x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Spyware threat increases by 150%

More than 50,000 computers in the UAE are infected with malicious "spyware" programs that can be used to steal personal details.

ABU DHABI // More than 50,000 computers in the UAE are infected with malicious "spyware" programs that can be used to steal personal details and other personal data, or send out floods of spam e-mails, a US-based internet security firm has estimated. The figure represents an increase of almost 150 per cent in just one year but may in fact be three times as large, according to Trend Micro, the computer security firm.

The UAE is particularly at risk from cybercriminals because it has a tradition of ethical and trust-based business dealings and residents do not suspect they face perils online, said Ian Cochrane, the company's director of marketing in Dubai. The wealthy Gulf region also has the world's fastest-growing rate of internet penetration, making it additionally attractive to criminals. "Growth in compromised systems in the UAE is tripling year on year," Mr Cochrane said. "That's because people are not aware and are not using protection."

Gulf countries are a huge challenge for internet security firms because of the region's tradition of honour in business, Mr Cochrane said. "The culture here is very honourable and trusting and that's where we face the big risk. There's a good education system here and people are very bright but the locals as well as expats from India and Pakistan have a tradition of being honourable in business and that becomes a major problem when it comes to going online.

"This region also has a lot of money. So why would criminals waste time and energy attacking western organisations and individuals who have more awareness and are less trusting when you can target people in the Gulf?" As recently as five years ago, cybercriminals largely ignored GCC countries because the number of people online was too small to make them worth targeting. "Now, the largest growth in internet penetration anywhere in the world is in this region," Mr Cochrane said. "Governments are investing hugely in education and in IT infrastructure for business. The UAE is a safe place to live and people believe it will be the same online."

Trend Micro said it detected 50,000 computers in the UAE this year under the control of someone other than their owners, compared with 22,000 computers last year. "And these are just the computers that we can sniff out as being infected. The real figure is about triple that," Mr Cochrane said. Most cyber-attacks in GCC countries originate in China or eastern Europe, which have a lack of effective regulation, keeping them out of reach of UAE law. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) earlier this year launched a cyber-security team to raise awareness about cybercrime, provide up-to-date information about the latest viruses and foster a safe and secure online environment. A spokesman for the TRA said that more-transparent government was leading UAE residents to take less on trust than they had previously. "In the UAE people feel that the Government is more trustworthy than companies, which is the opposite of somewhere like the US, where people trust big companies more than their government. The people can see the Government here auditing itself and being more transparent and that leads them to be less trusting and to demand more accountability in general." However, other trends in the UAE favour the cybercriminals. The growing popularity of social networking websites such as Facebook, which has about 250,000 users in the UAE, is also fuelling online fraud because users post large quantities of personal data online and accept requests to connect with people who may not be what they seem. "Let's say I write that I am a fan of horse riding on a social networking site," Mr Cochrane said. "Then I get a request from two Swedish blondes who say they also like horse riding and want to connect. I click on the link and a Trojan starts downloading spyware onto my computer. Your computer is then a bot, part of a botnet which can be controlled by a bot herder who could be anywhere in the world. Online, the world is just one location." Mr Cochrane also warned users of Apple computers, which have not been as vulnerable to attack because there are relatively few of them. "Mac users think they are immune from malware because cybercriminals supposedly only target PCs. Well, guess who I would be looking at now if I was a cybercriminal?" tspender@thenational.ae