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Risk

7/23/2009
07:06 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Malware Counts: Uncomfortably Numb

McAfee's security research group Avert Labs shows a more than doubling of malware from the first half of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008: that's 1.2 million unique malware applications up from about 500,000 in 2008. With the numbers now reaching the millions in a six-month period -- does virus and malware counting really provide us any value anymore?

McAfee's security research group Avert Labs shows a more than doubling of malware from the first half of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008: that's 1.2 million unique malware applications up from about 500,000 in 2008. With the numbers now reaching the millions in a six-month period -- does virus and malware counting really provide us any value anymore?Those exponentially-growing dire numbers come from the McAfee Avert Labs Blog, and they broke the numbers down much the same way a sales rep would tell you the cost of that new snazzy stereo is just pennies a day. Only they're going for the inverse and a number designed not to look small, but to look big, and to put the F in FUD. (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.):

For you math and data junkies that comes out to an average of 200,000 unique pieces monthly or more than 6,000 daily. Yep-that was over 6,000 on a daily basis.

McAfee then went on to define what they mean by unique malware: something that requires a new signature capable of spotting the malicious code.

Seems a handful of years ago, annual malware counts were tallied in the tens of thousands. That then grew to the hundreds of thousands. Now, after 2009 hits the history books, the tally could top 2 million with ease.

Should these numbers raise your concern? Not really.

The bad guys are out there, and they're active. We know this. What these numbers show is how easy malcode is morphed. Malware authors have created ways to change their code, in fact, sometimes each time a page is refreshed new code is generated. Does it matter that it is "new" each time the page is reloaded? No. What matters is how vulnerable your systems and your users are to the types of attacks, or threats, coming at them.

These "malware" threats range from old school viruses, keystroke logging Trojans, and backdoors to new complex bots (which make it possible for infected systems to send spam or launch denial of service attacks); to modern redirectors that will send users to fraudulent Web sites regardless of what the user types in the URL bar, and downloaders that are used to plant any type of malware the attacker wishes on a user's system.

And most of this scourge today is being delivered from the Web. And it's raining down from legitimate and fraudulent sites alike. And the attackers are using a mix of social engineering with technical exploits (like the Adobe flaw that was used in attacks this week).

It is no doubt dangerous out there. And it's getting worse. It's also a good time to revisit the basics.

Make sure operating systems, applications, and Web browsers are patched -- at least this will raise the bar on the types of technical attacks that would be successful. And make users aware of zero-day attacks when they are underway (those software applications being attacked, while the vendor has yet to release a security update). If there's an Adobe PDF, or Microsoft ActiveX, or Java, or whatever flaw being attacked -- ask them to be careful or to avoid using the application until the patch is out.

Reminding users about good computing and Web hygiene will go a long way to helping them to protect themselves by staying aware and using some common sense. Urge them not to click on unnecessary links. Remind them not to open attachments that look sketchy. Remind them that if someone sends a link in Facebook, and it seems totally out of character for that friend: to skip it, or to ask the connection if they actually sent that "Funky Nekked Video." Remind them that whether a system is fully patched or not one bad click can swiftly lead to compromise -- and that compromise can then lead to stolen data, credentials, and deeper compromises on the network.

Patch levels and awareness will help when your anti-virus and firewalls and URL filters fail you. This may all seem trite to those seasoned in IT and information security. But to the front line worker, using corporate systems for personal and business use every day: they need to hear it. And they need to hear it repeatedly.

Because when they hear that there were 1.2 million unique malware applications spotted in the first half of the year, it is simply a mind-numbing number to them. Meaninglessly numb.

So, no. Simple malware counts don't matter. What does matter is how well your users and systems are positioned against the threats.

For my mobile security and business observations, consider following me on Twitter.

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