Predicting the future, of course, is impossible. But based on the dynamic events I've witnessed in information security this past year -- new adversaries, attack techniques, and increased adoption of such emerging technologies as software-defined networking -- here are seven security trends I’ll be watching closely in 2014.
1. Doomsday for Windows XP
Come April 2014, Microsoft will stop releasing new patches for Windows XP. But from the attackers' standpoint, the real fun will start in May, when Microsoft patches all versions of Windows since Windows XP. When that happens, security experts predict a hack-attack field day, since -- just like Java -- attackers can reverse-engineer the new fixes to find exploitable XP vulnerabilities. Cue difficulties for the millions of consumers and businesses that continue to rely on the unsupported operating system.
"One of the biggest challenges ahead for 2014 is clearly coming with Windows XP, and that obviously has a massive impact not only for the systems that are out there, but the systems that are out there that no one knows about," said Gerhard Eschelbeck, chief technology officer of Sophos, speaking by phone. "Who owns fixing those systems or upgrading those systems or ensuring those systems are still secure, in a world where patches are no longer being provided?"
Given the potential harm facing people who still rely on XP, there still might be an end-of-life reprieve. "Microsoft ought to reevaluate and reassess their decision early next year," Eschelbeck speculated, “if it's the right thing to do to 'end of life' support for an operating system that's been as successful as Windows XP has been."
2. Malware: Follow the Money
One no-brainer for 2014 is that malware will continue to target an expanded range of institutions that handle money -- and especially virtual currencies. In late November, for example, a new variant of the Gameover malware was spotted that targeted the log-in credentials for users of BTC China Exchange. That China-based exchange handles 40 percent of the world's trades in the cryptographic currency known as Bitcoins.
Going forward, we can also expect improvements that make latest-generation malware tougher to detect or block. For example, increased use of automated generation of domains for call-backs. According to Sophos' Eschelbeck, these techniques are used by malware writers to ensure that infected nodes can connect to command-and-control (C&C) infrastructure and serve as bots in a botnet. For years, security firms have battled botnets by blacklisting these malicious domains. But as attackers have improved their domain-name-generation algorithms, the tedious, largely manual exercise of blocking malicious domains has grown more difficult.
In addition, attackers have begun using "multiple layers of indirection," Eschelbeck said, which makes it more difficult for researchers to pinpoint exactly how C&C communications are flowing. "The first layer that the malware is going to may not be a bad domain at all," he said, but rather an intermediate but otherwise legitimate waypoint compromised by attackers. The more time and effort it takes security researchers to separate good domains from bad domains, the farther ahead attackers can stay from would-be botnet busters.
3. Ransomware shakedown escalates
The above example wasn't the first foray into new attack territory by the authors of the Gameover malware, which is based on the Zeus financial Trojan. "Gameover has also been involved [with] the dropping of CryptoLocker onto victims," said Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure Labs, referring to the CryptoLocker ransomware, which encrypts an infected PC, then demands users pay a ransom -- sometimes in bitcoins -- to receive a decryption code.
"Ransomware is pretty fascinating stuff. It's showing how cartel-like this problem has become, how it's really been able to extort money, and how it's been really powerful, from a software perspective, simply by locking down a PC until you pay up," said Carl Herberger, VP of security solutions at Radware, speaking by phone. Furthermore, the attacks continue because victims -- reportedly even including one Massachusetts police department -- continue to pay up.
The same must be true for at least some victims of scareware -- which is malware with all bark and no bite -- as well as other extortion schemes, which in 2013 included criminals threatening to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against business sites, again, unless they paid up.
Expect the scope and combination of these shakedown campaigns to keep expanding in 2014. "If I can take someone down, that's one thing, but if I can extort them for restoring the services when they're down, then they probably have more of a propensity to pay," Herberger said. "I see that being a very big idea that evolves in 2014."
4. Uptick in bot attacks
One of the most successful attack campaigns of 2012 and 2013 has been the four waves of Operation Ababil, which have used compromised PCs and servers to launch large-scale DDoS attacks that disrupted the websites of US banks. Even when banks managed to counteract these attacks, their defensive strategies often lead to disruptions for customers.
From an attack standpoint, the campaign has been tough to stop, because it relies on compromised systems to do the dirty work. Botnets have long been attractive to attackers because they offer cheap processing power, and serve as easy spam relays and versatile attack platforms, for launching these types of DDoS campaigns. But bots have gotten even more attractive for attackers as processing power and network pipes have respectively continued to get larger and bigger. Furthermore, even if defenders do manage to clean a few thousand of the bots, hackers only need to begin infecting new ones to regain their attack strength.
"Bots represent the army of the future -- making IT work for you, if you're a bad actor, and against you, if you're the target," said Herberger. "That's the future, that's the fourth generation of warfare: making computers attack."
5. SDN in the crosshairs
One "next big thing," technologically speaking, is software-defined networking (SDN), which -- to simplify the technology at work -- allows software to run independently from the underlying network hardware.
"SDN is starting to get adopted," said Radware's Herberger. "Google is an entire SDN shop, and more and more companies are investigating SDN." But as more businesses turn to SDN, he predicts attackers will seek ways to exploit these environments.
"Google has experienced a very low amount of security problems, and people have suggested that's because they're a full SDN shop -- and the fifth largest shop in the world," said Herberger. "So there's a nice high-value target there, if you could get yourself organized around it." He said that as more financial firms -- including organizations that handle bitcoins -- investigate SDN, related attacks will increase.
6. APT attackers better hide their tracks
In 2013, security firm Mandiant published a report about a hacking group it called APT1. Also known as Comment Crew, this China-based group -- Mandiant alleged -- was in fact an elite band of military hackers who served as part of People's Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 61398.
China denied the allegations, but many information security experts concurred with the findings. Meanwhile, the attackers were put on notice, thus demonstrating the double-edged nature of outing online adversaries: Potential victims may get a heads-up, but attackers can also learn about how they got spotted, then tweak their offensive playbook to make future attacks harder to detect.
"After that [Mandiant report], the community -- by which I mean pretty much everyone in incident response -- saw the tools get updated, which says to me that [the attackers] were watching our blogs, and our security conferences," said Matt Standart, the threat intelligence director at HBGary, speaking by phone. "So they were aware, and they changed." Expect that cycle to continue.
7. Threat intelligence sharing goes mainstream
When it comes to spotting and mitigating APT attacks, could 2014 be the year that threat intelligence sharing becomes the norm? "Threat intelligence is really just information about an adversary that you can use to make a decision about how you respond to that adversary," said Standart at HBGary, which sells related products and services.
Throughout 2013, there have been a number of steps toward better threat-intelligence sharing, including MITRE continuing to refine its Structured Threat Information eXpression (STIX) language format, as well as the Trusted Automated eXchange of Indicator Information (TAXII) message exchange service specifications for sharing threat information. Those standards have already been tapped by many organizations -- including the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC) and the Defense Industrial Base (DIB) sector -- as the preferred approach for sharing cross-platform threat intelligence between different organizations, as well as products.
"If one organization finds that information or understands something about the attacker, then all organizations could benefit... but it's tempered by that fear of disclosing that you've been compromised," said Standart. Accordingly, "we predict that the government will get involved through regulations."
While new regulations may not always be a good thing, "you can still share the threat intelligence data that doesn't give away anything about the incident -- just the attacker details -- so it's kind of a moot thing," he said.
What are your predictions about information security in 2014? Share them in the comments.
Mathew Schwartz is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer, as well the InformationWeek information security reporter.