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Whether they're attacking the Department of Energy, simulating a zombie apocalypse, hacking journalism's biggest names or getting called out by President Obama during his State of the Union address, cybercriminals have been a fixture in recent headlines. Indeed, the preceding litany of examples is drawn from the last two weeks alone.
What's been driving all the activity? Though hacktivist campaigns and denial-of-service attacks get a lot of attention, a new study by security firm Websense finds that money remains the motivation behind most cybercrime. More crucial to IT departments, the report also found that malicious hackers are becoming increasingly adept at finding holes in enterprise defensive efforts.
In an interview, Charles Renert, VP of research and development for Websense Labs, said that the cybercrime "business model" has shifted from "high volume toward high yield" over the last few years. Hackers have been widely deploying phishing emails and similar tactics for years, indiscriminately hoping to collect financial information from anyone trusting enough to open a suspicious attachment or click a random link. These tactics are still in play, but Renert said methods have shifted toward preselected, high-value targets. He cited data breaches at the New York Times and Washington Post as examples of this tendency and mentioned 2011's RSA hack, estimated to cost parent company EMC more than $66 billion, to illustrate how costly such attacks can become.
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Renert said that many cybercriminals use social engineering strategies to lure specific targets into compromising their online security. Whereas virus-laden emails have traditionally been marked by awkward grammar and other telltale signs, modern iterations are products of research. Renert said attackers might monitor a would-be victim for months, accruing and mining data until they've devised a personalized lure so individually "irresistible" that even a high-level executive or government official might be goaded into a mistake.
Websense's report found that cybercriminals prefer to attack through Web browsers. The company found a 600% increase in such techniques over the last year, with 85% of the activity coming from legitimate sites that have been injected with malicious code.
The whitepaper also found that hackers have tailored their strategies to snare mobile users. Stating that smartphones are used to access social media 50% more often than to make phone calls, the report argued that this abundance of on-the-go sharing has encouraged users to feel nonchalant about links accessed on mobile devices. Websense believes that hackers are exploiting this casual attitude; the report notes that 32% of social media schemes used shortened urls to make their malicious links less suspicious.
Websense found Facebook secure in and of itself but nonetheless "a rich target for cybercriminals who use lures containing links to malicious Web content." Twitter, however, was such attackers' favorite prowling ground.
The report noted that jail-broken phones and email are among the other avenues hackers use to bypass security, but Renert said it's important to consider not only the attacker access points but also the techniques they uses once they're in. To illustrate, he explained that most malicious software "calls home" to the attacker within minutes of being installed. "If you're looking at it heuristically," he said, "this is very suspicious behavior" that security programs might detect.
In contrast, trickier malware implementations wait longer before taking action, increasing the likelihood their activities will fly under the radar.
Renert said the growing ubiquity of exploit kits has contributed to the upsurges in both the number of hacking incidents and the sophistication of attacks. Such kits give less-skilled attackers access to more elaborate tools and techniques. Renert said they "are a big piece of the equation" and mean that hackers don't need "to be all PhDs out there."
He recommended that CTOs educate executives and other high-level parties about cybercriminals' shifting tactics. Attacks "might not look like the spammy attacks they're used to, and that they've built controls around," he said. "There needs to be knowledge of that risk, and an assumption that controls are always inadequate."
Additionally, businesses should "inspect the areas where data has been allowed to flow" into and out of the company, he said. These points are the most vulnerable, and Renert advised they be continuously monitored.
Given Websense's business, such advice isn't surprising -- but for the security-minded, it's nonetheless important to weigh the benefits of these aggressive tactics. Security analysts have advocated proactive approaches for months, arguing that attackers are too sophisticated to be passively blocked, and that CTOs must push for security's place within tight IT budgets.