• Hacktivism and cyber war: making the headlines in 2011
  • The growth rate of new malware is set to slow down, though we can still expect to see some 20 million new strains
  • Social engineering and the use of social media to spread encrypted and dynamic malware will be the leading trends of the coming year
  • Malware for cell phones will still not be a major issue, as is the case for tablet PCs. There will be more malware for Mac and for 64-bit systems, as well as zero-day exploits

PandaLabs, the anti-malware laboratory of Panda Security –The Cloud Security Company-, has forecast that there will be few radical innovations in cyber-crime during 2011. Hacktivism and cyber-war; more profit-oriented malware, social media, social engineering and malicious codes with the ability to adapt to avoid detection will be the main protagonists in 2011. There will also be an increase in the threats to Mac users, new efforts to attack 64-bit systems and new zero-day exploits.

Luis Corrons, Technical Director of PandaLabs explains: “Once again we have dusted off the crystal ball and this is a summary of what we reckon will be the ten major security trends during 2011”:

1. Malware creation. In 2010 we have seen a significant growth in the amount of malware, a constant theme over the last few years. This year, more than 20 million new strains have been created, more than in 2009. At present, Panda’s Collective Intelligence database stores a total of over 60 million classified threats. The actual rate of growth year-on-year however, appears to have peaked: some years ago it was over 100%. In 2010 it was 50%. We will have to wait and see what happens in 2011.

2. Cyber war. Stuxnet and the Wikileaks cables suggesting the involvement of the Chinese government in the cyber-attacks on Google and other targets have marked a turning point in the history of these conflicts. In cyber-wars, as with other real-world conflicts today, there are no ranks of uniformed troops making it easy to distinguish between one side and another. This is like guerrilla warfare, where it is impossible to discern who is launching the attack or from where. The only thing it is possible to ascertain is the objective.

In the case of Stuxnet, it was clearly an attempt to interfere with processes in nuclear plants, specifically, with uranium centrifuge. Attacks such as these, albeit more or less sophisticated, are still ongoing, and will no doubt increase during 2011, although many of them will go unnoticed by the general public.

3. Cyber-protests. Undoubtedly the major new issue in 2010. Cyber-protests -or hacktivism- are all the rage. This new movement was initiated by the Anonymous group and Operation Payback, targeting firstly organizations trying to close the net on Internet piracy, and later in support of Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks. Even users with limited technical know-how can join in the distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) or spam campaigns.

Despite hasty attempts in many countries to pass legislation to counter this type of activity, effectively by criminalizing it, we believe that in 2011 there will be yet more cyber-protests, organized by this group or others that will begin to emerge. The Internet is increasingly important in our lives and is a channel for expression that offers anonymity and freedom, at least at the moment, so we will no doubt see more examples of this kind of civil protest.

4. Social engineering. There is a saying that goes something like “humans are the only animals to trip twice over the same stone”. Surely this is true, and one good example of this is the continued use of social engineering to infect unwary users. In particular, cyber-criminals have found social media sites to be their perfect working environment, as users are even more trusting than with other types of tools, such as email.

Throughout 2010 we have witnessed various attacks that have used the two most popular social networks – Facebook and Twitter- as a launch pad. In 2011 we fully expect that not only will hackers continue to use these media, but that they will also be used more for distributed attacks.

Moreover, BlackHat SEO attacks (indexing and positioning of fake websites in search engines) will also be widely employed throughout 2011, as always, taking advantage of hot topics to reach as many users as possible.

With the continued expansion of all types of multimedia content (photos, videos, etc.), a significant amount of malware will be disguised as plugins, media players and other similar applications. It is not so much that other methods have disappeared, such as PowerPoint presentations passed on from friend to friend, but security education and awareness campaigns have taught users to be wary of these types of applications.

As ingenuity often flourishes in times of crisis, and sadly, as technical expertise is increasingly less necessary for cyber-criminals, we are bound to see waves of new and convincing methods designed to trick unwary users: romantic offers online, spoof job adverts, increasingly sophisticated scams, phishing attacks not just targeting banks but also pay platforms, online stores, etc…

In short, now more than ever, common sense is one of the most important defensive tools for securing our online lives, though as is often said, this is the least common of the senses.

5. Windows 7 influencing malware development. As we mentioned last year, it will take at least two years before we start to see the proliferation of threats designed specifically for Windows 7. In 2010 we have begun to see a shift in this direction, and we imagine that in 2011 we will continue to see new cases of malware targeting users of this new operating system.

6. Cell phones. The eternal question: When will malware for cell phones really take off? It would seem that in 2011 there will be new attacks, but still not on a massive scale. Most of the existing threats target devices with Symbian, an operating system which is now on the wane. Of the emerging systems, PandaLabs’ crystal ball tells us that the number of threats for Android will increase considerably throughout the year, becoming the number one target for cyber-crooks.

7. Tablets? The overwhelming dominance of iPad in this terrain will start to be challenged by new competitors entering the market. Nevertheless, save the odd proof-of-concept or experimental attack, we don’t believe that tablet PCs will become a major consideration for the criminal fraternity in 2011.

8. Mac. Malware for Mac exists, and will continue to exist. And as the market share continues to grow, so the number of threats will grow accordingly. Of most concern is the number of security holes affecting the Apple operating system. Let’s hope they get ‘patching’ as soon as possible, as hackers are well aware of the possibilities that such vulnerabilities offer for propagating malware.

9. HTML5. What could come to replace Flash, HTML5, is the perfect target for many types of criminals. The fact it can be run by browsers without any plug-ins makes it even more attractive to find a security hole that can be exploited to attack users regardless of which browser they use. We will see the first attacks in the coming months.

10. Highly dynamic and encrypted threats. This is something we have already seen over the last two years, and we fully expect this to increase in 2011. There is nothing new about profit-motivated malware, the use of social engineering or silent threats designed to operate without victims realizing. Yet in our anti-malware laboratory we are receiving more and more encrypted, stealth threats designed to connect to a server and update themselves before security companies can detect them. There are also more threats that target specific users, particularly companies, as information stolen from businesses will fetch a higher price on the black market.

“The overall picture is not improving. It is true that in 2010 we have seen several major arrests that have hit hard in the world of cyber-crime. Yet this is sadly insufficient when we consider the scale of what we are fighting against. Profits from this black market amount to thousands of millions of dollars, and many criminals operate with impunity thanks to the anonymity of the Internet and numerous legal loopholes. The economic climate has contributed to the seriousness of the situation: as unemployment grows in numerous countries, many people see this as a low risk opportunity to earn money, though this does not detract from the fact that it is a crime”, says Luis Corrons.

More information is available in the PandaLabs Blog