Experts have warned that the rise in international cyber spying will pose the single biggest security threat in 2008. That's according to a new report backed by NATO, the FBI, SOCA and experts from leading groups and universities.

The findings point to huge growth for the cybercrime economy as wrong-doers release more sophisticated threats.

Attacking personal data

As you'd expect, they're targeting personal data through the huge growth in web apps and social networking sites. There's also an increased threat to well-established online services such as banking, and the emergence of a sophisticated market for malware.

But it's not just the usual cybercriminals that are the focus of the report. Among the other trends pointed out in the annual Virtual Criminology Report compiled by security vendor McAfee is that Governments are increasingly spying on other nations via the net.

Not only that, but they're actually carrying out attacks with national infrastructure systems as their targets. And that's not only Government networks, but also services such as financial systems and electricity grids.

"Cybercrime is now a global issue," says Jeff Green, senior vice president of McAfee Avert Labs. "It has evolved significantly and is no longer just a threat to industry and individuals but increasingly to national security. We're seeing emerging threats from increasingly sophisticated groups attacking organisations around the world."

"Technology is only part of the solution, and over the next five years we will start to see international governments take action."

'Many Governments still unaware'

McAfee reckons that as many as 120 countries are now using the Internet for Web espionage operations and the situation has "progressed from initial curiosity probes to well-funded and well organised operations for political, military, economic and technical espionage."

The report points out that many cyber attacks originate from China, and the Chinese have publicly stated that they are pursuing activities in cyber-espionage.

NATO insiders believe many Governments are still unaware of the threat - as shown by the attack on Estonia earlier this year that disrupted Government services and banking websites. Such espionage has become more sophisticated as security systems also get more comprehensive. "Traditional protective measures were not enough to protect against the attacks on Estonia's critical national infrastructure," the insiders are quoted as saying in the report."

"Botnets unsurprisingly were used but the complexity and coordination seen was new. There were a series of attacks with careful timing using different techniques and specific targets. The attackers stopped deliberately rather than being shut down."

The report was compiled by Dr. Ian Brown from Oxford University and Professor Lilian Edwards from the University of Southampton.