Online personal information helps even small groups launch heavily targeted, highly effective attacks, malware-buster warns

There is so much personal information available online that size has proven to be no impediment for even small cybercriminal groups that are proving effective at launching highly effective targeted attacks, according to the head of one security specialist's global R&D labs.

The prevalence of such information has been successfully leveraged by small groups to provide highly targeted attacks such as the Rocket Kitten – linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and aimed at political, trade, finance, religious and other targets; Volatile Cedar, a Lebanon-based attack targeting a range of victims suggestive of government/political interests; and MWI (Microsoft Word Intruder), a macro-based attack generated by a widely available exploit kit and targeted at Israel's public sector.

Despite the small size of the organisations perpetrating them, some of these “very targeted” advanced persistent threat (APT) attacks had managed to successfully sit quietly on victim networks for years before being detected, Check Point Software Technologies intelligence operations group manager Maya Horowitz recently told CSO Australia.

“These are not your regular exploit kit or ransomware or banking Trojans that are a matter of big numbers and the statistical chance that someone will get hit and attackers will get money,” she said.

“They are not generated by your full-of-resources nations; one campaign was originating from Hezbollah, which is a small terror organisation in Lebanon. They don't have too many financial or technical resources, but they were still able to maintain a campaign compromising telcos around the Middle East that lasted two and a half years.”

The reason the attacks were so successful, Horowitz said, is that too many employees are not only still clicking on phishing email attachments – but still sharing too much information about themselves online, practicing poor password hygiene, and ignoring other basic security measures.

The perpetrators of the Volatile Cedar attack, for example, “just did some good open-source intelligence” to tailor convincing spear-phishing attacks, Horowitz explained.

“They would open someone's Facebook account, for example, to see who their friends are and what events they have attended.

They could then write an email – for example, one allegedly from their Facebook friend saying 'here are some pictures I took from that event we attended' – that the victim was sure to open.”

Such attacks are just a few of the massive volume of threats that the 150-strong Israel-based Check Point Research Team, led by 10-year Israel Defence Forces intelligence unit veteran Horowitz, works 24x7 to analyse and remediate threats, reverse-engineer malware and proactively gather open-source intelligence to better understand the techniques that attackers are using.

The company's Australian team has also been supporting the global effort, with headcount increasing by 20 percent last year and what newly appointed ANZ regional managing director David De Laine called “a lot of interest and engagement” from customers interested in leveraging threat-intelligence capabilities to improve their own defences.

And while the persistence of many threats meant trouble for organisations and employees with inadequate security protections, there was good news too as the reliance on such attacks by smaller organisations meant they were relatively easier to deal with.

“The APT world is changing,” Horowitz said. “It's no longer the sole possession of the NSA and similar organisations; it's also being outsourced to individuals and small organisations. And while I can't tell you how to protect yourself against the NSA, some really basic security measures can protect us against these guys.”

Employee awareness remained the most important countermeasure that businesses can take, Horowitz said: “the most important thing is awareness, so that people always suspect their inbox – and know that emails are not all good news.”

“It's always a race and the bad guys are always one step ahead of us – which is why we need to at least keep up the pace, and why I am always worried that I don't know everything. But we are really understanding the importance of trying to be there on time.”

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