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Commentary

2012 Will Be The Year Of The...

After a rough 2011 for many large organizations, here's a look at what the world of advanced threats will bring in 2012
Much to the embarrassment of several large corporations, last year saw some of the most impactful compromises in the history of the Internet, with companies' digital dirty laundry dragged out in full view of competitors and the general public. Many companies hurried to find a new two-factor authentication solution, gamers were left wondering who now had their identities, and Lulzboat became part of the common lexicon. But what will 2012 offer in the big, bad world of the advanced threat?

Vulnerability research and offensive capabilities, in general, are almost generational by nature. The average researcher will generally dedicate years of his or her life focusing on an individual or group of technologies. The main reason for this is that to develop something that’s truly advanced, a lot of very dry fundamentals need to be first understood about that technology.

With a closed-source product, this isn’t something that happens overnight. When considering something complex like the internals of the Java Runtime Environment or Flash, this fundamental understanding could take half a year to acquire before your research starts to yield anything close to useful. This creates observable trends in the type of offensive technologies that we see baked into advanced threats and, historically speaking, also can be observed through the types of things that vendors have to fix most.

Five years ago, it was file format fuzzin; 10 years ago, it was attacking the Microsoft RPC stack; in more recent years, we have seen a definite trend toward research around embedded systems -- much of which has been spurred on by the advent of "Stuxmania," or Stuxnet.

And so my first prediction for 2012 is that we will continue to see an increased focus on offensive research toward embedded systems, utilized primarily in the industrial control systems realm. Much of the research we are likely to see in 2012 is unlikely to pose an imminent threat to the average electric utility or the nuclear enrichment efforts of the world’s super villains; however, it will get us significantly closer to having to really start to wonder whether we’re going to wake up one morning to no power -- and it might not come back on for weeks, if not months.

For those of you who have been relying on NoScript for the past three years to block anything that smells of Flash, I believe 2012 will see the large well of Flash vulnerabilities drawn from by the baddies over past few years start to dry up. A lot of effort has been invested in finding Flash vulnerabilities during the past 12 months, which can only result in a rapid reduction in the number of Flash zero-days that we see emerge on a regular basis at least. If you have secrets to steal, then this, of course, does not mean 2012 is going to cut you any kind of break.

Large corporations with the most to lose will see a continued uptick in the amount of campaigns designed at stealing treasure troves of industrial secrets. If anything, 2010 and 2011 showed us how effective these types of campaigns are, and while the tactics might change, the strategy remains the same. Due largely to the security product business getting a lot better at spotting drive-by downloads and malicious email attachments (such as PDFs containing malicious JavaScript), I further foresee many such techniques becoming less popular, and even greater emphasis being placed around client-side exploitation.

Will 2012 be the year of the so-called “cyberwar” that so many like to talk about? Doubtful. However, we absolutely are going to see things heat up between the West and many of the usual suspects who have persisted in their use of cyber as a means to stealing our secrets. At most, 2012 could see open suggestions of diplomatic sanctions against the worst offenders; however, this will largely depend on what happens in the lead-up to November, in the United States at least.

Happy 2012! Stay safe!

Tom Parker is Chief Technology Officer at FusionX.

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