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How To Keep Your Users -- And Your Data -- Safe On The Web

Careless -- and occasionally malicious -- Web-browsing users might be the most serious threat to your organization's data. Here are some tips for keeping it safe.

On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. And increasingly, nobody knows you're a hacker.

In the past year, attackers targeting businesses have started making more use of stealthy Web-borne attacks aimed at end users--specifically going after employees. Emails with malicious links, drive-by malware downloads, and error messages pushing fake antivirus scanners are all popular methods hackers are using to get through your company's front door.

Last year, 39% of email-borne malware consisted of hyperlinks, not attachments; that was up from 24% of email that carried hyperlinks in 2010, according to the latest version of Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report.

Why all the focus on the Web? Because it works. Over the last year, we've seen major breaches, at companies including Sony, RSA, and Zappos.com, and several U.S. military contractors that started with a few clicks on a malicious link. Employees need only make one mistake and they can open the door to targeted, sophisticated attacks and cause mayhem in your business.

"We are seeing the Web being a preferred medium for attackers," says Paula Greve, director of Web security research at McAfee, Intel's security software subsidiary. "It becomes a lot harder for the user to discern whether something in their inbox or on the Web is something that want to go to."

Hackers often use email scams to get people to click on a link that pulls in malicious content from the Web, fooling people into downloading malicious code and circumventing corporate information security measures.And the Web is increasingly being used as a medium to carry malicious communications between infected computers and command-and-control servers. Nearly half of all malicious software communicates out to the Internet within the first 60 seconds of infecting a computer, and about 80% of those communications use some form of Web protocol, says the Web filtering and security company Websense.

Exploitation using the Web has become easier with the availability of more advanced malware creation and distribution programs, such as the Blackhole and Phoenix exploit kits. In addition, it's getting harder for users to determine if a site is dangerous. The vast majority--about 61%--of sites hosting malware are legitimate, according to Symantec's Norton Safe Web service, which identifies malicious websites. And it's not gambling or porn sites that have the highest proportion of compromised pages--it's religious sites that do. In many cases, the site itself isn't the problem, but rather third-party content, such as advertisements, that carries the malicious attacks.

IT pros may look at the numbers and say, "How can this website be infected? It is a top-1,000 website," says John Harrison, group product manager with Symantec's security response group. "Well, it may be an advertisement on the site, and that makes our job difficult, because it may be one in 10,000 advertisements that come up in rotation."

Coping with these threats isn't easy, especially as hackers focus more on gaining access with browser-based and social network attacks, as well as efforts that take advantage of mobile device weaknesses. But there are steps companies can take to protect against these tactics.

Robert Lemos is a veteran technology journalist of more than 16 years and a former research engineer, writing articles that have appeared in Business Week, CIO Magazine, CNET News.com, Computing Japan, CSO Magazine, Dark Reading, eWEEK, InfoWorld, MIT's Technology Review, ... View Full Bio

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