To evade detection by security software, hackers now mask virtually every web browser exploit, according to IBM's X-Force research team.
By the end of last year, according to Kris Lamb, director of IBM Internet Security Systems' X-Force, nearly 100 percent of all web exploits were either self-encrypted or relied on obfuscation techniques to make it difficult for standard intrusion detection and intrusion prevention technologies to identify the attack code.
"In 2006, we saw about 50 percent of web exploits obfuscated or encoded," said Lamb, adding that, on average, 80 percent were camouflaged throughout 2007.
"But that jumped to almost 100 percent by the end of the year."
The reason for the cover-up boost is straightforward, said Lamb.
"They're not dumb. They only do what they're forced to do," he explained. "For them to continue to get a high rate of return, they had to understand the protection technologies that were being used. And [security] vendors were doing a pretty good job.
"Attackers can do very advantageous things, like encode it so when it goes over the wire, all the recipient sees is a data blob," he noted.
This year, he predicted, the camouflaging will continue, with hackers increasingly adding secondary scripting languages to their obfuscation and encryption portfolios.
The masking and encryption, however, is just one facet of the ongoing trend toward attacks aimed first and foremost at browsers, said Lamb.
"Whether through drive-by downloads or compromising legitimate sites, or a combination of advanced, targeted phishing, the browser is involved in some way," he said. "It's the main frontier of exploit right now.
"We used to call the operating system the 'keys of the castle,' but as exploits moved up the application stack and as the browser became the new OS, it's now the keys to castle," he added.