Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you cannot help but realise the world is under attack from increasingly sophisticated gangs of cyber attackers.
There are two kinds of hackers that spell trouble for any organisation or individual today with secrets they want to keep – there are the cyber criminals who want your credit card or other information for their financial gain, and then there are the ‘hacktivists’ who are basing their attacks on principles, such as politics and economics.
Earlier this week, it emerged that hacker group Anonymous accessed 850,000 people’s email addresses and passwords, including Nato, US and UK defence officials, after hacking into the servers of Texas security and foreign affairs consultancy Stratfor.
This week in Dublin, some 350 cyber security experts are being hosted by Trend Micro to discuss cyber crime issues.
Trend Micro employs 230 people in Cork and is pretty much in the fighting line against hackers. Its Cork operation uses the internet cloud to defend organisations all over the world against cyber attacks.
The operation’s general manager Anthony O’Mara, senior vice-president EMEA of Trend Micro, is on the steering committee of the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance (ICSPA), which was formed to fight cyber crime in the aftermath of breaches at Sony, RSA and Citibank.
Proceeds from cyber crime
Research by Trend Micro demonstrates how cheaply cyber criminals sell the proceeds of their activities, and just how much cash they can make out of it too:
- $800 buys a passport from an EU country
- $500 buys a UK driver’s licence
- $80-$150 buys a credit card ‘dump’ – data that can be written to the chip or magnetic strip
- 2c-15c buys a credit card blank
- $180m in 12 months is what one gang made from peddling fake security software, designed to fool the victim into believing his or her PC is already infected
According to O’Mara, cloud computing offers a more intelligent way of fighting attacks by hackers, malware, viruses and worms.
"Due to the proliferation of malware, the amount of unique pieces of malware is exponential. There’s no way you can defend against everything unless you wanted to block the entire internet," he says.
"We decided the best way is not to stop everyone doing business and the better way to defend is to keep malware off the server.
"We do this via the cloud by looking for correlations between file reputation, email and indeed web reputation.
"If, for example, someone is being attacked by social engineering we can check the validity of a website, how old it is, where it is hosted, and if there is anything suspect in a split second we can warn the user and quarantine that site before the user opens the link.
"The reason why we believe the cloud is going to be fundamental in defending against these attacks is the heavy processing can be done away from the user’s location. In effect, we have millions and millions of early warning systems around the world. We call this smart protection and we believe it has given us the technological lead."
O’Mara says Trend Micro’s Cork operation is on the front line of cyber defending major organisations around the world from the latest attacks.
"We’ve moved from a transaction processing environment to a point where a lot of what we do verges on R&D and high-end engineering, modifying our technology. This requires a very high skill level because each case or attack is unique."
According to one of Trend Micro’s senior threat researchers Robert McArdle, Irish internet users, in particular social media users, are more likely to volunteer personal information online than users in any other EU country.
Cyber criminals will take advantage of this fact, and other security weaknesses in online and smartphone activities, as well as software and connectivity vulnerabilities. Cyber attacks and hacks are likely to increase further in 2012.
"In Ireland alone, Trend Micro detects 13,000 infected files from its customers every 24 hours, with fake anti-virus programmes among the most common," McArdle warns.