Threat intelligence analysts at Skybox Research Lab uncovered a 42% increase in new ransomware programs targeting known vulnerabilities in 2021. The report revealed how quickly cybercriminals capitalize on new security weaknesses – shrinking the window that organizations have to remediate vulnerabilities ahead of an attack.
Record-breaking growth in new vulnerabilities
With 20,175 new vulnerabilities published in 2021, Skybox Research Lab witnessed the most vulnerabilities ever reported in a single year. And these new vulnerabilities are just the tip of the iceberg. The total number of vulnerabilities published over the last 10 years reached 166,938 in 2021 — a three-fold increase over a decade.
These cumulative vulnerabilities, piling up year after year, represent an enormous aggregate risk, and they’ve left organizations struggling with a mountain of cybersecurity debt. As the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) highlights in its Top Routinely Exploited Vulnerabilities list, threat actors are routinely exploiting publicly disclosed vulnerabilities from years past.
“The sheer volume of accumulated risks — hundreds of thousands or even millions of vulnerability instances within organizations — means they can’t possibly patch all of them. To prevent cybersecurity incidents, it is critical to prioritize exposed vulnerabilities that could cause the most significant disruption,” said Ran Abramson, threat intelligence analyst, Skybox Research Lab.
“Then, apply appropriate remediation options including configuration changes or network segmentation to eliminate risk, even before patches are applied or in cases where patches aren’t available.”
OT vulnerabilities nearly double year-over-year
Operational technology (OT) vulnerabilities jumped 88%, which are used to attack critical infrastructure and expose vital systems to potentially devastating breaches. OT systems support energy, water, transportation, environmental control systems, and other essential equipment. Attacks on these vital assets can inflict severe economic damage and even endanger public health and safety.
As OT and IT networks converge, threat actors are increasingly exploiting vulnerabilities in one environment to reach assets in the other. Many OT attacks begin with an IT breach, followed by lateral movement to access OT equipment. Conversely, intruders may use OT systems as steppingstones to IT networks, where they can deliver malicious payloads, exfiltrate data, launch ransomware attacks, and conduct other exploits. Increasingly, malware is designed to exploit both IT and OT resources.
24% jump in new vulnerabilities exploited in the wild
As new vulnerabilities appeared in 2021, threat actors wasted no time taking advantage of them. One hundred sixty-eight vulnerabilities that published in 2021 were promptly exploited in the wild within 12 months — 24% more than the number of vulnerabilities published and subsequently exploited in 2020. In other words, threat actors and malware developers are getting better at weaponizing recent vulnerabilities.
This puts security teams in a squeeze, reducing the time between the initial discovery of vulnerabilities and the emergence of active exploits targeting them. That shrinking window to remediate known exploits means that proactive approaches to vulnerability management are more essential than ever.
75% increase in new cryptojacking malware programs
New cryptojacking programs targeting known vulnerabilities increased by 75% year over year, along with the 42% rise in ransomware. Both cases illustrate how the malware industry is getting better at leveraging emerging business opportunities, providing a range of tools and services used by seasoned cybercriminals and inexperienced newbies alike.
Cybercriminals target easy money, and their malware-as-a-service packages exploit the most widespread vulnerabilities. The largest number of malware programs in 2021 targeted Log4Shell, Microsoft Exchange Server vulnerabilities, and a Pulse Connect Server vulnerability.
How to predict and prevent cyberattacks with data science
According to Forrester Research: “CISOs dread one question above all from their boards: ‘Are we safe?’ Boards ask this question because they want to know if security leaders are investing in the right areas and investing enough in security to meet their tolerance for financial loss experienced due to a cyber risk. CISOs, however, have struggled to answer this question for a long time, historically relying on qualitative approaches such as ordinal scoring mechanisms and 5×5 heatmaps which are based on subjective expert judgment and opinion.”
To standardize on a common risk language, security teams need an objective framework for gauging the actual risk that any given vulnerability poses to their organization. This requires the use of a rigorous scoring system that can be used to prioritize remediation efforts and allocate precious resources where they’re most needed. That means calculating risk scores for assets based on four critical variables:
- Measured CVSS severity
- Likelihood of exploitation
- Exposure level based on security controls and configurations
- Importance of the asset
“Exposure analysis is paramount, yet it’s missing from conventional risk scoring approaches,” added Abramson. “Exposure analysis identifies exploitable vulnerabilities and correlates this data with an enterprise’s unique network configurations and security controls to determine if the system is potentially open to a cyberattack.”