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Cyberwar predictions for 2019: The stakes have been raised



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Cyberwar and the Future of Cybersecurity

Today’s security threats have expanded in scope and seriousness. There can now be millions — or even billions — of dollars at risk when information security isn’t handled properly.

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Before the internet era, geopolitical tensions drove traditional espionage, and periodically erupted into warfare. Nowadays, cyberspace not only houses a treasure-trove of commercially and politically sensitive information, but can also provide access to control systems for critical civil and military infrastructure. So it’s no surprise to find nation-state cyber activity high on the agendas of governments.

Notable cyber attacks launched by nation states in recent years include: Stuxnet (allegedly by Israel and the US); DDoS attacks against Estonia, attacks against industrial control systems for power grids in Ukraine, and electoral meddling in the US (allegedly by Russia); and the global WannaCry attack (allegedly by North Korea). China, meanwhile, has been accused of multiple intellectual property theft attacks and, most recently (and controversially), of secreting hardware backdoors into Supermicro servers.

Download all the Cyberwar and the Future of Cybersecurity articles as a free PDF ebook (free TechRepublic registration required)

The global cyber-threat landscape

What does the current threat landscape look like, in broad terms? The 2017/18 threat matrix from BRI (Business Risk Intelligence) company Flashpoint provides a useful overview:


Image: Flashpoint

Threat actors are ranked on a six-point capability scale and a four-point potential impact scale, with Flashpoint’s cast ranging from Tier 2 capability/Negligible potential impact (Jihadi hackers) to Tier 6/Catastrophic impact (China, Russia and Five Eyes).

It’s probably no surprise to find China heading the 2017/18 ranking of threat actors, in terms of capability, potential impact and number of verticals targeted:


Colour coding corresponds to Flashpoint’s ‘potential impact’ rating (Black = Catastrophic).

Data: Flashpoint / Chart: ZDNet

In its 2018 mid-year update, Flashpoint highlighted various ‘bellwethers’ that may prompt “major shifts in the cyber threat environment”:

• The tentative rapprochement between the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea fails to result in tangible diplomatic gains to end the North Korean nuclear program.

• Additional states follow the U.S. example and relocate their embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

• The U.S.’ official withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the subsequent renewal of economic sanctions prompts an Iranian response.

• The ongoing power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in the Middle East leads to kinetic conflict in the region.

• U.S. and European Union-led economic sanctions in place on Russia are extended or tightened.

• The Trump administration adopts a less-compromising approach toward U.S.-China relations or otherwise enacts policies that threaten Chinese core interests. Alternatively, China adopts an increasingly aggressive policy toward securing its vital core interests, including the South China Sea and the questions of Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s political sovereignty.

• The situation in Syria further deteriorates into direct armed conflict between major states with differing interests in the region, potentially extending further into neighboring states.

• Other nation-states, such as China, Iran, and North Korea adopt the Russian model of engaging in cyber influence operations via proxies, resulting in the exposure of such a campaign.

Cybersecurity policy in the UK


In the UK, the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) — an amalgam of CESG (the information security arm of GCHQ), the Centre for Cyber Assessment, CERT-UK, and the Centre for Protection of National Infrastructure — issues periodic security advisories, among other services. In April, for example, it warned of hostile state actors compromising UK organisations with focus on engineering and industrial control companies. Specifically, the threats involved “the harvesting of NTLM credentials via Server Message Block (SMB) using strategic web compromises and spear-phishing”. Other recent NCSC advisories have highlighted Russian state-sponsored cyber actors targeting network infrastructure devices and the activities of APT28 (a.k.a. the cyber espionage group Fancy Bear).

In its 2018 annual review, the NCSC said it had dealt with over a thousand cyber incidents since its inception in 2016. “The majority of these incidents were, we believe, perpetrated from within nation states in some way hostile to the UK. They were undertaken by groups of computer hackers directed, sponsored or tolerated by the governments of those countries,” said Ciaran Martin, CEO at NCSC, in the report. “These groups constitute the most acute and direct cyber threat to our national security. I remain in little doubt we will be tested to the full, as a centre, and as a nation, by a major incident at some point in the years ahead, what we would call a Category 1 attack.”

A Category 1 attack constitutes a ‘national cyber emergency’ and results in “sustained disruption of UK essential services or affects UK national security, leading to severe economic or social consequences or to loss of life.”


Despite the efforts of the NCSC, a recent report by the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy noted that “The threat to the UK and its critical national infrastructure [CNI] is both growing and evolving. States such as Russia are branching out from cyber-enabled espionage and theft of intellectual property to preparing for disruptive attacks, such as those which affected Ukraine’s energy grid in 2015 and 2016.”

The government needs to do more to change the culture of CNI operators and their extended supply chains, the report said, adding that: “This is also a lesson for the Government itself: cyber risk must be properly managed at the highest levels.”

Specifically, the Joint Committee report recommended an improvement in political leadership: “There is little evidence to suggest a ‘controlling mind’ at the centre of government, driving change consistently across the many departments and CNI sectors involved. Unless this is addressed, the government’s efforts will likely remain long on aspiration and short on delivery. We therefore urge the government to appoint a single Cabinet Office minister who is charged with delivering improved cyber resilience across the UK’s critical national infrastructure.”

Cybersecurity policy in the US


In the US, the September 2018 National Cyber Strategy (the first in 15 years, according to the White House) adopted an aggressive stance, promising to “deter and if necessary punish those who use cyber tools for malicious purposes.” The Trump administration is in no doubt about who the US is up against in the cyber sphere:

“The Administration recognizes that the United States is engaged in a continuous competition against strategic adversaries, rogue states, and terrorist and criminal networks. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea all use cyberspace as a means to challenge the United States, its allies, and partners, often with a recklessness they would never consider in other domains. These adversaries use cyber tools to undermine our economy and democracy, steal our intellectual property, and sow discord in our democratic processes. We are vulnerable to peacetime cyber attacks against critical infrastructure, and the risk is growing that these countries will conduct cyber attacks against the United States during a crisis short of war. These adversaries are continually developing new and more effective cyber weapons.”

The US cyber security strategy is built around four tenets: Protect the American People, the Homeland and the American Way of Life; Promote American Prosperity; Preserve Peace through Strength; and Advance American Influence.

As far as preserving ‘peace through strength’ is concerned, the Trump administration states that: “Cyberspace will no longer be treated as a separate category of policy or activity disjointed from other elements of national power. The United States will integrate the employment of cyber options across every element of national power.” The objective is to “Identify, counter, disrupt, degrade, and deter behavior in cyberspace that is destabilizing and contrary to national interests, while preserving United States overmatch in and through cyberspace.”

It would seem that the stakes in the cybersecurity/cyberwar game have just been raised by the world’s most powerful nation.

2019 nation-state / cyberwar predictions

Nation-state activity has been prominent in previous annual roundups of cybersecurity predictions (2018, 2017, 2016), and given the above overview we expect plenty more in 2019. Let’s examine some of the predictions in this area that have been issued so far.

Prediction Source Detail
Increase in crime, espionage and sabotage by rogue nation-states Nuvias Group With the ongoing failure of significant national, international or UN level response and repercussion, nation-state sponsored espionage, cyber-crime and sabotage will continue to expand. Clearly, most organisations are simply not structured to defend against such attacks, which will succeed in penetrating defences. Cybersecurity teams will need to rely on breach detection techniques.
The United Nations proposes a cyber security treaty Watchguard In 2019, the United Nations will address the issue of state-sponsored cyber attacks by enacting a multinational Cyber Security Treaty…The growing number of civilian victims impacted by these attacks will cause the UN to more aggressively pursue a multinational cyber security treaty that establishes rules of engagement and impactful consequences around nation-state cyber campaigns. They have talked and argued about this topic in the past, but the most recent incidents — as well as new ones sure to surface in 2019 — will finally force the UN to come to some consensus.
A nation-state launches a ‘fire sale’ attack Watchguard In 2019, a new breed of fileless malware will emerge, with wormlike properties that allow it to self-propagate through vulnerable systems and avoid detection…Last year, a hacker group known as the Shadow Brokers caused significant damage by releasing several zero day vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows. It only took a month for attackers to add these vulnerabilities to ransomware, leading to two of the most damaging cyber attacks to date in WannaCry and NotPetya. This isn’t the first time that new zero day vulnerabilities in Windows fueled the proliferation of a worm, and it won’t be the last. Next year, ‘vaporworms’ will emerge; fileless malware that self-propagates by exploiting vulnerabilities.
State-sponsored cyber warfare will take center stage CGS Traditional cybersecurity tools to protect against state-sponsored cyberattacks are not adequate and often obsolete as soon as they come to market. It is nearly impossible to keep up with cyberattacks as these threats are automated, continuous and adaptive. In the next year, we will continue to see government entities ramping up efforts to develop state-sponsored cybersecurity protections, policies, procedures and guidance. With individuals, businesses and government departments under attack, there must be a unified approach by the government to create guidance on a more holistic, official, focused effort to thwart state-sponsored attacks.
A collision course to cyber cold war Forcepoint Isolationist trade policies will incentivize nation states and corporate entities to steal trade secrets and use cyber tactics to disrupt government, critical infrastructure, and vital industries.
The US-China trade war will reawaken economic espionage against Western firms Forrester With heightened geopolitical tensions in Europe and Asia and the US and China in a trade war, expect China’s hacking engine, after a brief respite from 2016 to 2018, to turn again to the US and Western countries. The current (13th) five-year plan serves as an early warning system for firms in eight verticals: 1) new energy vehicles; 2) next-generation IT; 3) biotechnology; 4) new materials; 5) aerospace; 6) robotics; 7) power equipment; and 8) agricultural machinery. If you’re in one of these industries, expect a breach attempt very soon.
Trade wars trigger commercial espionage Cyberark Government policies designed to create ‘trade wars’ will trigger a new round of nation-state attacks designed to steal intellectual property and other trade secrets to gain competitive market advantages. Nation-state attackers will combine existing, unsophisticated, yet proven, tactics with new techniques to exfiltrate IP, as opposed to just targeting PII or other sensitive data.
In 2019 and beyond, we expect to see more nations developing offensive cyber capabilities FireEye (Kevin Mandia) There are people that claim nations should not do this, but in the halls of most governments around the world, officials are likely thinking their nation needs to consider offensive operations or they will be at a disadvantage.
We are also seeing deteriorating rules of engagement between state actors in cyber space FireEye (Kevin Mandia) I have spent decades responding to computer intrusions, and I am now seeing nations changing their behaviors. As an example, we have witnessed threat actors from Russia increase their targeting and launch cyber operations that are more aggressive than in the past. Today, nearly every nation has to wonder: “What are the boundaries of cyber activities? What can we do? What is permissible? What is fair game?” We have a whole global community that is entirely uncertain as to what will happen next, and that is not a comfortable place to be. We must begin sorting that out in the coming years.
The final priority is diplomacy. Cyber security is a global problem, and we are all in this together FireEye (Kevin Mandia) The fact that a lone attacker sitting in one country can instantaneously conduct an operation that threatens all computers on the internet in other nations is a problem that needs to be addressed by many people working together. We need to have conversations about rules of engagement. We need to discuss how we will enforce these rules of engagement, and how to impose risks on attackers or the nations that condone their actions. We may not be able to reach agreements on cyber espionage behaviors, but we can communicate doctrine to help us avoid the risk of escalating aggression in cyber space. And we can have a global community that agrees to a set of unacceptable actions, and that works together to ensure there exists a deterrent to avoid such actions.
As we move into 2019: remain skeptical about what you read, especially on the internet FireEye (Sandra Joyce) Russia has been conducting influence operations for a really long time, and not just in the cyber realm. They’re very skilled. We’re seeing other threat actors learning from Russia’s success in cyber influence. For example, we recently uncovered several Iranian inauthentic accounts being used to propagate a social agenda that was pro-Iranian. We’re going to increasingly see these cyber operations from more nations than just Russia, and now Iran, as nations realize how effective this tactic can be. The upside of social media is that everyone can be part of the conversation, but that can clearly be a downside as well.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative to drive cyber espionage activity in 2018 and beyond FireEye (Threat Intelligence) The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an ambitious, multiyear project across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to develop a land (Silk Road Economic Belt) and maritime (Maritime Silk Road) trade network that will project China’s influence globally. We expect BRI to be a driver of cyber threat activity. Cyber espionage activity related to the initiative will likely include the emergence of new groups and nation-state actors. Given the range of geopolitical interests affected by this endeavor, it may be a catalyst for emerging nation-state cyber actors to use their capabilities. Regional governments along these trade routes will likely be targets of espionage campaigns. Media announcements on BRI progress, newly signed agreements, and related development conferences will likely serve as operational drivers and provide lure material for future intrusions.
Iranian cyber threat activity against U.S. entities likely to increase following U.S. exit from JCPOA, may include disruptive or destructive attacks FireEye (Threat Intelligence) Last year, we reported that should the U.S. withdraw from the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], we suspect that Iran would retaliate against the U.S. using cyber threat activity. This could potentially take the form of disruptive or destructive attacks on private companies in the U.S. and could be conducted by false front personas controlled by Iranian authorities purporting to be independent hacktivists. While we do not anticipate such attacks in the immediate or near-term, we suspect that initially Iranian-nexus actors will resume probing critical infrastructure networks in preparation for potential operations in the future.
Cyber norms unlikely to constrain nation-state cyber operations in the near future FireEye (Threat Intelligence) Norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace, though still in their infancy, have the potential to significantly affect the types of future cyber operations conducted by nation-states and their proxies in the long term. Norms can be positive or negative, either specifically condoning or condemning a behavior. The future of cyber norms will be most strongly influenced by political and corporate will to agree, and ultimately decisions by particular states to accept or disregard those norms in their conduct of cyber operations.

Various countries active in cyber diplomacy, along with a small number of international corporations, are exploring norms to manage their increasingly complex and crowded cyber threat landscape. However, except for an emerging consensus to not conduct cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property with the intent to provide commercial advantage, no norm has yet found significant, explicit agreement among states.


It’s clear from the above round-up of predictions that nation states are likely to be more active than ever in cyberspace in 2019. Perhaps we’ll even see the sort of ‘national cyber emergency’ envisaged by the UK’s NCSC, with potential loss of life. That’s the point where cyber attack moves towards cyberwar.

It’s also clear that governments — in the UK and US at least — are increasingly, if belatedly, acknowledging the scale of the problem of hostile nation-state cyber activity. It remains to be seen how effectively they can defend themselves, and even retaliate.


Russian hackers are trying out this new malware against US and European targets
A new phishing campaign from a Russian-state backed hacking group targets American and European inboxes.

Russia wants DNC hack lawsuit thrown out, citing international conventions
Russian Federation says it benefits from the same legal protections as the US does when carrying out military cyberattacks.

Security warning: UK critical infrastructure still at risk from devastating cyber attack
Not enough is being done to protect against cyber attacks on energy, water and other vital services.

US, Russia, China don’t sign Macron’s cyber pact
New cyber peace pact signed by 51 other countries, 224 companies, and 92 non-profits and advocacy groups.

States activate National Guard cyber units for US midterm elections
National Guard cyber units activated in Washington, Illinois, and, more recently, Wisconsin.

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Cloud Data Security



Data security has become an immutable part of the technology stack for modern applications. Protecting application assets and data against cybercriminal activities, insider threats, and basic human negligence is no longer an afterthought. It must be addressed early and often, both in the application development cycle and the data analytics stack.

The requirements have grown well beyond the simplistic features provided by data platforms, and as a result a competitive industry has emerged to address the security layer. The capabilities of this layer must be more than thorough, they must also be usable and streamlined, adding a minimum of overhead to existing processes.

To measure the policy management burden, we designed a reproducible test that included a standardized, publicly available dataset and a number of access control policy management scenarios based on real world use cases we have observed for cloud data workloads. We tested two options: Apache Ranger with Apache Atlas and Immuta. This study contrasts the differences between a largely role-based access control model with object tagging (OT-RBAC) to a pure attribute-based access control (ABAC) model using these respective technologies.

This study captures the time and effort involved in managing the ever-evolving access control policies at a modern data-driven enterprise. With this study, we show the impacts of data access control policy management in terms of:

  • Dynamic versus static
  • Scalability
  • Evolvability

In our scenarios, Ranger alone took 76x more policy changes than Immuta to accomplish the same data security objectives, while Ranger with Apache Atlas took 63x more policy changes. For our advanced use cases, Immuta only required one policy change each, while Ranger was not able to fulfill the data security requirement at all.

This study exposed the limitations of extending legacy Hadoop security components into cloud use cases. Apache Ranger uses static policies in an OT-RBAC model for the Hadoop ecosystem with very limited support for attributes. The difference between it and Immuta’s attribute-based access control model (ABAC) became clear. By leveraging dynamic variables, nested attributes, and global row-level policies and row-level security, Immuta can be quickly implemented and updated in comparison with Ranger.

Using Ranger as a data security mechanism creates a high policy-management burden compared to Immuta, as organizations migrate and expand cloud data use—which is shown here to provide scalability, clarity, and evolvability in a complex enterprise’s data security and governance needs.

The chart in Figure 1 reveals the difference in cumulative policy changes required for each platform configuration.

Figure 1. Difference in Cumulative Policy Changes

The assessment and scoring rubric and methodology is detailed in the report. We leave the issue of fairness for the reader to determine. We strongly encourage you, as the reader, to discern for yourself what is of value. We hope this report is informative and helpful in uncovering some of the challenges and nuances of data governance platform selection. You are encouraged to compile your own representative use cases and workflows and review these platforms in a way that is applicable to your requirements.

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GigaOm Radar for Data Loss Prevention



Data is at the core of modern business: It is our intellectual property, the lifeblood of our interactions with our employees, partners, and customers, and a true business asset. But in a world of increasingly distributed workforces, a growing threat from cybercriminals and bad actors, and ever more stringent regulation, our data is at risk and the impact of losing it, or losing access to it, can be catastrophic.

With this in mind, ensuring a strong data management and security strategy must be high on the agenda of any modern enterprise. Security of our data has to be a primary concern. Ensuring we know how, why, and where our data is used is crucial, as is the need to be sure that data does not leave the organization without appropriate checks and balances.

Keeping ahead of this challenge and mitigating the risk requires a multi-faceted approach. People and processes are key, as, of course, is technology in any data loss prevention (DLP) strategy.

This has led to a reevaluation of both technology and approach to DLP; a recognition that we must evolve an approach that is holistic, intelligent, and able to apply context to our data usage. DLP must form part of a broader risk management strategy.

Within this report, we evaluate the leading vendors who are offering solutions that can form part of your DLP strategy—tools that understand data as well as evaluate insider risk to help mitigate the threat of data loss. This report aims to give enterprise decision-makers an overview of how these offerings can be a part of a wider data security approach.

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Key Criteria for Evaluating Data Loss Prevention Platforms



Data is a crucial asset for modern businesses and has to be protected in the same way as any other corporate asset, with diligence and care. Loss of data can have catastrophic effects, from reputational damage to significant fines for breaking increasingly stringent regulations.

While the risk of data loss is not new, the landscape we operate in is evolving rapidly. Data can leave data centers in many ways, whether accidental or malicious. The routes for exfiltration also continue to grow, ranging from email, USB sticks, and laptops to ever-more-widely-adopted cloud applications, collaboration tools, and mobile devices. This is driving a resurgence in the enterprise’s need to ensure that no data leaves the organization without appropriate checks and balances in place.

Keeping ahead of this challenge and mitigating the risk requires a multi-faceted approach. Policy, people, and technology are critical components in a data loss prevention (DLP) strategy.

As with any information security strategy, technology plays a significant role. DLP technology has traditionally played a part in helping organizations to mitigate some of the risks of uncontrolled data exfiltration. However, both the technology and threat landscape have shifted significantly, which has led to a reevaluation of DLP tools and strategy.

The modern approach to the challenge needs to be holistic and intelligent, capable of applying context to data usage by building a broader understanding of what the data is, who is using it, and why. Systems in place must also be able to learn when user activity should be classified as unusual so they can better interpret signs of a potential breach.

This advanced approach is also driving new ways of defining the discipline of data loss prevention. Dealing with these risks cannot be viewed in isolation; rather, it must be part of a wider insider risk-management strategy.

Stopping the loss of data, accidental or otherwise, is no small task. This GigaOM Key Criteria Report details DLP solutions and identifies key criteria and evaluation metrics for selecting such a solution. The corresponding GigOm Radar Report identifies vendors and products in this sector that excel. Together, these reports will give decision-makers an overview of the market to help them evaluate existing platforms and decide where to invest.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Solution Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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