Why Abuse of Digital Certs and Crypto Keys is the Biggest Security Threat for 2016

padlockIf there’s one major security trend of 2015 I’d predict causing even more trouble next year it’s abuse of crypto keys and digital certificates. Cybercriminals have simply found that abusing this layer of the internet is far easier, cheaper and often more effective than more traditional forms of attack.

Digital certificates stolen from Sony Pictures were later used to sign malware in order to make attacks more effective; and the same technique was linked to the Anthem and Premera healthcare breaches in the States.

And of course it was a similar strategy which contributed to the success of the Stuxnet attack.

Kaspersky Lab even said this week that the number of new malware files it detected this year have actually dropped, as hackers instead use stolen or bought digital certs to achieve the same ends.

Kevin Bocek is chief security strategist at Venafi – a firm which helps secure cryptographic keys and digital certs. He told me these foundational layers of trust on which the internet rests are being undermined by the latest developments in the black hat community.

“We’ve all seen that movie scene where the bad guy dresses up as a painter to gain access to a building; this is now what is happening in the cyberworld,” he told me.

“Bad guys are trading keys and certificates on the dark web and using them to crack into company systems – just look at Sony, the Snowden revelations and Stuxnet. They all involved stolen or misused keys and certificates.”

It doesn’t bode well for the future, with even current systems being architected in the same way – based on digital certificates.

“My concern is that moving forward industrial control centre malware could become bioweapons,” Bocek claimed. “This is because the moment you sign the malware with a valid certificate, it is essentially like a bio weapon. In the current climate, that’s frightening.”

That’s not all. The burgeoning Internet of Things space is ripe for exploitation in the same way, with cybercriminals likely to hold firms ransom by effectively taking over their smart devices.

“By taking a code-signing certificate and changing the entity it obeys, a hacker can change the firmware on a smart device to take control of it. Now when that sensor or smart device calls back to the ‘mothership’ who does it trust? The bad guy,” he explained.

“From a single point of compromise – the digital certificate – hackers and cybercriminals can take over a whole network of hundreds, thousands or even millions of smart ‘things’. This can then be used to blackmail companies – either cease operations, take on huge disruption, or pay up.”

Now, Venafi certainly has a vested interest to talk up the potential damage that abuse of certs and keys could effect.

But this is already happening in the wild with real consequences for organizations and their customers around the world.

Unfortunately 2016 is likely to see things get a lot worse before CISOs start to give this their full attention.


Data security incidents hit 47,000 in 2012

Last week I popped over to the Quarry Bay HQ of Verizon Business in Hong Kong to hear more about the annual Data Breach Investigations Report.

The report’s really come on since I covered it way back in 2008, and this year pulled data from an unprecedented 19 reputable sources including Scotland Yard, the US Department of Homeland Security and many more.

The Register covered the main news from the report when it was launched the week before – that China was responsible for a whopping 96 per cent of state-affiliated attacks – so I was keen to get some other APAC-relevant insight from the team.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much to be had, in fact the report itself only mentions Asia Pacific once as a break-out region, to illustrate the top 20 threat types across the whopping 47,000 security “incidents” recorded over 2012.

What this probably tells us is that methods of collecting the data at the moment are pretty non-standardised across the globe, which makes drawing any clear comparisons difficult between regions.

Another thought that occurred: it’s fairly obvious that organisations across the globe suffer from the same kinds of information security risk – whether hacktivist, financially motivated criminal or state sponsored espionage-related.

As Verizon’s HK VP Francis Yip said: “No one is immune from cyber crime. As long as you have an IP address, you are a target, no matter how long you spend online.”

In this respect, there were no startling new trends as such to pull out of the report, aside from China’s consistent and persistent appearance as number one source of state-sponsored shenanigans.

This is probably good news for under fire CISOs, now tasked not only with deflecting financially motivated cyber crime and attempts from hacktivists to take down their sites and steal credentials, but also under-the-radar information theft from APT-style attacks.

What’s also good news, is Verizon’s assertion that the cloud is no less safe than any other form of computing system, as long as IT teams make sure they carry out due diligence on providers.

“Cloud can actually be more secure, because these providers are doing it on an industrial scale with staff who know what they are doing,” argued Verizon’s APAC head of identity and privacy services, Ian Christofis.

While all this is certainly true I definitely got the impression from the briefing that many firms are still failing on the security basics.

“Could try harder” is probably a suitable report card take-away for businesses from 2012.