attackers gain access to sensitive information of a larger company. In addition, executives are no longer the leading targets of choice. In 2012, the most commonly targeted victims of these types of attacks across all industries were knowledge workers (27 percent) with access to intellectual property as well as those in sales (24 percent).
Last year, mobile malware increased by 58 percent, and 32 percent of all mobile threats attempted to steal information, such as email addresses and phone numbers. Surprisingly, these increases cannot necessarily be attributed to the 30 percent increase in mobile vulnerabilities. While Apple’s iOS had the most documented vulnerabilities, it only had one threat discovered during the same period. Android, by contrast, had fewer vulnerabilities but more threats than any other mobile operating system. Android’s market share, its open platform and the multiple distribution methods available to distribute malicious apps, make it the go-to platform for attackers.
In addition, 61 percent of malicious websites are actually legitimate websites that have been compromised and infected with malicious code. Business, technology and shopping websites were among the top five types of websites hosting infections. Symantec attributes this to unpatched vulnerabilities on legitimate websites. In years passed, these websites were often targeted to sell fake antivirus to unsuspecting consumers. However, ransomware, a particularly vicious attack method, is now emerging as the malware of choice because of its high profitability for attackers. In this scenario, attackers use poisoned websites to infect unsuspecting users and lock their machines, demanding a ransom in order to regain access. Another growing source of infections on websites is malvertisements — this is when criminals buy advertising space on legitimate websites and use it to hide their attack code.