McAfee 2023 Threat Predictions: Evolution and Exploitation

Tips & Advice

As 2022 draws to a close, the Threat Research Team at McAfee Labs takes a look forward—offering their predictions for 2023 and how its threat landscape may take shape.  

This year saw the continued evolution of scams, which is unlikely to slow down, as well as greater adoption of Chrome as an operating system. It also saw the introduction of AI tools that are easy and accessible to virtually anyone with a phone or laptop, which will continue to have significant implications, as will the fluctuating popularity of cryptocurrency and the emergence of “Web3.”  

Advances such as these have set the stage for 2023, which will continue to reshape our interactions with technology—advances that bad actors will try to exploit, and in turn, us.  

Yet as the threat landscape continues to evolve, so do the ways we can protect ourselves. With that, we share McAfee’s threat predictions for 2023, along with insights and advice that can help us enjoy the advances to come with confidence. 

AI Goes Mainstream and the Distribution of Disinformation Rises 

By Steve Grobman, Chief Technology Officer 

Humans have been fascinated by artificial intelligence (AI) for almost as long as we’ve been using computers. And in some cases, even fearful of it. Depictions in pop culture range from HAL, the sentient computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Skynet, the self-aware neural network at the center of the Terminator franchise. The reality of current AI technologies is both more complicated and less autonomous than either of these. While AI is rapidly evolving, humans remain at the heart of it, and whether it’s put to beneficial or nefarious use. 

Within the last few months, creating AI-generated images, videos, and even voices are no longer strictly left to professionals. Now anyone with a phone or computer can take advantage of the technology using publicly available applications like Open AI’s Dall-E or stability.ai’s Stable Diffusion. Google has even made creating AI-generated videos easier than ever. 

What does this mean for the future?  It means the next generation of content creation is becoming available to the masses and will only continue to evolve. People both at work and at home will have the ability to create the AI-generated content in minutes. Just as desktop publishing, photo editing, and inexpensive photorealistic home printers created major advances that empowered individuals to create content that previously required a professional designer, these technologies will enable sophisticated outputs with minimal expertise or effort.   

Advances in desktop publishing and consumer printing also provided benefits to criminals, enabling better counterfeiting and more realistic manipulation of images. Similarly, these emerging next-generation content tools will also be used by a range of bad actors. From cybercriminals to those seeking to falsely influence public opinion, these tools will empower scammers and propagandists to take their tradecraft to the next level with more realistic results and significantly improved efficiency.  

This is especially likely to ramp up in 2023 as the U.S. begins the 2024 presidential election cycle in earnest. Globally, the political environment is polarized. The confluence of the emergence of accessible next-generation generative AI tools and what is sure to be a highly contested 2024 election season is a perfect storm for creating and distributing disinformation for political and monetary gain.  

We’ll all need to be more mindful of the content we consume and the sources that it originates from. Fact-checking images, videos, and news content, something that’s already on the rise, will continue to be a necessary and valuable part of media consumption. 

New Year, New Scams 

By Oliver Devane, Security Researcher 

Cryptocurrency scams 

In 2022 we saw several online scams making use of existing content to make crypto scams more believable. One such example was the double your money cryptocurrency scam that used an old Elon Musk video as a lure. We expect such scams to evolve in 2023 and make use of deep fake videos, as well as audio, to trick victims into parting ways with their hard-earned money.  

Investment scams 

The financial outlook of 2023 remains uncertain for many people. During these times, people often look for ways to make some extra money and this can lead them vulnerable to social media messages and online ads that offer huge financial gains for little investment.   

According to the IC3 2021 report, the losses for financial scams increased from $336,469,000 in 2020 to $1,455,943,193 in 2021, this shows that this type of scam is growing by an enormous amount, and we expect this to continue. 

Fake loans 

Unfortunately, scammers will often target the most vulnerable people. Fake loan scams are one such scam where the scammers know that the victims are desperate for the loan and therefore are less likely to react to warning signs such as asking for an upfront fee. McAfee predicts that there will be a large increase in these types of scams in 2023. When looking for a loan, always use a trusted provider and be careful of clicking on online ads.  

Metaverse 

Metaverses such as Facebook’s Horizon enable their users to explore an online world that was previously unimaginable. When these platforms are in the early stages, malicious actors will usually attempt to exploit the lack of understanding of how they work and use this to scam people. We have observed phishing campaigns targeting users of these platforms in 2022 and we expect this to increase dramatically in 2023 as more and more users sign up for the platforms.   

The Rise of ChromeOS Threats 

By Craig Schmugar, McAfee Senior Principal Engineer 

More than 25 years ago, Windows 95 became the platform of choice not just for millions of users around the globe, but for malware authors targeting those users. Over the years, Windows has evolved, as has the threat landscape. Today, Windows 10 and 11 make up the majority of the desktop PC market, but thanks to the rise of the mobile Internet, device diversity has greatly evolved since the advent of Windows 95.   

Over five years ago, Android overtook Windows as the world’s most popular OS and with this shift bad actors have been pursing alternative methods of attack. The ultimate vectors are those which impact users across a spectrum of devices. Email and web-based scams (some of which are outlined in the blog above) are as prolific as ever as these technologies are ubiquitous across desktop and mobile devices.  

Meanwhile, other technologies span across desktop and mobile experiences as well. For Google, such cross-platform capabilities are highlighted by increased adoption of ChromeOS and a few underlying technologies. This includes 270 million active Android users and a 270% increase in Progressive Web Application (PWA) installations [https://chromeos.dev].  ChromeOS’ ability to run Android applications, combined with its wide-spread adoption, provides the climate for increased attention by those with ill intentions.   

Similarly, adoption of PWAs provide bad actors with additional incentive to deliver deceptive and imposter attacks through this multi-OS channel, including ChromeOS, iOS, MacOS, and Windows.   

Finally, on the heels of COVID restrictions that impacted schools in various countries, Google reported 50 million students and educators worldwide [https://chromeos.dev] using ChromeOS. Many users will be unaware of malicious Chrome extensions lurking in the Chrome Web Store. 

All of this means that the stage is set for a marked increase in threats impacting Chromebook in the year to come. In 2023, we can expect to see Chromebook users among millions of unsuspecting victims that download and run malicious content, whether from malicious Android Apps, Progressive Web Apps, or Chrome Web Store extensions, users should be leery of popups and push notifications urging them to install untrusted apps. 

Web3 Threats will take advantage of FOMO 

By Fernando Ruiz, Senior Security Researcher 

Editor’s Note: Web3? FOMO? If you’re already lost, you’re not alone. Web3 is a term some use to encompass decentralized internet services, technologies like Bitcoin and Non-Fungible Tokens (digital art that collectors can purchase with cryptocurrency). Still confused? A lot of people are. This New York Times article is a good primer on what is currently considered Web3.   

As for FOMO, that’s just an acronym meaning the “Fear of Missing Out.” That nagging feeling, most often felt by extroverts, that others are out there having more fun than them and that they’re missing the party. 

Whether you invest in cryptocurrency or just see the headlines on Twitter, no doubt you’ve seen that the price of cryptocurrency has sharply declined during 2022. These fluctuations are becoming more normal as crypto becomes even more mainstream. It’s very likely that the value of crypto will rise again.  

When the last upturn in valuation happened near the start of the pandemic, the hype about crypto also skyrocketed. Suddenly Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies were everywhere. Out of that, rose the concept of Web3, with more companies investing in new applications over blockchain (the technology that is the backbone of cryptocurrency).  

McAfee predicts that the popularity of cryptocurrency will rise again, and consumers will hear much more about Web3 concepts like decentralized finance (DeFi), decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), self-sovereign identity (SSI) and more.  

Some amateur investors, remembering the rapid rise of the value of Bitcoin earlier this decade, won’t want to miss out on what they think will be a great opportunity to get rich quick. It’s this group that bad actors will seek to exploit, offering up links or applications that play on these users’ crypto/Web3 FOMO.  

As crypto bounces back and initial awareness of decentralization grows in the general population, consumers will begin to explore these Web3 offerings without fully understanding what they mean or what dangers they should be aware of, leaving them open to scams as they invest time and money into crypto or creating their own NFT content. These scams could entice users to click on a link or download an app that appears to legitimately interact with some blockchains, but in actuality:  

  • Does not have the functionality to interact with any blockchain. 
  • Are designed to collect traditional currency for fees or services that do not actually provide any value. 
  • Possess aggressive adware that compromises user’s privacy, time, device performance, data usage, and drains their device battery. 

Additionally, when consumers DO hold crypto, NFT, digital land, or other blockchain financial assets they are going to be targeted for more sophisticated threats that can drain their funds: smart contracts, exchanges, digital wallets, and synchronization services can all be associated with hidden authorizations that allow a third party (potentially a bad actor) to take control of the assets. It’s important that users read the terms and conditions of any app they download, especially those that will be accessing ANY type of financial institution or currency, whether traditional or crypto.  

Social engineering will also continue to be a top entry point for cybercriminals. The complexity of the attacks will evolve as the technology does, which will require more preparation and understanding of how Web3 applications and tools work in order to safely interact with them. 

What has emerged from the world of Web3 thus far, while exciting, has also expanded attack surfaces and vectors, which we expect to see grow throughout 2023 as Web3 evolves. 

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