Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Vulnerabilities play only a minor role in malware spread, says researcher

About two-thirds of all computer infections are due to duped users

Computer users are their own worst enemies, a security company warned today, as it released data that shows software bugs were the source of just 5% of the past year's infections.

The majority of the attacks carried out by 2008's top 100 pieces of malware were caused by users surfing to malicious sites and then accepting some kind of download, Trend Micro Inc. researchers said today.

From Jan. 1 to Nov. 25, the top 100 attack programs infected 53% of their victims by duping them into downloading something from the Internet. An additional 12% of the infections tracked globally were caused by users opening e-mail attachments.

Just 5% of the infections were related to an exploit of a software vulnerability, according to Trend Micro's analysis.

"This is what we've been seeing all year," said Paul Ferguson, network architect at Trend Micro. "This illustrates that social engineering seems to be playing a larger role than we thought. The problem isn't due to software vulnerabilities in, say, the browser."

Even so, Ferguson wasn't ready to completely dismiss the role that vulnerabilities play. "Because of the sheer overall volume [of malware], we're still talking about some staggering numbers of infections here," he said. Trend Micro and other security vendors have claimed that the number of individual pieces of malware jumped dramatically in the last year.

The numbers in North America were stacked even more against bugs as the cause of infections. While 63% of the infections from the top 100 pieces of malware in the region were caused by downloading something from the Web -- and 3% came from opening e-mailed attachments -- just 1.7% were related to security vulnerabilities.

"That's something we can't engineer against," said Ferguson. It's also is why Trend Micro and other security vendors have stepped away from a pure antivirus detection and deletion model and instead have been bringing in other protective features, such as domain reputation ranking and URL filtering, to their products.

"We still have quite a way to go to get users to educate themselves about risks," said Ferguson. "They still manage to get duped into situations that put them at risk." As proof, Ferguson cited what he called "a new wave" of spam posing as shipping notices from UPS and Wal-Mart. The messages have an attached file that they claim is a shipping invoice; when users open it to view or print it, their PCs are infected with a Trojan horse.

"The same [hacker] methodology still works," said Ferguson. "There's still enough low-hanging fruit that they don't even have to try very hard."

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