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Cybersecurity: The key lessons of the Triton malware cyberattack you need to learn

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Triton malware targeting industrial facilities in Middle East
The malware has been designed to target industrial systems and critical infrastructure.

The Triton malware attack was far from the first time that hackers have attempted to target the networks of an industrial facility, but it was the first time that malware designed to attack safety systems was ever seen in the wild.

The malware was designed to manipulate Schneider Electric’s Triconex Safety Instrumented System (SIS) controllers – emergency shutdown systems – and was uncovered on the network at a critical infrastructure operator in the Middle East.

The malware campaign was extremely stealthy and was only uncovered because the attackers made a mistake and triggered the safety system, shutting down the plant. The outcome could’ve been much worse.

“We can speculate that their mission is of some physical consequence. They wanted to either stop production at this facility, stop things from working or potentially cause physical harm,” says Dan Caban, incident response manager at FireEye’s Mandiant.

SEE: A winning strategy for cybersecurity (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic) 

Speaking during a session on Triton at the National Cyber Security Centre’s CYBERUK 19 conference, Caban argued that it was fortunate the malware was uncovered, alerting the world to dangerous cyberattacks that can alter or damage physical systems.

“We were very lucky that this accident happened, it opened the door for people to start thinking about this physical consequence which may have cybersecurity origins – that’s how this investigation kicked off and now so much has come to public light,” he says.

Following the initial point of compromise, the malware was able to use techniques such as harvesting credentials and moved across the network to reach the SIS controllers.

However, Triton was only able to reach its goal because of some lax attitudes to security throughout the facility: the safety controllers should have been disconnected from the network but were connected to internet-facing operational systems, allowing attackers to gain access.

Other failures — like a key being left inside a machine — provided attackers with access they should never have gained without physically being inside the facility.

While the malware has the potential to be highly damaging to valves, switches and sensors in an industrial environment, the threat can be countered by implementing some relatively simple cybersecurity techniques that make movement between systems almost impossible.

“Network segregation can help you avoid this happening. You should be separating them logically, but also based on criticality and by following industry best practice and industry standards,” Caban explains. “You should also consider directional gateways so it’s not possible to move certain ways.”

Organisations can also take a step towards this by ensuring there’s proper management around cybersecurity and that there’s plenty of information around systems for staff of all levels to understand what’s going on – and what to do if something goes wrong.

“In a cyber context, it’s absolutely essential that you have governance; leadership from the very top level. Without proper governance in your organisation, you’re probably setting up for failure,” says Victor Lough, head of UK business at Schneider Electric.

“For cybersecurity, you must consider the physical safety because you’re considering kinetic systems. And on the flip-side of that, physical safety must always consider cybersecurity, so they’re opposite sides of the same coin – without security we have no safety,” he says.

There was once a time when the security of cyber systems and the security of physical systems might have been able to be considered separately, but not any more: in many cases, they’re now one and the same.

“This is the blending of the cyber and the physical security – the things you can put bollards around. You kind of could have in this case – they left the key in and left it in programme mode,” said Deborah Petterson, deputy director for critical national infrastructure at the UK’s NCSC.

SEE: Industroyer: An in-depth look at the culprit behind Ukraine’s power grid blackout

In this incident, realising that the key had been left in the machine would have gone a long way to preventing hackers from gaining access to conduct malicious activity.

“People knowing where their safety systems are and how they’re connected – it’s really basic,” she said, suggesting that those running these systems should regularly be examining how the networks operate and should keep logs about updates – especially about dated systems like the industrial facility was running on.

“The one in this example was 15 years old – when was the last time you looked at risk management around that? The churn in security people is one to two years with CISOs. When was the last time you dusted off and used this as a point to go and have a look?” Petterson asked.

Triton targeted critical infrastructure in the Middle East, but there are lessons from the incident that can be applied to organisations in every sector, no matter where they are in the world.

“If you take this out of the context of safety systems, you can apply almost all of them to any enterprise system. They’re the same sort of controls we just ask any business to do to make themselves cyber safe,” says Dr Ian Levy, technical director at the NCSC.

The hacking group behind Triton – which has has been linked to Russia – remains active, with researchers at FireEye recently disclosing a new campaign targeting a fresh critical infrastructure facility.

However, with the tactics of the group now in the public eye, it’s possible to detect and protect against malicious activity.

“All these backdoors, lateral movement techniques and credential harvesting: they can be detected, it’s possible, we don’t have to give up hope,” said FireEye’s Caban.

“They can be detected in IT, detected between the IT and OT DMZ – those are easy places to start looking.”

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Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications

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Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.

Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection

“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”

In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.

A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.

Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.

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When Is a DevSecOps Vendor Not a DevSecOps Vendor?

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DevOps’ general aim is to enable a more efficient process for producing software and technology solutions and bringing stakeholders together to speed up delivery. But we know from experience that this inherently creative, outcome-driven approach often forgets about one thing until too late in the process—security. Too often, security is brought into the timeline just before deployment, risking last minute headaches and major delays. The security team is pushed into being the Greek chorus of the process, “ruining everyone’s fun” by demanding changes and slowing things down.

But as we know, in the complex, multi-cloud and containerized environment we find ourselves in, security is becoming more important and challenging than ever. And the costs of security failure are not only measured in slower deployment, but in compliance breaches and reputational damage.

The term “DevSecOps” has been coined to characterize how security needs to be at the heart of the DevOps process. This is in part principle and part tools. As a principle, DevSecOps fits with the concept of “shifting left,” that is, ensuring that security is treated as early as possible in the development process. So far, so simple.

From a tooling perspective, however, things get more complicated, not least because the market has seen a number of platforms marketing themselves as DevSecOps. As we have been writing our Key Criteria report on the subject, we have learned that not all DevSecOps vendors are necessarily DevSecOps vendors. Specifically, we have learned to distinguish capabilities that directly enable the goals of DevSecOps from a process perspective, from those designed to support DevSecOps practices. We could define them as: “Those that do, and those that help.”

This is how to tell the two types of vendor apart and how to use them.

Vendors Enabling DevSecOps: “Tools That Do”

A number of tools work to facilitate the DevSecOps process -– let’s bite the bullet and call them DevSecOps tools. They help teams set out each stage of software development, bringing siloed teams together behind a unified vision that allows fast, high-quality development, with security considerations at its core. DevSecOps tools work across the development process, for example:

  • Create: Help to set and implement policy
  • Develop: Apply guidance to the process and aid its implementation
  • Test: Facilitate and guide security testing procedures
  • Deploy: Provide reports to assure confidence to deploy the application

The key element that sets these tool sets apart is the ability to automate and reduce friction within the development process. They will prompt action, stop a team from moving from one stage to another if the process has not adequately addressed security concerns, and guide the roadmap for the development from start to finish.

Supporting DevSecOps: “Tools That Help”

In this category we place those tools which aid the execution, and monitoring, of good DevSecOps principles. Security scanning and application/infrastructure hardening tools are a key element of these processes: Software composition analysis (SCA) forms a part of the development stage, static/dynamic application security testing (SAST/DAST) is integral to the test stage and runtime app protection (RASP) is a key to the Deploy stage.

Tools like this are a vital part of the security layer of security tooling, especially just before deployment – and they often come with APIs so they can be plugged into the CI/CD process. However, while these capabilities are very important to DevSecOps, they can be seen in more of a supporting role, rather than being DevSecOps tools per se.

DevSecOps-washing is not a good idea for the enterprise

While one might argue that security should never have been shifted right, DevSecOps exists to ensure that security best practices take place across the development lifecycle. A corollary exists to the idea of “tools that help,” namely that organizations implementing these tools are not “doing DevSecOps,” any more than vendors providing these tools are DevSecOps vendors.

The only way to “do” DevSecOps is to fully embrace security at a process management and governance level: This means assessing risk, defining policy, setting review gates, and disallowing progress for insecure deliverables. Organizations that embrace DevSecOps can get help from what we are calling DevSecOps tools, as well as from scanning and hardening tools that help support its goals.

At the end of the day, all security and governance boils down to risk: If you buy a scanning tool so you can check a box that says “DevSecOps,” you are potentially adding to your risk posture, rather than mitigating it. So, get your DevSecOps strategy fixed first, then consider how you can add automation, visibility, and control using “tools that do,” as well as benefit from “tools that help.”

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High Performance Application Security Testing

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research. It is hosted by an expert in Application and API testing, and GigaOm analyst, Jake Dolezal. His presentation will focus on the results of high performance testing we completed against two security mechanisms: ModSecurity on NGINX and NGINX App Protect. Additionally, we tested the AWS Web Application Firewall (WAF) as a fully managed security offering.

While performance is important, it is only one criterion for a Web Application Firewall selection. The results of the report are revealing about these platforms. The methodology will be shown with clarity and transparency on how you might replicate these tests to mimic your own workloads and requirements.

Register now to join GigaOm and sponsor NGINX for this free expert webinar.

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