Google’s insight into online attacks

Google matters. It is central to our most people’s lives, a steadfast friend whose counsel is invaluable, whose knowledge is like the never-ending expanse of space, a trusty source to consult for information, facts, and entertainment.

Marissa Mayer, the American multinational company’s vice president of location and local services, perhaps said it best when compared Google to a Swiss Army knife: “Clean, simple, the tool you take everywhere.”

The company has just released a new report based on over half a decade of data, which it has analysed in-depth. It is part of its Safe Browsing service (malware and phishing protection), testament to its desire to be a “good company”.

One of the most astonishing things we observed in the report is this statistic: every day Google finds approximately 9,500 malicious websites. Such websites fall into two categories – one is innocent websites polluted – or compromised – by cyber criminals or those which are purpose-built to distribute malware or phishing. This is serious stuff.

“Many phishers go right for the money, and that pattern is reflected in the continued heavy targeting of online commerce sites like eBay & PayPal,” explained Niels Provos, of Google’s security team.

“Even though we’re still seeing some of the same techniques we first saw five-plus years ago, since they unfortunately still catch victims, phishing attacks are also getting more creative and sophisticated.”

Now while Google strives to offer as robust a security service as possible to counter such attacks, developing new software and strategies along the way, the last part of Mr Provos’ statement is telling. Threats continue to evolve and the problems they will bring will never end. It is a cat and mouse game. Still, a positive attitude to information security and risk management is always a plus.

Shifting the conversation to Malware, Mr Provos has observed an increase in social engineering over the last few years, reflective of the move towards an uber-connected age, where people live, work and engage in a virtual framework.

“As companies have designed browsers and plugins to be more secure over time, malware purveyors have also employed social engineering, where the malware author tries to deceive the user into installing malicious software without the need for any software vulnerabilities,” he noted.

“A good example is a “Fake Anti-Virus” alert that masquerades as a legitimate security warning, but it actually infects computers with malware. While we see socially engineered attacks still trailing behind drive by downloads in frequency, this is a fast-growing category likely due to improved browser security.”

What does all this mean? The most straightforward answer is that we’re shifting into a new era of threats. The landscape, so to speak, is transforming in a very dramatic way, characterised by highly motivated cyber criminals. As Google has noted, a lot of these people are more than happy to engage in such fraudulent activities because of the financial pay-off. That is a hard thing to discourage.

The only saving grace is that the enthusiasm, energy and drive in putting a stop to such behaviour is equally powerful and just as hard to distinguish. Google’s commitment and investment in its Safe Browsing team is testament to that. Cyber criminals, you have been warned.

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