31 Dec 2012, Alastair Stevenson , V3
Security experts have long warned of the threat posed by state sponsored hackers and the hyper sophisticated malware they create.
However, it was only recently that anybody has really paid attention to the warnings, with the discovery of hyper sophisticated threats like Flame and Gauss causing panic across the globe.
This started several months ago when renowned voices in the industry like F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen and Microsoft Trustworthy Computing's Scott Charney issued reports claiming the world and its governments are currently in a cyber arms race.
For this reason, where the mad antics of groups and collectives like Anonymous and its splinter cell LulzSec led to 2011 being labelled the year of the hacktivist, sophisticated malware like Flame have seen 2012 being dubbed the year of the state-sponsored threat.
However, despite its widespread media coverage many security vendors have moved to downplay the overarching significance of these threats. Kaspersky Lab's security chief David Emm clarified that threats like Flame, while serious, are old problems.
"While Flame was the largest and most sophisticated of the cyber-espionage programs, its longevity was its most prominent characteristic," said Emm.
"Being at least a five-year-old project, Flame was an example of a complex malicious program that could exist undetected for an extended amount of time while collecting massive amounts of data and sensitive information from its victims."
Emm's sentiment was mirrored by F-Secure researcher Sean Sullivan, who highlighted the fact that threats like Flame and Gauss have been around for several years.
"I would quibble a bit with ‘emergence' theory, in that what has actually emerged is information about such software. The use of espionage tools such as Flame and Gauss started already before 2012, and the budgeting and development goes back to the Bush administration," Sullivan told V3.
Looking to 2013, the security experts were more concerned regarding the threat posed by cyber criminals.
"Targeted attacks on businesses have only become a prevalent threat within the last two years. Kaspersky Lab expects the amount of targeted attacks, with the purpose of cyber espionage, to continue in 2013 and beyond, becoming the most significant threat for businesses," said Emm.
Trend Micro's security director Rik Ferguson mirrored Emm's sentiment, warning the sophistication of criminals attacks will undoubtedly improve in 2013.
"I think we'll see more advanced custom malware. Combine rapid incorporation of zero-day exploits into exploit kits, the exploit kit market growth, custom ATS scripts, new features in blackhole EK v2 and you have the beginnings of a commodity market for advanced custom malware, it's the next evolution," Ferguson told V3.
"As advertising becomes more personalised, so does everything else, including cybercrime."
The security researchers' warnings follow reports that the threat posed by cybercrime is increasing.
Prior to his 2013 prediction, Sullivan had issued similar warnings, claiming it was only a matter of time before criminals started learning from state-sponsored threats, integrating elements of them into their own attacks.
Despite the increased threat levels, the researchers were all quick to highlight the fact that many governments have already begun to take action.
"2012 will certainly go down as the year when we had proof positive that nations and governments are alive to the military possibilities afforded by digital covert operations," Ferguson told V3.
Ferguson's comments refer to the host of new cyber security reforms announced and implemented by the British government of the last year.