Hackers wage a new Cold War

The Cold War of the mid-twentieth century played out as a truly epic conflict. The U.S. and the Soviet Union mobilized spies across the globe, supported proxy armies from the jungles of Southeast Asia to Central America, and deployed vast nuclear arsenals capable of annihilating life as we know it.

Many believe the US and Russia have returned to a Cold War footing, one that promises to re-imagine war. The peril from this new hybrid type of warfare incorporates cyber tactics focusing on soft targets designed to disrupt businesses, our economy and other areas of our society that were normally safe from adversaries.

As the primary theater of battle shifts online, the powerful deterrence offered by nuclear stockpiles has been undermined by software exploits, weaponized propaganda delivered through social media-oriented disinformation sites, and hackers-for-hire who can help even the most obscure splinter group destabilize a world power. Indeed, cyberattacks are the ultimate in asymmetric warfare, enabling both countries and non-state actors build robust offensive capability without spending great amounts of capital.

Compounding the problem, there is no national defense strategy to block attacks against the private sector. The nightmare scenarios of novelists can barely keep pace with the real possibilities of the new Cold War. In Ghost Fleet by August Cole and P. W. Singer, a fictional World War III sees hackers taking power plants offline, widespread disabling of foreign-manufactured smart devices, drones everywhere, and hidden backdoors in software creating havoc on the global economy. Meanwhile, the very same ideas are under intense discussion at West Point and Annapolis.

Defending yourself from Main Street to Wall Street

The cyber Cold War isn’t just a matter for military and intelligence personnel to ponder. It can easily affect the life of any business. Personal financial information can be stolen and sold for profit by a crime ring, or used to finance a terrorist attack. A company’s intellectual property can be targeted by an industrial rival, or its systems sabotaged, or its stock price manipulated by a fake Twitter account, or its reputation and business relationships ruined through leaks and hoaxes.

Citizens can be disenfranchised by hacked voting systems that render polling places inoperable or change recorded votes. Cities can be imperiled by attacks on the electrical power grid, or on the systems controlling large dams, or even on the connected cars and smart homes that fill their streets and neighborhoods.

What can you do about it? In our interconnected world, the lines between espionage, war, and business can be all too blurry. If you run a business, work with sensitive data, or work in cybersecurity, you’re already considered fair game—and so are your customers.

Here are some practical defensive approaches regardless of the size of your business.

  • Use two-factor authentication everywhere you can. Weak passwords/password reuse is one of the biggest problems out there for any organization large or small, and using two factor authentication can significantly raise the effort required for attackers.
  • Apply full-disk encryption for laptops and mobile devices to mitigate the risk posed by lost or stolen devices.
  • Use public cloud services where you can. Microsoft, Google, and AWS field much larger security teams than most companies—put them to work to help protect your business.
  • Secure your application layer. As sensitive information moves to the app layer, hackers follow; such attacks already account for 30% of successful breaches, according to Verizon, yet the majority of security budget is still allocated to the network. Defensive technologies for web applications and APIs are now critically important.

To keep your organization out of the line of fire, you’ve got to take the threat seriously, be smart about your defensive strategy, and stay alert for new developments. After all, Cold War drama is best kept confined to the page or the screen—not the data center or boardroom.

Contributing author: Zane Lackey, CSO at Signal Sciences.

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