U.S. Is Biggest Malware Culprit, Reports Say
As e-mail security has improved, the Web is now the primary medium used to
infect computers, and the United States has the dubious distinction of hosting
the most infected sites and having the most compromised computers relaying
spam, according to two recent reports on Internet security.
WhiteHat Security Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., reported in its Website Security Statistics Report that 82
percent of Web sites it examined had at least one vulnerability that could
leave them open to attack and exploitation. Sixty-three percent had
vulnerabilities that are rated at high, critical or urgent severity. WhiteHat
Security uses the Web Application Security Consortium (WASC) Threat
Classification for classifying vulnerabilities and the Payment Card Industry
Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) severity system to rate vulnerability
According to the latest Security Threat Report (PDF) from Boston IT security
company Sophos, the United States hosts 37 percent of the online malware,
beating out China for the No. 1 spot. Between them, the United States and China
account for nearly two-thirds of the malicious code hosted on Web sites. A
whopping 97 percent of business e-mail is classified as spam, and compromised
computers in this country also seem to be sending out a disproportionate amount
of it -- more than 17 percent of the world total, the highest amount for a
single country, the company found.
"We would like to see the States making less of an impact on the charts in
the coming year," said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos.
"American computers, whether knowingly or not, are making a disturbingly large
contribution to the problems of viruses and spam affecting all of us today."
The problem is a vicious circle, with visitors becoming infected by
malicious code hosted on legitimate Web sites. Once compromised, the PC can be
used to send spam which can contain malicious code or drive more traffic to
infected Web sites.
Sophos said that new infected Web pages are appearing at the rate of one
every 4.5 seconds, and its labs are receiving 20,000 new samples of suspected
malicious code every day.
The SQL injection attack, which exploits security vulnerabilities to insert
malicious code into the database running a site, has emerged as one of the
primary ways of infecting legitimate sites. If data supplied to the site by a
visitor is not correctly checked, the malicious code peppers the database with
malicious instructions that can compromise subsequent visitors.
WhiteHat reported that site operators are slow to fix vulnerabilities
allowing such attacks. The time it takes to fix identified vulnerabilities
ranges from weeks or even months. During the period of its most recent study,
from Jan. 1, 2006 to Dec. 1, 2008, only about half of the most prevalent urgent
security issues it identified were solved.
Exploiting the vulnerabilities in Web sites is becoming easier, as hacking
becomes more automated, Sophos said. Tools use commercial search engines to
identify potentially vulnerable sites and inject malicious code. Most of the
sites are not being specifically targeted but are caught by automated tools. At
the same time, criminals are building more of their own malicious Web sites and
using automated systems to plant links to these sites in legitimate blogs and
forums, directing traffic to the malicious sites.
Another way of driving traffic to malicious sites is scareware. The bad guys
set up phony Web sites offering malicious faux security scanning and tools, and
then bring traffic into the sites with spam and other tricks to convince a user
that a PC already is infected. Sophos reported seeing an average of five new
scareware Web sites a day, with as many as 20 being seen on a single day.
With worsening economic conditions, things are likely to get worse before
they get better, Cluley said.
"As we enter 2009, we are not expecting to see these assaults diminish," he
said. "As economies begin to enter recession, it will be more important than
ever for individuals and businesses to ensure that they are on guard against
William Jackson is the senior writer for Government Computer News (GCN.com).