Sean Sullivan says look out for extortion, ad blocking in 2016

Threats & Hacks

This is part of a series of posts about what security experts think will happen in 2016.

F-Secure Security Advisor Sean Sullivan spends a lot of his time thinking about how people expose themselves to online risks. Whenever you download an app, click on a link, or open an email, there’s potential security problems that most people never even think about. But not Sean. It’s part of his job to understand how these things actually work, and what people should be doing to keep their devices and data safe from online threats.

Here’s a quick look at what security issues Sean thinks people and companies will have to contend with in the upcoming year.

“2016 will be remembered as the year of extortion.”

Sean’s already predicted that the future of online threats will revolve around extortion. That is, criminals will be investing in scams that see people and businesses paying a “fee” to avoid being victimized by online threats. Ransomware is a well-known example of this trend. It’s malware that locks (either through encryption or other means) people’s devices unless a “ransom” is paid to the perpetrators.

“Criminals will continue to figure out ways to extort people and businesses,” said Sean. “The returns we’ve seen extortionists getting on ransomware demonstrates just how profitable the malware sector can be for criminals. Increasing use of social networking tools like Linkedin are also giving online criminals a way to collect data and research potential blackmail targets, and given developments like these, I’m expecting criminal enterprises involving extortion to evolve throughout 2016.”

Sean has pointed out in the past that crypto-ransomware, and many other types of online threats, are actually very sophisticated criminal enterprises. They often have a level of service that rivals what legitimate companies offer their customers, making them very profitable for criminals. In fact, the FBI advises ransomware victims to simply pay to have their computers unlocked (but F-Secure Labs has created some useful guidelines that people can follow to remove some police-themed ransomware variants).

“We’ll still be talking about ad blocking at this time next year.”

Ad blocking became an explosive topic after Apple built content blocking capabilities into iOS 9 earlier in the year. While it seems like a good idea for consumers, ad blocking caused waves after a report pointed out that publishers stand to lose billions due to ad blocking technologies. Publishers that use native advertising, or apps (like Apple News) to push content to their audience, will be largely unaffected. But publications relying on web browsers have become vocal critics of the practice, even though security experts (and even tech journalists) suggest that ad blocking may be in the best interests of consumers.

“Ad blocking is going to continue to be an issue because there’s been no real progress on solving the problems that ad blocking is supposed to address,” says Sean. “The problematic connection between online advertising and tracking is still there, so there’s going to be demand for ad blockers until this changes. Plus, malvertising is still a huge security concern that ad blocking can help with, so using these apps is a good way for consumers to minimize online risks and have a better online experience, especially on mobile devices.”

“Use of end-to-end encryption will increase in 2016.”

Governments have been toying with the idea of asking tech companies to work around encryption to support national security interests. However, many companies and security experts are opposed to this, as encryption allows information to stay safe from criminals and other agents looking to collect information to use for less than altruistic purposes (for example, extortion, discrimination, targeted advertising). End-to-end encryption is one approach to securing digital communications that allows information to be encrypted by the sender and then decrypted by the receiver, which prevents anyone in between those two points (such as the company providing the service or app) from accessing the personal data contained in the messages. Whatsapp and Apple’s Facetime are popular examples of messaging apps that use end-to-end encryption.

According to Sean, use of these kinds of apps will increase in 2016, despite pressure for companies to offer weaker encryption to end users. “The security benefits of end-to-end encryption are indisputable, and all the arguments to the contrary are really weak. But the real driver for this will be business, because it’s the best way for companies to provide secure services to users. It’s cheaper and more secure, so it’s a better option for both app developers and users.”

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