Attacks/Breaches

Searching For News Is Riskier Than Searching For Porn, Study Says

As search engine poisoning spreads, bad guys show preference for legitimate sites

Which search is more likely to yield malware: a child's research for a school current events project or a male's search for nude photos of Paris Hilton? The answer may surprise you.

According to the newly-published Websense 2010 Threat Report, a Web search that seeks breaking trends and current news may lead to poisoned or infected websites 22.4 percent of the time. Searching for objectionable content results in such poisoning only 21.8 percent of the time.

"'Searchers beware!' could have been the new motto [in 2010], as hackers spent a lot of time compromising legitimate websites," the report says. "News headlines and entertainment buzz continued to be a choice target for SEO [search engine optimization] attacks. Rogue antivirus combined with SEO poisoning was a commonly used technique.

"Malware authors focused on entertainment buzz and breaking news," the report continues. "The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, Corey Haim’s death, and the World Cup of Soccer were just a few examples of cleverly manipulated search engine results steering people to bogus links that rated higher than legitimate results. Similar to what we found in 2009, the botnets behind these campaigns are being repurposed once the illegitimate campaign has been removed from the search engine results."

Websense identified a 111.4 percent increase in the number of malicious websites from 2009 to 2010. Nearly 80 percent of websites with malicious code were legitimate sites that have been compromised — an increase of 3 percent from the previous year.

The theft of lucrative data continues to be the primary motive behind malware, Websense says. "Cybercriminals and business leaders have quickly come to realize that data is the newest form of global currency," the report says. "Whether it's credit cards, chemical recipes, patient records, or phone numbers, all assets have a price. Not only does the loss of assets severely damage the financial well-being of a company, it becomes a public relations nightmare when the good reputation of a company is threatened."

Smartphones, politics, and blended attacks will characterize the coming year of malware, Websense predicts.

"Some mobile platforms, including the iPhone, have already been attacked," the report notes. "The continued consumerization of these phones and the increasing amounts of financial data that touch these devices make them ripe future targets. Also, there is a sizeable variance between the quality of available mobile applications. These applications will open the door for unintended security vulnerabilities. Legitimate apps will easily be repurposed for spam and phishing attacks."

Hate and terrorist groups could also be a problem in 2011, Websense says. "We’ve already seen a rise in the presence of these organizations on the Web. Numerous groups will continue to focus on the Web to recruit members, make money, and commit various crimes. We also expect a tightening of the organizational structures in which these groups operate."

And a mix of attack vectors will continue to prevail, the report predicts. "SEO optimization -- combined with rogue AV and email containing data-stealing components -- will not slow down in the coming 12 months," Websense says. "Relying on reactive security measures, such as standalone AV, will simply fail to provide adequate protection against these sophisticated techniques that combine Web, data loss prevention, and email."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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