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All my personal details for chocolate? Go on then

On social engineering, rootkits and Easter eggs

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Infosec blog When I explain what I do to Spanish friends and neighbours in my faltering Castilian, people often ask me about malicious hackers. It's very often hard to explain that the viruses they receive in their email are most likely random attacks. A PC is, after all, very personal so it's easy to symphatise with people who take cyber-attacks personally themselves.

But although people reckon hackers are prepared to go to elaborate means to obtain information from their systems (a real risk but one that's sometimes overstated), many are relaxed about handing over sensitive data when approached by someone carrying a clip-board. A survey ahead of next week's Infosecurity Europe show found that 81 per cent of people quizzed at London's Victoria station were willing to part with all the personal information needed to steal their identity for the chance to win an Easter egg bonanza, worth £60.

Seemingly innocuous questions such as about a person's Easter egg consumption and pet collection were inserted into the conversation alongside other queries designed to elicit sensitive information such as a person's date of birth, address and mother's maiden name. The survey, akin to similar studies over recent years, was designed to raise awareness about how easy it is for fraudsters to use social engineering to carry out identity theft. Last year, 92 per cent of people gave over their personal details in a similar survey that offered the lure of theatre tickets as a prize. So perhaps there's been some progress, though forgive me for not being especially impressed.

Security is a consumer issue. True

Security, make no mistake about it, has become a consumer issue. But it's sometimes hard to identify the real risks from the hype that surrounds the industry.

One all too real risk is easy to identify, the possibility that cybercriminals might get their hands on a consumer's credit card details. The credit card details of an estimated 400 Britons are traded online every day, The Times reports. Details complete with security code numbers trade for $5 a pop in underground chat rooms. Valid PIN codes corresponding to these numbers can increase the asking price to $175 (£100) a throw.

Hackers might have employed a variety of techniques to obtain this data. Breaking into a corporate server where credit card information was held (the favoured theory at The Times), going through receipts carelessly discarded at gas stations or social engineering techniques are three possibilities. Infecting a user's PC with keystroke logging software is another strong possibility.

Stealth

A few years ago, systems infected by malicious code would display obvious signs of infection, such as slowing to a crawl or thrashed document files. These days hackers are getting more sneaky. A survey by security firm McAfee published on Monday reports that the use by hackers of stealth technology to disguise the presence of malware on infected systems is up 600 per cent over the last three years.

It reckons this seven-fold increase is largely down to the success of online collaborative research efforts by hackers using Web sites that contain hundreds of lines of rootkit code. "The 'open-source' environment, along with online collaboration sites and blogs are largely to blame for the increased proliferation and complexity of rootkits," McAfee concludes.

Over recent months, security firms such as F-Secure and Sunbelt Software have used blogs to exchange ideas with the wider public about their security research efforts. According to McAfee, hackers are doing much the same.

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, it would seem. ®

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