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updated 3/15/2011 6:50:09 AM ET 2011-03-15T10:50:09

If being forewarned means being forearmed, then a new daily assessment of online threats may be just what the IT department ordered.

Billed as a kind of weather report for storms brewing on the Web, Symantec's new Norton Cybercrime Index is a daily summary of current online threats.

Just as most of us regularly check the weather and headlines, the company hopes its free online report -- available at www.nortoncybercrimeindex.com -- will become a part of people's morning routine.

The Cybercrime Index alerts consumers and businesses to current online trouble spots and potential hazards, including popular scams and hacks. Recently, for example, the index featured a warning about malware on smartphones and included a list of dangerous software to look out for.

The free tool offers a numerical daily threat level ranking, the percentage of increase or decrease of that number from the previous day, and notes about a slew of threats ranging from spam and fraud to adware and identity theft.

But is this morning cup of scare really helpful?

"Since it takes some time between the discovery of a new threat and the moment it is fixed, people must be warned as it happens," said Catalin Cosoi, the head of the online threats lab at Bucharest, Romania-based computer-security firm BitDefender.

Indeed, while it may take days or weeks for companies to issue software patches against viruses and hacks, consumers can avoid scams before that if they know about them, and corporate system administrators can work to protect networks rather than remaining vulnerable while waiting for patches.

Useful tool

Norton includes analyst recommendations on how to protect against particular attacks as part of the Cybercrime Index.

According to Symantec, which sees the index as analogous to a traffic report, the report is based on information culled from Symantec’s own Global Intelligence Network, San Diego-based identity-fraud consulting firm ID Analytics and the nonprofit data-breach tracker DataLossDB.

Symantec monitors 130 million servers worldwide for infections and intrusions, while ID Analytics provides information about consumer identity theft and DataLossDB delivers reports about stolen data. Symantec combines the information and uses a statistical model to create the threat index.

It can be a useful tool to see which industries are usually targeted and how, but there are limitations to such assessments.

Many companies, in spite of public disclosure laws, are reluctant to reveal that they have been victims of hackers. Such disclosures can reveal vulnerabilities to other cybercriminals, as well as shake consumer and shareholder confidence in a company's ability to protect itself and its clients.

Consequently, a preponderance of the threat assessment data comes from academic institutions, government agencies and third-party reports of online break-ins.

BitDefender's Cosoi admits that this can be a problem, but believes rather than pinpointing who has been hacked or who's responsible, "the most relevant questions are actually, ‘How does that piece of malware work, and how do we fix/prevent it?’"

While security issues may not be the top tech news story every day, Cosoi believes monitoring security threats regularly is a good idea.

For example, many security companies have blogs that are great sources of up-to-date information.

Recent helpful posts include some about iTunes fixes from Kaspersky's ThreatPost.com, a recent hack of an online retailer from Sophos' NakedSecurity, and warnings about fake YouTube plugins from BitDefender's own MalwareCity.com.

Twitter, rather than being just a repository of celebrity gossip, is also a good way to keep up on daily security threats, Cosoi said. He recommends checking out a few security researchers and following them.

 

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