Mitigating risk and navigating the evolving cyber-threat landscape

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In a globally connected world, there are few professions not affected by major world events such as an economic recession or a pandemic. Cyber-criminals, however, see changing circumstances as opportunities to capitalise on crisis. The practices of social or physical distancing are in fact the modus operandi of the modern hacker. All that is needed is a secure internet connection.

Today, cyber-security budgets outpace IT budgets by a factor of 10 to one. Despite this, the global impact of cyber-crime has recently been cited as around 1.6 per cent of GDP, north of a trillion US dollars. Organisations of all sizes continue to be regularly breached, with 46 per cent of UK businesses experiencing “any kind of cyber-security breach or attack in the last 12 months”. Some have come under scrutiny for taking a woefully lackadaisical approach to protecting the interests of their customers. Others – Travelex being the poster child – have fallen prey to a far more sophisticated form of ransomware paired with extortion, which caught the company in the crosshairs because of its inability to clearly respond and communicate to customers. The ransom paid was $2.3 million, and subsequent disruption is said to have cost the firm £25 million.

In eSentire’s recent UK Threat Intelligence Spotlight, we discussed three emerging macro-trends relating to cyber-criminal activity across our customer base. The first, similar to the Travelex example, is the increase in so called “hands on keyboard” attacks. Sophisticated and targeted, these attacks evade traditional defences and take advantage of remote access or mainstream software tools to exploit firms. Attackers play the long game and invest in looking for a higher financial payoff from victims, resulting in extensive operational disruption and reputational damage. A parallel concerning trend is that this seems to be working in some cases, as organisations from various industries would rather pay a ransom than risk further disruption or loss of intellectual property.

The second trend observed is that hacker groups are becoming more organised and operating to maximise profitability. The notorious ransomware syndicate Netwalker significantly ramped its operational activity through the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing recruitment for Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS), which includes a network intrusion-focused affiliate programme whereby vetted participants can claim an 80 per cent share of any successful ransom paid. There is also the rise of commodity malware, with adversaries operating through covert networks to leverage best practice. Available for sale through the darkweb, and priced between $50 to $5,000, are a range of a la carte menu items including data stealers, banking trojans and ransomware builders. And don’t worry about training, it’s available in detail via YouTube.

Finally, using existing tools and software to exploit vulnerabilities in system or human error is a common theme. Good examples of this are how cloud applications such as Office365 can be leveraged as a more tailored, efficient distribution outlet for phishing. This is no longer a smash-and-grab tactic.

Although adversaries prevail and the risks are high, the outlook does not need to be apocalyptic. The old cliché that cyber-security requires the right combination of people, process and technology still rings true, especially where the costs of operational disruption and reputational damage are potentially as, or more, damaging to an affected business than fines imposed by a regulatory authority. Approaches for many will be different and specific, but what we do know is that while traditional preventative tools are still essential, they are more easily bypassed. Businesses need to prepare for the reality that an event will occur, identify areas of key business risk, have the right technology and people in place, establish processes to ensure rapid response in order to minimise disruption – and then prepare again.


For further insights and observations read our full UK Threat Intelligence Spotlight here.

by Alex Jinivizian, Vice President, Strategy and International Marketing, eSentire

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