Malware count blows past 1M mark

Nearly two-thirds of all the threats that Symantec has ever uncovered were found last year

Symantec's malware tally topped 1 million for the first time in the second half of 2007 as the number of new malicious code threats skyrocketed, the company said in its semiannual report on the state of security.

Of the 1.1 million code threats that Symantec has detected since it began writing signatures more than a quarter-century ago, 711,912 were discovered in 2007; 499,811 were picked up in the last six months of the year alone.

In other words, nearly two-thirds of all the threats that Symantec has ever uncovered were found last year.

Symantec credited the explosion in threats to a shift to specialization by malware makers and the existence of well-oiled -- and well-financed -- organizations that hire those programmers to write exploits and craft attacks.

"This [six-month] reporting period has seen the strongest evidence yet of this," said Ben Greenbaum, a senior research manager with Symantec's security response team. He ticked off a slew of traits now common in the malware industry, from the development of what he called "crime management kits" to proof that hackers work in a market-driven economy where threats are the coin of the realm.

"Some organizations only handle one part of the phishing process," Greenbaum said, giving an example of the specialization that's taken place. "For other parts, [those hackers] can outsource the work."

The specialization and organization, Symantec argued in its Internet Security Threat Report, mean that crimeware benefits from economies-of-scale, just like many other businesses.

"A group of specialized programmers can create a larger number of new threats than can a single malicious code author, bringing about economies of scale and therefore an increased return on investment," the report said. "Many of these threats can be used for financial gain [and] these proceeds can then be used to pay the programmers to continue creating new threats.

"The combination of these factors results in a high volume of new malicious code samples that threaten users online."

Greenbaum called 2007's tsunami of threats a "tipping point," and said that it is clear that security vendors -- and their users -- will soon need to switch to "whitelisting" legitimate code rather than "blacklisting" threats, as is now the practice.

A whitelist-based approach to security could take many forms, Greenbaum said. He declined to get specific about what Symantec's considering, saying only that the company is looking at some "interesting" ideas. But it would clearly have some pay-offs.

"It would reduce the size of the definition set," he said, "and make security software more efficient at catching malicious code."

By Symantec's estimate, 65% of the 54,000-plus unique applications deployed on Windows-based PCs in the last six months were malicious. "[Whitelisting] is a better approach," said Greenbaum, "considering the modern threat landscape."

Just last week, security experts predicted that the one-million mark would be reached by the end of 2008.

The Internet Security Threat Report Volume XIII can be downloaded from Symantec's site.

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Gregg Keizer

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