Attackers sharpen skills: What that really means for CISOs

Today, IBM is revealing the results of its X-Force 2013 Mid-Year Trend and Risk Report, which shows that Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) must increase their knowledge of the evolving vulnerability and attack landscape, such as mobile and social technologies, to more effectively combat emerging security threats.

For CISOs, it’s no surprise that tried and true attack tactics can cause the most damage to an enterprise. Known vulnerabilities left unpatched in Web applications and server and endpoint software, create opportunities for attacks to occur. These unpatched applications and software continue to be facilitators of breaches year after year. However, the latest X-Force report also recognizes that attackers are improving their skills, which allows them to increase their return on exploitation. These attackers are capitalizing on users’ trust when it comes to new vectors like social media, mobile technology and waterhole attacks.

Rise in exploitation of trusted relationships

At the mid-year of 2013, attackers continue to focus on exploiting trusted relationships, via social networks from professional-looking spam, to sending malicious links that appear to be from friends or people that you “follow.” These attacks do work, providing an entry point into organizations. In their defense, social networks have taken more proactive measures in pre-scanning links included in public and private posts/messages.

Criminals are selling accounts on social networking sites, some belonging to actual people whose credentials were compromised, others fabricated and designed to be credible through realistic profiles and a Web of connections. As a minimum they function to inflate page “likes’ or falsify reviews; though more insidious uses include hiding one’s identity to conduct criminal activities – the online equivalent of a fake ID, but with testimonial friends, adding to the deception.

IBM X-Force expects to see applications of social engineering become more sophisticated as attackers create complex internetworks of identities while refining the art of deceiving victims. Technology advancements and controls are available, best practices continue to be refined and taught, but ultimately the trust the user believes they have may circumvent anything security practitioners put in place.

Poisoning the waterhole

Poisoning the WaterholeAttackers focusing on a central, strategic target like special interest Websites that are heavily frequented by a select group of potential targets are an effective and optimized means of exploitation. These central targets may not always have strong security solution and policies deployed, and even if they do, the cost of figuring out how to get through them is worth the opportunity to compromise the user-base.

These “watering hole” attacks are a great example of how operational sophistication is being used to reach targets not previously susceptible. By compromising the central site and using it to serve malware, attackers are able to reach more technically savvy victims who may not be fooled in phishing attempts, but would not suspect that sites they trust could be malicious.

Distraction and diversion techniques

Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks can be used as a distraction, allowing attackers to breach other systems in the enterprise while IT staffs are forced to make difficult risk-based decisions, possibly without visibility of the full scope of what is occurring. Attackers have demonstrated enhanced technical sophistication in the area of DDoS using methods of increasing the amounts of capable bandwidth as an updated and powerful way to halt business by interrupting online service as well as new DDoS mitigation evasion techniques.

As the scope and frequency of data breaches continues in an upward trajectory, it is more important than ever to get back to basic security fundamentals. While technical mitigation is a necessity, educating users throughout the enterprise that security is a mindset, not an exception, can go a long way toward reducing these incidents.

The complete report is available here.

Author: Robert Freeman, Manager of X-Force Research, IBM.

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