Attackers Continue to Focus on Users, Well-Worn Techniques

From WannaCry and phishing to credential stuffing and cryptomining, attackers relied on many oldie-but-goodie attacks in 2018, according to a pair of new security threat reports.

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Traditional attacks, such as phishing and credential stuffing, continue to dominate the threat landscape for most industries, while well-known malware, such as WannaCry, remain a threat for behind-the-curve companies, according to two annual cyberthreat reports released today.

In 2018, security firm Trend Micro detected 20.6 million phishing URLs, an increase of 82% over 2017, according to the firm's "2018 Annual Security Roundup." And in its Q4 2018 "Quarterly Threat" report, security firm Rapid7 found that suspicious attempts to log in were the most common attack detected by companies.

The data underscores that attackers are still focused on taking advantage of users and user accounts, says Jon Clay, director of global threat communications for security firm Trend Micro.

"We are seeing the threat actors are still targeting employees and targeting consumers with phishing attacks," he says. "We are seeing a little more targeting in their approach, in terms of victims." 

The data from the reports presents a multifaceted view of the threat landscape that most companies face, but those threats depend a great deal on the level of maturity of a company's security program and its industry.

For example, the utilities sector most often saw phishing attacks and attempts to compromise systems via Trojan horse programs, while most other industries typically had to deal with suspicious log-in attempts. Technology can help users make better decisions about events that could could compromise their systems.

"Most of these attacks are, if not user-driven, user-assisted," says Tod Beardsley, director of research for Rapid7. Education and training are necessary, but not sufficient, he says. "I don't think we want users to have to be forensic scientist to do their jobs," he adds.

Here are some of the trends seen by Trend Micro and Rapid7 in 2018 and what they mean for 2019.

Old Attacks Still Work
Some of the most popular attacks — representing the most attack traffic detected by security firms — are older attacks. According to Rapid7, traffic containing attacks targeting the vulnerability exploited by EternalBlue and default passwords on telnet services were the most-detected attacks in 2018.

The EternalBlue exploit is most famously used by WannaCry, a self-propagating ransomware worm, that began spreading in 2017, but continues to attempt to infect other systems today. 

"WannaCry is one of the top malware we are seeing every month detected through our sensors, mainly because it is a worm, and it tries to spread itself all the time," Trend Micro's Clay says.

Self-propagating malicious programs tend to stick around the Internet, infecting older, unpatched systems and continuing their automated spread. Conficker, for example, started spreading a decade ago, and infected systems continue to attempt to spread the program. Trend Micro detects 20,000 to 40,000 communications from those systems every month, Clay says.

Cryptomining and the Android Debug Bridge
In 2018, attackers often tried to monetize insecure systems by compromising them and installing cryptomining software to turn processing power into potential digital currency. 

One key campaign targeted any Android device with an exposed service, known as the Android Debug Bridge. The attackers kicked off the operation last February, targeting Internet TV boxes (IPTV).

"It exploded in July because there was one specific mining campaign that was using it," Rapid7's Beardsley says. "Eventually it was blocked, in part, because IPTV was the focus of some lawsuits for piracy and not because of security."

By December, Internet service providers started blocking the port, which hobbled the attack. 

"Be mindful of new threat vectors," Rapid7 stated in its report. "This was the first of many examples of attackers showing their skill, creativity, and flexibility when it comes to discovering and exploiting new areas of attack."

Attackers Still Use the Front Door
By far, however, the most common types of attacks are bad actors logging into a service using stolen or commonly used credentials — "suspicious authentication" dominated the attack detections for most industries in 2018, according to Rapid7's report. And with more than 1.5 billion working credentials in the hands of attackers, according to Rapid7 estimates, there is a lot of opportunity for attackers to just walk in the front door.

Making the situation more dire, most companies still do not require two-factor authentication (2FA) to harden their systems against credential stuffing and password guessing. As a result, such attacks still deliver acceptable risk-reward trade-offs for attackers, Rapid7's Beardsley says.

"The status quo today is that most people have an OK password with no 2FA," he says. "If I [as an attacker] can be very focused in my attacks, I can reach success rates that are really high with credential-based attacks — around 25%."

The most popular default password combinations vary by service: Admin/admin is popular for Web servers, while root/123456 is popular for telnet services, according to Rapid7.

Companies should focus on consistent and frequent training of employees, adopt 2FA, and focus on the threats that are most common for their industries, the company stated in its report.

"Your humans are both your organization’s greatest assets and, unfortunately, the prime attack vector for attackers," Rapid7 stated. "Heed the knowledge gained and reinforced about attackers relying on humans to focus on enabling your workforce to be co-defenders of your enterprise."

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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