Home Podcasts Videos Guest Posts Q&A My Take Bio Contact
 

Imminent threats

 

MY TAKE: Why locking down ‘firmware’ has now become the next big cybersecurity challenge

By Byron V. Acohido

Locking down firmware. This is fast becoming a profound new security challenge for all companies – one that can’t be pushed to a side burner.

Related: The rise of ‘memory attacks’

I’m making this assertion as federal authorities have just commenced steps to remove and replace switching gear supplied, on the cheap, to smaller U.S. telecoms by Chinese tech giant  Huawei. These are the carriers that provide Internet access to rural areas all across America.

Starks

Federal Communications Commission member Geoffrey Starks recently alluded to the possibility that China may have secretly coded the firmware in Huawei’s equipment to support cyber espionage and cyber infrastructure attacks.

This isn’t an outlier exposure, by any means. Firmware is the coding that’s embedded below the software layer on all computing devices, ranging from printers to hard drives and motherboards to routers and switches. Firmware carries out the low-level input/output tasks, without which the hardware would be inoperable.

However, the security of firmware has been largely overlooked over the past two decades. It has only been in the past four years or so that white hat researchers and black hat hackers have gravitated over to this unguarded terrain – and begun making hay.

I recently had the chance to discuss this with John Loucaides, vice-president of engineering at Eclypsium, a Beaverton, OR-based security startup that is introducing technology to scan for firmware vulnerabilities. Here are the big takeaways:

Bypassing protection

Firmware exposures are in the early phases of an all too familiar cycle. Remember when, over the course of the 2000s and 2010s, the cybersecurity industry innovated like crazy to address software flaws in operating systems and business applications? Vulnerability research took on a life of its own.

As threat actors wreaked havoc, companies strove to ingrain security into code writing, and make it incrementally harder to exploit flaws that inevitably surfaced in a vast threat landscape. Then, much the same cycle unfolded as virtual computing came along and became popular; and then the cycle repeated itself, yet again, as web browsers took center stage in digital commerce. …more

GUEST ESSAY: Dear America, Facebook is an addictive digital drug of little productive value

By Sen. Josh Hawley

Social media consumers are getting wise to the joke that when the product is free, they’re the ones being sold. But despite the growing threat of consumer exploitation, Washington still shrinks from confronting our social media giants.

Why? Because the social giants have convinced the chattering class that America simply can’t do without them. Confront the industry, we’re told, and you might accidentally kill it ? and with it, all the innovation it has (supposedly) brought to our society.

Related: The cost of being complacent about privacy.

Maybe. But maybe social media’s innovations do our country more harm than good. Maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society.

Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared. Ask the social giants what it is that they produce for America and you’ll hear grand statements about new forms of human interaction. But ask where their money comes from and you’ll get the real truth.

Advertising is what the social giants truly care about, and for an obvious reason. It’s how they turn a profit. And when it comes to making money, they’ve been great innovators. They’ve designed platforms that extract massive amounts of personal data without telling consumers, then sell that data without consumers’ permission.

And in order to guarantee an audience big enough to make their ads profitable, big tech has developed a business model designed to do one thing above all: addict. …more

MY TAKE: Android users beware: Google says ‘potentially harmful apps’ on the rise

By Byron V. Acohido

Even if your company issues you a locked-down smartphone, embracing best security practices remains vital
Our smartphones. Where would we be without them?

Related Q&A: Diligence required of Android users

If you’re anything like me, making a phone call is the fifth or sixth reason to reach for your Android or iPhone. Whichever OS you favor, a good portion of the key components that make up your digital life — email, texting, social media, shopping, banking, hobbies, and work duties — now route through these indispensable contraptions much of the time.

Cybercriminals know this, of course, and for some time now they have been relentlessly seeking out and exploiting the fresh attack vectors spinning out of our smartphone obsession.

Don’t look now, but evidence is mounting that the mobile threats landscape is on the threshold of getting a lot more dicey.

This is because mobile services and smartphone functionalities are rapidly expanding, and, as you might expect, cyberattacks targeting mobile devices and services are also rising sharply. Here are a few key developments everyone should know about.

Malware deliveries

Upon reviewing Android usage data for all of 2018, Google identified a rise in the number of “potentially harmful apps” that were preinstalled or delivered through over-the-air updates. Threat actors have figured out how to insinuate themselves into the processes that preinstall apps on new phones and push out OS updates.

Why did they go there? Instead of having to trick users one by one, fraudsters only have to deceive the device manufacturer, or some other party involved in the supply chain, and thereby get their malicious code delivered far and wide.

In a related development, OneSpan, a Chicago-based supplier of authentication technology to 2,000 banks worldwide, reports seeing a rise in cyber attacks targeting mobile banking patrons. “Popular forms of mobile attacks, at this point in time, include screen scrapers and screen capture mechanisms, as well as the installation of rogue keyboards,” said OneSpan security evangelist Will LaSala. …more

GUEST ESSAY: How stealth, persistence allowed Wipro attacker to plunder supply chain

By Chris Gerritz

The recent network breach of Wipro, a prominent outsourcing company based in India, serves as a stunning reminder that digital transformation cuts two ways.

Our rising dependence on business systems that leverage cloud services and the gig economy to accomplish high-velocity innovation has led to a rise in productivity. However, the flip side is that we’ve also created fresh attack vectors at a rapid rate – exposures that are not being adequately addressed.

Related: Marriott suffers massive breach

We now know, thanks to reporting from cybersecurity blogger Brian Krebs, that the Wipro hack was a multi-month intrusion and likely the work of a nation-state backed threat actor. What’s more, the attackers reportedly were able to use Wipro as a jumping off point to infiltrate the networks of at least a dozen of Wipro’s customers.

Wipro issued a media statement, via its Economic Times division, acknowledging “potentially abnormal activity in a few employee accounts on our network due to an advanced phishing campaign . . . Upon learning of the incident, we promptly began an investigation, identified the affected users and took remedial steps to contain and mitigate any potential impact.”

Wipro did not provide many additional details. However, one has to wonder whether, beyond its customers, …more

Q&A: The drivers behind the stark rise — and security implications — of ‘memory attacks’

By Byron V. Acohido

A distinctive class of hacking is rising to the fore and is being leveraged by threat actors to carry out deep, highly resilient intrusions of well-defended company networks.

Related: Memory hacking becomes a go-to tactic

These attacks are referred to in the security community as “fileless attacks” or “memory attacks.” The latter conveys a more precise picture: memory hacking refers to a broad set of practices, which can include fileless attacks, that constitute this go-deep form of network break-ins.

I had the chance at RSA 2019 to discuss memory hacking with Willy Leichter, vice president of marketing, and Shauntinez Jakab, director of product marketing, at Virsec, a San Jose-based supplier of advanced application security and memory protection technologies.

They walked me through how threat actors are cleverly slipping snippets of malicious code past perimeter defenses and then executing their payloads  – undetected while applications are live, running in process memory.

For a long time, memory hacking was the exclusive province of nation-state backed operatives. But over the past couple of years, memory attacks have come into regular use by common cybercriminals. Garden-variety threat actors are now leveraging memory hacking tools and techniques to gain footholds, move laterally and achieve persistence deep inside well-defended networks.

For a comprehensive drill down, please view the accompanying YouTube video of my full interview with Leichter and Jakab at RSA 2019’s broadcast alley. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity and length:

LW: Can you frame this new class of hacking? …more

MY TAKE: ‘Cyberthreat index’ shows SMBs recognize cyber risks — struggling to deal with them

By Byron V. Acohido

Small and midsize businesses — so-called SMBs — face an acute risk of sustaining a crippling cyberattack. This appears to be even more true today than it was when I began writing about business cyber risks at USA TODAY more than a decade ago.

Related: ‘Malvertising’ threat explained

However, one small positive step is that company decision makers today, at least, don’t have their heads in the sand. A recent survey of more than 1,000 senior execs and IT professionals, called the AppRiver Cyberthreat Index for Business Survey, showed a high level of awareness among SMB officials that a cyberattack represents a potentially devastating operational risk.

That said, it’s also clear that all too many SMBs remain ill equipped to assess evolving cyber threats, much less  effectively mitigate them. According to the Cyberthreat Index, 45 percent of all SMBs and 56% of large SMBs believe they are vulnerable to “imminent” threats of cybersecurity attacks.

Interestingly, 61 percent of all SMBs and 79 percent of large SMBs believe cyberhackers have more sophisticated technology at their disposal than the SMBs’ own cybersecurity resources.

“I often see a sizable gap between perceptions and reality among many SMB leaders,” Troy Gill a senior security analyst at AppRiver told me. “They don’t know what they don’t know, and this lack of preparedness often aids and abets cybercriminals.”

What’s distinctive about this index is that AppRiver plans to refresh it on a quarterly basis, going forward, thus sharing an instructive barometer showing how SMBs are faring against cyber exposures that will only continue to steadily evolve and intensify.

I had the chance at RSA 2019 to discuss the SMB security landscape at length with Gill. You can give a listen to the entire interview at this accompanying podcast. Here are key takeaways:

Sizable need

AppRiver is in the perfect position to deliver an SMB cyber risk index. The company got its start in 2002 in Gulf Breeze, Florida, as a two-man operation that set out to help small firms filter the early waves of email spam. It grew steadily into a supplier of cloud-enabled security and productivity services, and today has some 250 employees servicing 60,000 SMBs worldwide. …more

NEW TECH: How Semperis came to close a huge gap in Active Directory disaster preparedness

By Byron V. Acohido

In today’s complex IT environments, a million things can go wrong, though only a few systems touch everything.

Related: Why Active Directory is so heavily targeted

For companies running Microsoft Windows, one such touch-all system is Active Directory, or AD, the software that organizes and provides access to information across the breadth of Windows systems. Over 80 percent of recent headline-grabbing attacks have involved breaking into  AD — the “keys to the kingdom” if you will.

Semperis is a security company, launched in 2014, that is entirely focused on AD – or, to put it more precisely, on delivering state-of-art AD cyber resilience, threat mitigation and rapid recovery from cyber breaches.

I had the chance at RSA 2019 to visit with Semperis CEO Mickey Bresman. He filled me in on how the company, based in the new World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, got started; and I learned more about why Semperis is thriving. To hear our full conversation, please give the accompanying podcast a listen. Here are a few key takeaways:

The beginning

Active Directory is a critical part of a vast majority of enterprise networks; some 90 percent of all companies rely on AD. It holds the keys to pretty much everything in your company, as it stores all of the company’s user information. Downtime can result in loss of access to line-of-business applications, lost revenue and, in some cases, a complete organizational shutdown.

With so much at stake, it’s a marvel that AD disaster recovery protocol traditionally has been based on a 60-page white paper that needs to be manually followed. This clunky solution to a potentially catastrophic failure, typically has required bringing in a specialist troubleshooter to get the company up and running again.

This, in fact, was the service Semperis set out to provide when it launched in 2014. At the time, most AD attacks were the work of a malicious insider. In one situation, prior to forming Semperis, Semperis co-founders  parachuted into a live, unfolding disaster recovery assignment: …more