Australians among world's worst malware victims – but the death of APTs signals worse times ahead

Australian users remain among the world's most likely to click on malicious links, new industry research suggests – but if you thought things were bad now, hold onto your hats: security specialists warn that 2016 is likely to make things even worse as growing desire to commercialise the spoils of data breaches drives a transformation in the way attackers launch already-insidious advanced persistent threats (APTs).

The new figures from security firm Trend Micro, contained within a recent security threat analysis, found that Australian users clicked on malicious URLs more than 22 million times during the third quarter, up from 18.7 million in the previous quarter. That placed Australia fourth on the world leaderboard, reflecting the continued exposure to human-generated vulnerabilities and setting the stage for what the firm's analysts predict will be “potentially massive events” in 2016.

The threat posed by those events reflected a growing trend towards hackers' exploitation of the information gleaned during malware attacks, such as the publication of the details of Ashley Madison users or the release of massive amounts of code taken in the compromise of Italian hacker group Hacking Team.

“These movements could very well shake up the security industry over the next few months”, the analysis warns, highlighting the reputational damage that comes from such attacks and the increasingly clear focus on personal information. Healthcare and personally identifiable information (PII) were the second most-stolen type of data out of all categories in the analysis.

Continued widespread use of the Angler exploit kit, combined with the discovery of “weak points” in both Android and iOS mobile platforms and a “shotgun” approach to point-of-sale malware, were likely to continue the trent going forward, the report concluded.

“The evolution of breaches is beginning to take a turn toward real-world effects on enterprises’ bottom lines and people’s lives,” said Dhanya Thakkar, Trend Micro's Asia Pacific managing director, in a statement. “The emergence of numerous vulnerabilities and other data breaches that occurred in this quarter are bound to release more confidential and potentially destructive information to the public, which could then be sold to the highest bidder on the Deep Web.”

Thakkar's concerns were echoed in a warning from rival security vendor Kaspersky, which has flagged the increasing resourcefulness of advanced persistent threats (APTs) and warned that 2016 will see a significant change in the modus operandi of APTs targeting sensitive data of all kinds.

Aiming to reduce their footprint – and detectable surface – researchers from Kaspersky Labs' Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT) believe contemporary APTs will increasingly use in-memory or fileless approaches that stymie file-based scanning efforts, as will as relying on off-the-shelf malware kits to reduce the costs and effort necessary to develop new APTs.

This transformation will effectively be the end of the APT, Kaspersky believes, with the reduced-footprint attacks driving “a significant evolution in cyberespionage tradecraft,” Kaspersky GReAT senior security expert Juan Andrés Guerrero-Saade said in a statement.

“As sophisticated threat actors minimize investment by repurposing commercially available malware and become more adept at hiding their advanced tools, infrastructure, and identities by ditching persistence all together.”

Like Trend Micro, Kaspersky also believes the increasingly aggressive publication of sensitive information will grow, with “exponential” growth driving a surge in 'access-as-a-service' offerings that will further the commercial exploitation of APTs and the repurposing of off-the-shelf rootkits.

“2016 will see more players entering the world of cyber-crime,” Guerrero-Saade said. “The profitability of cyber-attacks is indisputable and more people want a share of the spoils.”

“As mercenaries enter the game, an elaborate outsourcing industry has risen to meet the demands for new malware and even entire operations. The latter gives rise to a new scheme of Access-as-a-Service, offering up access to already hacked targets to the highest bidder.

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