Era of exploits: number of attacks using software vulnerabilities on the rise

In 2016 there were 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. This is 24.54% 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 experts to evaluate the threat level that exploits pose to regular users and organizations.

Attacks conducted 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 organizations encountered such attacks: the number of corporate users attacked by exploits increased 28.35% to reach more than 690,000, or 15.76% of all users attacked with exploits.

The other significant findings of the report are:

• Browsers, Windows OS, Android OS and Microsoft Office are the applications exploited most often – 69.8% 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. 1 in 4 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% 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.

Interestingly, 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 exploi attack in 2016 decreased just over 20% – from 5.4 million in 2015 to 4.3 million in 2016. 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 organizations.

“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 organization 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,” – said Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

In order to protect your personal or business data from attacks via software exploits,

Kaspersky Lab experts advise the following:

• Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
• Wherever possible, choose a software vendor which demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.
• If you are managing a network of PCs, use patch management solutions that allow for the centralized updating of software on all endpoints under your control.
• Conduct regular security assessments of the organization’s IT infrastructure.
• Educate your personnel on social engineering as this method is often used to make a victim open a document or a link infected with an exploit.
• Use security solutions equipped with specific exploit prevention mechanisms or at least behavior-based detection technologies
• Give preference to vendors which implement a multi layered approach to protection against cyber threats, including exploits.

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