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SHARED INTEL: Akamai reports web attack traffic spiked 62 percent in 2020 — all sectors hit hard

By Byron V. Acohido

Some instructive fresh intelligence about how cyber attacks continue to saturate the Internet comes to us from Akamai Technologies.

Related: DHS launches 60-day cybersecurity sprints

Akamai, which happens to be the Hawaiian word for “smart,” recently released its annual State of the Internet security report. As a leading global content delivery network (CDN), Akamai has a birdseye view of what is coursing through cyber space moment-by-moment. In 2020, it saw 193 billion credential stuffing attacks globally, with 3.4 billion hitting financial services organizations — an increase of more than 45 percent year-over-year in that sector.

Meanwhile, threat actors’ siege on web applications surged 62 percent in 2020 vs.  2019: Akamai observed nearly 6.3 billion web app attacks last year, with more than 736 million targeting financial services.

The majority were SQL Injection (SQLi) attacks, which made up 68 percent of all web app attacks in 2020; Local File Inclusion (LFI) attacks came in second at 22 percent. However, in the financial services industry, LFI attacks were the number one web application attack type in 2020 at 52 percent, with SQLi at 33 percent and Cross-Site Scripting at 9 percent.

I had the chance to visit with the estimable Steve Ragan, the Akamai analyst who put together this report. I’ve known Ragan for a long time and greatly respect his work. He’s excellent at putting himself in the shoes of the threat actors. Here are excerpts of our discussion, edited for clarity and length.

Q: The scale of ‘attacks’ in 2020 is astronomical: 6.3 billion web attacks globally; 736 million in the financial services sector. Can you break this down, and put it into a useful context? For instance, what constitutes a single web attack?

A: You’re right. It is astronomical. For Akamai, a single alert is an attack, and a group of attacks could be called a campaign. In 2020, we observed a healthy mix of both attacks and … more

ROUNDTABLE: Experts react to President Biden’s exec order in the aftermath of Colonial Pipeline hack

By Byron V. Acohido

As wake up calls go, the Colonial Pipeline ransomware hack was piercing.

Related: DHS embarks on 60-day cybersecurity sprints

The attackers shut down the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., compelling Colonial to pay them 75 bitcoins, worth a cool $5 million.

This very high-profile caper is part of an extended surge of ransomware attacks, which  quintupled globally between the first quarter of 2018 and the fourth quarter of 2020, and is expected to rise 20 percent to 40 percent this year,  according to insurance giant Aon.

Ransomware is surging at at time when the global supply chain is being corrupted from inside out, as so vividly illustrated by the SolarWinds supply chain debacle.

In response, President Biden last week issued an executive order requiring more rigorous cybersecurity practices for federal agencies and contractors that develop software for the federal government. Last Watchdog asked a roundtable of cybersecurity industry experts for their reaction. Here’s what they said, responses edited for clarity and length:

Chenxi Wang, founder & general partner, Rain Capital

The new executive order is a swift response from the administration. It’s refreshing to see a government executive order that understands technology trends such as “zero trust”, is able to delineate “Operational Technology (OT)” from “information technology (IT,)” and can talk intelligently about supply chain risks.

While some of the measures stipulated in the order are considered table stakes like multi-factor authentication, the fact that the order exists will help to raise the collective security posture of products and services. It will not be sufficient to defend against sophisticated adversaries, but it will help organizations on the lower end of the capability spectrum to improve their cyber posture and defense.

Keatron Evans, principal security researcher, Infosec Institute

President Biden’s order was drafted with heavy involvement from actual cybersecurity experts, and this is encouraging. Requiring federal agencies to produce an actionable plan to implement Zero Trust Architecture is … more

RSAC insights: Sophos report dissects how improved tools, tactics stop ransomware attack

By Byron V. Acohido

A new report from Sophos dissects how hackers spent two weeks roaming far-and-wide through the modern network of a large enterprise getting into a prime position to carry out what could’ve been a devasting ransomware attack.

Related: DHS embarks on 60-day cybersecurity sprints

This detailed intelligence about a ProxyLogon-enabled attack highlights how criminal intruders are blending automation and human programming skills to great effect. However, in this case, at least, they were detected and purged before hitting paydirt, demonstrating something that doesn’t get discussed often enough.

Enterprises actually have access to plenty of robust security technology, as well as proven tactics and procedures, to detect and defuse even leading-edge, multi-layered attacks. It’s clear to me that cybersecurity technical innovation and supporting frameworks, which includes wider threat intelligence sharing, are taking hold and making a material difference, albeit incrementally.

I had a lively discussion with Dan Schiappa, Sophos’ chief product officer, about this. For a drill down, please give the accompanying podcast a listen. Here are the key takeaways:

Exploit surge

ProxyLogon refers to the critical vulnerability discovered in Microsoft Exchange mail servers early this year. Criminal hacking rings have been hammering away at this latest of a long line of zero-day flaws discovered in a globally distributed system. The pattern is all too familiar: they marshal their hacking infrastructure to take advantage of the window of time when there is a maximum number of vulnerable systems just begging to be hacked.

SHARED INTEL: Report details how cyber criminals leverage HTTPS TLS to hide malware

By Byron V. Acohido

Google was absolutely right to initiate a big public push a couple of years ago to make HTTPS Transport Layer Security (TLS) a de facto standard.

Related: Malicious activity plagues the cloud services

At the time, in the spring of 2018, only 25 percent of commercial websites used HTTPS; today adoption is at 98 percent and rising. Far beyond just protecting websites, TLS has proven to be a linchpin of network-level communications across the board.

Guess who else has been leveraging TLS? Threat actors quickly figured out how to adapt TLS to their purposes. An intelligence report released today by Sophos illustrates just how widely TLS has come to be used by cyber criminals to hide their malicious activity.

From January through March 2021, TLS concealed 45 percent of the malware Sophos analysts observed circulating on the Internet; that’s double the rate – 23 percent – seen in early 2020, Dan Schiappa, Sophos’ chief product officer, told me in a briefing. TLS, he says, is increasingly being used to cloak a wide array of the operational steps behind the most damaging attacks of the moment, namely ransomware attacks and massive data breaches.

This surge in TLS abuse has shifted the security community’s focus back to a venerable network security tool, the firewall.

ROUNDTABLE: Targeting the supply-chain: SolarWinds, then Mimecast and now UScellular

By Byron V. Acohido

It’s only February — and 2021 already is rapidly shaping into the year of supply-chain hacks.

Related: The quickening of cyber warfare

The latest twist: mobile network operator UScellular on Jan. 21 disclosed how cybercriminals broke into its Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform as a gateway to compromise the cell phones of an undisclosed number of the telecom giant’s customers.

This bad news from UScellular follows similarly troubling disclosures from networking software supplier SolarWinds and from email security vendor Mimecast.

The SolarWinds hack came to light in mid-December and has since become a red hot topic in the global cybersecurity community.

Video: What all companies need to know about the SolarWinds hack

Meanwhile, Mimecast followed its Jan. 12 disclosure of a digital certificate compromise with a Jan. 26 posting confirming that the compromise was at the hands of the same nation-state threat group behind the SolarWinds hack and subsequent attacks on various technology companies and federal government agencies.

And now UScellular admits that it detected its network breach on Jan. 6, some two days after the attackers gained unauthorized access. The intruders got in by tricking UScellular retail store employees into downloading malicious software on store computers.

MY TAKE: How Russia is leveraging insecure mobile apps to radicalize disaffected males

By Byron V. Acohido

How did we get to this level of disinformation? How did we, the citizens of the United States of America, become so intensely divided?

It’s tempting to place the lion’s share of the blame on feckless political leaders and facile news media outlets. However, that’s just the surface manifestation of what’s going on.

Related: Let’s not call it ‘fake news’ any more.

Another behind-the-scenes component — one that is not getting the mainstream attention it deserves — has been cyber warfare. Russian hacking groups have set out to systematically erode Western democratic institutions — and they’ve been quite successful at it. There’s plenty of evidence illustrating how Russia has methodically stepped-up cyber attacks aimed at achieving strategic geopolitical advantage over rivals in North America and Europe.

I’m not often surprised by cybersecurity news developments these days. Yet, one recent disclosure floored me. A popular meme site, called iFunny, has emerged as a haven for disaffected teen-aged boys who are enthralled with white supremacy. iFunny is a Russian company; it was launched in 2011 and has been downloaded to iOS and Android phones an estimated 10 million times.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, investigators at Pixalate, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based supplier of fraud management technology, documented how iFunny distributed data-stealing malware and, in doing so, actually targeted smartphone users in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The public is unlikely to ever learn who ordered this campaign, and what they did — or intend to do, going forward — with this particular trove of stolen data.

Advertising practices

Even so, this shared intelligence from Pixalate is instructive. It vividly illustrates how threat actors have gravitated to hacking vulnerable mobile apps. The state of mobile app security is poor. Insecure mobile apps represent a huge and growing attack vector. Mobile apps are being pushed out of development more rapidly than ever, … more

MY TAKE: How ‘credential stuffing’ is being deployed to influence elections, steal Covid-19 relief

By Byron V. Acohido

What do wildfires and credential stuffing have in common?

Related: Automated attacks leverage big data

For several years now, both have flared up and caused harm at the fringes of population centers and our digital economy. And, now, in 2020, both have escalated to catastrophic proportions.

Just after Labor Day, dried out trees and shrubs combined with high winds to erupt into massive wildfires that swiftly engulfed rural towns and even suburban areas of California, Oregon, Washington and several other states. Millions of acres of land got consumed, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated and dozens lost their lives.

Meanwhile, all year long and continuing through the fall, opportunistic cybercriminals have launched wave after wave of automated credential stuffing campaigns. These bad actors are wreaking havoc in two arenas: Stealing Covid-19 relief payments on a massive scale as well as meddling, once again, in the election of a U.S. president.

The wildfires eventually subsided with calmer, damper meteorological conditions. However, massive surges of credential stuffing have persisted, fueled by a seemingly endless supply of already stolen, or easy-to-steal, personal information along with the wide availability of sophisticated hacking tools.