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MY TAKE: Let’s not lose sight of why Iran is pushing back with military, cyber strikes

By Byron V. Acohido

It is not often that I hear details about the cyber ops capabilities of the USA or UK discussed at the cybersecurity conferences I attend.

Related: We’re in the golden age of cyber spying

Despite the hush-hush nature of Western cyber ops, it is axiomatic in technology and intelligence circles that the USA and UK possess deep hacking and digital spying expertise – capabilities which we regularly deploy to optimize our respective positions in global affairs.

Last week, President Trump took an unheard of step: he flexed American cyber ops muscle out in the open. An offensive cyber strike by the U.S. reportedly knocked out computing systems controlling Iranian rocket and missile launchers, thus arresting global attention for several news cycles.

“The digital strike against Iran is a great example of using USCYBERCOM   as a special ops force, clearly projecting US power by going deep behind enemy lines to knock out the adversary’s intelligence and command-and-control apparatus,” observes Phil Neray, VP of Industrial Cybersecurity for CyberX, a Boston-based supplier of IoT and industrial control system security technologies.

Some context is in order. Trump’s cyber strike against Iran is the latest development in tensions that began in May 2018, when Trump scuttled the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which was the result of 10 years of negotiation between Iran and the United Nations Security Council. The 2015 Iran accord, agreed to by President Obama, set limits on Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

For his own reasons, Trump declared the 2015 Iran accord the “worst deal ever,” and has spent the past year steadily escalating tensions with Iran, for instance, by unilaterally imposing multiple rounds of fresh sanctions.

Iran pushes back

This, of course, has pushed Iran into a corner, and forced Iran to push back. It’s important to keep in mind that Iran, as well as Europe and the U.S., were meeting the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, prior to Trump scuttling the deal.  Let’s not forget that a  hard-won stability was in place, prior to Trump choosing to stir the pot.

Today, Iran is scrambling for support from whatever quarter it can get it. It’s moves, wise or unwise, are quite clearly are calculated to compel European nations to weigh in on its behalf. However, many of Iran’s chess moves have also translated into fodder for Trump to stir animosity against Iran. …more

BEST PRACTICES: Do you know the last time you were socially engineered?

By Byron V. Acohido

This spring marked the 20th anniversary of the Melissa email virus, which spread around the globe, setting the stage for social engineering to become what it is today.

The Melissa malware arrived embedded in a Word doc attached to an email message that enticingly asserted, “Here’s the document you requested . . . don’t show anyone else;-).” Clicking on the Word doc activated a macro that silently executed instructions to send a copy of the email, including another infected attachment, to the first 50 people listed as Outlook contacts.

What’s happened since Melissa? Unfortunately, despite steady advances in malware detection and intrusion prevention systems – and much effort put into training employees – social engineering, most often in the form of phishing or spear phishing, remains the highly effective go-to trigger for many types of hacks.

Related: Defusing weaponized documents

Irrefutable evidence comes from Microsoft. Over the past 20 years, Microsoft’s flagship products, the Windows operating system and Office productivity suite, have been the prime target of cybercriminals. To its credit, the software giant has poured vast resources into beefing up security. And it has been a model corporate citizen when it comes to gathering and sharing invaluable intelligence about what the bad guys are up to.

Threat actors fully grasp that humans will forever remain the weak link in any digital network. Social engineering gives them a foot in the door, whether it’s to your smart home or the business network of the company that employs you.

Attack themes

A broad, general attack will look much like Melissa. The attacker will blast out waves of email with plausible subject lines, and also craft messages that make them look very much like they’re coming from someone you might have done business with, such as a shipping company, online retailer or even your bank.

Some common ones in regular rotation include: a court notice to appear; an IRS refund notice; a job offer from CareerBuilder; tracking notices from FedEx and UPS; a DropBox link notice; an Apple Store security alert; or a Facebook messaging notice.

…more

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

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

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

MY TAKE: NIST Cybersecurity Framework has become a cornerstone for securing networks

By Byron V. Acohido

If your company is participating in the global supply chain, either as a first-party purchaser of goods and services from other organizations, or as a third-party supplier, sooner or later you’ll encounter the NIST Cybersecurity Framework.

Related: How NIST protocols fit SMBs

The essence of the NIST CSF is showing up in the privacy regulations now being enforced in Europe, as well as in a number of U.S. states. And the protocols it lays out inform a wide range of best-practices guides put out by trade groups and proprietary parties, as well.

I had the chance at RSA 2019 to visit with George Wrenn, founder and CEO of CyberSaint Security, a cybersecurity software firm  that plays directly in this space.

Prior to launching CyberSaint, Wrenn was CSO of Schneider Electric, a supplier of technologies used in industrial control systems. While at Schneider, Wrenn participated with other volunteer professionals in helping formulate the NIST CSF.

The participation led to the idea behind CyberSaint. The company supplies a platform, called CyberStrong, that automatically manages risk and compliance assessments across many types of frameworks. This includes not just the NIST CSF, but also the newly minted NIST Risk Management Framework 2.0, and the upcoming NIST Privacy Framework. For a full drill down on the wider context, give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are key takeaways:

Collective wisdom

Think of NIST as Uncle Sam’s long-established standards-setting body. “They are the people who brought you 36 inches in a yard,” Wrenn observed. To come up with its cybersecurity framework, NIST assembled top experts and orchestrated a global consensus- building process that resulted in a robust set of protocols. The CSF is comprehensive and flexible; it can be tailored to fit a specific organization’s needs. And the best part is it’s available for free. …more

MY TAKE: How digital technology and the rising gig economy are exacerbating third-party risks

By Byron V. Acohido

Accounting for third-party risks is now mandated by regulations — with teeth.

Related: Free ‘VRMM’ tool measures third-party exposure

Just take a look at Europe’s GDPR, NYDFS’s cybersecurity requirements or even California’s newly minted Consumer Privacy Act.

What does this mean for company decision makers, going forward, especially as digital transformation and expansion of the gig economy deepens their reliance on subcontractors?

I had the chance at RSA 2019 to discuss that question with Catherine Allen, chairman and CEO of the Santa Fe Group, and Mike Jordan, senior director of Santa Fe’s Shared Assessments program.

Allen is a widely respected thought leader on this topic, having launched Shared Assessments in 2005 as an intel-sharing and training consortium focused on third-party risks. And Jordan has had a hands-on role working third-party risk issues for more than a decade.

To hear the full interview, please give the accompanying podcast a listen. Here are a few key takeaways.

Addressing third-parties

Allen founded The Santa Fe Group in 1995 and established it as a leading consultancy, specializing on emerging technologies. With subcontractors playing a rising role and third party risk covering so many complex fields of expertise, six big banks and the Big Four accounting/consulting firms tasked her with coming up with a standardized approach for assessing third party vendor risk.

What emerged was a quasi-trade association – Shared Assessments. The founding participants developed assessment regimes and tools, all having to do with measuring and assessing, essentially, third-party risks. It was a natural step to expand and evolve these protocols and tools, and to invite companies from other sectors to participate. Collaborating in advance on what’s important in third party risk lets organizations and their vendors come to a faster agreement on what to do about those risks. That out of the way, business can proceed with less risk. …more