Cyber-security no longer means only protecting your computer from ne'er-do-wells. Hackers are cracking codes on all sorts of devices and getting sneaky about breaking into everything from cell phones to car systems.
"Security threats are escalating every year," says Adam Wosotowsky, a senior anti-spam analyst with McAfee Labs.
In years past, hackers often engaged in what could be considered mischievous fun -- finding vulnerabilities in software and then pointing out problems that needed to be fixed. But over the past decade, Wosotowsky says, security threats have become more malicious, with criminals entering the scene stealing financial and personal information, and even worldwide governments engaging in cyber warfare.
With cell phones and automobiles becoming more computerized, hackers have an even wider selection of devices to infect with viruses and other malicious threats.
Top 10 Threat Predictions
As we enter the new year, security giant McAfee offers up its list of the top 10 security threats (PDF file) that are expected to loom large in 2012.
10. Increased industrial attacks. Many industrial systems are not prepared for cyber attacks, and attackers may engage in blackmail or extortion in 2012. (See this story for an account of one such attack.)
9. 'Legalized' spam. Legitimate advertisers are purchasing email lists of consumers who have authorized receipt of online ads, a move that comes as global spam volume has dropped over the past two years.
8. Hacktivism. Online activists will join forces with physical demonstrators, targeting public figures, industry leaders, and other entities.
7. Cyberwar showoffs. Countries are expected to demonstrate their cyber-war capabilities to send a message that they are not vulnerable to cyber attacks against their infrastructures (such as utilities).
6. Rogue certificates. Production of fake digitally signed certificates, which are used as a means of assuring consumers and their security software that the website they are viewing is legitimate, will increase.
5. Blinking online traffic lights. Legislative issues are expected to stall efforts to develop Internet traffic "rules of the road," which could aid in reducing instances in which hackers steer users to an unintended server.
4. Advances in operating systems directing hackers elsewhere. New security features included in the operating system will force hackers to find alternative entry points in a consumer's computer.
3. Threats to virtual currency. Hackers will increasingly target the growing use of cyber currency, which is often not encrypted, as a means to steal money and spread malware.
2. Embedded hardware. Cars, medical devices, routers, digital cameras, and other items use embedded systems designed to control specific functions. Once these embedded systems are hacked, an attacker can have complete control over the hardware, such as asking a car's GPS system to tell the hacker where you live.
1. Mobile threats bypassing PCs. Attackers will improve their craft with an eye toward launching mobile banking attacks. For example, consumers may eventually see SpyEye and Zeus, two Trojan banking attacks, migrate from the computer to the smartphone.
Be Smart With Your Smartphone
With smartphone use rapidly on the rise, this can be a problem for consumers who wish to use their phone for mobile banking. Says Wosotowsky, "A smartphone is like a computer, so there are the same capabilities for infection."
Consumers would be wise to treat their smartphone like their computer and take all the necessary precautions, Wosotowsky says. His advice:
Don't click on unsolicited links or download software from a source whose origin is unclear.
Use only apps that come from your bank: "Consumers shouldn't use a third-party mobile banking app, unless a large number of people have already downloaded it," Wosotowsky says.
Don't mix money-work and fun. Avoid using your smartphone for the dual purpose of visiting financial sites to enter financial information and visiting sites to download games. Often, sites offering free games or porn contain viruses that can later harvest personal or financial information off a smartphone.
Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto is an avid user of smartphones and drives a car. But neither is infected with a virus, yet.