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Top 5 Most Dangerous Cyber Threats in 2024

SANS Institute experts weigh in on the top threat vectors faced by enterprises and the public at large.

The words cybersecurity threats written in white against a blue packground with yellow Warning streamers
Source: Stuart Miles via Alamy Stock Photo

RSA CONFERENCE 2024 – San Francisco – Only five months into 2024, and the year has been a busy one for cybersecurity practitioners, with multiyear supply chain attacks, nation-state actors exploiting multiple vulnerabilities in network gateways and edge devices, and multiple ransomware incidents against large healthcare entities. What's ahead for the rest of year?

At last week's RSA Conference, Ed Skoudis, president of the SANS Technology Institute, convened his annual panel of SANS Institute instructors and fellows to dig into topics that should be top of mind for cyber defenders for the remaining months of the year.

"This is my favorite panel of the year because we get to hear from real experts about what's really going on in the wild and what we can do about it to make our organizations more safe and secure," Skoudis told attendees.

Unsurprisingly, artificial intelligence (AI) was a recurring theme for almost all of the threats identified by the panel. Here are the top five threats flagged by SANS experts that enterprises should be worried about.

Security Impact of Technical Debt

The security cracks left behind by technical debt may not sound like a pressing new threat, but according to Dr. Johannes Ullrich, dean of research for SANS Technology Institute, the enterprise software stack is at an inflection point for cascading problems. What's more, "It affects more and more not only just our enterprise applications, but also our security stack," he said.

Technical debt is the accumulation of work in software engineering or system design that's left undone or put off until tomorrow for the sake of getting a minimum viable product up and running today. The debt may be accrued intentionally to optimize for speed or cost reasons, or it could build up unintentionally due to immature software engineering practices. Either way, it tends to raise a ton of cybersecurity risks as the debt grows.

And according to Ullrich, the rising accrual of technical debt combined with the growing complexity of the software supply chain is increasing the profile of this threat vector.

"Even as a developer myself, it is very easy to say, 'Hey, this new library doesn't really have any new features and doesn't fix any security vulnerabilities, so I'm not going to apply that update," he says. "The problem is that five years from now, after you skip 10 to 15 different incremental updates, then the big security vulnerability hits that library and now you have to work through all of these little quirks that have added up over the years so you can fix it."

Synthetic Identity in the AI Age

Proving out identity at the initiation of new credentials and for authentication has been a decades-long struggle for the security industry. That struggle will only continue to be amplified in the AI age, explained Ullrich.

Fake videos and fake audio are being used to impersonate people, Ullrich said, and they will foil many of the biometric authentication methods that have gained steam over the last decade.

"The game changer today is not the quality of these impersonations," he said. "The game changer is cost. It has become cheap to do this, whereas in the past it was pretty expensive. Now it is a couple dollars versus tens of thousands to create those fakes."

AI-generated synthetic media is upending a lot of the innovations that security vendors have made to help reduce friction at registration and identity verification, as well as upon sign-on. For example, a website called not only creates fake IDs but also pictures that look like a photo you'd take for a driver's license or other similar IDs to verify identity.

"It has a background like a carpet or a piece of wood that looks like someone took that picture in their home," Ullrich explained. "And this has already been used to impersonate established identity online with some financial assistance."

This is going to put pressure in the near term on security practitioners and vendors to keep rethinking how the industry does risk-based identity verification, he warns.


The third top threat was a bit of a shocker compared with some of the other more enterprise-focused issues that SANS usually tackles, but it is a serious one warranting attention from the industry, said Heather Mahalik Barnhart, a SANS faculty fellow and senior director of community engagement at Cellebrite.

"Each year I come up here and I try to just kind of wreck your brain in a different way, and that's probably what this topic is going to do because it's an edgy threat that nobody wants to admit exists," she explained. "It's sextortion, and it is running wild, and it is getting to be out of control."

According to Barnhart, criminals are increasingly extorting online denizens with sexual pictures or videos, threatening them that they'll release them if the victim doesn't do what they ask. And in the era of highly convincing AI-generated images, those pictures or videos don't even need to be real to do damage.

"The reality is it could be you. It could be me. It could be your children. It could be one of your co-workers," Barnhart said, explaining that sextortion is increasingly linked to teenage suicides, especially among boys ages 10 to 14.

And it isn't just a personal threat. It could pose a very existential risk to the enterprise as well.

"Now think about this. If it's one of your co-workers, what does that mean for your organization?" she said. "If an image is posed, whether it's AI or not, and they're saying, 'I'm going to put this on LinkedIn. It's going on your company's website. It's going to get blasted out on YouTube. It's going everywhere unless you provide me X.' People are going to consider providing X, and that's a scary thing."

That X could be money or cooperation in providing company access. The point is that as salacious and personal as it seems, sextortion is very relevant in enterprise context. There are no easy answers for this growing threat, Barnhart said, but the first steps in combating it should definitely be rooted in awareness and training.

"Why don't we train on extortion? It doesn't have to be sexual in nature, but extortion in general," she said, making the point that just as enterprises spend a ton of money on anti-phishing training, they should also consider investing in anti-extortion training.

GenAI Election Threats

As we progress into the back half of 2024, the US election is going to increasingly gain the spotlight in online communities, social media sharing, and news coverage. As they dominate the headlines and the comment threads, fake media manipulation and other generative AI-generated election threats will be ever present across all of the major platforms, warned Terrence Williams, a SANS instructor and security engineer for AWS.

"You can thank 2024 for giving us the blessing of GenAI plus an election," Williams wryly joked. "You know how well we handle those things, so we need to understand what we're coming up against right now."

The threat of deepfake media is no longer a future threat — it's a here-and-now threat, Williams warned. GenAI can now be used to generate custom campaign elements and power automated robocall campaigns for legitimate reasons, but also for the sake of misleading voters and feeding them with outlandish fabrications. And that is only going to continue to deteriorate already tenuous trust in the election process. The answer to this is going to be collaboration among security researchers, academia, technology players, and political stakeholders.

"Right now we have our academia looking to research, seeing how they could develop something that is detecting if an image or a video is AI-generated," he said. "Hopefully that is going to be available in time for tech companies who are doing the innovation to ensure that when they roll out their new solutions, there's going to be some type of safety net that we can rely on as citizens."

It's up to public-private interests to make sure average voters understand that we're in an age of "trust but verify," meaning that people need to be meticulous about the sources and the fact checking that they use, Williams added. At the same time, innovators and politicians must also be held accountable for building safeguards into the technology and the processes that disseminate information, he said.

Offensive AI as Threat Multiplier

Finally, the fifth top threat was offensive AI as a multiplier of existing cyber threats, which was unpacked by Stephen Sims, a SANS fellow and longtime offensive security researcher. Offensive AI is the use of AI and automation by the bad guys to more quickly identify threats and to automate the generation of exploits and attack campaigns. As GenAI grows more sophisticated, even the most nontechnical cyber attackers now have a more flexible arsenal of tools at their fingertips to quickly get malicious campaigns up and running.

"The speed at which we can now discover vulnerabilities and weaponize them is extremely fast, and it's getting faster," Sims said.

He said his offensive security research has shown that GenAI is making it dead simple to automate patch "diffing," or identifying changes across versions of binaries related to patches that will make it possible to reverse engineer exactly where a security fix has been made in order to exploit it on systems that haven't yet been patched. Similarly, GenAI can speed up weaponization of those patches; combined with automation tools, it is easy to do all of the "technical stuff that would normally take us so long to do manually," Sims said.

"So, if you're a defender, this is the big takeaway: [You have to think about] how you're going to be able to defend against the speed that we're up against and the automation and the intelligence that's just going to get better and better," he said. "We can do the same style of automation on the defensive side."

About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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