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Global malware outbreaks decreased last year only to be replaced by smaller scale, stealthier attacks targeted at specific organisations or individuals, and designed to extract sensitive information. Financial gain has become the number one motive for hackers, according to IBM's latest Global Business Security Index.

Email-borne viruses went into decline last year. One in every 36.15 emails (2.8 percent) contained a virus or Trojan compared to 6.1 per cent, or one in every 16.39 emails in 2004. But this drop was accompanied by the increased integration of more sophisticated bot capabilities into existing malware. For example the Mytob worm, based on the earlier MyDoom worm, featured capabilities that allowed hackers to remotely control compromised (zombie) machines.

These botnets (networks of compromised machines) were often used to relay spam. One type of spam, fraudulent emails that seek to dupe users into handing over sensitive account details to bogus websites (a practice known as phishing), grew markedly last year. In 2005, phishing represented an average of one in every 304 emails, compared to one in every 943 in 2004.

Phishing emails against consumers are becoming more targeted while businesses are weathering a storm of more focused malware assaults.

In 2005, approximately two to three targeted email attacks were intercepted each week, compared to almost none in 2004. These attacks were often directed at government departments, military and other organisations. Customised malware attacks have the potential to defraud businesses, steal identities and intellectual property and extort money, while damaging the brand and eroding customer trust. Cybercrooks are targeting an organisation's workers in order to infiltrate systems, IBM warns, adding that traditional reactive approaches to security are no longer adequate.

"The decrease in pervasive attacks in 2005 is counter-intuitive to what society at large believes is a major threat to their personal data," said Cal Slemp, vice president of IBM's security and privacy services. "IBM believes that the environment has shifted - with increased security protection on most systems and stiffer penalties, we are seeing organised, committed, and tenacious profiteers enter this space. This means attacks will be more targeted and potentially damaging."

Future imperfect

IBM's Global Business Security Index report 2005 also gazes into the crystal ball in an attempt to predict security trends for 2006. It predicts an increase in attacks aimed at computer users as computer networks become better defended. "Criminals will focus their efforts on convincing end users to execute the attack instead of wasting time in lengthy software vulnerability discovery," IBM predicts.

Crooks are also likely to take advantage of shortcomings in international co-operation to launch cyber attacks from countries in regions such as Eastern Europe and Asia, where sanctions are more lenient and enforcement is limited. Networks of compromised machines (botnets) are commonly controlled using IRC networks, but newer botnets will likely move to instant messaging and other peer-to-peer networks for command and control of infected systems, IBM predicts.

Last year, IBM predicted the malware affecting mobile phones, PDAs and other wireless devices would increase substantially. It acknowledges that the pervasive outbreaks it predicted last year have failed to materialise but warns mobile malware remains a threat on the radar. ®

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