Category Archives: cyberthreats

Revisiting How Registrants Can Reduce the Threat of Domain Hijacking

Recent events1,2 have shown the threat of domain hijacking is very real; however, it is also largely preventable. As Verisign previously noted3, there are many security controls that registrants can utilize to help strengthen their security posture. Verisign would like to reiterate this advice within the context of the recent domain hijacking reports.

Domains are an important element of internet infrastructure; their functionality and security rely upon many factors such as their delegated name servers. Name server delegations introduce complex and subtle inter-dependencies between domains and their authoritative name servers. Compromise of any name server in the delegation hierarchy can lead to a potential hijacking scenario. Targeted name server compromises in the delegation hierarchy can facilitate a complete hijack of a domain or set of domains, while name server compromises deeper in the delegation hierarchy may result in partial hijacking, since not all name servers in the hierarchy are involved in every DNS resolution request. A compromised name server is capable of diverting DNS requests to malicious servers controlled by threat actors and can be weaponized for phishing attacks or other nefarious purposes.

Over the past several weeks, security professionals have issued reports1, 2 about the hijacking of various domains via their name server delegations. These changes were likely made using compromised registrar credentials and are believed to be backed by a foreign nation state entity1, 2. During the attacks, the threat actors used the traffic directed to their infrastructure to launch spear phishing campaigns against various government entities in northern Africa and the Middle East. These targeted spear phishing attempts were facilitated by the transitive trust4 placed on the compromised domains and their delegated name servers.

Several of the compromised domains contained hosts that were specified as name servers for numerous top-level domains (TLDs) including country code TLDs5 in the northern African and Middle East regions. Subsequently, DNS traffic resolution for corresponding reliant zones were partially/completely routed to the threat actors’ infrastructure. This redirection of DNS traffic facilitated their ability to target specific government and industry entities in the targeted countries. While the domains did not employ a domain locking tool, some were DNSSEC6 signed, which helped mitigate the attack for resolving parties that perform validation.

As part of the response to this incident, the Department of Homeland Security issued Emergency Directive 19-017 requiring federal civilian agencies to address the risks presented by this activity. The order mandated four actions to be taken: 1) Audit DNS records, 2) Change DNS account passwords, 3) Add multi-factor authentication to DNS accounts and 4) Monitor Certificate Transparency logs.

Verisign is engaged with various industry and government entities regarding this incident and has provided technical insights into the DNS ecosystem regarding the complex mechanisms and system-to-system interactions/dependencies involved. To date, there is no evidence that the scope of compromise extends beyond the sets of credentials at various registrars.

Verisign encourages registrants to research their registrar’s security offerings and to take advantage of the tools and services they offer. Techniques such as locking services offered by registrars and registries8, two-factor authentication, password strengthening, and other common security hygiene practices9 are all best practice security recommendations that Verisign encourages and promotes.

Additional security recommendations are available in the following ICANN SSAC reports:

  • SAC04010: “Measures to Protect Domain Name Registration Service Against Exploitation or Misuse”
  • SAC04411: “A Registrant’s Guide to Protecting Domain Name Registration Accounts”
  • SAC07412: “Best Practices for Preserving Security and Stability in the Credential Management Lifecycle”

1 https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2019/01/global-dns-hijacking-campaign-dns-record-manipulation-at-scale.html

2 https://www.crowdstrike.com/blog/widespread-dns-hijacking-activity-targets-multiple-sectors/

3http://www.circleid.com/posts/20130722_how_registrants_can_reduce_the_threat_of_domain_hijacking/ 

4https://www.usenix.org/legacy/events/imc05/tech/full_papers/ramasubramanian/ramasubramanian_html/dns.html

5 https://www.internic.net/domain/root.zone

6 https://www.verisign.com/en_US/domain-names/dnssec/how-dnssec-works/index.xhtml

7 https://cyber.dhs.gov/ed/19-01/

8 https://www.verisign.com/en_US/channel-resources/domain-registry-products/registry-lock/index.xhtml

9https://www.markmonitor.com/download/checklist/MarkMonitor_Domain_Security_Best_Practices.pdf

10 https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/sac-040-en.pdf

11 https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/sac-044-en.pdf

12 https://www.icann.org/en/system/files/files/sac-074-en.pdf

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It’s Time to Modernize Traditional Threat Intelligence Models for Cyber Warfare

When a client asked me to help build a cyberthreat intelligence program recently, I jumped at the opportunity to try something new and challenging. To begin, I set about looking for some rudimentary templates with a good outline for building a threat intelligence process, a few solid platforms that are user-friendly, the basic models for cyber intelligence collection and a good website for describing various threats an enterprise might face. This is what I found:

  1. There are a handful of rudimentary templates for building a good cyberthreat intelligence program available for free online. All of these templates leave out key pieces of information that any novice to the cyberthreat intelligence field would be required to know. Most likely, this is done to entice organizations into spending copious amounts of money on a specialist.
  2. The number of companies that specialize in the collection of cyberthreat intelligence is growing at a ludicrous rate, and they all offer something that is different, unique to certain industries, proprietary, automated via artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, based on pattern recognition, or equipped with behavioral analytics.
  3. The basis for all threat intelligence is heavily rooted in one of three basic models: Lockheed Martin’s Cyber Kill Chain, MITRE’s ATT&CK knowledge base and The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis.
  4. A small number of vendors working on cyberthreat intelligence programs or processes published a complete list of cyberthreats, primary indicators, primary actors, primary targets, typical attack vectors and potential mitigation techniques. Of that small number, very few were honest when there was no useful mitigation or defensive strategy against a particular tactic.
  5. All of the cyberthreat intelligence models in use today have gaps that organizations will need to overcome.
  6. A search within an article content engine for helpful articles with the keyword “threat intelligence” produced more than 3,000 results, and a Google search produces almost a quarter of a million. This is completely ridiculous. Considering how many organizations struggle to find experienced cyberthreat intelligence specialists to join their teams — and that cyberthreats grow by the day while mitigation strategies do not — it is not possible that there are tens of thousands of professionals or experts in this field.

It’s no wonder why organizations of all sizes in a variety of industries are struggling to build a useful cyberthreat intelligence process. For companies that are just beginning their cyberthreat intelligence journey, it can be especially difficult to sort through all these moving parts. So where do they begin, and what can the cybersecurity industry do to adapt traditional threat intelligence models to the cyber battlefield?

How to Think About Thinking

A robust threat intelligence process serves as the basis for any cyberthreat intelligence program. Here is some practical advice to help organizations plan, build and execute their program:

  1. Stop and think about the type(s) of cyberthreat intelligence data the organization needs to collect. For example, if a company manufactures athletic apparel for men and women, it is unnecessary to collect signals, geospatial data or human intelligence.
  2. How much budget is available to collect the necessary cyberthreat intelligence? For example, does the organization have the budget to hire threat hunters and build a cyberthreat intelligence program uniquely its own? What about purchasing threat intelligence as a service? Perhaps the organization should hire threat hunters and purchase a threat intelligence platform for them to use? Each of these options has a very different cost model for short- and long-term costs.
  3. Determine where cyberthreat intelligence data should be stored once it is obtained. Does the organization plan to build a database or data lake? Does it intend to store collected threat intelligence data in the cloud? If that is indeed the intention, pause here and reread step one. Cloud providers have very different ideas about who owns data, and who is ultimately responsible for securing that data. In addition, cloud providers have a wide range of security controls — from the very robust to a complete lack thereof.
  4. How does the organization plan to use collected cyberthreat intelligence data? It can be used for strategic purposes, tactical purposes or both within an organization.
  5. Does the organization intend to share any threat intelligence data with others? If yes, then you can take the old cybersecurity industry adage “trust but verify” and throw it out. The new industry adage should be “verify and then trust.” Never assume that an ally will always be an ally.
  6. Does the organization have enough staff to spread the workload evenly, and does the organization plan to include other teams in the threat intelligence process? Organizations may find it very helpful to include other teams, either as strategic partners, such as vulnerability management, application security, infrastructure and networking, and risk management teams, or as tactical partners, such as red, blue and purple teams.

How Can We Adapt Threat Intelligence Models to the Cyber Battlefield?

As mentioned above, the threat intelligence models in use today were not designed for cyber warfare. They are typically linear models, loosely based on Carl Von Clausewitz’s military strategy and tailored for warfare on a physical battlefield. It’s time for the cyberthreat intelligence community to define a new model, perhaps one that is three-dimensional, nonlinear, rooted in elementary number theory and that applies vector calculus.

Much like game theory, The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis is sufficient if there are two players (the victim and the adversary), but it tends to fall apart if the adversary is motivated by anything other than sociopolitical or socioeconomic payoff, if there are three or more players (e.g., where collusion, cooperation and defection of classic game theory come into play), or if the adversary is artificially intelligent. In addition, The Diamond Model of Intrusion Analysis attempts to show a stochastic model diagram but none of the complex equations behind the model — probably because that was someone’s 300-page Ph.D. thesis in applied mathematics. This is not much help to the average reader or a newcomer to the threat intelligence field.

Nearly all models published thus far are focused on either external actors or insider threats, as though a threat actor must be one or the other. None of the widely accepted models account for, or include, physical security.

While there are many good articles about reducing alert fatigue in the security operations center (SOC), orchestrating security defenses, optimizing the SOC with behavioral analysis and so on, these articles assume that the reader knows what any of these things mean and what to do about any of it. A veteran in the cyberthreat intelligence field would have doubts that behavioral analysis and pattern recognition are magic bullets for automated threat hunting, for example, since there will always be threat actors that don’t fit the pattern and whose behavior is unpredictable. Those are two of the many reasons why the fields of forensic psychology and criminal profiling were created.

Furthermore, when it comes to the collection of threat intelligence, very few articles provide insight on what exactly constitutes “useful data,” how long to store it and which types of data analysis would provide the best insight.

It would be a good idea to get the major players in the cyberthreat intelligence sector together to develop at least one new model — but preferably more than one. It’s time for industry leaders to develop new ways of classifying threats and threat actors, share what has and has not worked for them, and build more boundary connections than the typical socioeconomic or sociopolitical ones. The sector could also benefit from looking ahead at what might happen if threat actors choose to augment their crimes with algorithms and AI.

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Protecting Critical Infrastructure and Roadways: How Smart Cities Create New Risks

Advanced technology has changed countless facets of everyday life, from internal enterprise processes to consumer pursuits and beyond. Even the design, management and support for large and small cities has shifted thanks to innovative smart city systems.

While advanced components to support utilities, critical infrastructure, traffic and more can bring numerous benefits, these solutions also open both urban and rural areas to new risks and cyber threats.

We’re taking a closer look at city infrastructure and roadways, including energy and water utilities and highway transportation systems, the changes being made in these areas and how new technologies must be balanced with proper risk assessment.

Upgrading water and energy infrastructure

There’s simply no doubt that access to water and energy resources are some of the most important elements for residents. In many areas, city managers and officials are looking to upgrade their existing systems – some of which are considerably legacy, and have been in place for decades – with updated, intelligent technology.

As Trend Micro pointed out, such systems are able to run in the background, helping to manage and maintain water and energy infrastructures with little human interaction. This, in turn, boosts efficiency and, in theory, helps reduce the chances of long-term outages that result from inclement weather or other critical infrastructure issues.

At the same time, though, upgrading water and energy systems with smart technologies could, as Trend Micro researchers noted, “come at a cost.” Putting intelligent platforms in place where there previously were none could create significant risks that must be considered and mitigated ahead of time.

“Using Shodan and other tools, Trend Micro researchers looked into the possible weaknesses of exposed industrial control systems (ICS) across the energy and water industries,” researchers explained. “The results give a glimpse of security gaps found in ICS and human machine interfaces (HMIs) … that could lead to bigger problems due to the interdependent nature of critical infrastructure sectors and, more importantly, the natural dependence of people on these infrastructures.”

In many instances, the security risks that could potentially impact water utilities overlap with those that threaten access to energy resources:

Cyberattacks

Unsurprisingly, a leading concern here is the possibility of cyberattacks that could prevent access to these resources, or create situations of extended downtime. A long-term power outage or inability to access running water could have severe consequences for small and large cities alike, creating panic and potential public health impacts among residents. The ways in which attackers might achieve a successful intrusion and cyberattack differ, and are delved into more deeply below, but the potential for this risk is clear across utility sectors.

Exposed devices

As Trend Micro explained in its report, “Exposed and Vulnerable Critical Infrastructure: Water and Energy Industries,” researchers discovered that several devices – including human machine interfaces, report desktop protocols, virtual network computing systems and other components – are currently exposed on the internet. These exposed devices provide an ideal point of attack for cybercriminals looking to support an intrusion.

Researchers found different levels of exposure and different reasons behind this issue, including improper setup of remote access functions, unsecured access provided to a third-party, and/or incorrectly configured network settings. These security issues make it possible for attackers to access exposed devices and leverage them to steal sensitive personally identifiable customer information; to gain entry to the network and subsequently support sabotage or fraudulent processes; to run illegal operations using the network, including DDoS attacks, botnets, cryptocurrency mining and other malicious activity.

Once an exposed device has been identified, the potential for misuse by attackers leading to other security issues and attacks is nearly limitless. Worse still, this issue impacts all different types of energy and utility plants, including those for oil and gas, solar energy, hydroelectric plants, water treatment, and other industrial facilities.

Example of a real-world threat scenario

Within the report, Trend Micro researchers look into several potential real-world threat scenarios that could take place thanks to exposed human machine interfaces and other devices within the industrial sector.

“One of the greatest concerns for organizations in this sector is the possible effect of direct cyberattacks on their operations, thereby leading to a disruption of supply to and from the plant,” Trend Micro researchers explained. “This is especially true for water facilities that either purify water for distribution or use water in their operations.”

A water treatment plant, for instance, could be attacked via exposed human machine interface controls through public methods. Controls that are not properly secured and therefore exposed over the internet could provide the ideal opening for an attack that interrupts operations and prevents the plant from supplying drinking water.

Attacks on highway infrastructure

As Trend Micro researchers noted in the report, “Cyberattacks Against Intelligent Transportation Systems: Assessing Future Threats to ITS,” intelligent transportation systems create similar risks to smart infrastructure.

Successful attacks on transportation systems can have numerous malicious consequences, including vehicular accidents; traffic jams that impact service delivery, the movement of freight and daily commutes; additional ripple effects that create financial loss for businesses, individual people or cities.

The intelligent systems that could be impacted here include autonomous vehicles, as well as connected vehicles equipped with LAN or Wifi connections. Roadway reporting systems encompassing elements like lane cameras, roadway weather stations and other platforms fall under this risk umbrella; as do traffic flow controls like traffic signals, message signs and toll collection systems.

The potential risk of attack here differs depending on the scenario, but as Trend Micro pointed out in its report, several real-world attacks have already taken place. In one instance, an individual hijacked a dynamic traffic sign and changed its message to “Drive Crazy Y’all” as a prank. Surprisingly, this attack was made possible through default login credentials that were easy to guess.

In a more damaging example, San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation agency was attacked in 2016 by ransomware that shut down internal and commuter systems. Fare payment machines were made inaccessible, displaying “OUT OF SERVICE” messages across screens and preventing riders from paying for fares. In response, the transportation agency had to allow free rides on its light rail until the issue was resolved.

As this scenario shows, an attack on transportation infrastructure can be considerably impactful, and have significant financial repercussions. Other instances might affect emergency services, or other crucial transportation-dependent needs.

These issues highlight the critical responsibility on the part of utility providers and organizations involved with transportation management. These groups must be sure they are aware of these potential threats and are working proactively to mitigate them.

To find out more and to read about other potential and actual attack scenarios involving critical infrastructures, check out Trend Micro’s reports, “Exposed and Vulnerable Critical Infrastructure: Water and Energy Industries,” and “Cyberattacks Against Intelligent Transportation Systems.”

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The New Currency for Business is Security Culture

As you are no doubt aware, 2018 was yet another banner year for cybercrime. IBM Security Vice President Caleb Barlow recently reflected on the historic data breaches, widespread vulnerabilities and unprecedented onslaught of data privacy regulations affecting businesses across geographies. In such a fast-paced industry where technology — not to mention the threat landscape — is evolving daily, security culture is now a key determinant of success.

In my own experience, security teams are more likely to succeed when they’re viewed as an integral part of the business. Mature organizations recognize the direct connection between trust, user experience and revenue and place the chief information security officer (CISO) or chief security officer (CSO) on equal footing with other C-level executives.

Don’t Put the Chief Security Officer at the Kids Table

If you’re wondering why it matters who the CSO reports to, picture this: You’ve been invited to a holiday dinner with your extended family of 15 adults, but the dining room table only seats 14, and it’s already a tight squeeze. Ultimately, someone will need to sit at the kids table. And while that may be a lot more fun, the conversations that take place there will surely be very different than at the main table.

The same dynamic exists in organizations that do not consider the CSO to be integral to the company’s success. If security is involved in senior leadership activities on an invite-only basis, the organization is only inviting trouble down the road. Security needs to be a part of the larger, mature conversations that take place around the health and state of the business. For instance, what happens when a vulnerability scan turns up high-risk flaws? Are there processes in place to ensure good communication? Who decides who is responsible for the fix? Who validates it? Is the report seen as crucial to ensure overall quality for a release, or is it considered a nuisance, a necessary evil?

Business success is directly tied to great user experiences and protecting sensitive data. Today, most organizations can see a point-in-time view of their security posture and threat landscape, but they need more real-time information about the risks they face to keep up with the threat landscape in 2019. Customers today expect, demand and even assume security is present in the applications they use. Meeting that demand requires high degrees of collaboration and communication, so don’t make it more difficult by relegating security to an island.

Everyone Plays a Role in Security

In today’s software world, where there is growing, extensive use of devices, microservices, components, containers and open-source tools, the potential for things to go wrong is increasing proportionally. For this reason, every department and executive throughout the organization needs to play a role in securing enterprise data.

One of the main problems is that people don’t really know what they have in their environment. If you walk into a development shop and ask five people how many applications their organization supports, you’ll likely get five different answers. And just see what happens if you ask for a full inventory of the services, libraries and components associated with those applications. Any information developers do have is often inconsistent across different departments. For instance, I’ve seen situations where IT had one list, security had another, and the two were never consolidated or cross-referenced. The impact of such a disconnect can be devastating.

What if your organization is using a lot of open-source components and a critical vulnerability emerges for one of them? If your enterprise is reliant on a central IT team but you have inconsistent departmental software inventories, how can you really be sure you’ve identified all the affected systems? And if you depend on employees to manually initiate patching efforts, how can you confirm they actually happened? Too often, the patch management process is a mix of automated efforts for some systems and an honor system for others. When this happens, inconsistent lists, inaccurate inventories and unclear, unenforced policies can easily leave critical systems exposed.

Today, the critical systems that might be left exposed could be sitting in the pockets of your employees — I’m talking about the personal devices they use every day. How aware are your employees of your organization’s policies and procedures? Are they enforced? Are the devices they use to access enterprise data in hotels, coffee shops and in transit secure? Making the problem worse is the often blurred line between personal and professional use. How can you know that all the apps downloaded to these devices are safe? Do you rely solely on your employees to secure their own devices?

The industry has moved beyond simply enforcing password policies. Today, nontechnical employees must play a critical role in security strategy and act as the first line of defense. Take the time to educate them on your policies and, most importantly, how they impact the business. Then, take the necessary steps to enforce them. The policy you implement and enforce today just might prevent a breach tomorrow.

Security Culture Delivers Real Business Value

Security culture is becoming a sort of currency for organizations. Studies such as IBM Security’s “Future of Identity Report” have shown that consumers are prioritizing security over privacy and convenience for nearly all application types. It’s no longer acceptable to simply add in or account for security during the development life cycle; it must be part of the initial design and conception.

For that to happen, security needs to be ingrained in organizational culture, perceived as critical to the company’s success, and inclusive of all departments and employees across the enterprise. Organizations that do this well will be better positioned to build trust among their user base and provide the exceptional user experience that customers demand.

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