Hacking now Hong Kong’s top online threat

Threats from computer viruses appear to be dwindling but this does not mean computer users are safe. Hong Kong Computer Emergency Response Team Co-ordination Centre, the city’s computer security watchdog, revealed that hacking has become the top online threat.

In the past 10 years, the 308 security alerts issued by HKCERTCC last year was the highest. Yet, none of them had to do with computer viruses. In fact, the team, a subsidiary of Hong Kong Productivity Council, did not issue computer virus alerts for the past three consecutive years. While there were only 162 reported virus attacks since 2002, the number of cases involving fraudulent process to acquire sensitive information has gone up. You my have noticed your reliable antivirus software has evolved from providing just antivirus packages. It has also extended its reach into fighting phishing, spyware and data leaks, amongst others thing.

As computer viruses became relatively more primitive, operating systems have become more robust in fighting them; there are tougher government penalties for developers of destructive software and even reincarnating popular viruses in the future may not yield as much benefit as it did in the past. However, the popularity of social media has provided a channel for hackers to access private information found on their victims’ computer systems.

Usage of desktop computers will be outnumbered by smartphones in 2013. Pic: AP.

Unlike clicking a link on an email received from a stranger, the likelihood of doing so on links our friends post in Facebook or Twitter is much higher. The same goes with links purportedly coming from contacts via instant messengers. Unfortunately, some of these links are also tainted with bad intentions that lead to the activation of Trojan horses that infiltrate our computers.

Let’s admit it, we have some friends who are easily attracted into clicking a link in hopes of seeing a gallery of sexy women or lured into offers of quick cash schemes. Instead, they fall prey to malware which could mine their computers of valuable information such as credit card numbers, passwords or even use their machines to send spam emails.

As personal data becomes more relevant in targeting ads and other business uses, the financial rewards of obtaining them is one motivation that encourages the development of malware. The growing number of smartphones will only make things worse, experts say.

Gartner, an IT research firm, forecasts that in 2013 smartphones will replace personal computers as the most common device used for Internet access. As more people are likely to store additional sensitive information into their mobile phones, their personal information becomes more vulnerable than ever. Evidently, the value of a mobile phone is now more than just the handset price, phone book and text messages. Talking about give and take, free mobile apps may appear as giveaways but failure to read their terms and conditions might mean sensitive information is being siphoned off while we enjoy using the app.

Experts from HKCERTCC also observed a new way of spreading malware, called social engineering techniques, where perpetrators do not need to hide their true intentions. Instead they stir public sentiment regarding social issues and help arm people with tools to join massive attacks against certain entities.

In Hong Kong, it is difficult to enforce a law that regulated intrusion of computers because a large portion of these attackers operate outside of the city.