More bad news: The bad guys are getting better

New studies show just how rapidly the threats are growing -- yet government is still wrestling with basic cyber hygiene.

If there’s one lesson to be gained from all the security breaches and revelations of major bugs in security protocols in 2014, it’s that attackers are upping their game and finding more opportunities. That’s only reinforced by several new studies.

German security company G Data, for example, reported a huge increase in the number of new malware strains in the second half of the year -- on average, a new type was discovered every 3.75 seconds! For the year as a whole, just under six million new malware strains were seen in the wild, some 77 percent more than 2013's total.

Not all kinds of malware saw an increase. Those using backdoor vulnerabilities in software fell, for example, and worms and spyware remained relatively flat. But rootkits, while still a very small percentage of the overall number of malware, jumped more than ten-fold in the second half of the year.

Rootkits are software included in malware that help to embed the malicious part of the package in a system and ensure the persistence of additional attacks by helping the malware evade the scanners and monitors now used to detect it.

Not surprisingly, malware developers are mainly targeting the ubiquitous Microsoft platforms, with malware programmed as .NET applications continuing to rise. Overall, new variants for Windows platforms made up 99.9 percent of the new malware variants.

More problems could arise with Microsoft’s withdrawal of support for Windows XP in April last year, G Data said, because systems still using this operating system are “unprotected against attacks on existing or newly discovered security holes going forward.”

Akamai Technologies' most recent State of the Internet survey similarly reported more than double the number of distributed denial of service attacks in the first quarter of 2015 compared to first quarter 2014, and over 35 percent the number in the final quarter.

DDoS attacks may not be such a big deal for the public sector, which gets only around two percent of the total. But Akamai noted a potentially dangerous trend in the 2015 attacks, with peak DDoS attacks of 100 Gbps making up a significantly bigger part of the total. That suggests attackers have been developing better ways to maximize the impact of their work.

At the rate attacks are progressing, Akamai said, security researchers are concerned about what attackers may be able to accomplish by this time next year. Add to that the fact that employing current attacks techniques “has not required much skill,” and even relatively inexperienced attackers could be capable of creating major damage as more potent tools enter the picture and attack bandwidth increases.

And what, then, to make of the recent news that the Defense Department is going to take a “no holds barred” approach with users who threaten security with sloppy cyber habits? Bad cyber hygiene “is just eating our shorts,” according to David Cotton, deputy CIO for Information Enterprise at the Pentagon.

Users will be given a very short time to comply with DOD password-security policies or to change behavior that invites phishing attacks while using  third-party social media accounts. The Pentagon is also pushing vendors to come up with more timely patches for security vulnerabilities, though recent research also points to the need to make sure patches are updated on all hosts at the same time.

The DOD, along with the intelligence agencies, is considered to be better at security than most other parts of the government, so it’s a little startling to read that the Pentagon’s crackdown as aimed at giving department leadership “a consolidated view of basic network vulnerabilities.”

Isn’t this supposed to be the very first thing organizations do when assessing security needs? And if the DOD doesn’t even have this bit of the puzzle sorted out, how is it ever going to successfully defend against the threats indicated by the G Data and Akamai reports?

Perhaps it’s finally time for government organizations to give up on security that is user focused. The Cloud Security Alliance’s “Dark Cloud” project could be one way of doing that.

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