In 2018, bad actors — that is, those perpetrating cyberattacks on businesses and organizations — upped their game across a range of fronts, devising new and insidious attack vectors. While more-savvy users have continued to play defense, cybersecurity in general remains relatively weak — certainly, far weaker than it should be, given the nature and extent of the threat(s).
Anecdotally, the year witnessed a significant uptick in targeted attacks against cloud hosting companies. Where hacks once occurred seemingly at random, attacks are now more targeted, tracking the user population as organizations have moved to the cloud. No longer are attacks limited to local machines; as the number of virtual servers has proliferated, hackers have set their sights on these remote servers, recognizing the potential for both more damage and greater profit.
Ironically, the money isn't rolling in only from ransomware — which, on a relative basis, is actually less effective than it used to be. (Credit there goes to the IT/user community for more vigilant backup practices.) Cryptomining, or cryptojacking, emerged as a cash cow in 2018; the practice of embedding software that runs in the background, searching over time for cryptocurrency in stealth fashion, attests to the smarter, more sophisticated class of hacker that surfaced (or didn't) these last 12 months.
According to Webroot's Mid-Year Threat Report Update, cryptomining — which consists of both ransomware and cryptomining — accounted for 52% of cybersecurity threats in the first half the year. By itself, cryptojacking (defined as "the nonconsensual act of cryptomining someone else's machine") was behind 35% of threats. The practice is so pervasive, the Webroot's report notes, that cryptojacking scripts are said to be running on an estimated 3% of all sites that users visit.
Closely linked to cryptomining is the notable rise this year in advanced persistent threat, or APT, incidents — a clear sign that attackers are creating ever-smarter malware, at nearly an artificial intelligence (AI) level. Malware is becoming sandbox-aware; once it gets out of the sandbox, it runs malicious code. That code can do almost anything nefarious — steal passwords, log keystrokes, send information from the server to the attacker, gain remote access to the server, hide files, and accept commands. By midyear, our organization began to see more "fileless malware." Running in memory, traditional anti-malware software can't intercept it. AI-driven anti-malware software is now in the works — yet another example of how any technology can be used for good or ill.
That said, I find it encouraging that organizations in 2018 did boost their investments in proactive security measures; some even began to change the way they look at security, examining past breaches and isolating lessons learned. Cloud hosting providers are getting better at playing defense, although methodologies like zero trust and least privilege aren't being adopted as rapidly or as widely as they should be.
That needs to change in 2019 if the IT community is to gain the upper hand on cryptomining and cryptojacking. Zero-trust architecture, as Forrester Research defines it, abolishes the idea of a trusted network inside a defined corporate perimeter. Zero trust mandates the creation of microperimeters of control around an enterprise's sensitive data assets and provides visibility into how it uses data across its ecosystem to win, serve, and retain customers.
Under a zero-trust regime, all applications are configured to challenge and encrypt, enabling the organization to build out its infrastructure around that concept. Zero trust, with multifactor authentication, is the industrial-strength option in today's environment and ought to be standard operating procedure moving forward.
While perceived threats and vulnerabilities are assumed to exist outside the firewall, truly effective security policies assume nothing. The conventional wisdom once held that everyone inside the network was trusted and everyone outside was not. The newer, more enlightened paradigm for security is "more trusted" and "less trusted" — and that's where the principle of least privilege comes into play.
Per a University of Indiana knowledge base, the principle of least privilege promotes minimal user profile privileges on computers, based on users' job necessities. Each system component or process should have the least authority necessary to perform its duties. This helps reduce the attack vector of the computer by eliminating unnecessary privileges that can result in network exploits and computer compromises.
In savvy organizations, least privilege applies to every employee. Encryption is the rule internally, and multifactor authentication to log in to every networking component and storage system is mandated; no one can delete a snapshot or burrow into the firewall.
In this near-full employment economy, organizations are frankly hurting in their quest to find and retain qualified cybersecurity professionals. It's a challenge to hire people who truly know what they're doing, and distressingly, hackerworld is exploiting the talent gap. With cryptomining and cryptojacking poised to become a juggernaut in 2019, the security wing of the IT industry would be wise to plug that gap with all deliberate speed.
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