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How Hackers Have Honed Their Attacks

More organizations are getting breached, but data exfiltration is becoming harder for attackers, new data shows.

A triad of vendor reports released this week contained some mixed news for enterprises on the evolving threat landscape and how organizations are responding to the resulting challenges.

On the one hand the reports showed that attackers are getting better at bypassing enterprise defenses and breaching networks. But their ability to do damage after breaking in appears to be getting limited as the result of increasingly better detection and response capabilities.

Here in no particular order are five high-level takeaways from the reports by Vectra Networks based on a post-intrusion analysis at 120 organizations in 2016; by Trustwave based on data from hundreds of breach investigations; and Cytegic from data gathered from its DyTA intelligence platform.

More Breaches, Less Data Exfiltration

Vectra’s report showed that attackers increasingly managed to get through corporate defenses in 2015. But data exfiltration itself was fairly small in comparison. Of the 120 organizations that shared metadata with Vectra, the security firm detected at least one in-process malicious activity instance on their networks such as lateral movement, internal reconnaissance and command and control traffic. Trustwave’s found 97% of the applications that it tested to contain at least one security flaw.

At the same time though, only 3.1% of the incidents involved actual data exfiltration. The evidence suggest that organizations did a relatively good job detecting and blocking threats before significant damage in a vast majority of cases, says Wade Williamson, director of threat analytics at Vectra. “On the front end pretty much every network let an attacker get inside,” Williamson says. “But the good news is that people who are paying attention are keeping data from getting out. There is scary news on the front end, but it is manageable.”

Shifting Focus

Attackers shifted their focus away from e-commerce and point-of-sale environments to corporate and internal network breaches. In 2015, e-commerce compromises represented 38% of the incidents that Trustwave was called in to remediate compared to 42% in 2014, The proportion of PoS incidents meanwhile dropped from 40% in 2014 to 22% in 2015. 

The broadening adoption in the US of smartcards based on EMV technology may have had a role in that shift, according to Trustwave. “I would also say that, especially after the major PoS breaches of 2013 and 2014, that companies have gotten better at protecting their PoS assets,” says Karl Sigler, threat intelligence manager at Trustwave.

Still, payment cards remain an attractive target for attackers according to Cytegic’s intelligence report. About 42% of targeted data in the Dark Web was comprised of payment card data in March 2016, Cytegic said.

Improved Breach Detection

Trustwave’s data showed that North American organizations are getting better at detecting breaches on their own instead of having it reported to them by a third-party. Self-detection of breaches increased from 19% in 2014 to 41% in 2015.  That still meant that a majority of organizations did not detect breaches on their own last year. Even so, the fact that so many did is encouraging, Sigler says. That’s because organization that self-detect breaches generally tend to do a better job containing them as well.

For instance, for breaches reported by third parties, it took organizations a median of 168 days from intrusion to contain it. In contrast, self-detected breaches had a median of 15 days between intrusion and containment. “Organizations are finally starting to prioritize security rather than making it a small earmark under the general IT department,” Sigler says. “These organizations have also discovered that security doesn’t just come from buying technology and tools, but from putting properly skilled people in place and empowering them.”

Stealthier Attackers

The evidence showed that attackers are getting stealthier inside the network, Vectra’s Williamson says. Until relatively recently, for instance, noisy brute force attacks were the most commonly employed tactic by attackers attempting to move laterally inside a network after breaking into it.  That shifted in 2015 with brute force attacks dropping to third place behind quieter and subtle Kerberos and internal replication techniques. That suggests, among other things, that attackers are getting better at using stolen credentials to move quietly inside a breached network, Williamson says.

Last year also saw a troubling increase in the use of hidden tunnels in HTTP and HTTPS as a way to conceal command and control traffic and to send stolen data out of a compromised network. The increase in the use of such techniques compared to a year ago was surprising, Williamson says.

More Geographically Widespread Attacks

A vast majority of victims continue to be in North America, but attackers are beginning to spread the pain. In March this year, Cytegic counted an overall 17% increase in the number of cyberattacks worldwide. North American organizations as usual bore more attacks than any other region and accounted for more than 30% of all attacks.

But for the first time, the Middle East emerged as a major target by registering what Cytegic reports as a staggering 64% percent increase in cyber activity in the last month. That increase made the Middle East the second most active region for cyber attacks in March.

“This may be attributed to the rising cyber activity regarding Iran, Israel and especially Syria this month and the ricochets from the Brussels attacks,” Cytegic said in its report. Western Europe was the next most cyber active region with over 16% of attacks, while the East Asian region accounted for about 12% of all attacks in March.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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