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Other Voices: The Year in Malware

Erin Earley is editor of the Lavasoft News anti-malware newsletter.

Cyber thieves are constantly adapting their techniques to get inside of users' computers, and to ultimately get hold of private or secure information. This year has been no different. To help computer users make sense of what the past year has brought in terms of online security, Andrew Browne, team leader at Malware Labs at the online security company Lavasoft, answers questions on the state of malware in 2009, and what it means for users online security.

Q: In general, what type of year has 2009 been in terms of online threats that users are faced with?

A: The number of malware samples added to Ad-Aware's threat database in Q1/Q2 of 2009 has increased by 600 percent compared to Q1/Q2 of 2008. The bad guys have been busy.

Q: What was the biggest challenge that the bad guys presented this past year?

A: The sheer volume of malware being produced has been the biggest challenge for us -- many samples are repackaged versions of the same thing so we have worked hard on making efficient detection routines for 'same but different' malware.

Malware writers, rather than simply releasing one version of their creation into the wild, will make changes to the malware so that while the functionality of it remains the same, it looks like a different file. They then release thousands of essentially the same file into the Internet. Our new detection system in Ad-Aware, Genotype, allows us to look at core attributes of this series of malware -- we then create detection routines that allow us to detect all of the files that share the same core attributes.

Q: What about what home users are seeing as they browse the Web -- has Malware Labs identified any trends in 2009?

A: Unsuspecting users eager for more information on breaking news and current events have been more likely than ever to encounter a booby trapped website via search engine results poisoned by blackhat SEO (search engine optimization) techniques, spam e-mail or social networking sites.

In order to increase numbers of potential victims, malware distribution has, on occasion, crept onto well known legitimate sites in the form of advertising banners that contain malicious code. Criminals have audaciously impersonated advertising representatives from large companies in order to plant malicious adverts on these high profile sites. The sheer number of visitors to sites like The New York Times, which was affected by a malicious advert this year, means that it is certainly profitable for criminals to go to such unusual lengths.

Q: There's a lot that computer users need to be aware of when it comes to their online security. What do you see as the most significant security challenge to home users this past year -- and what can be done about it?

A: Recognizing vulnerable, unpatched applications on their PC. Ongoing efforts to raise consciousness about the importance of applying operating system patches are making ground. Conficker gained much media attention this year with many of the reports relating an unusually high level of information, highlighting the vulnerability in the Microsoft Windows Server Service (MS08-067) and advising users to apply the patch available for it from Windows Update.

Users have begun to appreciate the need for operating system patching but are probably less aware of the need to apply security updates to applications on the operating system. There is still some work to be done on the part of software publishers. Patches fixing application vulnerabilities are typically slow to appear and when they do appear, it is not always clear to the user that a patch or update is available and that action should be taken.

The latest versions of the Firefox browser will warn users if their version of the Adobe Flash Player plug-in is out-of-date and recommend updating it. Mozilla, publishers of Firefox, plan to work with other vendors to provide similar checks for their plug-ins. This is a big step forward in alerting users that it's not only the operating system that should be kept up to date with the latest patches.

To home users, I would recommend checking out Secunia's free Personal Software Inspector application which can help identify which applications on their machine are out of date and have patches or updates available for them.

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