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Aurich Lawson / Thinkstock

Encryption, the transformation of data into a form that prevents anyone unauthorized from understanding that data, is a fundamental technology that enables online commerce, secure communication, and the protection of confidential information.

Encryption algorithms are the mathematical formulae for performing these transformations. You provide an encryption algorithm with a key and the data you want to protect (the plaintext), and it produces an encrypted output (the ciphertext). To read the output, you need to feed the key and the ciphertext into a decryption algorithm (sometimes these are identical to encryption algorithms; other times they are closely related but different).

Encryption algorithms are designed so that performing the decryption process is unfeasibly hard without knowing the key.

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Aurich Lawson

In the 1990s, client-server was king. The processing power of PCs and the increasing speed of networks led to more and more desktop applications, often plugging into backend middleware and corporate data sources. But those applications, and the PCs they ran on, were vulnerable to viruses and other attacks. When applications were poorly designed, they could leave sensitive data exposed.

Today, the mobile app is king. The processing power of smartphones and mobile devices based on Android, iOS, and other mobile operating systems combined with the speed of broadband cellular networks have led to more mobile applications with an old-school plan: plug into backend middleware and corporate data sources.

But these apps and the devices they run on are vulnerable… well, you get the picture. It's déjà vu with one major difference: while most client-server applications ran within the confines of a LAN or corporate WAN, mobile apps are running outside of the confines of corporate networks and are accessing services across the public Internet. That makes mobile applications potentially huge security vulnerabilities—especially if they aren't architected properly and configured with proper security and access controls.

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Aurich Lawson

Some say we're living in a "post-PC" world, but malware on PCs is still a major problem for home computer users and businesses.

The examples are everywhere: In November, we reported that malware was used to steal information about one of Japan's newest rockets and upload it to computers controlled by hackers. Critical systems at two US power plants were recently found infected with malware spread by USB drives. Malware known as "Dexter" stole credit card data from point-of-sale terminals at businesses. And espionage-motivated computer threats are getting more sophisticated and versatile all the time.

In this second installment in the Ars Guide to Online Security, we'll cover the basics for those who may not be familiar with the different types of malware that can affect computers. Malware comes in a variety of types, including viruses, worms, and Trojans.

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Reflected XSS vulnerabilities in action

Aspect Security

When my neighbor called early Wednesday morning, she sounded close to tears. Her Yahoo Mail account had been hijacked and used to send spam to addresses in her contact list. Restrictions had then been placed on her account that prevented her from e-mailing her friends to let them know what happened.

In a blog post published hours before my neighbor's call, researchers from security firm Bitdefender said that the hacking campaign that targeted my neighbor's account had been active for about a month. Even more remarkable, the researchers said the underlying hack worked because Yahoo's developer blog runs on a version of the WordPress content management system that contained a vulnerability developers addressed more than eight months ago. My neighbor's only mistake, it seems, was clicking on a link while logged in to her Yahoo account.

As someone who received one of the spam e-mails from her compromised account, I know how easy it is to click such links. The subject line of my neighbor's e-mail mentioned me by name, even though my name isn't in my address. Over the past few months, she and I regularly sent messages to each other that contained nothing more than a Web address, so I thought nothing of opening the link contained in Wednesday's e-mail. The page that opened looked harmless enough. It appeared to be an advertorial post on MSNBC.com about working from home, which is something I do all the time. But behind the scenes, according to Bitdefender, something much more nefarious was at work.

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Key parts of the infrastructure supporting an espionage campaign that targeted governments around the world reportedly have been shut down in the days since the five-year operation was exposed.

The so-called Red October campaign came to light on Monday in a report from researchers from antivirus provider Kaspersky Lab. It reported that the then-ongoing operation was targeting embassies as well as governmental and scientific research organizations in a wide variety of countries. The research uncovered more than 60 Internet domain names used to run the sprawling command and control network that funneled malware and received stolen data to and from infected machines. In the hours following the report, many of those domains and servers began shutting down, according to an article posted Friday by Kaspersky news service Threatpost.

"It's clear that the infrastructure is being shut down," Kaspersky Lab researcher Costin Raiu told the service. "Not only the registers killing the domains and the hosting providers killing the command-and-control servers but perhaps the attackers shutting down the whole operation."

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