2013 Threats Predictions by McAfee Labs

McAfee Labs collected an immense amount of data on malware, vulnerabilities, and threats to endpoints, networks, email, and the web in 2012. Using our Global Threat Intelligence, we analyzed this data to block these intrusions and reduce the danger to our customers. Next year we anticipate more of the same: Cybercriminals and hacktivists will strengthen and evolve the techniques and tools they use to assault our privacy, bank accounts, mobile devices, businesses, organizations, and homes.
Mobile Threats
  • Malware shopping spree
Once criminals discover a profit-making technique that works, they’re likely to reuse and automate it. For example, Android/Marketpay.A is a Trojan horse program that buys apps from an app store without user permission. We’re likely to see crooks take this malware’s app-buying payload and add it to a mobile worm.
Buying apps developed by malware authors puts money in their pockets. A mobile worm that uses exploits to propagate over numerous vulnerable phones is the perfect platform for malware that buys such apps; attackers will no longer need victims to install a piece of malware. If user interaction isn’t needed, there will be nothing to prevent a mobile worm from going on a shopping spree.
  • Block that update!
One of the advantages that a mobile service provider (as opposed to Microsoft, for example) has in fighting malware is that once the cell company recognizes malware it can automatically push an update to customers to clean their devices. This works on phones that have not been rooted (or unlocked) by their owners. For mobile malware to stick around for a long time, it will have to prevent updates. Putting an app on a store that does nothing more than download external malware which locks the phone from communicating with the cell provider will achieve this.
  • Kits lead to an explosion in malware for OS X and mobile
Given the popularity of mobile computing, we should perhaps be surprised that cybercriminals have taken so long to extensively exploit this field. In 2012, however, we’ve seen the number of mobile threats go up dramatically. As we look at them in more detail, we see the large amount of Windowsbased malware owes its existence to the easy availability of malware kits in the underground market. In 2013, there is a good chance ransomware kits will take the lead from malware kits. We have already seen Android and OS X as targets of ransomware. Now the first ransomware kits are being marketed in the underground. For the moment the kits attack only Windows systems, but this may change soon.
  • Ransomware continues to expand to mobile devices
Ransomware on Windows PCs has more than tripled during the past year. Attackers have proven that this “business model” works and are scaling up their attacks to increase profits. One way ransomware is different from other types of malware—such as backdoors, keyloggers, and password stealers—is that attackers do not rely on their victims using the infected systems for financial transactions to separate them from their money. Instead these criminals hijack the users ability to access data, communicate, or use the system at all. The victims are faced with either losing their data or paying a ransom in the hope of regaining access.
One limitation for many malware authors seeking profit from mobile devices is that more users transact business on desktop PCs rather than on tablets or phones. But this trend may not last; the convenience of portable browsers will likely lead more people do their business on the go. Attackers have already developed ransomware for mobile devices. What if the ransom demand included threats to distribute recorded calls and pictures taken with the phone?
We anticipate considerably more activity in this area during 2013.
  • Rootkits diversify, using MBR and other bootkit techniques
The evolution of computer security software and other defenses on client endpoints is driving threats into different areas of the operating system stack, especially for covert and persistent attackers. The frequency of threats attacking Microsoft Windows below the kernel are increasing. Some of the critical assets targeted include the BIOS, master boot record (MBR), volume boot record (VBR), GUID Partition Table (GPT), and NTLoader. Although the volume of these threats is unlikely to approach that of simpler attacks on Windows and applications, the impact of these complex attacks can be far more devastating. We expect to see more threats in this area during 2013.
  • Windows 8 the next big target
Criminals go where the money is. And if this means they have to cope with a new, more secure version of Windows, that’s just what they will do. In many cases they attack the user and not the OS. Via phishing and other techniques users are tricked into revealing information or installing a malicious program. So if you upgrade, don’t rely solely on Windows to protect your system: Remain vigilant and watch out for phishing scams.
Windows 8 should provide improved security against malware and exploits compared with earlier versions of Windows, at least for a while. Now that the underground market for attack and malware kits is much more competitive than three years ago, it is likely that Windows 8–specific malware will be available quicker than Windows 7–specific malware appeared. Systems running the new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface are still vulnerable to MBR-based rootkits, just as previous OS versions were, according to one research company. On the day of Windows 8’s release, the firm announced for sale to its customers the availability of a zero-day vulnerability that circumvents all new security enhancements in Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10.
In spite of any flaws, Windows 8 is a more secure OS, so upgrading is worth considering. Millions still run Windows XP, which only in fall 2012 was finally eclipsed in the number of its users by newer versions of Windows.
Big-Scale Attacks
Destructive payloads in malware have become rare because attackers prefer to take control of their victims’ computers for financial gain or to steal intellectual property. Recently, however, we have seen several attacks—some apparently targeted, others implemented as worms—in which the only goal was to cause as much damage as possible. We expect this malicious behavior to grow in 2013.
Whether this is hacktivism taken to a new level, as some claim, or just malicious intent is impossible to say, but the worrying fact is that companies appear to be rather vulnerable to such attacks. As with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, the technical bar for the hackers to hurdle is rather low. If attackers can install destructive malware on a large number of machines, then the result can be devastating.
Citadel Trojan Zeros In
Citadel is likely to become the Trojan of choice among cybercriminals who want the rich functionality of Zeus along with dedicated support. With the recent release of Citadel Rain, the Trojan can now dynamically retrieve configuration files, enabling a fraudster to send a targeted payload to a single victim or a selection of victims. This allows thieves to compromise accounts on a one-off basis depending on their criteria and wage attacks in a very targeted manner. Detection will become much harder because the footprint is minimal on the endpoint until the attack occurs. Typically Zeus attacks have been relatively widespread. We will likely see that change in 2013 as more cybercriminals adopt Citadel Rain and its future variants and focus on narrowly targeted attacks seeking the greatest possible gain.
Most Citadel infections are concentrated in just a few populations in Europe, but we expect that number to increase in 2013. The following map shows Germany is the prime location, with more than 200 infections to date.
HTML5 is the next version of the standard language of Internet browsers. It provides language improvements, capabilities to remove the need for plug-ins, new layout rendering options, and new powerful APIs that support local data storage, device access, 2D/3D rendering, web-socket communication, and many other features. Today 74 percent of users in North America, 72 percent in Asia, and 83 percent in Europe use browsers that support the majority of HTML5 features.2 Websites are quickly adopting HTML5 for its richer user experience. HTML5 continues the move to the browser, and away from the operating systems, as the platform to run applications. HTML5-based applications are increasing in number, with major players taking advantage of freedom from app stores and improved cross-browser and cross-device compatibility.
Browsers have long been one of the primary vectors for security threats, and HTML5 won’t change that. With HTML5 the threats landscape will shift and broaden. We will see a reduction in exploits focused on plug-ins as browsers provide this functionally via their new media capabilities and APIs. However, HTML5 will offer other opportunities for attackers because the additional functionality will create a larger attack surface. Powerful JavaScript APIs that allow device access will expose the browser as websites gain direct access to hardware.
Botnets and Spam
  • Botnets call home
The biggest threat to botmasters is the unrecoverable loss of their botnets. International cooperation in policing spam, malware, child exploitation, and illegal pills has made that loss a reality for many major botnets over the past few years, and will continue to threaten the proliferation of botnets. When the largest botnets get taken down, then the next largest botnets become the new targets. Botmasters have already reacted to this activity by subdividing botnets and increasing the costs associated with activities that are easily detectable (such as DDoS and spam). It is only a matter of time before botmasters implement fail-safes to reestablish command of a botnet that has lost all of the control servers it usually reports to.
In many cases botnets are temporarily hijacked by whitehat security researchers. Due to possible negative side effects, however, these takeovers do not lead to new commands reaching the infected hosts. There is a massive liability issue associated with the unauthorized remote operation of systems, even with the best of intentions. Pushing new commands to an old Windows machine serving a hospital could turn the PC into a brick and lead to incorrect care or even the death of a patient. Botmasters will take advantage of this reluctance by the good guys to meddle by hardwiring their botnets to reestablish control after a takedown.
  • SMS spam from infected phones
Cell phone providers are working to prevent SMS spam. Their primary method of receiving reports from consumers is for the latter to forward messages to SPAM (7726) on their phones and report the messages so that they can be blocked. An infected phone can also send spammy text messages; then the victims face the problem of having their accounts closed by the providers. We expect to see pill advertising or phishing lures delivered by SMS in 2013.
  • Hacking as a Service
For a long time, cybercriminals have attended public forums to discuss and make business deals with other criminals. In these meetings, they not only offer software for sale but also services. Highly professional cybercrooks, however, see these forums as a waste of time (they are full of “newbies”), a loss of confidentiality (each deal needs direct contact with the client, who could be an undercover agent), and a loss of money (as the purchaser attempts to negotiate a lower price). For these reasons, the number of invitation-only criminal forums requiring registration fees and/or guarantors (vouchers) has increased.
This trend will continue, but to improve anonymity without discouraging buyers, online sales sites modeled on legal trade activities will grow in 2013. On these sites, buyers can make their choices at the click of a mouse, use an anonymous online payment method (such as Liberty Reserve), and receive their purchases without any negotiations or direct contact with the seller.
More secure and anonymous, these offers will be easier to find on the Internet. They will also be more diversified. We have already started to see high-level audit services and offers for project development for cybercriminals.
The number of suspicious outfits claiming to sell zero-day attacks or the sale of spying services reserved for the sole use of governments or secret services will grow. It will be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, or to ascertain real activities and real customers.
  • The decline of Anonymous
Sympathizers of Anonymous are suffering. Too many uncoordinated and unclear operations have been detrimental to its reputation. Added to this, the disinformation, false claims, and pure hacking actions will lead to the movement’s being less politically visible than in the past. Because Anonymous’ level of technical sophistication has stagnated and its tactics are better understood by its potential victims, the group’s level of success will decline. However, we could easily imagine some short-lived spectacular actions due to convergence between hacktivists and antiglobalization supporters, or hacktivists and ecoterrorists.
2013 Threats Predictions, McAfee Labs

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