IBM’s X-Force reveals 508pc increase in malicious web links

26 Aug 2009

IBM’s security task force, the X-Force, has pointed to a worrying increase in the presence of malicious content on trusted websites, including popular search engines, blogs, online magazines and mainstream news sites – a perfect storm for criminal activity.

Once malicious content was the stuff of untrusted websites and dubious domains. Now everything from personal web sites to popular media brands are being targeted by hackers to be containers of destructive software code.

The X-Force report also reveals that the level of veiled web exploits, especially PDF files, are at an all time high, pointing to increased sophistication of attackers.

PDF vulnerabilities disclosed in the first half of 2009 surpassed disclosures from all of 2008.

From Q1 to Q2 alone, the amount of suspicious, obfuscated or concealed content monitored by the IBM ISS Managed Security Services team nearly doubled.

“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,” Lamb said.

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.

Web security is no longer just a browser or client-side issue, the report reveals, as 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 50pc from Q4 2008 to Q1 2009 and then nearly doubled from Q1 to Q2.

“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, plug-ins, 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 2009 mid-year X-Force report also found 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 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 55pc of all new malware, a nine percent 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, 66pc of phishing was targeted at the financial industry, down from 90pc in 2008. Online payment targets make up 31pc 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 percent of all spam.

Nearly half of all vulnerabilities remain unpatched. Similar to the end of 2008, nearly half (49pc) of all vulnerabilities disclosed in the first half of 2009 had no vendor-supplied patch at the end of the period.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years