How ransomware changed the face of cybersecurity

In a popularity contest for cyberattacks, Ransomware would definitely win and its (bad) reputation among the general public is well deserved. Ransomware is probably the type of attack that had the most significant influence on the cybersecurity industry in the last 10 years. Here is why.

The Prevalence

Compared to other classes of attacks – like common malware, brute force attacks, and many others – ransomware, as we know it today, is a rather new type of attack. Although early forms exist since 1989 (AIDS Trojan), ransomware really took off after 2010. CryptoLocker, in 2013, is one of the early ransomware “stars”.

You may wonder: Why is it so successful? Are the affected devices unprotected? Most of them have at least a form of protection. So, why did the endpoint security solutions (aka Antiviruses) fail to defend the devices? Ransomware was, and o some extend still is, difficult to identify. Attackers used over time ransomware components in conjunction with other threat vectors, like phishing or worm behaviors, to affect a wide variety of victims, from large groups of victims worldwide (WannaCry) to very specific industries and geographies (NotPetya).

The Psychology

Leaving the tangible economic damages aside, Ransomware has a particularity: a special psychological impact on people. While other classes of attacks can have more costly consequences, there is something unique about having the computer that you own or operate, encrypted and locked in front of your own eyes. It is a form of terrorism.

The fear of losing access to your lifetime digital photos, for example, is something that everyone can relate to. In the last 10 years, the people and businesses that desperately asked me for help almost exclusively were victims of ransomware attacks. And in most cases, there was nothing to be done, except for paying the ransom. But, unfortunately, paying the ransom doesn’t guarantee the recovery of data.

The Long Tail

Ransomware affected cybersecurity but had an impact on other industries too. One of the big issues when asking for a ransom is how to get paid and get away with it. Bank transfers are complicated and traceable while cash payments are risky and impractical. The answer to the problem has a very well-known name: Bitcoin. The transactions with cryptocurrencies, unregulated and far more difficult to trace, are a key enabler for the global ransomware’s “success”. On the other hand, ransomware also contributed to the rise of Bitcoin, by generating demand. While cryptocurrencies gain popularity due to many legit use-cases, the need for untraceable money transfers, generated by illegal activities, pushed the crypto market to higher valuations.

What to do?

Chances are, with all the efforts from law enforcement agencies and security solutions providers, ransomware will be with us for the years to come. So, how can you, individual or organization, avoid becoming a victim? There is no simple answer to the question, but there are proven strategies to reduce the risk of being infected with ransomware and, in case you do, limit the damages.

First, and I cannot emphasize this enough, do yourself a favor and backup your data! And do that regularly. Backups enable you to restore the data encrypted by ransomware but are also great from many other perspectives: hardware failures, lost or stolen devices, and even accidental deletion or unintentional modification of data.

Second, mind the clicks! We are flooded with emails and that lowers our alertness. But educate yourself, your loved ones, or your employees to think before clicking links. User awareness is one of the key tactics against all sorts of cyber threats, not only ransomware.

Third, use a good prevention-based endpoint security solution! There is a lot of hype around threat detection and incident response these days. But ransomware is a class of fast evolving attacks that leaves little time to react. Your automated security solution will be the second line of defense (second to user awareness)

If you are looking for a comprehensive approach to dealing with ransomware infections risk, here are some good starting points: The Mitigating malware and ransomware attacks guide from UK’s NCSC and the Stop Ransomware resources from CISA.

Security Architecture considerations for Cyber Resilience – why threat prevention is important

In an earlier blog this year, I compared the concepts of cybersecurity and cyber-resiliency, arguing that the main difference between the two is one of perspective. Cybersecurity is centered on the idea that attacks can (and should) be prevented while cyber-resilience acknowledges that some attacks will go through, and that organizations must prepare to deal with the consequences quickly and effectively. Many examples in recent years demonstrate 100% of increasingly sophisticated attacks cannot be prevented. This reality has generated a strong emphasis on detection and response tools in our industry, to the detriment of advanced prevention capabilities. But should we give up on prevention so quickly? Definitely, no.

To make sure we are all on the same page, Prevention refers to a broad range of approaches, technologies, and tools with the main purposes of a) reducing the options an attacker has and b) detecting malicious actions before inflicting damage to an organization. A few examples of prevention layers are: firewalls, file/disk encryption, patch management, anti-malware, exploit defense or sandboxing. These technologies can be implemented at various levels in the infrastructure. At the network level, the best-known prevention tools are Next-generation Firewalls and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS). At the endpoint level, the best known are Next-generation AV or Endpoint Protection Platforms (EPP).

In this blog I will review the key role of prevention elements for both the efficiency and effectiveness within the overall security architecture. I don’t want to minimize the value of other security capabilities, like incident response tools and processes, but I do want to emphasize that prevention is a key pillar of cyber-resilience and should not be overlooked even if we assume “not if but when you will be breached”.

Efficiency

I often say this, but it bears repeating: To understand the value of Prevention, first turn it off. The best way to explain the contribution of Prevention technologies to cyber defense is by contrasting it to a Detection and Response (D&R) only approach. For D&R to be effective, besides technology, an organization needs trained security operations staff and well-defined processes in place. There are plenty of examples where an Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solution detected suspicious activity and generated alerts, but there was not (enough) trained staff to analyze the incident in due time. That allowed adversaries to operate undisturbed for extended periods of time. If any of the elements of the triad (technology, people and processes) is not performing, the effectiveness of the D&R is affected.

By contrast to D&R, Prevention is automated. Statistically, effective prevention layers are capable of stopping over 99% of all threats (common and advanced) in a fully automated way. Prevention relies on technology alone, and with few exceptions, is a “set-and-forget” element. For example, an EPP solution requires only typical IT admins skills to install and very little assistance while in operation. Because of its automated nature, Prevent is a key contributor to cyber defense efficiency. Imagine a scenario where all security threats, either simple or complex, require the attention of a dedicated security team. This is the worst nightmare of any IT leader who doesn’t have such a dedicated team and can be overwhelming even for experienced security analysts. An accurate and effective Prevention solution will enable security teams to focus only on sophisticated threats and cyber-attacks that truly require skilled human attention.

Effectiveness

While efficiency is important, the effectiveness of any security solution is paramount. Long gone are the days when Prevention-based solutions relied only on signatures of known attack to detect threats, method that leaves them vulnerable to unknown attacks or zero-day threats. Today’s Prevention employs an extensive set of advanced technologies highly effective in detecting the entire range of cyber threats including attacks never seen before. Some of these technologies are shared with D&R, with the key difference between the two categories being the threshold for detection confidence. When dealing with ambiguous situations, the security solutions are calculating a “behavior” score that represents the detection confidence. When the detection confidence level is below a predefined threshold, suspicious actions will require an analyst to investigate but, when confidence is above the threshold, the solution is certain enough that the activity is malicious and can be blocked automatically.

The automated nature of Prevention is not only important to increase efficiency, but also for the effectiveness of the overall security architecture. There are classes of attacks where immediate response is critical for limiting the impact. The best example is ransomware. When dealing with a ransomware attack seconds truly matter. It is of little value in getting an alert about an ongoing ransomware attack if it takes many minutes, hours, or even days until someone can investigate the threat. The risk of great harm being done in such cases is significant. Instead, Prevention layers will detect and respond in a matter of seconds or less, minimizing the effects of a fast-evolving attack.

Given the arguments above, it should be obvious that the accuracy and effectiveness of Prevention layers are of high importance, both for the efficiency and the effectiveness of the entire security architecture. During a keynote at RSA 2021, Anne Neuberger, Deputy Assistant to the President of United States and Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology, commented on the importance of Prevention: “While we must acknowledge that breaches will happen and prepare for them, we simply cannot let waiting for the next shoe to drop to be the status quo under which we operate.”

It is hard (or rather impossible) to build a security architecture that enhances the resilience of the organization without strong prevention. This is also reflected in key industry standards like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, where D&R is preceded by Identification of risks and Protection phases. Does Prevent eliminate the need for equally strong Detection and Response? Obviously not! Either managed in-house or as a service from a Managed Detection and Response provider, D&R is crucial for fighting off sophisticated adversaries that an automatic system cannot block effectively. In the next blog I will cover some key considerations on the role of Detection and Response for enhancing Cyber-Resilience.

Initially posted on Bitdefender Business Insights: https://businessinsights.bitdefender.com/security-architecture-considerations-for-cyber-resilience-threat-prevention

Three takeaways for a Small Business from the Microsoft Exchange hack

I heard this so many times: “My company is too small to be the target of an advanced attack”. Unfortunately, this is not true and the recent cyber-attacks on Microsoft Exchange servers clearly show it. Compared to the recent SolarWinds Orion security breach that directly affected mostly large organizations, the Exchange vulnerabilities were used to attack in excess of 30.000 organizations in the US alone, mostly small businesses and local government offices. 

Here are the three lessons that a small business should learn from this incident:

  1. Every organization (and person) is a potential victim of advanced cyber-threats. This highly automated attack that used four zero-day vulnerabilities shows that virtually no organization (large or small) is safe. Either to be used as a pivot point toward larger targets or simply by chance, it is only a matter of time until a sophisticated attack will “knock” on the doors.
  2. Cloud services are a safer choice, especially for small organizations. This is due to at least two reasons. First, many software providers (Microsoft included) have a “cloud-first” policy. That means the cloud solutions will get the new features, enhancements, and even bug fixes first. For example, in this case, the Microsoft Exchange Online is not affected by the attack. Additionally, the large cloud infrastructures benefit from the most advanced security options in the market and are staffed with the “creme-de-la-creme” in terms of cybersecurity personnel. Does this make them bullet-proof? No, but the likelihood of a breach is smaller. Second reason: small organizations are typically slow in applying security patches even when these become available. Many of the Microsoft Exchange servers affected by the zero-day vulnerabilities exploited in this attack will remain unpatched for months, leaving them vulnerable to attacks.
  3. Cybersecurity is getting professionalized. Highly professionalized. Advanced attacks are becoming increasingly common and are affecting a large number of organizations around the world. Basic cybersecurity skills are no match for the security challenges of today’s world. Small organizations cannot typically afford to spend resources on skilled cybersecurity professionals (not to mention that we are currently facing a significant shortage of cyber defense talents). Alongside the use of cloud services instead of on-premises infrastructure, an SMB should also consider relying on Managed Security Services and Managed Detection and Response Services to keep their IT infrastructure running and secure.

These three points should be considered for increasing the cyber-resiliency of the organization. But they are NOT replacing the actions required to check if your infrastructure was affected by the attack. For more context on the breach and the recommended remediation steps check this Microsoft blog post.

A Practical Approach to Cyber Resilience – Part 1 of a 3 Part Series

In a previous blog, I looked at the key differences between cybersecurity and cyber-resilience, and why cyber-resilience is a better approach for organizations to follow in 2021 because it is holistic.

The IT cyber-resilience is a complex objective requiring a solid understanding and a structured approach. NIST Special Publication 800-160, Developing Cyber Resilient Systems, is one the most comprehensive resources available for those enrolled on this journey. Although a bit difficult to navigate, the value of this publication is in its ability to provide the why, the what, and indications for how to approach the topic of cyber resilience.

Over the course of several blogs, I will extract several key learnings, with practical value for any organization looking to improve their resiliency to attacks.

NIST defines cyber-resilience as “the ability to anticipate, withstand, recover from, and adapt to adverse conditions, stresses, attacks, or compromises on systems that use or are enabled by cyber resources.” The systems and environments that are cyber-resilient can withstand cyber-attacks, faults, and failures and can continue to operate even in a degraded or debilitated state. Also, of great importance, they can continue delivering mission-essential functions while ensuring that safety and information security are preserved during an incident.

To bring further clarity on the topic, four key cyber resilience characteristics (or guiding principles) are defined within the framework:

  • Focus on the mission or key business functions
  • Focus on the effects of Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)
  • Assume an adversary will compromise or breach the system or organization
  • Assume an adversary will maintain a presence in the system or organization

Why are these principles important? They have a special practical significance as they help to correctly frame any approach to cyber-resilience. Here is what these characteristics are stating:

  1. Focus on the mission or key business functions – Cyber resiliency initiatives must focus on the capabilities supporting organizational missions or key business functions. Critical business elements should continue operating despite an attacker’s presence in systems and infrastructure, threatening mission-critical systems, and system components.
  2. Focus on the effects of APTs – Cyber resiliency has in scope all threats related to systems, but the focus must be on the effects of APT. Why APTs? Because of the persistence and long-term effects on the organization. The longer an attacker dwell time, the higher the likelihood to access sensitive data or influence the behavior of systems in ways that can directly or indirectly inflict damage to the organization.
  3. Assume an adversary will compromise or breach the system or organization – The framework states that a sophisticated adversary cannot always be kept out of a system or be quickly detected and removed, despite the quality of the system design and the functional effectiveness of the security components. This assumption acknowledges that modern systems are large and complex, and adversaries will always be able to find and exploit weaknesses in the systems, environments, or supply chains.
  4. Assume an adversary will maintain a presence in the system or organization – Lastly, any discussion on cyber resiliency must assume that the adversary presence may be a long-term issue because of the stealthy nature of the APTs. An extreme example is the attack on a major hotel chain’s reservation system that started in 2014 and maintained persistence for four years, before being detected.

In other words, any cyber-resilience initiative should be focused on advanced attacks that target critical business functions, with a special consideration for the attacker’s stealthy actions and persistence in the environment. These are key premises that organization looking to improve its cyber resilience should always consider.

In the next part of this series, I will explore the 5 steps Cyber Resiliency Analysis Process and provide a practical and effective way to address cyber resiliency.

To learn more on the importance of cyber resilience for organizations and how to improve the ability to withstand advanced threats, check-out the on-demand webinar: How to increase the cyber-resilience of your business.

Initially posted on Bitdefender Business Insights: https://businessinsights.bitdefender.com/practical-approach-to-cyber-resilience-1

Cybersecurity or Cyber-resilience: Which one should be the prime objective for 2021?

Given the increased dependency on digital technologies for daily operations it’s not a surprise that organizations are concerned about cyber threats and the risks these are posing to their operations. But what is the best approach to this problem? Should an organization focus on cybersecurity or on cyber-resilience? Which of the two can be consider a prime objective for 2021? 

Cybersecurity is the more established term of the two and refers to the people, technologies and processes that serve as the line of defense against threats. Cybersecurity is centered on the idea that attacks can be prevented. It creates the expectation that the organization will be able to avoid being hit by attackers and it will not suffer cyber-breaches. Although preventing breaches from happening is something everyone wants, 100% protection effectiveness is not achievable. The recent years proved again and again that cyber threats are getting increasingly sophisticated and organizations, as well as individuals, are affected in a direct or indirect manner. 

Opposite to the core idea of preventing breaches, cyber-resilience is centered on the principle that some attacks will go through and the organizations must prepare themselves to quickly and effectively deal with the consequences. Cyber-resilience represents the organization’s ability to avoid, prepare for, respond, and recover after a cyber attack. Being ready to respond to security incidents, enables organizations to mitigate the consequences of cyber breaches and quickly resume the normal state of business operations. This make cyber-resilience an integral part of business continuity planning. 

What are the steps an organization should take to improve cyber-resiliency? The comprehensive path is through a cybersecurity program that addresses key four phases: preparation, detection, response, and recovery from an attack. When implemented thoroughly, this four-phase framework enhances the organization’s capacity to sustain operations through a cyber-attack while minimizing both disruption and reputational harm. A very good resource for the organizations on the way to cyber-resilience is the NIST Special Publication 800-160.

In conclusion, what is the best way forward? Are cybersecurity and cyber-resilience fully distinct approaches? Not completely. Both cybersecurity and cyber-resilience strive to limit the effects of cyber threats on businesses. They have in common some of the tools, processes and procedures. Both are good objectives for organizations to focus on, but cyber-resilience offers a holistic and more realistic approach. That makes it a more suitable (and an achievable) objective for organizations to follow in 2021 and beyond.