Symantec Corp. has released its ninth volume of the Internet Security Threat Report, a comprehensive source of Internet threat data. The semiannual report, covering the six-month period from 1 July 2005 to 31 December 2005, marks an increase in threats designed to facilitate cybercrime.
While past attacks were designed to destroy data, today’s attacks are increasingly designed to silently steal data for profit without doing noticeable damage that would alert a user to its presence. In the previous Internet Security Threat Report, Symantec cautioned that malicious code for profit was on the rise, and this trend continued during the second half of 2005. Malicious code threats that could reveal confidential information rose from 74 percent of the top 50 malicious code samples last period to 80 percent this period.
The report also details the growing trend of attackers using bot networks, targeted attacks on web applications and web browsers, and modular malicious code. Based on this and data from previous reporting periods, Symantec expects to see more diverse and sophisticated threats used for cybercrime as well as an increase in the theft of confidential, financial, and personal information for financial gain.
According to Symantec, cybercrime-related threats are gaining momentum through the use of crimeware, software tools built with the purpose of committing online scams and stealing information from consumers and businesses.
To highlight the importance of applying operating system and application patches quickly, Symantec assessed the time it took for attackers to compromise newly installed operating systems in standard deployments such as web servers and desktops. Of the servers, Windows 2000 Server with no patches had the shortest average time to compromise, while patched Windows 2003 Web Edition and both unpatched and patched RedHat Enterprise Linux 3 were not compromised in the testing period. Of the desktops, Microsoft Windows XP Professional with no patches had the shortest average time to compromise, while the same desktop system with all patches applied as well as SuSE Linux 9 Desktop were not compromised.
As Symantec noted in the previous Internet Security Threat Report, attackers are moving away from large, multiple purpose attacks against traditional security devices such as firewalls and routers. Instead, they are focusing their efforts on regional targets, desktops and web applications that may allow an attacker to steal corporate, personal, financial, or confidential information; this information could then be used for additional criminal activity.
Programs that provide attackers with unauthorised control of a computer, known as bots, also contribute to the rise in cybercrime threats. While the number of bot-infected computers is 11 percent lower than last period - with an average of 9,163 infected systems identified each day during the current reporting period - bot networks are increasingly used for criminal activities such as denial of service (DoS)-based extortion attempts. Symantec estimates that this measurement is only capturing a portion of global activity and that the actual infection numbers are likely to be much higher. On average, Symantec observed 1,402 DoS attacks per day, a 51 percent increase over the previous reporting period. Symantec speculates that this growth trend will continue as attackers leverage an increasing number of web-based application and browser vulnerabilities.
Symantec has also seen an increase in modular malicious code, which initially possesses limited functionality but is designed to update itself with new, more damaging capabilities. Modular malicious threats often expose confidential information that can then be used in identity theft, credit card fraud, or other criminal financial activities. During the last six months of 2005, modular malicious code accounted for 88 percent of the top 50 malicious code samples reported to Symantec, up from 77 percent last period.
China experienced the largest increase of bot-infected computers, with 37 percent growth - 24 percentage points above the average increase - putting China behind only the U.S. in this category. The increase is likely related to China’s rapid growth in broadband internet connections. China also saw the largest overall increase in originating attacks; such attacks increased by 153 percent over the last period, marking 72 percentage points above the average increase. Bots may be an increasing source of this activity.
Phishing threats, which are attempts to deceive users into revealing confidential information, continued to increase during the last half of 2005 while focusing on smaller, regional targets. During the last half of 2005, 7.92 million daily phishing attempts were identified, an increase over the 5.70 million attempts per day in the previous reporting period. Symantec expects to see an increase in the number of phishing messages and malicious code distributed through instant messaging services in the future.
Symantec documented 1,895 new software vulnerabilities, the largest total recorded number of vulnerabilities since 1998. Of these, 97 percent were considered moderately or highly severe and 79 percent were considered easy to exploit.
With the increased volume of vulnerabilities discovered, Symantec also monitored the speed that organisations were able to patch vulnerable systems. During this reporting period, an average of 6.8 days elapsed between the announcement of a vulnerability and the release of associated exploit code, up from six days last period. An average of 49 days elapsed between the disclosure of a vulnerability and the release of a vendor-supplied patch. Consequently, enterprises and consumers may be susceptible to potential attack for 42 days, highlighting the need for users to patch systems or take other protective measures as soon as possible. Symantec expects that the commercialisation of vulnerability research will increase, with a growth in black market forums and an increase in vulnerability information purchased for criminal pursuits.
Symantec documented a small increase in new Win32 virus and worm variants with 10,992 this period versus 10,866 last period. This trend is part of a noticeable decline in category 3 and 4 threats (moderate and extremely serious) and a corresponding increase in category 1 and 2 threats (low and very low). The number of new Win32 virus and worm families also decreased by 39 percent - from 170 new families in the first half of 2005 to 104 this period. This suggests that malicious code developers may be choosing to modify currently circulating source code rather than developing new threats from scratch.