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A Gathering of Eagles

With a little over two months remaining before the big names in information security and digital law-enforcement descend on London for the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit’s (NHTCU) 2004 eCrime Congress, there comes a warning that organised crime is increasing its efforts to find new and interesting ways of leveraging Europe’s increasingly Broadband society.

According to Sophos, the increasing use of broadband Internet connections and a general lack of security awareness have resulted in around one in three spam emails being redirected through the computers of unsuspecting users. One third of all spam circulating the Web is now relayed through PCs that have been compromised by Remote Access Trojans and last week, Eugene Kapersky, co-founder of Kapersky Lab and head of its antivirus research, warned that organised crime is gravitating online into spam and virus writing and pointed at the latest MiMail worms as the first in a new type of exploit aimed at deriving financial profit from viruses and malware. The most recent MiMail variant collected and forwarded PayPal account details to the worm’s author.

Kapersky, referring to the grip that vice and drugs has over the spam industry, remarked "If you are a spammer or malware developer, sooner or later the mafia will come knocking on your door."

This isn’t of course the Mafia we might fondly remember from Hollywood and the Godfather movies and Kapersky, being Russian is probably referring to an even more violent and sinister group of organised crime businesses which appear to operate with near impunity in the shadows of the Internet today.

At a cybercrime conference held in Germany, David Finn, Microsoft’s director of digital integrity for Europe, the Middle East and Africa conceded that the authors of a growing tide of computer viruses, like Blaster and Sobig-F, are winning a one-sided battle with international law enforcement and are getting away with crimes that cost the global economy $13 billion this year.

With counterfeit software very close to Microsoft’s heart, Finn, told his audience that counterfeit centres are shifting from California and Western Europe to countries including Paraguay, Colombia and Ukraine, said David Finn, Microsoft's director of digital integrity for Europe, the Middle East and in Asia, pirate plants have emerged in Vietnam, Macao, and Myanmar (Burma) in addition to more established facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

“So far”, said Finn, “They are getting away with it. They are winning by a considerable margin. Very few have been identified or prosecuted or punished and the profit margin on counterfeit software is approximately 900% nine times higher than for distributing cocaine”.

This month, research commissioned by application switching provider Radware, revealed that small companies in the UK are fighting off an average of 500 attacks each month from viruses, worms and denial of service attempts.

Compared with previous estimates, costs associated with cleaning up after a virus or worm attack have increased by more than 400 percent over the past 12 months, to £122,000, says a report from The Corporate IT Forum.

The Forum surveyed its members, which include more than half of the FTSE 100 and 250 companies, after the MSBlast worm this August. The figure of £122,000 is four times that estimated by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) last year.

According to the survey, three out of four IT departments spent around 365 person-hours repairing damage caused by the attack. However, thirty-five percent of organisations were impacted more severely, with each losing an average of 3,080 person-hours.

In the face of such sobering figures, senior director of Symantec's security response centre, Vincent Weafer, predicts that 2004 could prove a tough year for business. “We're in for a repeat of this year and should expect two to four MSBlast-sized events in 2004 and a major mass-mailed worm or virus every month on the average."

According to Symantec, the most significant trends this year has been the rise in so-called 'blended' threats, exploits that use multiple modes of infection, ranging from hacking and computer worms to denial-of-service attacks and Web site defacements to create a single, advanced assault that overwhelms defences. "Yesterday's strategy of 'one threat, one cure' is no longer viable today," says Weafer.

Len Hynds, head of the National High-Tech Crime Unit, warns that organised crime is buying in to the digital skill set. "Organised crime”, says Hynds,”Whatever its commodity, is driven by a desire for profit, and often its Achilles' heel is its communications processes. We are aware that organised crime is now using sophisticated methods to make its communications more secure, and it will recruit people to assist in the process” He points to a sharp rise in 'spoof' Web sites mimicking financial institutions and intended to trick customers into revealing their account details and passwords. In the UK alone the number of cases has risen to forty this year in contrast with just seven in 2002, with bogus websites becoming "far more sophisticated".

The question in the mind of law-enforcement and IT security directors alike, is whether increasing global investment in computer security programmes and supporting legislation will reverse the rapidly upward trend in computer crime? In the near-term, the outlook is far from positive, as both technology and people remain easily exploitable by increasingly expert criminals, for amusement or profit. The digital equivalent of The Great Train Robbery hasn’t happened yet but for many observers, it’s only a matter of time before it does and the criminals involved may not have to flee to Rio or Riga, they’ll be there already.


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