Sophisticated mobile threats, Windows 8 infiltration and large-scale attacks on human population centers are among McAfee Labs’ cyber threat predictions for 2013. In Jan., researchers at the company released their 2013 Threats Predictions report, citing the rise of adaptable and frequent cyberattacks that target global critical infrastructure systems.

This stark forecast came the same month that the Pentagon began planning to expand its cybersecurity forces to more than five times their current size. Recent events and increasingly scary predictions paint a grim picture of the future of cyberwarfare.

“We do see that there’s a shifting trend here concerning large-scale attacks, more in the aspect of disrupting operations,” said researcher Ryan Sherstobitoff, referencing the Shamoon virus attack that shut down 30,000 computers simultaneously in Saudi Arabia in 2012. According to Reuters, Shamoon replaced system files with garbage data, including images of burning American flags, rendering the computers useless.

Sherstobitoff told Government Technology that the world will experience more of these attacks where the purpose is to harm machines on a massive scale, not steal information.

But data theft will still occur in the public sector, despite criminals’ thirst for chaos and destruction. “People who are interested in government targets are not interested in stealing money from bank accounts; they’re interested in stealing intellectual property,” Sherstobitoff explained.

Predictions in the report include the following:

  • More attacks meant to destroy infrastructure, not reap financial gain;
  • Growth of malware that regenerates even after it’s been removed;
  • Development of targeted attacks against Windows 8 and HTML 5;
  • Malware that blocks security updates to mobile phones; and
  • Malware that makes unauthorized app purchases from victims’ phones.

On the mobile malware front, the report forecasts that criminals will use consumer smartphones to steal money from them. Phones with near-field communications (NFC) technology, in which owners tap devices on surfaces to make mobile payments, will grow in popularity, making the devices prime targets. Criminals can infect NFC technology and steal from large numbers of consumers paying for purchases this way in densely populated areas like airports and malls.

Similarly, as Windows 8 deployments grow, so will attacks against it. The Windows operating system and family of products is virtually ubiquitous in the public sector, so government workplaces should take note.

“It is likely that Windows 8-specific malware will be available quicker than Windows 7-specific malware appeared,” the report reads. Windows 8 may be more difficult to penetrate, however. According to the report, Windows 8 comes with improved protections against malware and exploits, compared to earlier versions.

It may seem inevitable for agencies to be victimized by cyberattacks, but Sherstobitoff believes that organizations can prepare for events by understanding their vulnerabilities and what their attackers are coming for.

“Understanding the enemy and what their intention is, that’s where you’re going to get the most benefit,” he said. “You have to start really understanding who is behind it and what their motives are."

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.