The Top Four Cyber Threats for 2011

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The loosely organized "hacktivists" managed to take down the web pages of several of their targets, and their spontaneous attempt may be the first major showing of a new way to express political beliefs at a grassroots level.

Cyber security firm McAfee predicts in a new paper that not only will politically motivated attacks be "far more numerous in 2011," but the company said brand new kinds of attacks will appear.

"Transitioning from the streets, political organizers will move to the Internet to launch attacks and send messages in broad daylight or Internet time," McAfee said in "2011 Threat Predictions." "And as in the physical world, we expect that hackivist attacks will inspire and foment riots and other real-world demonstrations."

Greenbaum said that politically motivated cyber warfare also made Symantec's top threats in 2011, because of the problems politically motivated attacks pose to unsuspecting web sites.

"Remember, there's collateral damage," Greenbaum said, referring to other websites that could accidentally be taken down along with the target website. In such a case, Greenbaum said hacktivism can turn into something less like a peaceful protest and more like a riot. Politically motivated attacks also pose a greater threat if combined with Stuxnet-level sophistication.

"It's moved a little beyond just taking down a web site," said Greenbaum, "and into actual weaponized attacks with the goal to cause real-world damage."

Mobile Devices: Two Ways for Criminals to Take Advantage

On a more personal level, experts warned that as more and more people own internet-capable mobile devices in 2011, they're also increasing their exposure to cyber and real-life criminals.

First, McAfee showed that the GPS functions on many smart phones that allow users to tell their friends where they are via Facebook and Twitter also tell criminals exactly where they are -- and where they are not.

"It then becomes child's play to craft a targeted attack based upon what the bad guys have just learned from these services," McAfee said.

While this is not a new phenomenon, McAfee reported mobile tracking will be a "huge focus for cybercriminals and scammers in 2011 and beyond."

Second, both Security News Daily and Symantec list the technical vulnerabilities of mobile devices on their list of dangers for 2011. Security News Daily said, "Perhaps the most serious threat is to online banking transactions done via smartphone."

Symantec's Greenbaum said smartphones are likely targets for attack because they "blur the lines between business and personal... they permeate the perimeter of the security border."

From malicious code downloaded through untrustworthy applications, to data exfiltration or simply losing the devices, Greenbaum said that to hackers, smartphones are "the weak spot."

Spammers Adapt to Social Media

Finally, experts said 2011 is going to see a change in perhaps the most annoying security concern online: spammers.

A curious thing happened in Dec. 2010: Normally the amount of email spam would be at its highest levels during the holiday season, but instead it dropped dramatically, according to a study by web security provider Commtouch. Part of the reason, McAfee said, is that spammers are altering their strategy.

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