Experts agree that the cyber threat is growing as hackers develop novel strategies for infiltrating governments, individuals and businesses of all sizes online.

From Goldfinger to the man with the Golden Gun, James Bond has faced some tough nemeses in his time. But in the latest of the Bond films, Skyfall, the world’s most famous fictional spy is pitted against a real danger of the modern world: cyber terrorism.

In the film, cyber attacks on the British government are launched from a deserted island in the Far East, where the villain is surrounded by computers. The scene bears some resemblance to reality, says Symantec director of security technology and response Kevin Haley.

“Cyber criminals are known to base their operations in less developed countries more lax on policing online security. With their servers protected by bullet-proof hosting in these countries, the attackers are free to operate from anywhere,” he says.

But while the film’s antagonist boasts of his abilities to control national infrastructure at the push of a button, Haley says in reality it’s not quite this easy. But he adds: “Computer worms like Stuxnet have already demonstrated their power to disrupt on an industrial scale. In 2010, hackers got into an Iranian uranium enrichment facility and programmed the cylinders in the facility to spin so fast, they cracked and broke.”

It’s clear that the cyber risk landscape is changing. Increasing state-sponsored criminality, data security and hactivism are among today’s dangers. On 20 March 2013, for example, almost 50,000 computers and servers in South Korean broadcasters and banks were shut down in a co-ordinated cyber attack. The initial investigation pointed to a North Korean military spy agency as the culprit.

A week later, the global community was hit by the largest ever cyber attack of its kind, resulting in a slowdown of internet speeds around the world. The attack – the result of a row between anti-spam organisation Spamhaus and a Dutch web-hosting firm – ranks as the biggest known distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. DDoS attacks are among the most common to take place and involve overloading a target site with so much traffic that it is taken offline.

Cyber attack and social media reputational damage are not only new challenges in their own right, but bring additional complexity to the longstanding risks due to interconnectivity

Richard Coleman, director of SME, Zurich

So do these high-profile events signal the start of a new cyberbased terrorism war? Or are security systems keeping ahead of the curve? Experts agree that the cyber threat is growing as hackers develop novel strategies for infiltrating governments, individuals and businesses of all sizes online. The year ahead will feature increasingly sophisticated means to capture and exploit user data, escalating battles over the control of online information and continuous threats to supply chains from global sources. So says 2013’s Emerging Cyber Threats Report from the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and Georgia Tech Research Institute. According to the report, specific threats over the coming year include:

Search history poisoning Cyber criminals will continue to manipulate search engine algorithms and other automated mechanisms that control information presented to internet users. Moving beyond typical search-engine poisoning, GTISC researchers believe that manipulating users’ search histories may be a next step in ways that attackers use legitimate resources for illegitimate gains. “If you compromise a computer, the victim can always switch to a clean machine and your attack is over,” says GTISC director Wenke Lee. “If you compromise a user’s search history, the victim gets the malicious search results no matter where he logs in from.”

Cloud-based risks Most businesses are more focused on the benefits of cloud-based services than the risks. While clouds are generally considered secure, they could be susceptible to browser exposure to malware, increasingly sophisticated cyber criminals and critical system failure. Yet a recent report by Zurich, An expanding network of risk and opportunity, has found that only 17% of SMEs see failure of cloud services as a major threat to their businesses. According to the GTISC report, it will be critical for cloud service providers to spell out their responsibilities towards user data. A study by the Ponemon Institute found that 69% of cloud providers thought the customer was responsible for data kept in the cloud, while only 35% of cloud users agreed.

Mobile browser and wallet vulnerabilities Last year, global shipments of smartphones surpassed that of PCs, and mobile devices became the most popular way to access the internet according to the GTISC report. This shift in the way employees are working and accessing information can have serious impacts for businesses as the personal and professional use of devices increasingly merge. GTISC’s Lee points to the “explosive proliferation of smartphones”. This, he argues, “will continue to tempt attackers in exploiting user and technology-based vulnerabilities, particularly with the browser function and digital wallet apps”.

Cyber criminals are already trying their best to infiltrate smartphone devices, particularly those based on the Android operating system. According to security firm Trend Micro, the number of malicious and suspicious apps grew to 175,000 by September 2012, up from 30,000 in June. Yet the exponential growth of malicious apps has not translated into increased risks for users, with only 0.002% of mobile devices in the US showing signs of infection. GTISC says this suggests that well-vetted app stores are providing an excellent first defence against malware.

Malware counter-offensive “The developers of malicious software will employ various methods to hinder malware detection, such as hardening their software with techniques similar to those employed in digital rights management and exploiting the wealth of new interfaces and novel features on mobile devices,” the GTISC report says. It also points to Mac users’ false sense of security and says attackers are honing their ability to compromise Mac operating systems and mobile-device platforms.

There seems little doubt that mobile devices and the cloud are two of the biggest cyber threats on the horizon. Zurich director of SME Richard Coleman also points to social media as an often forgotten online threat. He warns that many firms are woefully underprepared to tackle the risks that accompany these technologies.

“New emerging threats – such as cyber attack and social media reputational damage – are not only new challenges in their own right, but bring additional complexity to the longstanding risks due to interconnectivity,” Coleman says. “The World Economic Forum refers to this as the dark side of connectivity – a digital landscape where the likelihood and impact of cyber threats are amplified by hyperconnectivity.”

Regardless of whether the attack comes from an internal employee or an international crime gang, the message from cyber experts is clear: increasing technology and interconnectivity brings with it many benefits, but also a growing number of threats. And, as the latest James Bond film demonstrates, defence is often the best form of attack.

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