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Rootkits, cybercrime and OneCare

The year in IT security

Protecting against web application threats using SSL

2005 in review The year 2005 in net security will likely be remembered as the year of the Sony rootkit DRM controversy. In other ways the last 12 months continued the trend of profit becoming a primary driver for the creation of computer viruses. The last 12 months also witnessed a number of high-profile cybercrime prosecutions, including the sentencing of NetSky author Sven Jaschan.

Targeted Trojan attacks - as opposed to computer worm outbreaks - became a greater concern. Unlike the more indiscriminate assaults by viruses and worms, Trojans can be delivered with precision to target organisations via email attachments or links to websites. Spyware (invasive programs that monitor user's surfing habits and send data back to hackers) also proved a major headache. Meanwhile Microsoft continued to bolster its effort to improve the security of Windows machines, an ongoing initiative that saw it make a number of acquisitions and announce its entry into the consumer security market for the first time. Browser vulnerabilities were a prominent problem all year.

War of the worms

The trend towards mass outbreaks of computer worms dropped significantly in 2005 with only two major outbreaks, the Zotob worm outbreak in August, which affected a string of media outlets including CNN and The Financial Times, and the rapid spread of a new variant of the infamous Sober worm in late November. Days after the release of the Zotob words authorities arrested suspects in Turkey and Morocco.

Dragnet

July brought the sentencing of Sven Jaschan, the author of the infamous Sasser and NetSky worms. Jaschan was sentenced to one year and nine months probation and 30 hours probation after confessing to computer sabotage offences. Many thought this too lenient a punishment for a teenager who had created the world's most prolific computer worms.

By contrast, many felt the conviction of London-based former city IT worker Daniel Cuthbert in October for breaking Section One of the Computer Misuse Act by hacking into a tsunami appeal website on 2004 New Year's Eve was harsh. Peter Sommer, who was an expert witness for the defence, said the judge "took a very strict view of the wording of the legislation". He argues that policing of minor offences should "not involve taking people to court but rather talking, warning and slapping wrists".

In another high-profile prosecution, Cliff Stanford, founder of Demon Internet and Redbus, pleaded guilty to email interception charges in September. Stanford along with co-defendant George Liddell were accused of conspiring to intercept emails sent to Redbus chairman John Porter (son of Dame Shirley Porter, the disgraced former Conservative leader of Westminster council) during a boardroom battle at the London-based hosting firm. Both received suspended sentences of six months imprisonment and fines. Lawyers for Stanford said he would appeal Judge Rivlin's interpretation of the law in the case.

A hi-tech bid to steal £220m ($423m) from the London offices of the Japanese bank Sumitomo Mitsui was foiled by police, it emerged in March. A gang of cyber crooks compromised Sumitomo's computer systems in October 2004 prior to an unsuccessful attempt to transfer money to a series of 10 accounts overseas. The attack was linked to the use of key-logging technology.

Phishin’ and pharming

Scam emails that form the basis of phishing attacks often pose as 'security check' emails from well-known businesses. These messages attempt to trick users into handing over their account details and passwords to bogus sites. The collected details are used for credit card fraud and identity theft. First seen more two years ago, phishing emails are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

The customers of UK banks were the frequent target of phishing attacks. A UK government initiative to promote internet security among consumers and SMEs - dubbed Get Safe Online - launched in October.

During the year, phishing attacks broke free of the English language with a spate of criminal attacks against online banking customers in Finland, Germany and beyond. Phishing fraudsters also often deployed themed attacks to take advantage of man-made and natural disasters.

Pharming takes this attack one step further by attempting to intercept communication of personal data between a user and a genuine enterprise Web site by installing spyware on computers, or by subverting DNS servers to redirect users to bogus websites. The technique was used in several high-profile attacks this year.

OneCare

Microsoft's main attempt to improving internet security this year came with the launch of an all-in-one security and backup service, the splendidly named Windows OneCare Live, which went into beta in early December.

A number of attacks this year drove home the need for improved security in Internet Explorer, partially prompting Microsoft's intention to release IE7 next year. Meanwhile the release of a new version of Firefox in November gave IE some serious competition.

The spam onslaught showed some signs of letting up this year. Prosecutions have been brought under the US's CAN-SPAM Act and volumes are reportedly down but it would be premature to declare victory, just yet. Spamming is simply too profitable and junk mail scumbags are too devious to disappear as a problem.

The number of Trojan horses written during 2005 outweighs worms by almost two to one. In addition, the percentage of malware that includes spyware components rose from 54.2 per cent in January to 66.4 per cent by the end of the year, according to security firm Sophos. These figures reinforce the notion that malware authors are engaging in targeted attacks, rather than widespread bombardment, and also help explain a rise in the amount of spam spewed out by zombie computers - now accounting for over 60 per cent of the world's spam.

Mobile malware and PSP bricks

Mobile malware continued to feature in the news, despite barely featuring in reports compiled by firms providing support to mobile phone users. The nastiest example of mobile malware recorded over the last 12 months was probably a Trojan called Skulls, a malicious SIS file Trojan that busts mobile system applications. Commwarrior – a mobile virus that spreads via either Bluetooth and MMS messages, showed VXers were experimenting with new attack vectors. In October, PSP users were being urged to beware of a Trojan which, once executed, turns their games gizmo into little more than an expensive book weight. The (PlayStation Portable) PSP Brick Trojan poses as a utility that allows gamers to run homebrew apps or pirated games.

Sony DRM

November brought probably the biggest story of the year, after security researchers detected the use of rootkit technology in digital rights management software used by Sony.

Phase one of this long-running debacle began after security researchers discovered XCP anti-piracy software that shipped with some Sony BMG's music CDs masked its presence and introduced a vulnerability which hackers and virus writers began to target. Under pressure, Sony was forced to recall discs loaded with the technology and create an exchange program for consumers.

Sony came in for more criticism last week after it emerged that SunComm's MediaMax anti-piracy software used as an alternative to First4Internet's XCP program on Sony BMG CDs shipped in the US and Canada also created a security risk. The first version of the patch released to address SunnComm MediaMax version 5 software had a flaw of its own. Security researchers are currently reviewing a second patch.

What can we expect from 2006? More of the same, probably. Until then, Happy New Year and safe surfing. ®

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