Symantec Report Shows Cyber-Crime is Booming Business

Cyber-attacking is no longer just a mischievous, if destructive, pastime: it's a business. A Symantec report confirms that business is booming.

One of the conclusions in Symantec Corp.'s 2009 Internet Security Threat Report (ISTR) is that it's becoming increasingly easy for cyber-attackers to cause mischief. This is thanks in large part to the availability of attack toolkits, Symantec researchers say.

It's a development that parallels, in a sense, the advent of virus-making toolkits 15 years ago. Such kits made it possible for an attacker with only rudimentary skills to create disruptive viruses. In the present case, the variety and availability of attack toolkits is only likely to intensify, Symantec researchers warn, in part because cyber-crime has itself become a business -- and not just a (mischievous, if destructive) pastime -- and business is booming.

That's one of the most sobering conclusions of the security firm's 15th annual ISTR, which -- like its predecessors -- surveys the previous year's security-related activity. Symantec researchers singled out the "Zeus" (or "Zbot") toolkit as a textbook example of an attack toolkit with allmodcons: all modern conveniences. A would-be attacker can purchase Zbot online for less than $1,000 -- or acquire it for free in the peer-to-peer or warez-trading underground -- and use it to automate "the process of creating customized malware capable of stealing personal information," a Symantec press release says. This isn't just a doomsday scenario, either: Symantec tallied "literally millions of new malicious code variants" built using Zbot and other kits.

A rise in the variety and popularity of attack toolkits was just one of several worrisome trends that came to the surface last year, according to officials.

Symantec's ISTR, like several other recent publications, flagged a noticeable uptick in the number of targeted attacks. Last month, for example, e-mail security specialist MessageLabs (a Symantec subsidiary) identified five job roles that spammers most frequently like to target, along with almost a score of business or subject-matter areas that are likewise popular with spammers. It makes for eye-opening reading. MessageLabs' conclusion: targeted spam attacks are growing increasingly sophisticated and attackers are ever more brazen.

Well before that, in mid-2008, anti-virus and security specialist F-Secure Corp. likewise flagged a surge in targeted attack activity. In December 2009, however, F-Secure predicted a new wave of targeted attacks in the coming year, thanks to increasing sophistication on the part of attackers.

The conclusions of Symantec researchers in the 2009 ISTR are just as pessimistic. "Given the potential for monetary gain from compromised corporate intellectual property … cybercriminals have turned their attention toward enterprises," it says. The rise of social networking -- or the carelessness with which people disclose information about themselves or their jobs -- is only exacerbating the situation, Symantec explains. Attackers are able to easily harvest this information and "synthesize socially engineered attacks on key individuals within targeted companies."

Factor in an increase in the frequency of Web-based attacks and an uptick in attack activity in non-traditional or unstable locales (such as Vietnam, Russia, Poland, and Brazil, among others) -- to say nothing of the unchecked growth of both malicious code and spam -- and you have a security year-in-review that makes for decidedly gloomy reading.

"Attackers have evolved from simple scams to highly sophisticated espionage campaigns targeting some of the world's largest corporations and government entities," said Stephen Trilling, senior vice president of security technology and response with Symantec, in a statement. "The scale of these attacks and the fact that they originate from across the world, makes this a truly international problem requiring the cooperation of both the private sector and world governments."

For more about the Symantec report, read Web Security Threats on the Rise, Report Finds.

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