The Web is more dangerous, and U.S. is biggest culprit

A pair of reports reveal a rising level of vulnerabilities and infections on the World Wide Web

As e-mail security has improved, the Web now is the primary route 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, and that 63 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 severity.

According to the latest Security Threat Report from IT security company Sophos of Boston, 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-to-fix identified vulnerabilities is in the range of 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 Internet attack.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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