Emerging online threats and security | Features | ChannelWorld.in


Emerging online threats and security

By Varsha Chidambaram, CIO on Jan 17, 2012

No matter what indicator you choose, cyber crime is getting increasingly serious, forcing enterprises to respond with equal gusto. But given how hard it is to catch cyber criminals, the smart money is on prevention. Enterprises need to ensure that they are aware of the three new trends in the threat landscape and ensure that they are protected against them.

Trend 1: Internationalization of Organized Crime

Highlights: More organized in global terms, resulting in an increased access to funds and resources. Allows a single criminal to attack from multiple locations, confusing investigators. Benefits from a lack of international collaboration.

When Stuxnet hit India last year, it sent alarm bells ringing in the highest offices of the country, after all, India was the third-most infected country in the world. Some even speculated since ISRO is a Siemens customer that it was the cause behind a glitch on the INSAT (Indian National Satellite System) 4B satellite. Whether that's true or not, Stuxnet was undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated and targeted attacks till date.

Stuxnet flummoxed everyone: Analysts, security experts, intelligence officers, and government agencies. But thereís one thing that they all agree on: Stuxnet was not the work of an individual. It was a masterpiece created by a collection of highly-brilliant, highly-motivated individuals with deep financial backingóa trademark of internationalized crime.

ìToday, cyber crime has gone international. It can no longer be traced to a college whiz writing code in his basement. It is organized crime, much like the mafia. There are powerful, geographically-dispersed actors in this scheme, says Krishna Sastry Pendyala, asst. government examiner, Cyber Forensic Division, Directorate of Forensic Science.

Carl Leonard, senior research manager, Websense Security Labs, agrees. The sophistication of attacks we are seeing today requires various skill sets. It indicates that cyber criminals with different levels of expertise are organizing themselves to create these attacks. And these attacks are originating from various geographies and targeting various geographies.

The internationalization of cyber crime is only likely to grow because being part of the cyber mafia is a lucrative business. According to Deloitte, the underground market primarily selling corporate data is estimated at $100 billion (about Rs 450,000 crore), and growing. With ambivalent cyber laws, and a lack of international co-operation, cyber criminals are enjoying a free run, says Pratap Reddy, director, Cyber Security, Nasscom.

It's important to differentiate between two types of international criminals: Those motivated by politics and those motivated by money. Anonymous and LulzSec, for example, fall into the category of international criminals, with political intent. The criminals behind the attacks on Lockheed Martin, or Sony Playstation, for instance, were motivated by critical information that could be sold.

But, motivation aside, they have one thing in common: Their ability to mobilize geographically-dispersed foot soldiers.

While conducting forensic exercises, we see that attacks originate from multiple locations but, often, that is a diversion tactic. The attackers are really the same person or set of persons. The real problem that plagues not just India but the entire world is the difficulty in tracking down and nailing these cyber criminals, says Kanwal Mookhey, founder, Institute of Information Security and author of several books on information security.

The unprecedented wave of successful assaults that we see around us today is because hackers are grouping themselves together, says Pendyala.

One of the biggest barriers in the fight against international cyber crime rings is inter- and intra-national collaboration. However, that's changing. According to the Global Information Security Survey (GISS) 2011 that's run by PwC and CSO magazine (a sister publication to CIO)Indian IT and security leaders are ready to give up some of their old resistance to letting the government take more control the first step towards more collaboration. About 75 percent of Indian security leaders, for instance, are willing to support the government-mandated intrusion-penetration and identity-threat monitoring standards. And about 65 percent would support a government implementation of mandatory adoption of real-time threat analysis.

The need of the hour is to enhance collaboration with various international bodies (government bodies, industry and, for profit / not for profit bodies) working in the areas of enhancing cyber security and cyber crimes prevention, so as to bring in increased cooperation into cyber crime investigations, says Reddy.

The Interpol has a wing called the IT Crime Working Group. It's a group of top cyber crime investigators from across the globe who meet to discuss the latest strategies to fight cyber crime. While there has been effort to boost international co-operation to fight cyber crime, it is very time-consuming and often frustrating to the investigators, says S. Murugan, deputy inspector general of police, Cyber Cell.

In the meanwhile, CISOs are ensuring that security, in general, is tightened. Being a financial services company, security is one of our top concerns. We have various levels of confidential data, with security becoming progressively stronger at each level. Not even top management has access to all sensitive data; it is based on a need-to-know basis, says Parag Deodhar, chief risk officer and VP process excellence and program management at Bharti AXA General Insurance.

He's also making sure that the company attacks security holistically. We put a lot of emphasis on the people and process part of security. Instead of having lengthy security handbooks, we conduct interactive training sessions which have a mix of video and text to keep awareness levels high and employees interested, he says.

The growing focus on security is even being witnessed in manufacturing companies. Take the Essar Group for instance. Essar has instituted a multi-layer security policy encompassing all business units. We have extensive security armor involving the latest security tools such as DLP, GRC, end-point protection, and encryption. The current global threat landscape suggests that BYOD (bring your own device) may well be the next challenge. As a proactive measure to mitigate risks attached to end-points, Essar Group has taken a lead to adapt desktop virtualization, says Manish Dave, CISO, Essar Group.

Trend 2: The Growth of Social Media

Highlights: Has a direct correlation with the rise of spear phishing and socially engineered attacks.

Social media adoption within the enterprise is unstoppable. From using it for sales leads to brand building or just giving a new generation of staffers access, social media is inexorably going from nice-to-have to must-have. According to data from GISS, 49 percent of Indian enterprises intend to increase access to social media.

The use of social media is no longer a choice; it is a necessity to do business. If the enterprise does not engage and respond to comments, it will start losing customers, investors, and members, says Jamuna Swamy, head-Information Security Practice, Hexaware Technologies.

But few enterprises are ready either strategically or tactically for social media: Only 30 percent say the use of social networking is part of their organization's security policy and less than half (42 percent) monitor employee postings on blogs or social networks.
Two threat vectors emerge from this trend: An increase in spear phishing and socially-engineered attacks.

Social media plays a significant role in spear phishing attacks. Since these attacks are targeted at specific victims, cyber criminals craft an attack that would lure them more effectively, says Anand Naik, director of Systems Engineering for India and SAARC Region, Symantec.

Already, an increase in spear phishing attacks is apparent. Since March this year, there has been a spate of spear phishing attacks targeting RSA, Epsilon, JP Morgan Chase, Sony, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, Citi Group, Gmail, and The IMF.

According to a recent report by Cisco (E-mail Attacks: This Time It's Personal), spear phishing levels have jumped three-fold in the last 12 months. And for good reason: They are more profitable for the bad guys. The report points out that for a single e-mail campaign, mass phishing has an open rate of 3 percent and a click through rate of 5 percent compared to 70 percent and 50 percent for a spear phishing campaign. The result? The value per victim of a mass phishing attack is about $2,000 (about Rs 94,000), compared to $ 80,000 (about Rs 37.6 lakh) for a spear phishing campaign.

The other threat vector socially-engineered attacks is also growing, although at a slower pace. About 27 percent of Indian enterprises have been victims to social engineering attack in 2011, up from 22 percent last year, points GISS data.

Clickjacking is another method of executing a social engineering attack that works by fueling human curiosity on a social network. Clickjacking is defined as an activity that encourages somebody to click on a video, open a PDF file, or browse through a website. The ultimate goal is to encourage someone to perform a certain action.

Clickjacking is most commonly noticed on Facebook. Let's say a friend posts a shocking video on Facebook. If the post tickles your curiosity enough you'd be tempted to watch the video. But when you click on the play button, you notice that instead of the shocking video you've gone and liked the video and it goes as a news feed to all your friends.

In click jacking a malicious code or a hidden component of a website sits on top of a video button, for example. So while you think you're pressing the play button you're actually executing a social engineering attack, says Websense's Leonard.

In response, CISOs are pushing more money and focus at the problem. In the next year, 43 percent of Indian enterprises plan to increase security spending related to social media, 40 percent promise to make social media security strategy a top priority, and 50 percent say monitoring employee postings on social networks is also a top priority.

In a number of security awareness training exercises we carry out for our customers, we include slides on how social networking sites can be used for social engineering, says Bharti AXA's Deodhar.
At Hitachi Consulting India (formerly Sierra Atlantic), IT director and CISO, Sesanka Pemmaraju is taking both operational and non-operational routes to de-risk social media. He publishes desktop wallpapers with pictorial representation of multiple scenarios along with do's and don'ts. We are also in the process of integrating DLP and a rights management system (RMS) to enable tight monitoring of various actions performed by employees internally to prevent any leaks and avoid information landing in the wrong hands, he says.

Trends 3: The Emergence of Advanced Persistent Attack

Highlight: These are targeted, sophisticated attacks. Aim is to steal data, not destroy. Remains undetected for long periods of time. Requires advanced protection like deep packet inspection and network forensics.

The attack on RSA in March is among the most audacious security breaches this year. It started when attackers sent an e-mail with an Excel file titled 2011 Recruitment Plan. The mail was only sent to 12 people within the organization and went straight to their junk folders. Eleven of them deleted the e-mail, one didn't. But one click on the attachment was enough for the attackers to sniff around the network, determine key servers, and then slowly get access to them. It was only a matter of time before hackers extracted private keys that were at the heart of RSA's security algorithm.

That's the power of APT (advanced persistent threats). APT is characterized by sophisticated, directed, and persistent attacks. The sophistication is the result of multiple experts building up an attack to target specific organizations in a systematic and persistent manner.
Unlike some malware that result into random infections, APTs are directed attacks on specific entities, explains Sandeep Godbole, member ISACA India Task Force. And their objectives are much more sinister and serious.

ATP attacks require meticulous preparation before the actual attack. In this case, the criminal gathers detailed information about the target; the network infrastructure, the security deployed, etcetera, say Leonard.

A significant characteristic of an APT attack which is also a determining factor for its success is its ability to remain undetected for long periods, creating a longer window as it hunts down the crown jewels. APT attacks depend on their ability to get inside an organization and stay hidden in plain sight. This differs greatly from the smash-and-grab style of more unsophisticated cyber thugs.

What makes these attacks more lethal is that they are guided by external entities with a high degree of human involvement. Think of an APT attack as a remote-controlled car creeping about your system with the controls in the hand of
a criminal.

What makes them tricky to deal with it is that they function diligently, step-by step, avoiding detection for long periods of time, says Deodhar.

So do CISOs in India need to start worrying? Depends on how they profile risk in their organizations. Organizations that have strategic, national, or military significance have a higher threat profile, says Godbole. Also, known names or brands in the commercial world or those that hold information that can be exploited may be equally at threat. It's very important to determine whether your organization falls in these buckets.

Currently only 35 percent of organizations in India have a strategy to combat APT, according to GISS. Over 85 percent of these rely on traditional intrusion detection or intrusion prevention systems to counter APT.

But while basic security practices such as patch management, vulnerability assessment and configuration management will ensure APT entry points are secured; this new threat will need more sophisticated protection like deep packet inspection, network forensics, and robust net flow analysis tools. In the next year, 64 percent of Indian organizations say that APT will drive security spending, which is lower than the Asian average of 70 percent.

Organizations that are high on a criminal's radar would need to hire or train expert malware analysts capable of analyzing data to identify the activities of malware and bots to identify APT, says Godbole.

The more visibility and context you have around the status of your security environment, the more prepared you will be to respond to threats when they strike. Because it's not a matter of if you are going to be attacked, the question is when, and how quickly will you be able to respond when it happens.

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