These days, apart from reading about major incidents like the SolarWinds one, I keep hearing directly from people I know about malware incidents, ransomware incidents and so on. My personal statistics have never been so high. I do not know if this is a personal unlucky end of an unlucky year or a very bad end of an already bad year. I wish to everybody a pandemic-free (in all senses) 2021!
Comparing current reported cyber/IT security threats, attacks and incidents to what happened a few years ago, it seems to me that something has surely changed (I must warn that these conclusions are not based on statistics but on reading everyday bulletins and news).
On one side, security surely has improved: vulnerabilities are reported and fixed, patches are applied (at least more often), security policies, standards and practices are making a difference. Still managing password and properly configuring systems and services exposed on Internet remain very difficult tasks too often performed without the required depth.
But security has improved, which also means that attackers have been moving to easier and more lucrative approaches which have to do mostly with the “human interface”. In other words: fraud.
The first example is ransomware, that is the attacker is able to access the victim system, copy vast amount of data, then encrypt it or remove it and finally ask a ransom not only to return the data but also to avoid making it public on Internet. Since everybody is getting better in making backups, here the important point is the “making it public on Internet” so that the ransom is asked more to prevent sensitive data to be published than to restore the systems.
The second example is Targeted Phishing attacks, Business Email Compromise and similar scams in which the attacker impersonate a well known or important person by writing emails, letters, making phone calls etc. to convince typically a clerk but in some cases also a manager, to send a large amount of money to the wrong bank account.
Neither of these two types of attacks is new, but now they are filling the news daily. Even if cyber/IT security can still improve tremendously, there have been and there are notable security improvements which makes it that attacks are aimed more often to the weakest link: the human user.
Monitoring outgoing traffic to detect intrusions in IT systems is not a new concept but often it does not seem to be enough appreciated, understood and implemented.
IT security defences cannot guarantee us against every possibile attack, so we must be prepared to the event of an intrusion and to manage the associated incident.
The first step in incident management is to detect an intrusion. Traditional tools like Anti-Virus, Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems (IDS/IPS) etc. do their job but they can be bypassed. But intrusions can also be detected by monitoring the outgoing traffic.
In my recent personal experience, some intrusions have been detected and stopped because the outgoing traffic was monitored and blocked. Since the deployed malware was not able to call back home, it did not do anything and there was no damage; and since the outgoing traffic was monitored, the intrusion was immediately detected.
But monitoring the outgoing traffic to detect intrusions is becoming more and more difficult. For example attackers are adopting more often stealth techniques like using fake DNS queries. An interesting example has been recently described by FireEye in “MULTIGRAIN – POINT OF SALE ATTACKERS MAKE AN UNHEALTHY ADDITION TO THE PANTRY” . In this case, malware is exfiltrating data by making DNS calls to domains with names like log.<encoded data to exfiltrate>.evildomain.com . Obviously the DNS query fails, but in the logs of the receiving DNS server it is written the name of the requested domain, that is the data that the malware is exfiltrating.
As attackers are getting more creative to hide the back communication between malware and their Command & Control services, IT Security will need to devise more proactive approaches to monitoring and blocking outgoing traffic.