If there’s one cybersecurity story that dominated the headlines more than any other in 2019, it was the surge in high-profile ransomware attacks on the US public sector. Municipalities all over the country were caught out, leading to major disruption of local schools, emergency services, courts and other public services. It was a reminder, if any were needed, of the absolutely critical role IT systems now play in society.
But what can IT security chiefs learn from the travails of the past year to improve resilience as we head into a new decade? I spoke to several experts recently for an upcoming Infosecurity Magazine feature.
Drowning in ransomware
According to estimates from Emisoft, 103 municipalities and 759 healthcare providers, along with 1,224 schools, may have been impacted by ransomware as of December 2019. These include major cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans, as well as countless other smaller local authorities like Pensacola and Riviera Beach.
Why are these organisations suffering in such great numbers? According to the experts I spoke to, it’s a combination of under-investment in cybersecurity, and the propensity of some high-profile targets to pay-up — encouraging copycat attacks.
“Public sector bodies have been very heavily targeted by ransomware lately. This trend has likely been helped by some public sector entities paying substantial sums to ransomware criminals,” said SANS Institute dean of research, Johannes Ullrich. “Access to information is also very important to public sector entities to conduct business, and under-investment in business recovery plans has led to a lack of backups or other fallback mechanisms.”
According to Scott Styles, data orchestration and resiliency lead at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services, current security systems are struggling to keep pace with evolving threat techniques.
“Ransomware is designed to avoid detection and exploit the social nature of the network by hiding in files or hyperlinks that businesses need for day-to-day operations. In addition, ransomware only has to be executed once to be successful and it must be detected as well as removed quickly before it can lock or overwrite files. This is unlike other malware that may need to remain in a system for a significant amount of time, or evade detection within a vulnerable system, allowing more time for detection and removal,” he told me.
“While the time-sensitive value of data and services within these organisations makes them prime targets, the main challenges are not much different than other sectors. Vulnerabilities are numerous, people make mistakes and the threat evolves quickly, creating a perfect storm.”
Weathering the storm
The good news is that a defence-in-depth approach utilising key best practice controls can make a big difference, he added. These include AV, up-to-date patching and configuration management, regular backups, and employee security awareness training.
“They should also consider a multi-dimensional approach that integrates hardware, software, network, and behavioural monitoring into a zero-trust resilient solution,” explained Styles. “These solutions typically have the ability to remain operational even if the threat has defeated perimeter defences or is an insider threat.”
For Kevin Lancaster, general manager of security solutions at Kaseya, one of the biggest threats to US public sector bodies is their use of legacy systems. This makes prompt patching more challenging, but also more important than ever.
“The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently issued a new Binding Operational Directive (BOD 19-02) instructing government organisations to patch critical vulnerabilities within 15 days, and high severity vulnerabilities within 30 days,” he told me.
“Patching on time helps reduce the attack surface and ensures vulnerabilities are mitigated quickly. Automating patch management is moving a step ahead. With tight budgets and limited manpower, government agencies can make sure that patches are not missed across the entire network with an automated patch management solution.”
Local governments must get proactive, by developing and testing incident response and business continuity/disaster recovery plans — if necessary, in concert with third-party providers. However, city staff are also a vital asset in helping to mitigate the threat, Lancaster added.
“For government organisations to be fully prepared to tackle cyber threats, IT directors should have a long-term vision which includes up-skilling their employees in areas of cybersecurity,” he concluded. “With budget constraints always at the forefront of concerns, it might not be feasible to routinely train every member of the team. Instead, areas to focus can be prioritised and worked upon to implement effective up-skilling.”
If 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.
The threat of accidental or malicious employees compromising information security has been around ever since there were computer systems. But you would have thought by now that CISOs would have got a handle on it.
Not so, according to a new report from training and research firm the SANS Institute which I’ve just covered for Infosecurity Magazine.
It found that although three-quarters of IT security pros are concerned about the insider threat, a third have no means of defending against it and around a half either don’t know how much they’re spending on it or have no idea what the potential losses would be.
From JPMorgan to Chesapeake, the dangers of failing to properly mitigate internal risks are clear to see, but firms seem to be slow on the uptake.
According to Roy Duckles, EMEA Channel Director at Lieberman Software, it’s a lack of “visibility, accountability and auditability” which is to blame.
“There is an assumption that if a person or group have the ‘keys to the kingdom’ with full admin rights across an enterprise, that this is a viable and effective way to apply security policies,” he told me.
“Where most businesses fail is that due to the fact that this approach not only reduces security, but it makes it almost impossible to see who is changing what, on which systems, at what time, and the effect and risk that it has on a business.”
Firms therefore need to remove privileges where possible, introduce 2FA and prevent admins “knowing” which passwords get them into systems, he advised.
Sagie Dulce, security researcher at Imperva, told me by email that organisations lack “budget, training, technology and an incident response plan” for when a breach occurs.
“Obviously, the first things organizations must do is put some resources into the insider threat. The second thing organizations must do is prioritise: ask themselves what are the most important thing they are trying to protect?
Once they know what they are trying to protect they should consider:
- Is it Personal Information, emails, code etc?
- Is the data structured, unstructured?
- Is it found on databases, file shares?
- Who has access to this data and how (from special terminals, via VPN, 3rd party partners etc.)?”
Finally I asked David Chismon, security consultant at MWR InfoSecurity, who repeated the notion that employees should be given the minimum access necessary to do their jobs.
Investing in systems to spot insider abuse could also help protect organisations against targeted attacks which spearphish users and abuse their access, he argued.
“For example, organisations are able to detect when an employee’s account is used to try and access data it shouldn’t or if a large amount of data is being exfiltrated,” Chismon explained. “It doesn’t matter at that stage if it is the employee misusing their account or an external attacker who has compromised the network.”
I don’t often cover India’s outsourcing market but an interesting piece of news emerged this week when local media reported that the EU has found some notable gaps in the country’s data protection legislation which could scupper a major trade agreement between the two.
Basically the two have been trying to thrash out the Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement since 2006.
The idea is that India opens up more of its vast market for EU firms and vice versa, but with one of India’s biggest industries in Business Process Outsourcing, a key demand from that side was that the country be recognised as a “data secure destination” by Europe.
According to the Data Security Council of India (DSCI), this single accreditation could propel outsourcing revenues from European customers from $20bn to $50bn in no time at all.
Sadly for India, the EU Justice Department decided to launch a consultation on India’s data security credentials and now the mutterings are it doesn’t like what it sees.
Any further delays which require legislative amendments could take years – not exactly what IT services giants like Infosys, Mahindra and Unisys want.
However, Forrester security analyst Manatosh Das told me all may not be quite as bad as it seems.
For starters, he said, India is taking information security a lot more seriously nowadays since recent high profile cyber attacks.
With the proposed electronic surveillance Central Monitoring System, the country is apparently planning for stringent privacy laws, while the DSCI, set up by Nasscom, has a strict remit to monitor data security and privacy in the IT and BPO industries, he said.
“I really don’t think in the current scenario outsourcing will take a back seat,” Das added.
“Private organisations in India follow international security frameworks like ISO 27001, PCI DSS, SOX, HIPAA. They have strong contractual agreements with their clients. Clients have the right to audit the vendors as per the agreement.”
However, he did admit that the IT Amendment Act 2008 lacks enforcement and needs amending again to “remove ambiguity” and create specific exceptions.
As a side note, I’m sure the recent “landmark” agreement between the UK and India on data security will also help reassure European customers considering offloading some services to Indian firms.
As always though, rigorous planning and due diligence and early involvement from the IT department should be a given to prevent any unexpected outsourcing problems down the line.
Earlier this week David Cameron signed a deal designed to elevate the Indo-British relationship to an “unprecedented level of co-operation” on cyber security issues. It came as part of the PM’s three day trade mission to India and is certainly to be welcomed, but the agreement also implies some rather worrying things about the cyber readiness of the country’s big outsourcing firms.
The deal will essentially mean two things. Firstly, UK technical know-how and expertise in the cyber security sphere will be shared with Indian outsourcers, essentially to help protect the vast amounts of data from UK consumers and businesses which are now held on servers in the country.
Secondly, the agreement will see the two countries share relevant threat intelligence in order to thwart attacks on their systems, whether they’re coming from the UK, India or elsewhere.
Now, as mentioned, any kind of international co-operation on cyber threat protection is a step in the right direction, and Cameron certainly can’t be faulted for his assertion that “other countries securing their data is effectively helping us secure our data”.
My surprise is that big name outsourcers like Wipro, HCL, Mahindra and Infosys – firms which have built their business presumably on the quality (and security) of their BPO offerings – need an extra hand.
Any CIO worth his salt would surely relegate to the scrap heap a potential outsourcing provider who could not satisfy his or her list of pre-determined security requirements.
Sure, the smaller outsourcers will benefit most from this deal, but the big boys too?
Well, yes, according to Forrester’s New Delhi-based analyst Katyayan Gupta.
“Even larger Indian firms like Infosys, TCS, etc. will also benefit because now they will have an additional layer of security against cyber criminals,” he told me.
“This is not to say that these firms do not have good security right now. But the question really is – is it enough to keep all attackers out? Probably not.”
Now I know in this age of APTs and highly targeted attacks no firm can claim to be impervious, but it’s slightly worrying when those with huge resources – in an industry where reputational damage following a data breaches could hit hard – are apparently getting expertise flown in from the UK that they haven’t obtained anyway.
Also, as Gupta argued, the deal will still do nothing to stop perhaps the biggest threat to UK data residing on these firms’ servers: corrupt insiders.
It may be time to revisit those SLAs.