Web applications are the Achilles’ heel for corporate IT security

IBM’s annual 2008 X-Force Trend and Risk report found that corporations are unwittingly putting their own customers at risk for cyber-criminal activity. With an alarming increase in attacks using legitimate business sites as launching pads for attacks against consumers, cyber-criminals are literally turning businesses against their own customers in the ongoing effort to steal consumers’ personal data.

The new X-Force report identifies two main trends from 2008 that show how criminals are targeting the masses through Web site attacks:

First, Web sites have become the Achilles’ heel for corporate IT security. Attackers are intensely focused on attacking Web applications so they can infect end-user machines. Meanwhile, corporations are using off-the-shelf applications that are riddled with vulnerabilities or even worse, custom applications that can host numerous unknown vulnerabilities that can’t be patched. Last year more than half of all vulnerabilities disclosed were related to Web applications, and of these, more than 74 percent had no patch. Thus, the large scale, automated SQL injection vulnerabilities that emerged in early 2008 have continued unabated. By the end of 2008, the volume of attacks jumped to 30 times the number of attacks initially seen this summer..

The second major trend IBM X-Force revealed is that although attackers continue to focus on the browser and ActiveX controls as a way to compromise end-user machines, they are turning their focus to incorporating new types of exploits that link to malicious videos and documents, like PDF files. In fourth quarter of 2008, IBM X-Force traced more than 50 percent the number of malicious URLs hosting exploits than were found in all of 2007. Even spammers are turning to known Web sites for expanded. The technique of hosting Spam message on popular blog and news-related websites more than doubled in the second half of this year.

Another major observation in the X-Force report is that a number of the critical vulnerabilities that were disclosed in 2008 did not see widespread exploitation in the field. IBM X-Force believes that the security industry can better prioritize its response to vulnerability disclosures. Currently, that prioritization is done through the industry-standard Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). The CVSS focuses on the technical aspects of a vulnerability such as severity and ease-of-exploitation. While these factors are extremely important, they do not fully capture the primary motivator of computer crime: the economic opportunity.

The new X-Force report from IBM also reveals that:

  • 2008 was the busiest year for chronicling vulnerabilities with a 13.5 percent increase over 2007.
  • At the end of 2008, 53 percent of all vulnerabilities disclosed during the year had no vendor-supplied patches. Further, 46 percent of vulnerabilities from 2006 and 44 percent from 2007 were still left with no available patch at the end of 2008.
  • The McColo shutdown had the most impact on spam activity in 2008, not only affecting quantity but also affecting the type of spam sent and countries that frequently sent it.
  • China emerged as top spam sender directly after McColo shutdown, but was replaced by Brazil by the end of the year. For many years before the shutdown, the US had claimed the number one spot.
  • Main countries of origin of spam throughout 2008 were Russia with 12 percent, the United States with 9.6 percent and Turkey with 7.8 percent. Although the origins of spam do not necessarily correlate with where spammers reside.
  • China surpassed the US as the number one hoster of malicious Web sites for the first time in 2008.
  • Phishers continue to attack financial institutions. Nearly 90 percent of phishing attacks were targeted to financial institutions, with the majority targeting those in North America.
  • 46 percent of all malware in 2008 were Trojans targeting users of online games and online banking. These specific user groups will likely remain targets in 2009.

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