HEAT attacks: A new class of cyber threats organizations are not prepared for

Web malware (47%) and ransomware (42%) now top the list of security threats that organizations are most concerned about. Yet despite the growing risks, just 27% have advanced threat protection in place on every endpoint device that can access corporate applications and resources.

web security threats

This is according to a research published by Menlo Security, exploring what steps organizations are taking to secure themselves in the wake of a new class of cyber threats – known as Highly Evasive Adaptive Threats (HEAT).

As employees spend more time working in the browser and accessing cloud-based applications, the risk of HEAT attacks increases. Almost two-thirds of organizations have had a device compromised by a browser-based attack in the last 12 months. The report suggests that organizations are not being proactive enough in mitigating the risk of these threats, with 45% failing to add strength to their network security stack over the past year. There are also conflicting views on the most effective place to deploy security to prevent advanced threats, with 43% citing the network, and 37% the cloud.

“Threat actors seek to exploit gaps in traditional security defences and the fact that security capabilities haven’t really changed over the past decade. One of the areas of focus for attackers is using web threats and we’re seeing more and more of them successfully deployed using HEAT techniques. Last year, we saw Nobelium use HTML smuggling, a HEAT tactic to avoid static and dynamic content analysis, to deliver malware and ransomware attacks. The fact that these are successful means their usage will increase, which could have devastating consequences for companies of all sizes,” explains Mark Guntrip, Senior Director of Cybersecurity Strategy, Menlo Security.

“Working practices have changed and companies must stop relying on traditional tools and strategies that just don’t cut it anymore. Adopting a prevention-driven approach to security is the only way to achieve this and using isolation-powered security to do so stops the browser from having any direct interaction with the website and content and ensures that HEAT attacks don’t stand a chance.”

Competing security priorities

According to the research among 500+ IT decision makers in the UK and US, hybrid/remote working (28%) is the biggest challenge organizations expect to face this year when it comes to protecting their corporate network from advanced threats. This is followed by budget restrictions (15%), the presence of unmanaged devices (14%), and out-dated security solutions (13%).

There are also a number of competing priorities for IT professionals when it comes to improving their security posture in 2022. Training staff tops the list (61%), followed by technology investment to protect the corporate network (60%), adapting to new ways of working (50%), and investing in skilled security members at 45%.

The impact of web security threats

  • Although 55% of respondents have invested in their security stack over the past year and 27% have advanced threat protection in place, it is not having the desired effect as attacks are still successfully penetrating their defence lines.
  • Half of respondents believe that firewalls are an effective way of mitigating HEAT attacks, and 31% favour VPNs.
  • Organizations believe that the threat of a cyber attack is a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’, regardless of size. Consequently, IT decision makers are most concerned about the reputational damage (62%) and financial loss (57%) that a security breach could have on their business.

According to Guntrip: “Organizations need to prioritise a review of their network security solution stack. HEAT target web browsers as the attack vector and employ techniques to evade detection by multiple layers in current security stacks, including firewalls, Secure Web Gateways, sandbox analysis, URL Reputation and phishing detection, so clearly a new strategy is needed.”

What are HEAT attacks?

The research team has been analysing Highly Evasive Adaptive Threats (HEAT), which bypass traditional security defences, including firewalls, Secure Web Gateways, sandbox analysis, URL Reputation, and phishing detection. The team observed a 224% increase in HEAT attacks in the second half of 2021.

Used to deliver malware or to compromise credentials, which in many cases leads to ransomware payloads, HEAT attacks include at least one of four evasion techniques:

  • Evades both static and dynamic content inspection
  • Evades malicious link analysis
  • Evades offline categorization and threat detection
  • Evades HTTP traffic inspection

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