Looking back on our predictions for 2016: utter nonsense or harsh reality?

Every year, around the new year, we are bombarded with lists of predictions for the coming year. In December 2015, the Trend Micro research team joined in a round of crystal ball gazing. Based on their insights in the ever-evolving cybercrime trends, they formulated some predictions about what to expect in 2016. One year later, as we are entering yet another new year and, once again, looking forward to new trends and developments in 2017, we would also like to take the time to look back and ask ourselves: were these predictions nonsense, or did 2016 prove them to be hard reality?

Smart devices and IoT cause collateral damage

Perhaps one of the most remarkable predictions we made for 2016 was that the rise of smart devices and IoT devices would claim at least one deadly victim. Unfortunately, this prediction turned into reality: in 2016, Tesla’s self-driving technology was involved in a number of fatal accidents – including one in the Netherlands. Luckily, such deadly accidents are rare.

Yet, even if smart devices were rarely lethal, 2016 has in any case confirmed that smart devices have to be used with care, since various other dangers are lurking around the corner. For example, in 2016, the ‘smart’ doll Cayla was recalled from stores because it was found to be relatively easy to take control over the doll with a smartphone and use it for spying. Another example comes from researchers at the KUL, who showed that it is relatively easy to hack medical implants which have a wireless connection – such as pacemakers. So if you thought Dick Cheney’s decision to turn off the wireless connection of his pacemaker was absurd, you may have to think again.

The conclusion of 2016 is that, in order to avoid such collateral damage, manufacturers have to incorporate security into the design of smart devices. Right now, investing in security is all too often still seen as a necessary evil. In the long run, however, it is the only solution. After all, a doll that is recalled from stores is detrimental to both the brand’s image and the company’s turnover. We expect and hope that the security of smart devices will take on a self-regulating character.

Cyber war and the war for talent

Our Trend Micro research team also made some predictions with regard to cybersecurity. First, we predicted that in 2016 the global character of the ‘cyber war’ – which, literally, knows no boundaries – would necessitate a large international collaboration in the fight against cyber crime. One example is the collaboration between Trend Micro and Europol in an international operation which resulted in different arrests. Another example was the announcement that Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter would collaborate to ban terroristic messages from their platforms.

Worldwide, the expansion and always more sophisticated nature of cyber crime creates a growing need for cyber security experts within organizations. Moreover, in Europe the GDPR currently creates a momentum for companies to clean up their act and to arm themselves against cybercrime, in order to protect their data. Still, Trend Micro predicted, it would remain difficult for companies to find people for this function. On the one hand, there is often considerable doubt about the most suitable profile. On the other hand, candidates with a suitable profile are often hard to find – resulting in a ‘war for talent’.

In our view, organizations have to look for people who can think like cybercriminals and beat them to the punch. Minister Geens’ legislative proposal to legalize ‘white hacking’ fits into this strategy: white hackers have the ideal profile when you are looking for a cybersecurity expert.

The malware business

Cyber crime, like hacking and malware, should be seen as an ever-evolving ‘business’ in which criminals mainly focus on the most profitable types of crimes. Trend Micro predicted that in 2016, cyber criminals would focus on ransomware and mobile malware, while malvertising would move to the background. Again, our predications were confirmed. As predicted, 2016 saw a decrease in malvertising, because, thanks to the growing number of solutions to block advertisements, less victims are to be found and less profit is to be made through malvertising. Mobile malware, on the other hand, is growing, as predicted. Especially an open platform like Android is vulnerable to malware. But iOs is not spared either: wherever users can be found, money can be made by cybercriminals. This dynamic explains the malware that was installed on iPhones via the popular Whatsapp application and the old Windows trojan that was updated by cybercriminals so that it could also infect iPhones and smartphones running on Android. Malware which focuses on mobile payment apps also becomes more common as the popularity of mobile payments grows.

Ransomware made a lot of victims, also in Belgium, among companies as well as individuals. According to Trend Micro, the number of victims grew with about 172% in the first half of 2016 compared to the year before. The ransomware was also continually adapted to allow maximum use (or, rather, misuse) of new technologies, such as the cloud.

The conclusion of 2016 in terms of cyber crime is that there is no ‘silver bullet’. Companies need a coherent strategy which allows them to adapt the security measure to the always evolving attack methods. In the future, malware will continue to evolve. This way, one of Trend Micro’s predictions for 2017 is that ransomware will move to IoT devices.

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