Rightly or wrongly, enterprises believe they are more secure than they were a year ago, and their efforts to stop malware are slacking off.
That's one of the findings from a new study scheduled to be published next week by BT, which conducted the research as a follow-up to its 2005 study on malicious code.
The study found that the number of companies which consider malware to be a high priority has dropped since 2005, from 62 percent to 54 percent. A third of companies say "only a modest effort" is being spent to combat it, and 14 percent say they are doing little or nothing about the malicious code problem.
Paradoxically, more than half of the companies surveyed say they feel they are "safer" against malware threats than they were a year ago.
"In 2005, there were a lot of [malware-driven] attacks going on, but now, a lot of companies feel they've done things to mitigate them," says Rick Blum, director of strategic marketing for BT's INS services and administrator of the survey. "There's also greater acceptance of risk in many enterprises, and a sense that malicious code isn't as scary anymore."
But organizations should be wary of becoming complacent about malware, says Doug Drew, senior security consultant at BT. "I don't think people outside the IT security profession realize the influence that profit has had on the development of malware and cyber crime overall," he says. "They see that the noise surrounding attacks has died down, and they mistake that as a sign that the threat is easing off. But what's really happening is that instead of fighting 17-year-old graffiti artists, they're now fighting sophisticated cat burglars."
While enterprises' overall feeling of security against malicious code remains high, there is a greater awareness of internal threats than there was in 2005, according to the study. While 44 percent of respondents said external attacks are their greatest concern, 56 percent said their worries about internal attacks are as great, if not greater.
"We have seen malicious code introduced by internal sources, either as a means of accessing data that the user isn't authorized to access or in the form of sabotage, such as logic bombs," says Drew. As deployment of malware becomes more profitable for criminals, many attackers may bribe or blackmail internal employees to help them distribute it from inside, he observes.
But the unintentional spread of malware by insiders remains a far greater threat, the researchers said. By clicking on a wrong URL or carrying infections in on laptops or mobile devices, internal employees often become the source of malicious code across the organization, BT reports.
Educating users on security policies remains the most significant barrier to improving enterprises' ability to protect against malware, cited by 56 percent of respondents, according to the study. More than half (52 percent) of the companies surveyed said "unwillingness of users to follow good security practices" was a chief barrier. "Convincing upper management of the need for more security against malicious code" was a barrier for 34 percent of respondents.
"Some organizations are doing really well and are making security part of their culture," says Drew. "Other organizations -- and these are organizations where a security breach could have profound financial implications -- still haven't even implemented some basic elements of security enforcement. But in both cases, even where things are going well, user education is still one of the biggest issues they face."
Part of the problem is that users and attackers are both evolving, Drew says. "There was a time when you could reduce the instance of malicious code simply by steering users away from questionable sites and URLs, but now we see malware unknowingly being served up by well-known and respectable sites."
"At the same time, we see the development of a new generation of users that have grown up in an online, connected world," Drew explains. "For the criminals, the victims of computer crime seem like faceless, remote entities that they can visit in privacy and relative anonymity. They don't see that it's people they're hurting. And for employees, there is a real movement toward the use of the Web for all sorts of collaborative efforts, which are becoming part of business innovation."
The combination of these trends means that companies need to do a better job of explaining why security policies are created, and what may happen if users go against them, Drew suggests. "It's not enough to show them a few Powerpoint slides and ask them five questions to which you've already given them the answer. They need to know how they may harm the company and themselves if they take part in risky behavior."
If educational efforts improve, will the results of BT's malicious code survey be different in three years? "I wish I could say yes," he concedes. "I hope education will help. But if past behavior is predictive, it's likely that we'll still be dealing with a lot of these problems three years from now."
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