Porn sites, China losing malware dominance: Websense

“It’s interesting how rarely China is mentioned this year,” Websense senior product manager, Bob Hansmann.

The number of malicious URLs may have increased by 600 per cent during 2012 but growing diversity in the nature and method of Web attacks has seen China fall down the leader boards as a source of malware attacks, research from security firm Websense has found.

Analysing the source and targets of known malware attacks, the Websense 2013 Threat Report analysed the activities of the company’s cloud-based Websense ThreatSeeker Network, which analyses the content of more than 3 billion Web requests every day.

Fully 85% of these attacks came from malicious Web hosts that had been compromised by hackers and used as a launching-pad for their malware attacks. Indeed, many attacks are executed as a multinational effort in which phishing Web sites might be set up in one country, spams sent from another, malware hosted in yet another country and command-and-control (C&C) servers run from yet another country.

Interestingly, during 2012 China – whose sheer size and relatively lax attitude towards hacking has made it a haven for malware in the past – was outflanked as a malware host by Germany, Russia and the United States; Moldova, the Czech Republic, UK, France, Netherlands, and Canada rounded out the top 10.

“It’s interesting how rarely China is mentioned this year,” Websense senior product manager and report author Bob Hansmann told CSO Australia. “They used to be mentioned in anything relating to malicious activity online but this time around, the only top-ten chart they topped was the command-and-control table.”

Australia’s lack of presence on this list could be attributed to the relatively tight restrictions around domain-name management in this country, he added: “Different countries are focused on different aspects of security, and the kinds of things Australia has done have prevented it from being a host for these kinds of attacks.”

China was far from off the hook, however: while China was not hosting as much malware as some other countries, it topped the tables in terms of the number of C&C servers hosted. So while sites in that country are still playing a role in the execution of the malware, they aren’t the primary vectors for infection of online users.

“In the end, hackers go wherever they can to get the easiest access,” Hansmann said. “Their preferences are based on regulatory controls, government oversight, and how much the ISPs regulate themselves. There are certain things [authorities] look for – and as long as hackers don’t set off those triggers, they can basically do whatever they want.”

Interestingly, China became the top ‘victim’ country in the Asia-Pacific region, suggesting that hackers recognise the increasingly-online society offers boundless opportunities for financial gain. Australia ranked fifth on this list, behind Taiwan, Philippines, and South Korea and just ahead of Hong Kong, Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Another significant trend was the move away from using sex-related sites as a lure to trick Web servers into installing malware. Whereas it used to be easy for IT managers to mitigate malware vulnerability by blocking such sites, that approach isn’t as effective anymore: during 2012 sex-related sites were actually the third most-infective category of sites, with IT sites topping the list and business and economy-related sites coming second.

“Cybercriminals have switched tactics,” Hansmann wrote in the report. “They now target legitimate websites within categories that few organisations can restrict or block access to without impacting productivity.”

With all signs pointing to continued growth in malware attacks during 2013, smartphones and tablets have emerged as a key vulnerability – particularly with users relying on the devices to store ever more-important personal and business information.

“We see a great deal of phone theft for the data,” Hansmann said. “If I can steal a phone and access the client database, access the owner’s social network and give my malicious persona permissions – if I can just access the device, I can do all sorts of things to open up everything else you’ve connected to.”

Keeping up with the changing threat profile is essential for adequate security in the long term, Hansmann said.

“These threats will always be with us,” he added, “but what we need is for every employee to understand their responsibilities as a user – and to be aware. IT organisations need to understand that since things are changing, if they’re using materials and defences based on plans from four years ago they’re behind the times, and unprotected.”

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