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Malware wars: Are hackers on top?

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The money made from malware is eclipsing the revenue of anti-virus vendors, a leading net security vendor claims. Raimund Genes, CTO of anti-malware at Trend Micro, cites FBI figures that IT security problems cost the economy $62bn last year against IDC estimates that the anti-malware market was worth $26bn in 2005.

The FBI figures include the cost of clean-up operations, not just the profits accrued by the bad guys. Even taking this into account Genes reckons cyber-crooks are raking it in, but we're skeptical. Losses from phishing in the US last year were estimated at $650m, only a tiny fraction of the income of security vendors. Perhaps this figure underestimates malware losses. Placing a figure on malware losses is a notoriously inexact science and the same problems would appear to apply to putting a value on the black economy.

Secondly security vendors have a vested interest in talking up IT security problems. This doesn't mean that they don't have a valuable insight into the problem even though opinions on threats sometimes differ between vendors.

Crystal ball

Looking ahead, Genes reckons click fraud, more sophisticated phishing attacks and the use of VoIP calls to trick punters into handing over sensitive security information will become a growing problem. Tricking users into visiting websites that exploit security vulnerabilities rather than mass mailing worms has become the preferred delivery route for malware. Compromised machines infected by malware and under the control of hackers will continue to be a problem, according to Genes. Trend Micro reckons there are around 5m zombie PCs clients on the net at any one time. Access to these PCs to either send spam or conduct denial of service attacks is sold in the digital underground.

That much is common ground among security vendors, but Trend differs from rival vendors such as McAfee in assessing the likely impact of mobile malware. Genes thinks there's easier ways to make money whereas McAfee, for example, lists mobile phone attacks as among its top 10 threats for 2007.

Future imperfect

Looking ahead, McAfee also predicts that adware will go mainstream and that parasitic malware, or viruses that modify existing files on a disk, will make a comeback. Software vulnerabilities will continue to cause concern fueled by the underground market for vulnerabilities, McAfee predicts. It reckons malware production has become more "professional" with automated testing against security packages becoming part and parcel of the release cycle of malign code.

Never one to be left out of such debates, Symantec has also come up with its own predictions for 2007, alongside its review of this year's security landscape. In the first half of 2006, Symantec detected close to 900 unique phishing messages a day - an increase from nearly 500 per day over the previous 6 month period.

Symantec also notes that attacks against unpatched security vulnerabilities remain a problem. From January to June 2006, the average time to develop a patch was 31 days. However, the average time to develop exploit code was three days, leaving a 28 day window of exposure. Rootkit technology - malware designed to hide itself from detection by users and security programs - undertook more mainstream adoption by attackers in 2006.

Trojan supermarkets

UK-based net security filtering firm MessageLabs meanwhile reports evidence of spammers employing spyware to make their campaigns more effective. It reckons 85 per cent of all email traffic is now junk.

Spam and targeted malware attacks have become the main battleground for MessageLabs, with mass mailing worms becoming less and less of a problem. Highly targeted Trojan attacks, specifically designed to steal intellectual property from businesses and organisations, increased from one a week to one a day this year, it reports.

Like other vendors, MessageLabs notes a big increase in image spam, which it expects to become even more prevalent next year, largely due to the inability of traditional spam filter software to detect minute changes in the image email. The growing involvement of organised crime in malware production will see sites selling customised malware - so-called Trojan supermarkets - become better known. Often based in Russia, these outlets allow crooks to order a customised Trojan for as little as $250, which will be altered to their needs. Price deflation and increased automation on this market is expected, MessageLabs predicts. ®

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