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Top Security Threats for 2012

Public-private collaboration in cyber defense: Last year, individuals, companies, and governments joined forces in taking down massive botnets such as Rustock and DNS Changer. International cooperation was critical in defeating a scareware operation that had netted $72 million in funds worldwide. Governments worked together to apprehend and prosecute members of the Anonymous and LulzSec hacker collectives. This crackdown will continue and intensify in 2012. The global effort against malware and cybercrime will be aided by the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which intends to invest in a cyber defense team in the private sector. Similar relationships will be instantiated worldwide.

SCADA systems to be targeted: Experts have worried about the vulnerability of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems for more than a decade. SCADA systems are often connected to critical elements of urban infrastructure such as power and water grids. If these systems were breached, the consequences could be quite serious. Concerns were confirmed in 2011 when the Stuxnet worm and Duqu virus were detected in the global network. Stuxnet, which is suspected to have been created and launched by developers working for a national government, compromised Iran's nuclear program. Duqu, which is based on similar technology, was apparently caught in preparation mode, stealing passwords and select data but not yet affecting operations. These examples serve as confirmation of the vulnerability of systems that operate elements of the critical infrastructure — especially when SCADA systems are connected to the Internet. Some control systems are even being migrated to public cloud servers. Groups like Anonymous have already discovered an assortment of Web-based vulnerabilities simply by picking targets and scouring code. In 2012, SCADA vulnerabilities will be discovered and exploited, with potentially devastating consequences.

The rise of sponsored attacks: Recent years have seen the emergence of the Crime-as-a-Service model, in which criminal syndicates offer illegal and detrimental services — computer infection in bulk, spam, DDoS attacks — for a fee. If you've got the money, there's a good chance you can find a CaaS provider to help you out. Crimes to date have been made on a scattershot basis, but this year will see a rise in strategic and targeted crime, including attacks sponsored by states and corporations. Because the crime syndicates are often geographically dispersed in locations that lack freedom-of-information legislation, it is likely that some of these cases will never be publicized, especially if they are settled out-of-court with sealed verdicts.

Hacking for a good cause: The Anonymous hacker collective has been around since at least 2003. In the past year, this anarchist-style organization has begun using its power to attack large, high-profile targets like Sony, giving birth to the term "hacktivism." The intersection of hacking and social activism has inspired additional hacktivist groups such as LulzSec. These organizations are increasingly dedicating their efforts to what they view as good causes. For example, Anonymous recently threatened to unmask members of Mexican drug cartels. The organization even cooperated with law-enforcement authorities in breaking up a child-porn ring. This sort of hacking-as-social-activism activity is likely to become more widespread in 2012.

The trends are sobering. Severe security challenges face everyone involved in computers and networking. What can we do? What we always do: Remain vigilant. Put safeguards in place. Shield vulnerabilities. Track developments in threats and technology. Minimize exposure of sensitive systems and data. And hope the bad guys target somebody else.

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