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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.

AUTHOR Q&A: New book, ‘Hackable,’ suggests app security is the key to securing business networks

By Byron V. Acohido

The cybersecurity operational risks businesses face today are daunting, to say the least.

Related: Embedding security into DevOps.

Edge-less networks and cloud-supplied infrastructure bring many benefits, to be sure. But they also introduce unprecedented exposures – fresh attack vectors that skilled and motivated threat actors are taking full advantage of.

Adopting and nurturing a security culture is vital for all businesses. But where to start? Ted Harrington’s new book Hackable: How To Do Application Security Right argues for making application security a focal point, while laying out a practical framework that covers many of the fundamental bases.

Harrington is an executive partner at Independent Security Evaluators (ISE), a company of ethical hackers known for hacking cars, medical devices and password managers. He told me he wrote Hackable to inform folks oblivious to the importance of securing apps, even as corporate and consumer reliance on apps deepens.

Here are excerpts of an exchange Last Watchdog had with Harrington about his new book, edited for clarity and length:

LW: Why is it smart for companies to make addressing app security a focal point?

Harrington: Software runs the world. Application security is the soft underbelly to almost all security domains, from network security to social engineering and everything in between.

MY TAKE: With disinformation running rampant, embedding ethics into AI has become vital

By Byron V. Acohido

Plato once sagely observed, “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” 

Related: How a Russian social media site radicalized U.S. youth

That advice resonates today, even as we deepen our reliance on number crunching — in the form of the unceasing machine learning algorithms whirring away in the background of our lives, setting in motion many of the routine decisions each of us make daily.

However, as Plato seemingly foresaw, the underlying algorithms we’ve come to rely on are only as good as the human knowledge they spring from. And sometimes the knowledge transfer from humans to math formulas falls well short.

Last  August, an attempt by the UK government to use machine learning to conjure and dispense final exam grades to quarantined high-schoolers proved to be a disastrous failure. Instead of keeping things operable in the midst of a global pandemic, the UK officials ended up exposing the deep systemic bias of the UK’s education systems, in a glaring way. 

Then, in November, the algorithms pollsters invoked to predict the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election proved drastically wrong — again, even after the pollsters had poured their knowledge into improving their predictive algorithms after the 2016 elections.  

GUEST ESSAY: 5 steps for raising cyber smart children — who know how to guard their privacy

By Ellen Sabin

Today’s children are online at a young age, for many hours, and in more ways than ever before. As adults, we know that bad online decisions can have negative or dangerous effects for years to come.

Related: Web apps are being used to radicalize youth

The question isn’t whether we should educate children about online safety, but how we can best inspire them to learn to be thoughtful, careful, and safe in the cyber world for their lifetime. For adults doing the teaching, it’s no easy task.

Teaching children about good cyber security habits starts with helping them realize their power to learn to make smart choices. Often, messages about online security are presented as ‘to-do’ lists that can make even the most pliant of us feel like we are being preached to. Instead, let children think about why they want to become smart about online decisions and how they can make good choices.

Here are some tips to excite kids about cybersecurity.

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

GUEST ESSAY: Here’s how Secure Access Service Edge — ‘SASE’ — can help, post Covid-19

By Liraz Postan

One legacy of the ongoing global pandemic is that companies now realize that a secured and well-supported remote workforce is possible. Recently, the University of Illinois and the Harvard Business School conducted a study, and 16% of companies reported switching their employees to work at home from offices at least twice a week.

Related: SASE translates into secure connectivity

The problem here is that a secured, cost-effective, and efficient networkmust be developed to support remote operations at scale.  Gartner refers to this as the Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), which is a framework combining the functionality of Wide Area Network (WAN) with network security services to shield against any cyber threats or cloud-enabled SaaS.

The makeup of SASE 

Many enterprises have accelerated their use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) solutions to support remote workers during this pandemic.

However deploying VPNs on a wide-scale basis introduces performance and scalability issues. SASE can function as security infrastructure and as the core IT network of large enterprises. It incorporates zero-trust technologies and software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN). SASE then provides secure connectivity between the cloud and users, much as with a VPN. But it much further. It can also deploy web filtering, threat prevention, DNS security, sandboxing, data loss prevention, next-generation firewall policies, information security and credential theft prevention. 

Thus SASE combines advanced threat protection and secure access with enterprise-class data loss prevention. Given the climbing rate of remote workers, SASE has shifted from being a developing solution to being very timely, sophisticated response to leading-edge cyber attacks. Here are a few  guidelines to follow when looking for vendors pitching SASE services:.

STEPS FORWARD: Math geniuses strive to make a pivotal advance — by obfuscating software code

By Byron V. Acohido

Most of time we take for granted the degree to which fundamental components of civilization are steeped in mathematics.

Everything from science and engineering to poetry and music rely on numeric calculations. Albert Einstein once observed that “pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

Related: How Multi Party Computation is disrupting encryption

An accomplished violinist, Einstein, no doubt, appreciated the symmetry of his metaphor. He was keenly aware of how an expressive Haydn symphony applied math principles in a musical context in much the same way has he did in deriving breakthrough physics theorems.

Math once more is being conjured to help civilization make a great leap forward. Digital technology, like music, is all about math. We’ve come a long way leveraging algorithms to deliver an amazing array of digital services over the past 30 years; yet so much more is possible.

Math is the linchpin to innovations that can dramatically improve the lives of billions of people, perhaps even save the planet. However, a quintessential math conundrum, is, for the moment, holding these anticipated advancements in check. The math community refers to this bottleneck as “indistinguishability obfuscation,” or iO.

Our top math geniuses point to iO as a cornerstone needed to unleash the full potential of artificially intelligent (AI) programs running across highly complex and dynamic cloud platforms, soon to be powered by quantum computers. Simply put, iO must be achieved in order to preserve privacy and security while tapping into the next generation of IT infrastructure.

I recently had the chance to discuss iO with Dr. Tatsuaki Okamoto, director of NTT Research’s Cryptography and Information Security (CIS) Lab, and Dr. Amit Sahai, professor of computer science at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and director of UCLA Center for Encrypted Functionalities (CEF). NTT Research sponsored research led by Sahai that recently resulted in a achieving an important iO milestone.