W is for …

Whaling

When people launching spear phishing attacks against senior members of staff, this is known as whaling (because they’re after the big fish). That’s the only real difference in the terms, though the types of attack may differ slightly.

Whales are more likely to be the target for mandate fraud, where an email purporting to be from eg the Chief Executive of an organisation goes to the Finance Director, or Finance team, asking them to make an urgent payment to a particular bank account.

White Hat

Ethical hackers, ie those who carry out lawful penetration tests with written permission from a client, are often called white hats. This is because they’re the good guys: hackers who attack without permission are black hats. The name comes from 50s and 60s films set in the Wild West, where the colour of the cowboy’s hat told you whether they were good or bad.

WiFi

Wireless connections to computers often use WiFi (rather than Bluetooth). Good practice dictates that the WiFi connections should be encrypted, using WPA2 encryption. WEP and WPA are both weak encryption prpotocols and should not be used.

Worm

A worm is a form of malware which replicates iteself in order to infect the computer it is on and any others it can find.

US names arrested Fin7 cyber-gang suspects

This story appeared recently on the BBC website.

Three members of a notorious hacking group, variously called Fin7, Carbanak and JokerStash, have been arrested and named. The three individuals were arrested in Germany, Poland and Spain: one has already been extradited to the US and extradition proceedings have begun against the other two. The hacking group had attacked targets in the US, UK, France and Australia, and is still active today.

The remarkable thing about these arrests is that law enforcement had to overcome one of the largest obstacles to law enforcement in the digital age: legal jurisdiction.  Where computers are connected to each other globally, with actions being carried out from different countries, often in different continents, it’s hard to know which laws have been broken, and which law enforcement agency takes priority / precedence.

In this case, those answers appear to have been solved. There has been a lot of collaboration between the various law enforcement agencies in the US and Europe, resulting in these arrests. It is to be hoped that this level of collaboration becomes the norm, and that countries are able to work together to bring criminals to justice, wherever they are active and irrespective of where their targets are.

P is for …

Password

There has been much written about passwords, but for this entry I thought it worth defining what a password actually is. It’s a code, phrase or sequence of letters and numbers which is used to validate that you are who you say you are. It’s often used in conjunction with a username or when you login to a device or system.

You’re advised to keep your password secret, known only to you, because this helps with non-repudiation.

Patching

Pretty much all software has vulnerabilities in it. The more complex the software, the more likely it is to have vulnerabilities. Patches are pieces of code written by software developers to fix those vulnerabilities once the manufacturers become aware of them.

Patching is the process of applying these bespoke pieces of code. Typically patches are given a severity based on the risk the vulnerability contains. Urgent patches should be applied as soon as possible, whereas low risk patches don’t need to be applied so quickly.

When applying patches in a work environment, it is advisable to test the patch on several machines first, before applying it to every device, just in case there are any issues or conflicts which the patch causes with existing software.

Payload

Viruses often contain malware, some of which contains special code to try to compromise a device. This is typically called a payload. Different viruses carry different payloads, and some carry multiple different payloads.

An analogy which might explain this is where you have bomber aircraft, the bombs they carry are referred to as the payload.

Penetration test

A common way of testing web sites and web applications is to run a penetration test. This is where ethical hackers i.e. people with prior permission from an organisation, run tests to see if they can find vulnerabilities, and find out what would happen if those vulnerabilities are exploited.

Typically, the testers will provide a report documenting their findings, and the organisation being tested will then fix any issues found by the testers.

This should be run on a regular basis, because new vulnerabilities, including zero day threats, are constantly being discovered.

There are also physical penetration tests, where people are hired to try to access a business. This is called a red team test.

Phishing

Phishing is a form of attack where the bad guys send email to a list of email addresses (which they’ve often bought on the dark web). The email typically either has an infected attachment or a link to an infected website, or it contains a message asking you to help someone release money from their bank account or some equally ridiculous plea for help.

These messages are indiscriminate and are not targeted at specific individuals. Those which are specifically targeted are known as spear phishing or whaling.

Principle of Least Privilege

A key feature of cyber security is making sure that users only have access to the programs or data they need access to for their job. This is known as the principle of least privilege.

For example, there’s generally no reason why someone working in the accounts department needs access to personnel records, or someone working in HR probably doesn’t need access to files for a specific project. Access would normally be restricted to help protect data.

Connected at home – what’s the problem?

You’ve probably heard by now of the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s essentially anything that is connected to the internet that isn’t a “standard” laptop or computer. But how secure is it? And how secure is your car? Just because your key fob is in your house doesn’t mean your car can’t be stolen.

The TV show Panorama here in the UK aired a really interesting episode this week, looking at just these issues. Have a watch here and see what you think.

I think the show does really well at showing how quickly systems can be compromised and what the effects could be. New iPad anyone? The truly horrifying part came with the expose of home CCTV footage available to anyone on the web, particularly baby monitors.

This should be a wake up call to everyone with a home router. Change the password and make it complex, at least 15 characters or more. Do it today.

It’s just a Like…

What harm can it do? You know, seeing your favourite hairdresser or coffee shop on social media, and clicking on the Like button? And what about all those little quizzes and fun games that appear? Like what are your top 5 places to visit, what was your first pet called etc. Not to mention the “your rock star name is…” and you have to give two pieces of information and then share them with your friends. That’s just opened up a treasure trove for the bad guys.

This short video shows what can happen in the time it takes you to order and receive your coffee.

How can you protect yourself from giving away all this information? Just spend a little time going through the security settings on all your social media platforms. If you’re not sure how to do this, use Google to find the answer. Oh, and do this on a regular basis, as the social media firms can and do change your settings from time to time.

H is for…

Hacking

I’m pretty sure that you’ve all heard the term “hacking”, and you probably know that it has negative connotations. But what exactly is it?

Put simply, it’s trying to get access to a computer or network using vulnerabilities in the security of the target. Note that I don’t necessarily say software: people can be hacked too, which is effectively what social engineering is. I won’t go onto social engineering here as it’ll be covered under “S is for…” later this year, so for the moment I’ll concentrate on hacking software.

Almost all software has errors in it which can be used to make the software do things the manufacturer didn’t intend. The bad guys know this, and spend a lot of time looking for those errors, then writing their own software to make use of these vulnerabilities (weaknesses): this process is called writing exploits.

The bad guys have a number of ways of getting their exploits to run on your systems: phishing emails are perhaps the most common and well known method, as are infected websites which download and install software in the background.

The best ways to protect your systems from hackers are:

  • Change your passwords regularly and enforce long, complex passwords for administrator level accounts
  • Keep patching and antivirus updated
  • Ensure your systems are vulnerability scanned, preferably penetration tested, on a regular basis
  • Ensure you / staff are trained to spot phishing emails

Hacktivism

Hackers who attack systems in support of a specific cause are engaging in hacktivism. Organisations like Anonymous rose to attention because they attracted hacktivists supporting different causes to attack companies which were involved in those causes.

Hybrid cloud model

As the name suggests, this kind of model is a mix of cloud and on-premise service provision. Some of the data / servers being used are in data centres run by your organisation, and some are in the cloud.

Vehicle Security

You’ve no doubt heard the stories about cars being hacked over WifI or Bluetooth, but today I want to talk about an easier security risk: second-hand, hire and courtesy cars…

I’ve recently had my car in the garage to have it serviced, and I was provided with a reasonably new courtesy car. I had to drive a fair distance so paired my mobile phone over Bluetooth so I could listen to podcasts while driving. As part of the pairing process I was asked if I wanted to replace the existing contact list for the phone in the car, and that set me thinking…

I looked at the sat nav, and guess what? Several pages of addresses were listed, none of which I’d added: these had been created by those who had the car before me.

I looked at the list of connected phones, other than mine, and there were a couple of pages of paired phones, including some which said things like “John Smith’s iPhone”.

I looked at the existing phone contacts listed on the car – none of them were mine.

What does all this mean? It’s all pretty innocent stuff, right? Wrong.

I can now try to match “John Smith” with the addresses listed. I can use the phone contact list to look for people that “John Smith” might know: for example, on social media and sites like LinkedIn. I know what kind of phone he uses, so that tells me more about him too. This is all information I could use to mount a spear phishing attack, if I was so inclined.

Of course, I’m not so inclined: I’d much rather tell you about it so you can protect yourself.

So, what can you do? Simple: if you borrow a car, whether as a hire car, courtesy car, or if you’re selling your car, make sure you delete all your details including addresses and contact information before you hand the car back.

It’s a scary cyber world – or is it?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the press use terms like “cyber attack”? Think about it for a second. Any loss of data, anyone having their passwords stolen, any bad stuff at all to do with computers is generally referred to as an attack, the language is very emotive, and is all about combat, battle, warfare etc. 

But is it really an attack? Is it really as confrontational as it sounds? Is there really so much emotion involved? I don’t think so – and nor should you. The language used is deliberately provocative, because nothing sells newspapers like bad news and scare tactics.  

Let’s take one example. You’ve probably heard about or even seen websites which are defaced. What I mean by that is that someone has amended the page so it no longer displays the text or pictures it is supposed to. Instead the text and / or pictures have been changed to reflect someone’s political or activism beliefs for example.  If that was done “in the real world”, say to a billboard or poster, we’d call it vandalism or graffiti. There’s no logical difference just because it’s on a computer. It’s not a cyber attack, it’s just vandalism. 

In the same way, data which is accessed and stolen from an online database isn’t the result of an attack: it’s theft, plain and simple.  Nation state acting against nation state could potentially be seen as an act of war, and the fact it’s carried out on computers makes no difference to that viewpoint. 

It’s easy to see how what goes on in cyber space can be seen to be traditional crimes, threats etc. Please bear that in mind when these things are reported in the media in future. 

10 Steps to Cyber Security – Part 1 of 2

Through discussions with various clients and perspective clients, at conferences, events and forums, it is very apparent that a lot of companies know that they need to do “something about cyber” but many, particularly in the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) arena, are unsure of what that something should be.

My response to them is generally along the same lines, and I thought I’d share it with you now. My apologies for those of you who are seasoned cyber professionals, as you will no doubt know this subject inside out, but for those of you who are wondering just how to get started and are looking for a jargon free, pragmatic explanation, read on…

As far back as 2012 the UK government produced the 10 Steps to Cyber Security which companies should follow to help make them more secure, as part of the drive to make the UK a safe place to do business. Those were followed in 2014 by the Cyber Essentials scheme. Both the 10 Steps and Cyber Essentials have had updates over the years, but those updates relate more to guidance and clarification rather than changes to content.

This article sets out the first 5 requirements of the 10 Steps to Cyber Security: I’ll provide the remaining 5 in my next post which will be in a week or so. You will see that a number of these topics overlap, and that’s absolutely fine. There are some very blurred lines, but so long as the topics are covered then that has to be a good thing, right?

1. The first step is to set up a Risk Management regime. This sounds scary, but could be as simple as having an Excel spreadsheet or a Word document where you list all the risks to your business, determine how severe those risks are, and document how you will mitigate those risks. It doesn’t have to be onerous – it could just be your top 5 or 10 risks to start with.

  • For example, if your business relies exclusively on internet orders eg as a retail outlet, then lack of access to the internet would be a serious risk and mitigation measures could involve something like hosting your website with a specialist hosting provider which can provide protection against physical issues like flooding or power cuts and some technical measures such as denial of service attacks.
  • You should bear in mind that this is a regular, repeated process, where you review your risk register regularly and agree with the board appropriate measures based on a cost benefit analysis and your company’s risk tolerance.

2. The second step is to look at Secure Configuration of your systems. All this really means is that you need to make sure that your systems are patched appropriately, that anti-virus / anti-malware software is installed, updated and running, that you have an inventory of the equipment you have and what software is installed on it, and that where possible you’ve documented a standard build for all your devices. Let’s look at those in turn, as it all sounds very complicated:

  • Patches are software updates provided by vendors to address vulnerabilities which are found in all software. These are typically graded in terms of severity from low to critical, the idea being that you apply all critical patches as fast as possible, while low severity are less important. One of the reasons the Wannacry ransomware outbreak hit people so hard in May was because a Critical patch released by Microsoft in March hadn’t been applied to the systems affected: that’s a good example of what can go wrong if you don’t keep patches up to date. Many systems allow patches to be downloaded and installed automatically and, if you don’t have an IT department, it’s a good idea to use that option.
  • Antivirus software is similar to patches, in that vendors release regular updates to tackle new viruses. With the volume of viruses increasing massively on a daily basis, it’s a good idea to install these updates as they come out – at least daily. Many of the larger virus companies such as McAfee and Symantec have products which update automatically, and are well worth considering.
  • As an aside, there are rumours that Mac devices aren’t susceptible to or targeted by viruses: this is not the case anymore so make sure those devices are protected too.
  • Keeping an inventory is sensible: if you don’t know what you’ve got, how can you protect it? And if you don’t know what software is running, how do you know you have all the licenses you need, and how do you know how to rebuild the machine if it is damaged or unavailable for some reason? It just stops you starting from the very beginning, and allows you to be more proactive. Knowing what should be on each machine also helps you to develop a strategy for removing or disabling unnecessary functionality on it. Again, going back to Wannacry in May, one of the methods used by the ransomware from machine to machine was through a network protocol which wasn’t really necessary on most machines. Maintaining an up-to-date inventory could help you identify vulnerabilities like that and close them down quickly.
  • The benefits of having a documented standard build have pretty much been covered in above. It also means that when a new machine is bought, your IT team / support company knows exactly what to install and how to configure it to meet your business needs. This saves time and effort.

3. The third step concerns Network Security. Again there are some jargon words around what this means and what has to be done, but I’ve broken it down as follows:

  • One of the reasons for network security is to protect your networks from attack. A simple way of checking to see how well the network is protected is by engaging a company such as the one I work for to run a penetration test against all your public facing connections. All that this means is that a trusted person, with your permission, tries to see how far they can get into your network: they then report back to you with details of the vulnerabilities they found and how these can be fixed / remediated. They are actually using the same tools and techniques as hackers, but because they have your permission this is known as ethical hacking.
  • Another area to look at in network security is defending your network perimeter. This means that you should have firewalls installed and configured correctly: the penetration test mentioned just now is one way of ensure that they are. Firewalls are typically installed at the place where your internal network meets the internet, often in a specially segregated area called a DMZ or “De-militarised zone”. It’s a way of stopping traffic from the internet getting directly on to your network.
  • As part of firewall configuration, you should ensure that unauthorised access and malicious content is filtered out. There are a range of companies which provide solutions for this sort of thing, but in simple terms your penetration test will help identify the biggest areas of concern. Network protocols are the ways in which computers talk to each other, and run across a range of different ports. You can think of the firewall as a giant colander, where you block up most of the holes (ports) other than those which are needed for passing a specific strand of spaghetti through a specific hole (port).
  • Last and not least in this section is the requirement to monitor and test security controls. We’ve already talked about testing – penetration testing – and monitoring is a way of measuring the effectiveness of your controls. There are a lot of monitoring toolsets available, ranging from reasonably cheap to quite expensive. It’s worth working out what you want to monitor / measure before starting to look for tools to help. This is one area where engaging a consultant may be beneficial.

4. We’ve already talked a little about Malware Prevention, the fourth step, when we talked about Secure Configuration above. What we didn’t mention is that it’s important to develop a policy around how you will use anti-malware software. For example, what happens when a virus is detected. Should it be deleted automatically or perhaps quarantined for analysis? Is there a process for testing removable media such as USB sticks for malware before connecting them to corporate systems (this is often called a sheepdip process). It’s also important that anti-malware software is running on all devices connected to your business environment: monitoring and measurement will help confirm this.

5. Overlapping malware prevention is the fifth step, Removable Media Control. This again requires specific policy statements about the use of removable media: do you allow it or not, are only specific users in specific roles allowed to use it etc, and also sets out the requirements for scanning media for malware, perhaps using the sheepdip process outlines in 4 above.

Hopefully this all makes sense. Please look out for the next installment when I’ll cover the remaining 5 steps, which are:

6. User education and awareness

7. Managing User Privileges

8. Incident Management

9. Monitoring

10. Home and Mobile Working

What next after Friday’s Ransomware attacks?

Perhaps predictably, vendors of all sorts are appearing on LinkedIn and elsewhere selling their solutions to the mass attack of Friday. I presume they are hoping to cash in when work resumes for many tomorrow and we find that there may be additional victims from Friday. 

There’s been a lot written by a lot of people on what happened and how you can protect yourself (I’ve done it too), and there still seems to be a lot of scaremongering, with prophecies of doom for what will unfold tomorrow (Monday).

I think that now is a time for calm. Now is a time for taking simple, careful steps to enhance existing security practices and to show that global attacks like this can be tackled effectively. There’s some good, sensible advice in this latest update from the NCSC here in the UK, and I’d urge you all to read it and act accordingly.

NCSC Latest Statement on International Ransomware Attack