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Security crystal ball gazing from McAfee

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Spyware - malicious programs that covertly track surfing habits or steal confidential data - are likely to migrate onto new platforms, including mobile phones and RFID chips.

The scenario is sketched out in the second issue of McAfee's twice annual Global Threat Report.

RFID chips, which began life as a replacement for bar codes in retailing and warehousing, are now being integrated into some identification documents, such as passports, and in emerging technologies like contactless credit cards. In January, SoMark Innovations announced the development of bio-compatible chipless RFID ink, making RFID "tattoos" and synthetic biometrics possible.

The British government plans to test RFID-embedded license plates, developed by Hills Numberplates. Such e-plates might be read by any strategically placed reader along a road at speeds of up to 300km/h and up to 100 metres away.

Applications include speed traps, detecting stolen vehicles, and traffic management. Network security firm McAfee reckons that the technology also lends itself to its use as a surveillance tool by governments or criminal exploitation.

The growing, almost ubiquitous, use of RFID technology creates a platform for malware. Research first presented in March 2006 shows how vulnerabilities in RFID technology might be used to spread viruses, worms, and spyware. Dutch researchers showed how RFID tags could be virally infected through SQL injection attacks, exploiting links between an RFID tag and a vulnerable database.

Spy on the wire

The increasing processing power and growing features set of mobile phones make the devices an "ideal candidate" for exploitation by spyware, according to security researchers at McAfee.

Examples of this limited breed are capable of forwarding call logs to a remote server, recording and forwarding text messages, listening to calls, or even remotely turning the device into a live radio "bug" without the phone user's knowledge or consent. These applications hide or camouflage themselves once installed on mobile devices.

Sold as a means for suspicious partners to track the activities of their potentially errant spouses, applications such as FlexiSpy pose a wider threat to security, McAfee warns.

A lack of awareness among consumers about how to use Bluetooth securely also represents a serious security threat to mobile phone users such as Bluebugging, where an attacker manipulates a phone to dial numbers, and Bluestabbing, where an attacker tries to crash vulnerable devices.

Second Life

The second issue of McAfee's twice annual Global Threat Report also looks at other security issues the industry is likely to face over the next five years. McAfee continues to criticise the security shortcomings of Vista it first made prior to the release of what Microsoft describes as its "most secure" operating system ever.

"While Microsoft has taken steps to make the base of Microsoft Windows Vista more secure, the improvements both weaken third-party efforts to secure systems and don't go far enough to do the job alone," McAfee analysts argue.

The majority of cybercriminals target PC users, making money by selling access to compromise PCs to spammers, for example. As technologies such as Voice over IP (VoIP) and radio frequency identifications (RFID) tags become more widely adopted, attackers are likely to branch out.

Security crystal ball gazers at McAfee also predict that application security will become a key battleground between hackers and security defenders over coming months and years. Using disk encryption technologies to prevent stolen or purloined PCs giving up secrets will become "ubiquitous" in enterprises within five years, McAfee predicts.

The report also forecasts that online crime will "migrate" to mobile phones, something McAfee has been predicting since Bill Clinton and John Major were in power, with scant evidence to date.

More on all these threats to e-commerce can be found in McAfee's report here. ®

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