In Part I of our 3-part series, Wise Words focused on the myth that hackers have no interest in the computers of everyday individuals who do not store sensitive information on them. As you may have read, nothing could be further from the truth. Hackers can use the storage or processing power of your computer for multiple nefarious functions, even if you keep only the most innocuous of information on your machine.
Today, we look at some other popular misconceptions.
Myth: Using and updating antivirus software is enough to prevent my computer from becoming vulnerable to security incidents.
Reality: The use of antivirus software certainly is one step you can take to help protect your system. And it is helpful against known malware (malicious software), according to Lisa Lancor, chairwoman of Southern’s Computer Science Department. (Southern recently restructured its M.S. in computer science degree to focus on cybersecurity and software development.)
“Unfortunately, antivirus software does not protect you from malware that it does not know about,” Lancor says. “Malware that exploits a brand new vulnerability is referred to as a ‘zero-day attack’ because the security community has known about the vulnerability for zero days.”
Fair enough. But what are the chances of being hit with a “zero-day attack?”
It’s not that rare, according to Lancor. “A recent report by McAfee Labs indicates that its researchers find and catalog close to 100,000 new samples of malware per day,” she says. “That equates to 69 new, zero-day malware samples per minute. Are you keeping up with antivirus updates every minute?”
Even more disturbing, malware developers can sell their code on the black market of the Internet, Lancor says. They can sell for tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Clearly, creating zero-day malware is big business for hackers these days.”
Myth: Mac users are safe from malware.
Reality: It is true that at one time, Mac users were relatively safe from malware, though there are always exceptions. But because the number of Mac users has increased significantly during the last decade, virus writers have set their sights on Apple, according to Lancor. Just recently, a malware called IceFog was discovered that attacks both Windows and Macs and provides a backdoor into your system. “It can accept instructions from a command-and-control infrastructure to have your system do whatever hackers want,” she says.
Lancor points to the FlashBack virus that infected more than 600,000 Macs and included them into one of the first significant Mac-based botnets. Apple has been continuously adding security features, including its own anti-malware applications, into its operating system. Mac users are advised to follow safe security practices, just like PC users.
Myth: As long as you don’t click on ridiculous email links from people you don’t know, you should be pretty safe.
Reality: These aren’t the spam attacks of your grandparents’ day…er, in your parents’ day…um, in your older siblings’ day. It’s not just the Nigerian banker who wants to deposit money into your banking account, or the Viagra link, or an announcement that you’ve won the lottery of a foreign country for which you never bought a ticket. “Hackers are fully aware of the security education and training that you have been receiving about not clicking on links in emails from people you don’t know or trust,” Lancor says.
She points out that “smart phishing attacks,” also known as “spear (very targeted) phishing attacks now come from people you do know, or from hackers acting as someone you do know. “Hackers go so far as to study the content of previous email exchanges that you have had with someone and then they mimic the language and styling in an attempt to let your guard down and click on a malicious link,” she says. “The malicious link will look legitimate and quite benign.” Examples might include “annual sales report” or “a properly formed UPS tracking number. “If you click on the link, it will take you to an exploit site that is set up to blast your browser and operating system with every vulnerability that it knows about in an attempt to gain access to your machine.
“And to make matters worse, while it used to be the case that you always needed to click on something to get infected, now there are drive-by-downloads that require you to do nothing. Just visit a website that is compromised and without you noticing, it will redirect you to a site that will fire everything it has at you (to take over your computer).”
Part III — Protecting yourself against hackers, malware