Widening gulf between perception and reality

April 2015 Cyber Security

The Cisco 2015 Annual Security Report, which examines both threat intelligence and cybersecurity trends, reveals that South African organisations must adopt an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to defend against cyber attacks. Attackers have become more proficient at taking advantage of gaps in security to evade detection and conceal malicious activity as evidenced by the recent attacks against the Gautrain and Eskom.

Greg Griessel, consulting systems engineer, security solutions, Cisco, South Africa.
Greg Griessel, consulting systems engineer, security solutions, Cisco, South Africa.

Defenders, namely security teams, must constantly improve their approach to protect their organisations from these increasingly sophisticated cyber attack campaigns. These issues are further complicated by the geo­political motivations of the attackers, conflicting cross-border data localisations and sovereignty requirements.

Cisco’s Security Manifesto

The report findings conclude that it’s time for South African corporate boards to take a role in setting security priorities and expectations. Cisco’s Security Manifesto, a formal set of principles, provides foundation to achieving security and can help corporate boards, secur­ity teams and the users in any organisation in the country, to better understand and respond to the cybersecurity challenges.

The manifesto’s principals are:

1. Security must support the business.

2. Security must work with existing architecture – and be usable.

3. Security must be transparent and informative.

4. Security must enable visibility and appropriate action.

5. Security must be viewed as a ‘people problem.’

Greg Griessel, consulting systems engineer, security solutions, Cisco, South Africa, says, “Security is now the responsibility of everyone within South African organisations, from the board room to individual users. Security leaders and practitioners need the support of the entire business to combat malicious actors who are increasing in their proficiencies to exploit weakness and hide their attacks in plain sight.

“To protect organisations against attacks across the attack continuum, CISOs need to ensure that their teams have the right tools and visibility to create a strategic security posture, as well as educate users to aid in their own safety and the safety of the business. Attackers have become more proficient in taking advantage of security gaps and are targeting unsuspecting South African users. At any given time, we should expect one percent of high-urgency vulnerabilities to be actively exploited while 56 percent of all OpenSSL ­versions are still vulnerable to Heartbleed.”

The attackers

Online criminals are expanding their tactics and morphing their messages to carry out cyber-attack campaigns and make it harder to detect them. The top three trends that Cisco’s threat intelligence uncovered are:

• Snowshoe spam: Emerging as a preferred strike method, attackers are sending low volumes of spam from a large set of IP addresses to avoid detection.

• Web exploits hiding in plain site: Widely used exploit kits are getting dismantled by security companies in short order. As a result, online criminals are using other less common kits to successfully carry out their tactics – a sustainable business model as it does not attract too much attention.

• Malicious combinations: Flash and JavaScript have historically been insecure on their own, but with advances in security, attackers are combining the weaker of the two parts. Flash malware can now interact with JavaScript to hide malicious activity by sharing an exploit between two different files: one Flash, one JavaScript. This type of blended attack is very hard to detect.

The users

Users are caught in the middle – not only are they the targets, but end-users are unknowingly aiding cyber attacks. Throughout 2014, Cisco threat intelligence research revealed that attackers have increasingly shifted their focus from servers and operating systems. This is because more users now are downloading from compromised sites leading to a 280% increase in Silverlight attacks along with a 250% increase in spam and malvertising exploits.

The defenders

Results from Cisco’s Security Benchmark Study, which surveyed Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) and security operations executives at 1700 companies globally reveals a widening gap in defender intent and actions. Specifically, the study indicates that 75% of CISOs see their security tools as very or extremely effective. However, less than 50% of respondents use standard tools such as patching and configuration to help prevent security breaches and ensure that they are running the latest versions.

Heartbleed was landmark vulnerability last year, yet 56% of all OpenSSL versions are over 4.5 years old. That is a strong indicator that security teams are not patching.

While many defenders believe their security processes are optimised – and their security tools are effective – in truth, their security readiness likely needs improvement.

For a complete copy of Cisco’s Annual Security Research report go to www.cisco.com/go/asr2015

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