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Sophos Predicts Top 10 Cyber Security Trends for 2017

Sophos Predicts Top 10 Cyber Security Trends for 2017

22 December 2016 – 2016 saw a huge number and variety of cyber attacks, ranging from a high-profile DDoS using hijacked Internet-facing security cameras to the alleged hacking of party officials during the US election. The year also saw a rising tide of data breaches, from organizations big and small, and significant losses of people’s personal information. With the year almost over, Joergen Jakobsen, regional vice president for Asia-Pacific and Japan (APJ) at Sophos, looks into his crystal ball to predict the top cyber security trends for 2017: Sophos Predicts Top 10 Cyber Security Trends for 2017

#1 : Shift from exploitation to targeted social attacks.

Cybercriminals are getting better at exploiting the ultimate vulnerability – humans. Ever more sophisticated and convincing targeted attacks seek to coax users into compromising themselves. For example, it’s common to see an email that addresses the recipient by name and claim they have an outstanding debt the sender has been authorized to collect. Applying shock by pretending to be borrowing authority or law enforcement are common and effective tactics. The email directs users to a malicious link that they are panicked into clicking on, opening them up to attack. Such phishing attacks can no longer be recognized by obvious mistakes.

#2 : Financial infrastructure at greater risk of attack.

The use of targeted phishing and “whaling” continues to grow. These attacks use detailed information about company executives to trick employees into paying fraudsters or compromising accounts. We also expect more attacks on critical financial infrastructure, such as the attack involving SWIFT-connected institutions which cost the Bangladesh Central Bank $81 million in February. SWIFT recently revealed that there have been other such attacks and it expects to see more, stating in a leaked letter to client banks: “The threat is very persistent, adaptive and sophisticated – and it is here to stay”.

#3 : Exploitation of the Internet’s inherently insecure infrastructure.

All Internet users rely on ancient foundational protocols, and their ubiquity makes them nearly impossible to revamp or replace. These archaic protocols that have long been the backbone of the Internet and business networks are sometimes surprisingly flaky. For example, attacks against BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) could potentially disrupt, hijack, or disable much of the Internet. And the DDoS attack on Dyn in October (launched by a myriad of IoT devices), took down the DNS provider and, along with it, access to part of the internet. It was one of the largest assaults seen and those claiming responsibility said that it was just a dry run. Large-scale ISPs and enterprises can take some steps to respond, but these may well fail to prevent serious damage if individuals or states choose to exploit the Internet’s deepest security flaws.

#4 : Increased attack complexity.

Attacks increasingly bring together multiple technical and social elements, and reflect careful, lengthy probing of the victim organization’s network. Attackers compromise multiple servers and workstations long before they start to steal data or act aggressively. Closely managed by experts, these attacks are strategic, not tactical, and can cause far more damage. This is a very different world to the pre-programmed and automated malware payloads we used to see – patient and evading detection.

#5 : Growth of malvertising and corruption of online advertising ecosystems.

Malvertising, which spreads malware through online ad networks and web pages, has been around for years. But in 2016, we saw much more of it. These attacks highlight larger problems throughout the advertising ecosystem, such as click fraud, which generates paying clicks that don’t correspond to real customer interest. Malvertising has actually generated click fraud, compromising users and stealing from advertisers at the same time. [adrotate group=”2″]

#6 : Ransomware evolves.

As more users recognize the risks of ransomware attack via email, criminals are exploring other vectors. Some are experimenting with malware that reinfects later, long after a ransom is paid, and some are starting to use built-in tools and no executable malware at all to avoid detection by endpoint protection code that focuses on executable files. Recent examples have offered to decrypt files after the victim shared the ransomware with two friends, and those friends paid to decrypt their files. Ransomware authors are also starting to use techniques other than encryption, for example deleting or corrupting file headers. And finally, with “old” ransomware still floating around the web, users may fall victim to attacks that can’t be “cured” because payment locations no longer work.

#7 : Emergence of personal IoT attacks.

Users of home IoT devices may not notice or even care if their baby monitors are hijacked to attack someone else’s website. But once attackers “own” a device on a home network, they can compromise other devices, such as laptops containing important personal data. We expect to see more of this as well as more attacks that use cameras and microphones to spy on households. Cyber criminals always find a way to profit.

#8 : Rising focus on exploits against virtualized and cloud systems.

Attacks against physical hardware raise the possibility of dangerous new exploits against virtualized cloud systems. Attackers might abuse the host or other guests running on a shared host, attack privilege models, and conceivably access others’ data. And, as Docker and the entire container (or ‘serverless’) eco-system become more popular, attackers will increasingly seek to discover and exploit vulnerabilities in this relatively new trend in computing. We expect active attempts to operationalize such attacks.

#9 : Destructive DDoS ioT attacks will rise.

In 2016, Mirai the malware that turns computer systems running Linux into remotely controlled “bots”, that can be used in large-scale network attacks, showed the massive destructive potential of DDoS attacks as a result of insecure consumer IoT (Internet of Things) devices. Mirai’s attacks exploited only a small number of devices and vulnerabilities and used basic password guessing techniques. However, cybercriminals will find it easy to extend their reach because there are several IoT devices containing outdated code based on poorly-maintained operating systems and applications with well-known vulnerabilities. Expect IoT exploits, better password guessing and more compromised IoT devices being used for DDoS or perhaps to target other devices in your network.

#10 : Technical attacks against states and societies.

Technology-based attacks have become increasingly political. Societies face growing risks from both disinformation (e.g., “fake news”) and voting system compromise. For instance, researchers have demonstrated attacks that might allow a local voter to fraudulently vote repeatedly without detection. Even if states never engage in attacks against their adversaries’ elections, the perception that these attacks are possible is itself a powerful weapon.

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How The Mirai Malware Uses The Telnet Protocol

On October 1, 2016Krebs on Security reported that the source code for the Internet of Things (IoT) botnet malware Mirai had been posted online and was freely available for download. Mirai reportedly spreads through Telnet brute-forcing, indicating that this a current, on-going issue. But what is Telnet and what are the implications of its use?


How The Mirai Malware Uses The Telnet Protocol

As a user, the Internet appears to consist predominately of websites and the servers that support them. It is easy to miss the enormous range of systems that are beneath the surface. In this article, we will plumb the depths of the Internet a little to see what goes on behind the scenes.

While there are almost 14 million devices on the current Internet using the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol to encrypt remote machine access, there are still over 15 million devices using the Telnet protocol.

Telnet was deprecated in favour of SSH as Telnet sends credentials (username/password) in clear-text and any attacker on that network path can intercept the credentials. Additionally, Telnet rarely has brute-force protection enabled so attackers can take their time sending well-known username/password combinations to a device in order to attempt to gain access.

Telnet, however, has other interesting angles to it for security research. As it has been deprecated, it is typically still visible on legacy equipment, in particular network infrastructure equipment. In short, Telnet typically appears on older network equipment. This is very helpful shorthand for an attacker.


The equipment in question falls into a number of basic categories:

  • Routers, Firewalls and VPNs for organizations
  • Home Routers
  • (Industrial) Control Systems
  • Miscellaneous devices

One major issue for older network equipment running telnet, is that they typically do not have the same security engineering practices as modern devices. For example, default credentials. Whilst many devices unfortunately still ship with default credentials, some devices even advertise that they are currently configured to use them!

The routers of one well-known manufacturer have default administrator credentials detailed in the telnet banner. Our research has yielded over 20,000 of these devices currently connected to the Internet, some of which were from within government departments.

Home routers are an attractive target for people attempting to make DDoS botnets as vulnerabilities that these devices have are frequently wormable. That is, a piece of code can be deployed which autonomously seeks out vulnerable devices, compromises them and uses these freshly compromised devices as launching pads for the next wave of attacks.

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In a twist of events, one worm infecting Linux home routers, called Wifatch or REINCARNA, actually displays a warning message on the Telnet banner that the device has been infected and provides instructions for how the user can protect him or herself. Our research indicated over 82,000 infected devices that were infected by REINCARNA. The banner is displayed below:

“Telnet and other backdoors have been closed to avoid further infection of this device. Please disable telnet, change root/admin passwords, and/or update the firmware.”

The Telnet banner is also often used to issue legal threats, for example, “PRIVATE ELECTRONIC DEVICE” yields 139 results. The threat of “imprisonment” is also wielded by 3048 devices. Military systems have their own kinds of banners informing the user that information on its usage is collected “or purposes including, but not limited to, penetration testing, COMSEC monitoring, network operations and defense, personnel misconduct, law enforcement, and counterintelligence investigations.”

Other more esoteric devices such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (64 devices), 3G backup routers (31 devices), GPRS modems (33 devices) and cable set-top boxes (213 devices). The full numbers are naturally much higher, but we simply want to demonstrate the diversity of devices connected to the public Internet.

Our research shows that legacy network protocols can still endanger us today. The combination of cleartext passwords – such as no encryption, default or weak credentials – and ease of brute-forcing make Telnet an attractive target. Coupled to that is the fact that Telnet is still often enabled on network devices. The perfect storm? It remains to be seen.


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