Today's businesses must make sure they don't "kill Cassandra" by minimising or ignoring warnings about the growing security threats they face, the founder of security firm Kaspersky Labs has warned.
"Homo sapiens are designed in such a way that they don't think about security until the catastrophe," Kaspersky Labs CEO Eugene Kaspersky recently told CSO Australia. "Cars are everywhere but there was no security – seatbelts, airbags, ABS – in cars until thousands of people had been killed by cars. It's the same story again and again and again."
That message continues to resonate as ever smarter malware authors show frighteningly efficacious ways of compromising corporate security defences and exploiting the endless stream of new vulnerabilities in corporate software. And while many in the IT industry may dismiss many security vendors' warnings as self-serving, Kaspersky warns that the risk of ignoring such warnings is significant.
Likening himself to Cassandra – the Trojan princess who predicted the fall of the mighty city but, because she had been cursed by Apollo, found that nobody would believe her prophecies – "The very first rule of cyber security," Kaspersky said, "is: don't kill Cassandra."
Addressing the crowd recently at the AusCERT 2013 conference, Kaspersky warned of three major types of attacks that could bring down technologically-dependent modern societies: attacks on industrial systems, critical IT infrastructure, and on telecommunications.
Recent attacks such as the Stuxnet worm and an attack on Saudi Aramco showed that persistent vulnerabilities were continuing to take their toll on corporate systems once deemed so obscure or inaccessible that they were impervious to cyber-attack. In the case of industrial control systems, in particular, an institutionalised refusal to change established systems in any way had left long-understood back doors open for exploitation.
"Unfortunately, there are so many systems around like this," Kaspersky said. "Some of them were designed years ago, and some of them still use unpatched Windows XP and even MS-DOS. They're based on the idea that if it works, don't touch it. In many cases, the companies that own these systems are not allowed to upgrade them because they have a certificate that will be violated if they are changed."
As a result, everything from stoplights to prison control systems had been poked and prodded by hackers, with unpredictable results that weren't intended by the systems' creators. And while such systems might present a novelty for curious hackers, he said, they represent a clear and present danger from increasingly militarised, government backed hacking groups being tasked with cyberespionage.
"These systems are everywhere, and they're vulnerable," Kaspersky said. "It's often difficult to prove who is behind these attacks, but from time to time we manage to collect their history and we see that there are very big budgets behind them. We are coming towards the idea of the worst-case scenarios. It's only a matter of time."