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Web security faces a ‘perfect storm’ of risk

data-securityA host of online threats are converging to create an “unprecedented” level of risk to Web security, according to an alarming new report from IBM.

The “X-Force 2009 Mid-Year Trend and Risk Report” finds there’s been 508 per cent increase in the number of new malicious Web links in the first half of this year alone. Worse yet, the problem extends beyond untrustworthy domains, as more and more malicious content is invading popular search engines, mainstream news sites, online magazines, blogs and other sites.

The key vulnerability? The ability of attackers to gain access to and manipulate data on such popular Websites.

The level of veiled Web exploits, especially PDF files, is also at an all-time high, as attackers show an increased sophistication, the X-Force report finds. Disclosed PDF vulnerabilities in the first half of 2009 have already surpassed all those reported last year. And the amount of suspicious, obfuscated or concealed content monitored by IBM’s ISS Managed Security Services team nearly doubled from the first quarter of this year to the second quarter.

“The trends highlighted by the report seem to indicate that the Internet has finally taken on the characteristics of the Wild West where no one is to be trusted,” said X-Force Director Kris Lamb. “There is no such thing as safe browsing today and it is no longer the case that only the red light district sites are responsible for malware. We’ve reached a tipping point where every Web site should be viewed as suspicious and every user is at risk. The threat convergence of the Web ecosystem is creating a perfect storm of criminal activity.”

Web security is no longer just a browser or client-side issue; criminals are leveraging insecure Web applications to target the users of legitimate Web sites. The X-Force report found a significant rise in Web application attacks with the intent to steal and manipulate data and take command and control of infected computers. For example, SQL injection attacks — attacks where criminals inject malicious code into legitimate Web sites, usually for the purpose of infecting visitors — rose by 50 per cent from the last quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009, and then nearly doubled between the first and second quarter of this year.

“Two of the major themes for the first half of 2009 are the increase in sites hosting malware and the doubling of obfuscated Web attacks,” Lamb said. “The trends seem to reveal a fundamental security weakness in the Web ecosystem where interoperability between browsers, plugins, content and server applications dramatically increase the complexity and risk. Criminals are taking advantage of the fact that there is no such thing as a safe browsing environment and are leveraging insecure Web applications to target legitimate Web site users.”

The X-Force report also finds that:

  • Vulnerabilities have reached a plateau. There were 3,240 new vulnerabilities discovered in the first half of 2009, an eight percent decrease over the first half of 2008. The rate of vulnerability disclosures in the past few years appears to have reached a high plateau. In 2007, the vulnerability count dropped for the first time, but then in 2008 there was a new record high. The annual disclosure rate appears to be fluctuating between six and seven thousand new disclosures each year;
  • PDF vulnerabilities have increased. Portable Document Format (PDF) vulnerabilities disclosed in the first half of 2009 already surpassed disclosures from all of 2008;
  • Trojans account for more than half of all new malware. Continuing the recent trend, in the first half of 2009, Trojans comprised 55 percent of all new malware, a nine per cent increase over the first half of 2008. Information-stealing Trojans are the most prevalent malware category;
  • Phishing has decreased dramatically. Analysts believe that banking Trojans are taking the place of phishing attacks geared toward financial targets. In the first half of 2009, 66 per cent of phishing was targeted at the financial industry, down from 90 per cent in 2008. Online payment targets make up 31 per cent of the share;
  • URL spam is still number one, but image-based spam is making a comeback. After nearing extinction in 2008, image-based spam made a comeback in the first half of 2009, yet it still makes up less than 10 per cent of all spam;
  • Nearly half of all vulnerabilities remain unpatched. Similar to the end of 2008, nearly half (49 per cent) of all vulnerabilities disclosed in the first half of 2009 had no vendor-supplied patch at the end of the period.

The X-Force research team has been cataloguing, analyzing and researching vulnerability disclosures since 1997. With more than 43,000 security vulnerabilities catalogued, it has the largest vulnerability database in the world.

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