Internet-based attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and specialized as profit-driven criminals continue to hone their approach to stealing data from businesses, employees and consumers. Security threats are propagating more rapidly, becoming increasingly difficult to detect, and are exploiting technological and human vulnerabilities.

Every year, Cisco releases a security report. Highlights from 2008 include:

•  Insider threats. Negligent or disgruntled employees can threaten corporate security. The global economic downturn may prompt more security incidents involving employees, making it crucial for IT, HR, and other lines of business to collaborate on mitigating threats.

•  Data loss. Whether through carelessness, breaches by hackers, or from insiders, data loss is a growing problem that can lead to grave financial consequences. Technology, education and clear, well-enforced data security policies can make compliance easier and reduce incidents.

•  Mobility, remote working, and new tools as risk factors. The trend toward remote working and the related use of Web-based tools, mobile devices, virtualization, “cloud computing” and similar technologies to enhance productivity will continue in 2009, challenging security personnel. The edge of the network is expanding rapidly, and the increasing number of devices and applications in use can make the expanding network more susceptible to new threats.

•  Spam. Spam, or unsolicited email, is one of the most pervasive Internet threats, affecting nearly every Internet user and organization in the world. Spam accounts for nearly 200 billion messages each day, approximately 90 percent of worldwide e-mail; and the United States is the biggest source at 17.2 percent.

Phishing. While targeted spear-phishing represents about 1 percent of all phishing attacks, it is expected to become more prevalent as criminals personalize spam and make messages appear more credible.

•  Botnets. Botnets allow someone to gain control over computers and networks and make them hubs for malware distribution. Legitimate websites are infected with Iframes or malicious code injected by botnets to gain personal information, and they redirect visitors to malware-downloading sites that appear trustworthy.

•  Social engineering. The use of social engineering to entice victims to open a file or click links continues to grow. In 2009, social engineering techniques will increase in number, vectors and sophistication.

•  Reputation hijacking. More online criminals are using real e-mail accounts with large, legitimate web mail providers to send spam. This “reputation hijacking” offers increased deliverability because it makes spam harder to detect and block. In 2008, spam resulting from e-mail reputation hijacking of the top three web mail providers accounted for less than 1 percent of all spam worldwide but constituted 7.6 percent of the provider’s mail traffic.

To protect your networks against attack, it’s important to look at all the basic elements of your security policies and technologies. You can lower your risk of data loss by fine-tuning access controls and patching known vulnerabilities to eliminate the ability for criminals to exploit holes in infrastructures. It’s also important to upgrade applications, endpoint systems and networking equipment to help ensure that your systems run smoothly and minimize risk.