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Disorganized crime and state-backed hackers: How the cybercrime and cyberwar landscape is constantly changing

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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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The internet is as convenient, exciting and lucrative, as it is dangerous and dark. The web has evolved through the years and so too have the criminals that are out to harm others. Steve Ranger, UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, has covered the evolving cybercrime and cyberwar landscape for years and written several cover stories on the subject. Steve shared his insights with us in an interview as part of ZDNet’s Special Feature: Cyberwar and the Future of Cybersecurity. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

Karen Roby: All right, to start off with here, talk about the world of online crime. How has it evolved in general?

Steve Ranger: Okay, so what’s happened is over the 30 or so years that we’ve had the web, just like the rest of us have learned to enjoy the web for various reasons, criminals have learned to enjoy and exploit it to make money, to break things. Some of them even want to change the world.

We have always different criminal groups out there from hacktivists to lone wolves who just want to break things right through to organized crime and even increasingly at the moment state-sponsored hackers who are going out and systematically breaking things.

Across the internet we have this huge kind of network of different crimes and different criminals. Sometimes they work together. Sometimes work completely apart. But yeah, what we’ve got is an evolving world with lots of different criminal groups, criminal individuals looking for ways to make money or just cause trouble really.

Karen Roby: And they’re scary obviously. Steve, when you talk about the groups, the organized crime, some of them working together as you mentioned, you’ve got lone wolves as well, as large groups everyone playing their own particular role. Talk a little bit about how they interact, how they go about their business.

Steve Ranger: Sure. What’s quite interesting is there’s this kind of overlapping ecosystem. You have, right at the bottom you have what we call disorganized crime, disorganized cyber criminals which might be individuals or groups of one or two or three, small groups, and they might be doing anything really from frauds to hacking to writing viruses to writing ransomware or to buying ransomware from larger organized groups or maybe someone on the dark web and then reselling it, or just trying to make a bit of money here and there doing scams.

Then you have organized crime. Organized crime on the internet now is a seriously big business. You have these kind of federated organizations where you have a kind of cybercrime boss, and then you’ll have, he or she will connect up different groups with different specialties to run really big frauds, make a bunch of money.

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

Then above them you might have state-backed hackers. We’ve seen a lot of that recently involved with cyber espionage or probing military systems, looking for holes that can be exploited at a different date.

What’s interesting is all these different groups overlap. So the disorganized criminals will feed into organized crime. Organized crime and some of the state-backed stuff, they will also overlap as well. So you might have someone who is by day working as a criminal and by night working, doing some kind of state-backed stuff or the other way around.

All these groups, it’s really hard to work out who’s where, but there’s certainly a lot of overlapping, organized crime and disorganized crime, lots of overlapping activity there.

Karen Roby: Okay. And when you mentioned, you talked so much about how we are hearing so much about the state backed groups and the criminals there. How big of a threat is that?

Steve Ranger: I think it’s hard to calculate the threat. To the average person is pretty unlikely that a state-backed hacker is going to come after you, unless you’re a really high-value target. To the average person it’s quite a rare kind of a risk. Obviously if you are, I don’t know, working in aerospace or biotech or robotics, one of those kind of companies, then there’s a reason or chance that someone’s going to try and hack your systems to steal your intellectual property or just cause trouble.

In terms of the bigger risk, so clearly down the line there’s a lot of worry about cyber warfare that hackers could actually break into things like power systems or banks and cause chaos that way. That’s clearly a huge risk, but the likelihood is very low.

SEE Cyberwar: The smart person’s guide (TechRepublic)

What’s going to happen day to day is you’re more likely to run into a scammer or maybe get ransomware on your PC or something like that. Those are the kind of the everyday risks, which are incredibly annoying and a real problem if suddenly your PC is encrypted and you can’t get to your family photos or your work you’re doing. Those are kind of everyday risks.

Right at the other end of the scale there’s this fear of cyberwarfare and state-sponsored crime. That’s much less likely, but clearly really, really dangerous if it actually does happen.

Karen Roby: Right, both ends of the scale are scary for everyone. And when it comes to protecting ourselves Steve, what is it that you recommend?

Steve Ranger: Well, some of the real basics can save you here. If you make yourself a slightly more difficult target to go after, chances are the kind of the small fry will go somewhere else. That means making sure that you don’t have default passwords, making sure that you do your update, making sure that if you can use it then you do have two-factor authentication, all those kind of really obvious things, being careful about what you click on an email.

From the most basic to the most incredibly complicated attacks, nearly all of them start with a phishing email where someone sent you an email that you think is from a coworker or a friend or it says you’ve won the lottery or you won a prize. You click on that and you can be in a lot of trouble. Basically the common sense approach is going to save you from a whole lot of pain.

SEE Network Security Policy Template (Tech Pro Research)

At the other end of the scale, if you are being targeted by state-sponsored hackers, well, you’ve got to work a lot harder. You’ve got to, you’ve kind of almost expect that they will in some way get into your systems, and then try and work out how to reduce the damage. Again, that’s really only for a very small sector of people. Those people probably realize too they are already, but for the average person who isn’t necessarily a target for an intelligence agency, just doing the obvious stuff will make you so much of a harder target to go after that mostly they will go elsewhere.

Karen Roby: All right. Steve, as I mentioned there at the beginning, of course the web has opened up just such a whole new world to all of us really and is so exciting and so lucrative in so many ways and connects people together from all over the world. It’s evolving, but the criminals are evolving too, and that’s I guess the thing, we all need to kind of stay on our toes.

Steve Ranger: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s loads of amazing stuff on the web. You shouldn’t be scared of using it, but you should use some sort of basic common sense, basic security hygiene to keep yourself safe.

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

RECENT AND RELATED COVERAGE

Cybercrime and cyberwar: A spotter’s guide to the groups that are out to get you
From disorganised crime to state-backed hackers these groups can make the internet a dangerous place. Here’s a guide to the major menaces to avoid.

Governments and nation states are now officially training for cyberwarfare: An inside look
Europe, Canada, USA, Australia, and others are now running training exercises to prepare for the outbreak of cyberwar. Locked Shields is the largest simulation and TechRepublic takes you inside.

Devastating attacks to public infrastructure ‘a matter of when’ in the US
Cybercriminals are focusing on public infrastructure to disrupt services and cause mayhem as new targets are emerging and expanding throughout the world.

Understanding the military buildup of offensive cyber weapons
Over the past few years, offensive cyberweapons have risen in prominence as a part of international military efforts. The full impact of these weapons remains to be seen, however.

Cybercrime Inc: How hacking gangs are modeling themselves on big business
Over the past few years, offensive cyberweapons have risen in prominence as a part of international military efforts. The full impact of these weapons remains to be seen, however.

Why ransomware is exploding, and how your company can protect itself
Ransomware attacks on businesses grew exponentially in the past year. Here’s what you need to know and how you can prepare.

Cyberwar predictions for 2019: The stakes have been raised
Cybersecurity will define many of the international conflicts of the future. Here’s an overview of the current threat landscape, UK and US policy in this area, and some expert predictions for the coming year.

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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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