Security

Security Horizon: Cellular Botnets, Cyber Militias

The ability of malware writers to consistently stay ahead of those seeking to stop them has been a constant factor in the security industry over the past several years.

Looking to 2009, don't expect that situation to change, security analysts and vendors concede glumly. In fact, with cybercrime getting more organized and as more money is poured into malware development, it will be a challenge to stop cybercrooks from pulling even further ahead, according to the authors of a report on emerging cyberthreats for 2009 and beyond.

The report was released this week by the (GTISC) and looks at the threats that security managers are likely to confront next year and how to deal with them.

For the most part, the threats are not unexpected or especially new. What's different is the increasing sophistication and refinement that malware writers are adding to their tools and attack techniques. Among the emerging threats identified in the report are the following:

Bugs and botnets in the mobile world:

The features built into smart phones, such as Apple Inc.'s iPhone, RIM LLC's Blackberry, Google Inc.'s Android and Windows-enabled mobile devices are making them increasingly computer-like in their functionality. And therein lies a security problem.

The more the systems emulate traditional PCs and notebooks, the more prone they are to the security risks that have bedeviled the computer industry for years, said Patrick Traynor, an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science at Georgia Tech and a GTISC member.

A user surfing the Web using an unprotected smart phone will, in the not-too-distant future, be just as likely to catch a nasty bug as a user doing so with a PC today, Traynor said. Malware writers will need to first re-architect and retool their products to get them to run in a mobile environment. As more people begin using smart phones to transact business and to store personal identity information and credit card numbers, the mobile device category as a whole becomes a lot more attractive for cyberthieves. This is especially so because mobile devices are relatively less-protected than PC environments.

Expect to see attackers attempting to inject malware into cell phones to turn them into remote-controlled bots, Traynor said. Such bots can then be used to deliver spam, steal data, or launch distributed denial-of-service attacks that can cripple cell-phone networks, Traynor said.

Tools are already available for crafting exploits for the iPhone, said Tom Cross, a security researcher with IBM's Internet Security Systems, X-Force security team and a contributor to the GTISC report. It's just a matter of time before the same kinds of tools become available for every major cell phone platform, he said. The only reason it hasn't happened already is because cell phones are not viewed as being especially attractive targets by malicious attackers, he said.

One of the big questions that needs to be answered before the attacks start is who should be responsible for addressing the issue -- the users, with potentially battery-draining third-party fixes, device manufacturers or the service providers, Cross said. "We think that the impact that botnets of infected smart devices will have on the performance and reliability of telecommunications networks will affect the decision-making process," he said.

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