Five years of hardware and software threat evolution

McAfee Labs commemorates the five-year anniversary of the Intel-McAfee union by comparing what researchers thought would happen beginning in 2010 with what actually happened in the realm of hardware and software security threats.

Researchers and executives reviewed their predictions on the security capabilities of silicon, the challenges of emerging hard-to-detect attacks, and their 2010 expectations for new device types versus the reality of the marketplace.


The five-year threat landscape analysis suggests:

  • Intel Security foresaw threats targeting hardware and firmware components and threatening runtime integrity
  • Increasingly evasive malware and long-running attacks did not surprise, but some of the specific tactics and techniques were unimagined five years ago
  • Although the volume of mobile devices has increased even faster than expected, serious broad-based attacks on those devices has grown much more slowly than originally thought
  • We are seeing just the beginnings of attacks and breaches against IoT devices
  • Cloud adoption has changed the nature of some attacks, as devices are attacked not for the small amount of data that they store, but as a path to where the important data resides
  • Cybercrime has grown into a full-fledged industry with suppliers, markets, service providers, financing, trading systems and a proliferation of business models
  • Businesses and consumers still do not pay sufficient attention to updates, patches, password security, security alerts, default configurations, and other easy but critical ways to secure cyber and physical assets
  • The discovery and exploitation of core Internet vulnerabilities has demonstrated how some foundational technologies are underfunded and understaffed
  • There is growing, positive collaboration between the security industry, academia, law enforcement and governments to take down cybercriminal operations.

“We were impressed by the degree to which three key factors – expanding attack surfaces, the industrialization of hacking, and the complexity and fragmentation of the IT security market – accelerated the evolution of threats, and size and frequency of attacks,” said Vincent Weafer, senior vice president, Intel Security’s McAfee Labs. “To keep pace with such momentum, the cybersecurity community must continue to improve threat intelligence sharing, recruit more security professionals, accelerate security technology innovation, and continue to engage governments so they can fulfill their role to protect citizens in cyberspace.”

While nearly all of today’s malware is designed to run from main system memory on the central processing unit (CPU), these PoCs leverage the efficiencies of these specialized hardware components designed to accelerate the creation of images for output to a display. The scenarios suggest hackers will attempt to leverage GPUs for their raw processing power, using them to evade traditional malware defenses by running code and storing data where traditional defenses do not normally watch for malicious code.

Reviewing the PoCs, Intel Security agrees that moving portions of malicious code off of the CPU and host memory reduces the detection surface for host-based defenses. However, researchers argue that, at a minimum, trace elements of malicious activity remain in memory or CPUs, allowing endpoint security products to detect and remediate threats.


Other key developments in the second quarter of 2015:

Ransomware. Ransomware continues to grow very rapidly – with the number of new ransomware samples rising 58% in Q2. The total number of ransomware samples grew 127% from Q2 2014 to Q2 2015. We attribute the increase to fast-growing new families such as CTB-Locker, CryptoWall, and others.

Mobile slump. The total number of mobile malware samples grew 17% in Q2. But mobile malware infection rates declined about 1% per region this quarter, with the exception of North America, which dropped almost 4%, and Africa, which was unchanged.

Spam botnets. The trend of decreasing botnet-generated spam volume continued through Q2, as the Kelihos botnet remained inactive. Slenfbot again claims the top rank, followed closely by Gamut, with Cutwail rounding out the top three.

Suspect URLs. Every hour in Q2 more than 6.7 million attempts were made to entice McAfee customers into connecting to risky URLs via emails, browser searches, etc.

Infected files. Every hour in Q2 more than 19.2 million infected files were exposed to McAfee customers’ networks.

PUPs up. Every hour in Q2 an additional 7 million potentially unwanted programs (PUPs) attempted installation or launch on McAfee-protected networks.

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Five years of hardware and software threat evolution