Most malware attacks against federal agencies are financially motivated, seeking to trick computer users into buying fake security software or providing personal information that can be used to hack into their bank accounts.
Although espionage and terrorism often are considered the primary motivations for breaking into government networks, 90 percent of incidents of malware detected on federal computers in the first half of 2010 were designed to steal money from users, according to data collected from the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team at the Homeland Security Department.
"This statistic represents the dominance of financially motivated malware within the threat picture," said Marita Fowler, section chief of the surface analysis group at US-CERT. "It is not that the federal government is being targeted by organized criminals; it is that we are a smaller portion of a larger global community impacted by this."
Federal officials must consider equally the targeted threat, which Fowler equates to a sniper attack, and the widespread or "battalion" attack.
US-CERT, which is responsible for the collection, coordination and dissemination of information regarding risks to government networks, concluded 51 percent of malware found on federal computers in the first six months of 2010 was so-called rogue ware, which masquerades as a security product that tricks computer users into disclosing credit card information to pay to remove nonexistent threats.
"The criminals behind these campaigns are extremely good at distributing their malware, [using] search engine optimization poisoning [that] helps rank malicious links higher in search results," Fowler said. "They also use spam to distribute the malicious links on popular social networking sites."
US-CERT identified 23 percent of incidents as crime ware, which relies on techniques such as phishing and key logging to steal personal data from computer users, including login information and passwords, and access to their online bank accounts.
"A crime ware can be used to create designer or custom malware," Fowler said. "It is easy to use, which appeals to the less tech-savvy criminals."
The most prolific crime ware kit found on federal computers is Zeus, which recently was used to steal more than $1 million from bank customers in the United Kingdom.
US-CERT categorized 16 percent of malware incidents as Trojans horses that facilitate unauthorized access of the user's computer system, which could be used for financial gain or to manipulate and steal information. US-CERT categorized 3 percent of incidents as spam, and another 3 percent of incidents as Web threats, which is a general term for any risk that uses the Internet to facilitate cybercrime.
Only 4 percent of incidents were identified as computer worms, which self-replicate across computers, consuming bandwidth and affecting performance.
Education is important to mitigate financially motivated cyber threats, Fowler said, although users are often unaware they're being targeted.
"There are plenty of malicious programs designed to steal information from users without their knowledge," Fowler added. For example, he said hackers might log keystrokes as a user enters information into online forms, or remotely harvest data stored locally on a computer. "In these cases, security tools and mitigation strategies are needed to augment user awareness," including patching, antivirus updates, firewalls and filtering spam content, Fowler said.