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Year of malicious code

The year 2016 saw 702 million attempts to launch an exploit – malware that uses bugs in software to infect devices with additional malicious code like banking Trojans or ransomware, according to an IT security firm.

This is 24.54 per cent more than in 2015, when Kaspersky Lab protection technologies blocked just over 563 million such attempts. The growing use of exploits is one of the key findings of the “Attacks with Exploits: From Everyday Threats to Targeted Campaigns” report prepared by Kaspersky Lab to evaluate the threat level that exploits pose to regular users and organisations.

The IT firm says that attacks with the help of exploits are among the most effective as they generally do not require any user interaction, and can deliver their dangerous code without the user suspecting anything. Such tools are therefore often used, both by cyber-criminals seeking to steal money from private users and companies, and by sophisticated targeted attacks actors hunting for sensitive information.

In 2016, more companies and organisations encountered such attacks: the number of corporate users attacked by exploits increased 28.35 per cent to reach more than 690,000, or 15.76 per cent of all users attacked with exploits. Other findings of the report include:

Browsers, Windows OS, Android OS and Microsoft Office are the applications exploited most often – 69.8 per cent of users encountered an exploit for one of these at least once in 2016.

Exploits to the infamous “Stuxnet vulnerability” (CVE-2010-2568) still top the list in terms of the number of attacked users. One in four users that encountered an exploit during 2016, faced this particular threat.

In 2016, more than 297,000 users worldwide were attacked by unknown exploits (zero-day and heavily obfuscated known exploits), an increase of just under 7 per cent on 2015. The market price for previously unknown exploits may reach tens of thousands of dollars, and they are usually used by sophisticated actors against high-profile targets. These attacks were blocked by Automatic Exploit Prevention technology, created by Kaspersky Lab specifically to hunt such sophisticated threats.

Overall, targeted attackers and campaigns reported on by Kaspersky Lab in the years 2010 to 2016 made use of more than 80 vulnerabilities. Around two-thirds of these were used and re-used by more than one threat actor.

Despite the growing number of attacks featuring exploits, and the growing number of corporate users attacked in this way, the number of private users who encountered an exploit attack in 2016 decreased just over 20 per cent – from 5.4 million in 2015 to 4.3 million in 2016, says the IT security firm.

According to Kaspersky Lab researchers, a possible reason for this decline could be a reduction in the number of sources for exploits: 2016 saw several big and popular exploit kits (the Neutrino and Angler exploit kits) leave the underground market. This significantly affected the overall exploit threat landscape as many cybercriminal groups apparently lost their capabilities to spread the malware. Another reason is the faster reaction time of software vendors to newly discovered security issues. As a result it is now far more expensive for cybercriminals to develop and support a really effective exploit kit and simultaneously stay in profit. However this is not the case when it comes to attacks against organisations.

Alexander Liskin at Kaspersky Lab said: “Based on both our detection statistics and our observations of the activity of targeted attack actors, we see that professional cyber espionage groups still have the budgets and skills to develop and distribute sophisticated exploits. The recent leak of malicious tools allegedly used by the Equation Group is an illustration of this. However, this doesn’t mean that it is impossible to protect your organisation against exploit-based attacks. In order not to let malicious actors succeed, we advise users, especially corporate ones, to implement best practices of internet security and protect their computers, mobile devices and networks with proven and effective protection tools.”


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