The number of computer security incidents and attacks detected at businesses worldwide soared by 84 per cent between the fourth quarter of 2002 and the first quarter of this year, fuelled in part by a surge in the number of mass-mailing worms, according to a report due out today from Internet Security Systems.
"What we're seeing out there is a lot more folks being extremely active and a lot more malicious behavior," said Peter Allor, manager of ISS's X-Force Threat Analysis Services division, which compiled the report. "We've also seen a corresponding high degree of Web site defacements."
The large increase in worms and other security-related incidents point to a challenging year ahead for IT security staff, the organisation said in a statement. The tally includes relatively minor activities, such as scanning corporate networks for vulnerabilities, and more serious events such as the Slammer worm, which emerged in January and according to some experts was the fastest spreading worm yet.
The number of worms and hybrid threats between January 1 and March 31 totalled 752, compared with 101 in the fourth quarter of 2002, the report found. X-Force also noted an increase in the number of "zero day" attacks, in which hackers attack a software vulnerability that is not yet known about by vendors.
Faced with such an abundance of activity, businesses could help themselves by focusing on the security threats that pose the most risk to them, Allor said.
"When you have almost 300 issues a month coming out, the important part is, how do you focus on the ones that are significant to you?" he said.
The severity ratings assigned by IT vendors are only one factor to consider when determining how to respond to a threat. Businesses should also look at where the affected system residedin the network, what level of risk they wereprepared to tolerate for that system, and how well the system was protected by firewalls and other technologies, he said.
The report tracked 20 industry sectors over the quarter. Retail businesses were attacked the most, accounting for 35 per cent of attacks, financial services accounted for 11.5 per cent, healthcare and manufacturing 9 per cent each, and federal and local government 1 per cent, the report found.
The frequency of attacks on an industry may reflect several factors, including the proportion of IT dollars spent by that industry on security and how successful hackers have been in the past at targeting a particular sector. Hackers tend to "follow the path of least resistance," Allor said.
XForce's Internet Risk Impact Summary (IRIS) report draws information from more than 400 network and server-based intrusion detection sensors located at businesses on four continents and spanning all major industries, X-Force said.
Of all the events reported by businesses in the quarter, the top categories were "suspicious activities" which includes scanning networks for vulnerabilities and accounted for 73.5 per cent of total events, and unauthorised access attempts (11 per cent).
Allor said it was hard to determine if the number of malicious hackers at work was increasing.
"There are a lot of folks out there hacking, and quite honestly, there's a real lack of ethical behaviour," he said. "A lot of it is against the law, but because of the anonymity a lot of people think it's cool to do anyway.
"Do we have a lot more hackers? That's a real hard thing to quantify. We estimate there are upwards of 3 million in the US. Those aren't all the top class of hackers, which is good news. A lot of them are just taking tools that are out there, putting them together and seeing if they work. There are 3 million doing some kind of malicious behaviour. That's our estimate."
The full report was due to be available for free from ISS's Web site at https://gtoc.iss.net/.