Businesses risk becoming “collateral damage” in nation-state cyber wars

Plan now to minimise consequences if attacks escalate “beyond proportionality”, ex-FBI cyber expert advises

Revelations that North Korea is using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” cyber attacks to steal money highlight the risk of collateral damage from nation-state attacks – with one security expert warning that businesses are so highly interconnected that they run the risk of becoming targets if they don’t co-ordinate cybersecurity defence with partners and other stakeholders.

Recent Reuters accounts of a confidential United Nations report suggested that North Korea has managed to steal up to $US2 billion ($A2.9b) to fund its military development by leaning on “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” cyber attacks.

Those attacks, which targeted more than 35 banks and cryptocurrency exchanges in 17 countries, highlighted the increasingly volatile state of nation-state attacks – which run the increasing risk of affecting connected but unrelated organisations.

“You don’t want to be the splashback from an attack on somebody else,” Shawn Henry, a former FBI agent who now serves as president and CSO of CrowdStrike Services, recently told CSO Australia. “But because all of the networks are connected, the danger is very high for that to happen.”

That risk had also elevated because “much more brazen” adversaries “either are not afraid of being detected, or don’t think they are going to be detected,” he said. “And even if they are detected, they don’t believe there is going to be any type of retribution or accountability.”

This attitude had increased the present danger from nation-state attacks, in which a growing climate of often below-the-radar hacking had created a potentially disastrous new threat for both government bodies and corporations brimming with personal or commercially sensitive information.

Malicious organisations were being uncovered within governments around the world and, the recent CrowdStrike Global Threat Report revealed, have resulted in average breakout times as low as 19 minutes for Russia-affiliated cybercriminals.

That’s just 19 minutes between initial compromise and lateral movement within a target network – putting additional pressure on CSOs to implement effective detection and response measures.

Asleep at the switch?

Read more: Scam email explodes: 50 percent increase in Q1 2019, says Symantec

That pressure is further increased given that attack techniques were being adapted to reflect the relative vulnerability profiles of different regions.

Malware, registry run keys and command line interface attacks, for example, were the most common attack vectors in the Indo-Pacific region. By contrast, malware constituted more than 75 percent of the attacks on Latin American targets and scripting was used in well over half of attacks on EMEA organisations.

These variations meant that there was no one-size-fits-all solution for detecting and managing such attacks – which get even harder to detect when cautious attackers ‘live off the land’ by relying on built-in system tools, such as PowerShell and JavaScript, whose very presence won’t set off red flags. Once the target is compromised, human attackers can take the controls to explore and target data to be exfiltrated.

“From what we have seen in the last two years or so, the adversary’s capability moved beyond malware to signatureless attacks where they use existing capabilities in the operating systems to move in the environment undetected,” Henry said.

“Organisations will continue to attack unabated unless there is some deterrent – and that begins with the victims having the capability to detect those attacks.”

Yet many organisations “are still asleep at the switch,” he added.

“I see a lot of boards and CEOs who are very attentive and have a sense of urgency and understand the business risk – but I still bump into organisations that have a laissez-faire attitude about cybersecurity and feel that they will deal with it if it happens.”

“That type of attitude is just not acceptable.”

Those with such attitudes will be particularly held to account once they suffer a public breach at the hands of nation-state attackers who – despite diplomatic assertions to the contrary – continue to double down on their attack efforts and are rapidly changing both the tactics they use and their intensity.

Those changing tactics “have really made some significant changes in the whole ecosystem,” Henry said, “and organisations need to be protected in a way that is fundamentally different from what they have done historically.”

“There is the potential for things to escalate beyond proportionality – and we have to start a broader discussion about this if we are going to curtail the use of what many experts say are a devastating and potentially existential deployment of weapons.”

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