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SHARING INTEL: Why full ‘digital transformation’ requires locking down ‘machine identities’

By Byron V. Acohido

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Digital commerce has come to revolve around two types of identities: human and machine.

Great effort has gone into protecting the former, and yet human identities continue to get widely abused by cyber criminals. By comparison, scant effort has gone into securing the latter. This is so in spite of the fact that machine identities are exploding in numbers and have come to saturate digital transformation.

Related: IoT exposures explained

I’ve conversed several times with Jeff Hudson about this. Hudson is CEO of Salt Lake City, UT-based Venafi, a leading provider of machine identity protection solutions. Each time I’ve come away with a better grasp of how machine identities have come to play such a pivotal role in the IT systems taking us forward – and yet how vulnerable they remain to attack in the current environment.

We had a chance to meet again at Black Hat 2019. For a full drill down of our wide-ranging discussion please give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are a few key takeaways:

Machines on the march

Cloud computing and DevOps have given rise to a whirlwind of new types of machines. A machine, in this context, refers to any piece of hardware or software that can accept and execute instructions. The hardware servers humming along in vast data centers are, indeed, machines.

And so are the modular “microservices” written by far-flung third-party developers, who specialize in mixing, matching and reusing microservices assembled inside of software “containers,” which are another type of machine. APIs, the interface coding that allows two different machines to exchange data – for instance, an IoT device and a command server — are machines as well. This is how cool new digital services are getting spun up at high velocity. …more

NEW TECH: ‘Passwordless authentication’ takes us closer to eliminating passwords as the weak link

By Byron V. Acohido

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If there ever was such a thing as a cybersecurity silver bullet it would do one thing really well: eliminate passwords.

Threat actors have proven to be endlessly clever at abusing and misusing passwords. Compromised logins continue to facilitate cyber attacks at all levels, from phishing ruses to credential stuffing to enabling hackers to probe deep inside of a breached network.

Related: The Internet of Things is just getting started

The technology to get rid of passwords is readily available; advances in hardware token and biometric authenticators continue apace. So what’s stopping us from getting rid of passwords altogether?

The hitch, of course, is that password-enabled account logins are too deeply engrained in legacy network infrastructure. For most large enterprises, it would be much too costly and too disruptive to jettison the use of passwords entirely.

That said, we may very well be in the early adopter phase of weaving leading-edge “password-less authentication” solutions into pliant areas of legacy networks. I recently had the chance to drill down on this trend with Trusona, a 3-year-old Scottsdale, AZ company that is pioneering a password-less multi-factor authentication platform.

I interviewed Sharon Vardi, Trusona’s chief marketing officer, about what the path forward looks like, in terms of someday eliminating passwords from digital commerce. For a full drill down, give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are key takeaways.

History lesson

A couple of thousand years ago, Roman troops used passwords to decipher friend from foe as they patrolled the empire. In 1960, an MIT computer scientist named Fernando Corbató introduced the use of passwords in a mainframe computing project, not really to lock any intruders out. Corbató sought a simple way to let his colleagues store private files on multiple terminals – and passwords fit the bill.

As computers shrank in size, and then pervaded into our homes and everyday workplaces, passwords stuck around. Username and password logins emerged as the go-to way to control access to network servers, business applications and Internet-delivered consumer services. Passwords may have been very effective securing Roman roads. But they quickly proved to be a very brittle cybersecurity mechanism. …more

SHARED INTEL: Threat actors add a human touch to boost effectiveness of automated attacks

By Byron V. Acohido

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Trends in fashion and entertainment come and go. The same holds true for the cyber underground.

Related: Leveraging botnets to scale attacks

For a long while now, criminal hackers have relied on leveraging low-cost botnet services to blast out cyber attacks as far and wide as they could, indiscriminately. Over the past 18 months or so, a fresh trend has come into vogue. It essentially involves applying hands-on human cleverness to the task of extracting highest value from assets gained in the automated sweeps.

British antimalware and network security vendor Sophos refers to this new tactic as “automated, active attacks.” Sophos Senior Security Advisor John Shier broke it down for me. We met at Black Hat 2019. For a full drill down, give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are the key takeaways:

Human touch

It has long been common practice to use botnets to blast out wave after wave of e-mails carrying tainted PDFs or Word docs, or a web link pointing to a booby-trapped page – and seeing who would bite. Lately, progressive criminal rings are taking a page out of the playbook of nation-state sponsored APT strikes — by adding more human nuances to their attacks.

“They may discover their targets through some sort of automated technique, which gets them a toehold into the company, or they might just simply go to Shodan (search engine) to discover open, available RDP hosts,” Shier told me. “Once they’re in the front door, now the humans get involved.”

Related: How ransomware became a scourge

Specialists get assigned to poke around, locate key servers and find stealthy paths to send in more malware. They’ll take more manual steps to encrypt servers, exfiltrate data – or do both.

“Cyber criminals are getting into the environment, elevating privileges as much as they can and moving laterally to other segments of the network,” Shier says. “And then, instead of encrypting one or two or ten machines, they’ll encrypt everything.”

The wave of catastrophic ransomware attacks that wrought tens of millions in recovery costs for the cities of Baltimore and Atlanta and prompted numerous small cities to pay six figure ransoms for decryption keys is a prime example of this, Shier says. …more

MY TAKE: ‘Perimeter-less’ computing requires cyber defenses to extend deeper, further forward

By Byron V. Acohido

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Threat actors are opportunistic, well-funded, highly-motivated and endlessly clever.

Therefore cybersecurity innovations must take hold both deeper inside and at the leading edges of modern business networks.

Related: Lessons learned from Capital One breach

Most of the promising new technologies I’ve had the chance to preview this year validate this notion. The best and brightest security innovators continue to roll out solutions designed to stop threat actors very deep – as deep as in CPU memory — or at the cutting edge, think cloud services, IoT and DevOps exposures.

Juniper Networks, the Sunnyvale, CA – based supplier of networking equipment, I discovered, is actually doing both. I came to this conclusion after meeting with Oliver Schuermann, Juniper’s senior director of enterprise marketing.

We met at Black Hat 2019 and Schuermann walked me through how Juniper’s security play pivots off the evolving infrastructure of a typical corporate network. For a full drill down, please give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are the key takeaways:

Deeper sharing

Wider threat intelligence sharing continues to advance apace. I was in the audience at Stanford in 2015 when President Obama signed an executive order urging the corporate sector to accelerate the sharing of threat feeds among themselves and with the federal government.

Since then, a number of threat intel sharing consortiums have either formed or expanded their activities. One recent example is how five midwestern universities – Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers and Nebraska – partnered to create a joint security operation center to gather, analyze and act on threat feeds.

Juniper gathers threat feeds via a security framework, called SecIntl, that runs off servers tied together by Juniper equipment deployed globally in corporate networks. …more

NEW TECH: The march begins to make mobile app security more robust than legacy PC security

By Byron V. Acohido

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Is mobile technology on a course to become more secure than traditional computing?

Seven or eight years ago, that was a far-fetched notion. Today, the answer to that question is, “Yes, it must, and soon.”

Related: Securing the Internet of Things

I’ve been writing about organizations struggling to solve the productivity vs. security dilemma that’s part and parcel of the BYOD craze for some time now. I can recall President Obama issuing BlackBerry phones and ordering his administration to copy his personal practice of using only hardened mobile devices. Yet, many of the government-issued BlackBerry phones got used sporadically, as staffers reverted to their personally owned iPhones and Androids.

What has happened over the past couple of years is that mobile computing has become the cornerstone of our work and personal lives. Meanwhile, threat actors, as you might expect, are increasingly probing for, regularly discovering and enthusiastically exploiting mobile security flaws.

The good news is that cybersecurity vendors continue to innovate, as they have all along. And they appear to be closing in on fresh approaches that should translate into solutions for the longer haul. It is early still, but it looks like we may not have to carry two smartphones, after all, a locked-down company phone, as well as our favorite personal device.

I had the chance to discuss this with Jonas Gyllensvaan and Brian Egenrieder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Revenue Officer, respectively, of mobile security vendor SyncDog. We spoke at Black Hat 2019. For a full drill down, give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are key takeaways:

Securing provisioned devices

From the very start of the smartphone era, employees demonstrated that they did not mind paying for the latest, coolest device and use it for both home and work tasks. By 2011 or so, it was clear the BYOD trend was unstoppable, and companies began to impose much tighter security constraints.

Along came MDMs (mobile device management) services to handle the inventorying and provisioning of these new endpoints. MDMs gave companies the ability to micromanage company-issued devices, adding password protection and remote wiping capabilities. A security staffer could remotely “brick” a company device gone temporarily missing, even if it had just slipped under a couch cushion. The employer could even block access to apps stores, disable phone cameras or use the device’s GPS function to monitor where an employee spends work and personal hours.

Employee’s bristled – and companies responded by exerting even more granular control by embedding EMM (enterprise mobility management,) MAM (mobile application management) and UEM (unified endpoint management) systems on provisioned devices. …more

MY TAKE: Local government can do more to repel ransomware, dilute disinformation campaigns

By Byron V. Acohido

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Local government agencies remain acutely exposed to being hacked. That’s long been true. However, at this moment in history, two particularly worrisome types of cyber attacks are cycling up and hitting local government entities hard: ransomware sieges and election tampering.

Related: Free tools that can help protect elections

I had a deep discussion about this with Todd Weller, chief strategy officer at Bandura Cyber. We spoke at Black Hat USA 2019. Bandura Cyber is a 6-year-old supplier of  threat intelligence gateway technologies. It helps organizations of all sizes but has a solution that is well suited to enable more resource constrained SMBs, tap into the myriad threat feeds being collected by a wide variety of entities and extract actionable intelligence.

Weller observed that local governments are under pressure to more proactively detect and deter threat actors, which means they must figure out how to redirect a bigger chunk of limited resources toward mitigating cyber threats. Current attack trends add urgency, and catching up on doing basic security best practices isn’t enough. For a drill down on my interview with Weller, give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are key takeaways:

Ransomware run

We’ve recently learned just how easy it is for ransomware purveyors to either extract huge extortion payments from local agencies, or worse, cause tens of millions of dollars of damage.

Baltimore city officials declined to pay $76,000 for a ransomware decryption key – and the city ended up absorbing an estimated $18 million in recovery costs. Atlanta refused to pay a $51,000 ransom, and ate $17 million in damage.

Meanwhile, officials from Riviera Beach, Fla., population 35,000, saw fit to cough up a $600,000 payment, and Lake City, Fla., population 12,046, paid $460,000, respectively, for ransomware decryption keys. In each case, after weeks of having city services disrupted, and facing pressure from constituents, city leaders viewed paying a six-figure ransom as the least painful, quickest resolution. …more

MY TAKE: What everyone should know about the promise and pitfalls of the Internet of Things

By Byron V. Acohido

The city of Portland, Ore. has set out to fully leverage the Internet of Things and emerge as a model “smart” city.

Related: Coming soon – driverless cars

Portland recently shelled out $1 million to launch its Traffic Sensor Safety Project, which tracks cyclists as they traverse the Rose City’s innumerable bike paths. That’s just step one of a grand plan to closely study – and proactively manage – traffic behaviors of cyclists, vehicles, pedestrians and joggers. This is all in pursuit of the high-minded goal of eliminating all accidents that result in death or serious injury.

Portland is shooting high, and it is by no means alone. Companies in utilities, transportation and manufacturing sectors are moving forward with the …more