Slaying the Hydra – Incident Response and Advanced Targeted Attacks

In incident response, protecting against a targeted attack is like slaying the hydra. For those not familiar with what a hydra is, it is a multi-headed serpent from Greek mythology, that grows two new heads for every head you chop off. A determined attacker will try again and again until they succeed, targeting different attack vectors and using a variety of tactics, techniques, and procedures.

The Snowden and Shadowbroker leaks really drove this home, giving partial insight into the toolkit of nation state actors. What really stuck out to me was the sheer variety of utilities, frameworks, and techniques to infiltrate and gain persistence in a target. Without the leak, would it be possible to reliably determine that all of those hacking tools belonged to a single entity? Would a large organization with thousands of alerts and hundreds of incidents every day be able to identify that these different attacks belonged to a single, concerted effort to breach their defenses, or would they come to the conclusion that these were all separate, unrelated attempts?

Our colleagues in the Threat Intelligence and Forensic analysis industries have a much better chance to correlate these tools and their footprint in the wild – they may discover that some of these tools share a command and control infrastructure for example. A few did have at least an outline of the threat actor, but judging by the spate of advisories and reports that were released after the leaks, not very many actually appear to have achieved this to a great degree. The majority were only able to piece the puzzle together once equipped with a concise list of Indicators of Compromise (IoC) and TTP’s to begin hunting with.

“How does this affect me? We are not important enough to attract the attention of a nation state actor”

Some readers may now be thinking, “How does this affect me? We are not important enough to attract the attention of a nation state actor”. I would urge caution in placing too much faith in that belief.

On the one hand, for businesses in some countries the risk of economic espionage by-nation state hacking has decreased. As I wrote on Securityweek in July, China has signed agreements with the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany and the UK limiting hacking for the purpose of stealing trade secrets and economic espionage. However, this does not affect hacking for national security purposes, and it will have little impact on privately conducted hacking. These are also bilateral agreements, and none exist in other nations, for example, Russia or North Korea. For militarily and economically weaker nation states, offensive cyber security is a cheap, asymmetric method of gaining a competitive or strategic advantage. As we have seen, offensive cyber activity can target civilian entities for political rather than economic reasons, and hackers are increasingly targeting the weakest link in the supply chain. This means that the potential probability of being targeted is today based more on your customer, partner, and supply chain network, and not just on what your organization does in detail. Security through obscurity has never been a true replacement for actual security, but it has lost its effectiveness as targeted attacks have moved beyond only focusing on the most prominent and obvious victims. It has become much easier to suffer from collateral damage.

Cyber criminals are becoming more organized and professional

On the other hand, cyber criminals are becoming more organized and professional, with individual threat actors selling their services to a wide customer base. A single small group of hackers like LulzSec may have a limited toolbox and selection of TTP’s, but professional cybercrime groups have access to numerous hackers, supporting services and purpose-built solutions. If they are targeting an organization directly and are persistent and not opportunistic, it will be as difficult to discern that a single concerted attack by one determined threat actor is taking place.

What this means in practical reality for any organization that may become the target of a sophisticated threat actor, is that you have to be on constant alert. Identifying, responding to and containing a threat is not a process to be stepped through with a final resolution step – instead, cyber security incident response is an ongoing, continuous and cyclical process. Advanced and persistent attacks unfold in stages and waves, and like a war consist of a series of skirmishes and battles that continue until one side loses the will to carry on the conflict or succeeds in their objectives. Like trying to slay the hydra, each incident that you resolve means that the attacker will change their approach and that the next attempt may be more difficult to spot. Two new heads have grown instead of one.

To tackle this requires that we cultivate a perpetual state of alertness in our SOC and CSIRT

To tackle this requires that we cultivate a perpetual state of alertness in our SOC and CSIRT – but we must do this without creating a perpetual state of alarm. The former means that your team of analysts is always aware and alert, looking at individual incidents as potentially just one hostile act of many that together could constitute a concerted effort to exfiltrate your most valuable data, disrupt your operational capacity, or abuse your organization to do this to your partners or customers. In the latter case, your analysts will suffer from alert fatigue, a lack of true visibility of threats, and a lack of energy and time to be able to see the bigger picture.
The hydra will have too many heads to defeat.

In the Greek legend of Heracles, the titular hero eventually defeats the Hydra by cauterizing each decapitated stump with fire to prevent any new heads from forming. Treating an incident in isolation is the Security Incident Response equivalent of chopping off the head of the hydra without burning the stump. Applied to our problem, burning the stump means that we have to conduct the response to each incident thoroughly and effectively, and continue the process well beyond containment.

We must invest more time in hunting and investigating, and we have to correlate and analyze the relationship between disparate incidents. We must use threat intelligence more strategically to derive situational awareness, and not just tactically as a machine-readable list of IoC’s. This also requires gathering sufficient forensic evidence and context data about an incident and related assets and entities during the incident response process, so that we can conduct post event analysis and continuous threat assessment after containment and mitigation have been carried out. This way we can better anticipate the level of threat that we are exposed to, and make more informed decisions about where to focus our resources, add mitigating controls and improve our defenses. In Incident Response “burning the stump” means making it more difficult for threat actors to succeed in the future by presenting them with a hardened attack surface, reducing their reside time in our infrastructure, and reducing the time we need to discover and contain them. To do this we need to learn from every incident we manage.

Interested to know what 412 IT professionals and cyber security professionals think on the latest Security Analytics and Operations trends?

A Weekend in Incident Response #35: The Most Common Cyber security Threats Today

Companies across different industries around the globe, along with government institutions, cite cyber attacks as one of the biggest security threats to their existence. As a matter of fact, in a recent Forbes survey of over 700 companies from 79 countries, 88 percent of respondents said that they are “extremely concerned” or “concerned” by the risk of getting attacked by hackers.

This fact is a clear indication that organizations have to ramp up efforts for enhancing their cyber resilience, but to do that successfully and in the most effective manner, they need to have a clear understanding of where the biggest cyber threats come from nowadays so that they can shape their cyber defenses accordingly. We take a look at the most common cybersecurity threats today, ranging from internal threats, cyber criminals looking for financial gains, and nation states.

Internal Threats

When talking about cyber security, some of the first things that usually come to mind are freelance hackers and state-sponsored attacks between hostile nations. But, many cyber security incidents actually come from within organizations, or to be more specific, from their own employees.

Pretty much all experts agree that employees are some of the weakest links in the cyber defense of every organization, in part due to low cyber security awareness, and sometimes due to criminal intent.

Employees often put their companies at risk of getting hacked without meaning to, by opening phishing emails or sharing confidential files through insecure channels, which is why organizations should make sure their staff knows the basics of cyber security and how to avoid the common cyber scams and protect data.

Connected Devices

With so many devices connected to the Internet nowadays, including video cameras, smart phones, tablets, sensors, POS terminals, medical devices, printers, scanners, among others, organizations are at an increased risk of falling victim of a data breach. The Internet of Things is a real and ever-increasing cyber threat to businesses and institutions, deteriorating their vulnerability to cyber attacks by adding more endpoints that hackers can use to gain access to networks, and by making it easier for hackers to spread malicious software throughout networks at a faster rate.

The Internet of Things is one of the factors that make DDoS attacks more possible and more easily conducted, and these types of attacks can have a significant and long-lasting impact on organizations, both in terms of financial losses and reputation damage.

Nation-State Attacks

Private entities and government institutions that are part of the critical infrastructure in their countries are under a constant threat of different types of attacks by hostile nations. As the number of channels and methods that stand at the disposal of hackers aiming to gain access to computer networks grows, organizations in the public and private sector are facing a growing risk of cyber attacks sponsored by nation-states that might have an interest in damaging the critical infrastructure of other countries, hurting their economies, obtaining top-secret information, or getting the upper hand in diplomatic disputes.

Most commonly, nation-state-sponsored cyber attacks use malware, such as ransomware and spyware, to access computer networks of organizations, as a means of gaining control over certain aspects of the critical infrastructure of another country.

No matter what types of attacks are common today, the number and level of sophistication of cyber threats to organizations are certainly going to grow in the future, which is why they have to constantly update and adjust their cyber defenses accordingly.

A Weekend in Incident Response #34: Proper Cyber Incident Response Plan in Critical Infrastructure Sectors Can Help Preserve Public Safety and International Peace

Cyber criminals do not discriminate against anyone when it comes to their targets of choice. They go after whatever organization they consider to have a potential to yield substantial financial benefits, without taking into account that some of their exploits might even lead to international conflict or an environmental catastrophe of unimaginable scale.

Cyber attacks on critical infrastructures have become commonplace lately, threatening public health and safety, and deteriorating relations between countries. Having in mind how sophisticated and advanced these cyber threats are, it is no wonder that it is extremely difficult to detect and prevent all of them, so a proper cyber incident response plan that would help contain the damage and recover from an attack becomes a necessity.

Incident Response Solutions for Critical Infrastructure Sectors

Critical infrastructure is comprised of organizations from various sectors, including health care, energy, telecommunications, financial services, government, and transportation, among others. All businesses and institutions that are part of one of these sectors are potential targets for cyber criminals.

To improve their ability to mitigate cyber security threats more effectively, these organizations are advised to create a workflow-based incident response plan relying on automation and orchestration platform.

Benefits of a Workflow-Based Security Incident Response Plan

By utilizing an incident response platform that allows an orchestrated approach while automating certain routine and time-consuming tasks, organizations can greatly reduce reaction times of their cyber security teams, and start the recovery process as soon as possible.

A workflow-based platform, that incorporates a set of actions tailored to specific types of cyber attacks, allows security teams to go through all stages of an incident response quickly and effectively, by providing them with concrete steps that need to be taken based on the type and scope of an attack. Furthermore, based on the attack types, knowledge sharing articles could be associated with the incident for faster and more efficient resolving.

In addition to workflows, automation-and-orchestration incident response platforms can easily integrate with intelligence sharing platforms, allowing organizations to send and receive essential cyber security events information, improving their ability to prevent future attacks.

Cyber attacks on critical infrastructure are probably going to become even more common, so investing in an incident response platform with automation and orchestration capabilities would be of great help to organizations looking to enhance their cyber defenses moving forward. By doing that, they would also be contributing to efforts for preserving international peace and public safety.

A Weekend in Incident Response #31: How Can You Help Your Cybersecurity Team Handle Increasing Volume of Cyber Attacks?

In the context of cyber security, two of the most pressing concerns facing many organizations are the ever-rising number of cyber attacks and figuring out how to keep them at bay without having to increase manpower. The recent Cyber attacks are now more sophisticated and noticeably more common than they were even just a few years ago. Faced with this increased volume, private entities and government agencies are struggling to figure out how to help their security teams respond to cyber events in an effective and timely manner, while finding that most potential solutions require either substantial financial expense, or rely on the addition of specialized human resources.

Hiring skilled staff is a real challenge for most organizations amid an acute and global cyber security skills shortage. Unmet demand has led professionals in this field to command disproportionately high salaries and made it that much more difficult for businesses and governments to attract cyber security talent. Consequently, organizations are now also forced to seek out technical solutions that might actually help decrease their reliance on specialized and expensive human resources. This is where cyber security incident response platforms come in as arguably the most convenient, practical and cost-effective solution to the growing cyber security threat issue and specialized resource shortage.

Ease the Strain on Security Teams by Automating Time Consuming Incident Response Tasks

security automation and orchestration platform is the economical solution to enable an organization to respond to cyber threats and eradicate them in the most effective and fastest way possible. It is also the best way to ease the strain on security teams which, in many organizations, are already overwhelmed with an uninterrupted incident response workload.

Analyzing and assessing the legitimacy, impact and scope of a cyber incident are some of the most time-consuming tasks undertaken by cyber security professionals today. It is exactly within those tasks that an orchestration and automation platform can be of most service. From an incident identification and analysis perspective, these platforms are force multipliers which greatly accelerate the incident triage process. They provide an organization with the ability to analyze the cause and effect of each incident and to assess the scope and impact to an organization from any number of incidents at any given time. From a response perspective, and beyond their ability to automate response activity on existing security infrastructure, they can generate automated incident reports for distribution to in-house security teams, providing response and recovery resources with key insights into the scope and severity of an incident, thereby often dramatically reducing reaction times.

In short, the dual challenge of addressing a growing number of cyber attacks while maintaining an ability to mount an effective response within an existing cyber security team, is best tackled by employing an automation and orchestration platform. Deploying this tool as a force multiplier for both existing security infrastructure and human resources, allows security teams to offload the most intensive tasks and frees these professionals to focus on the more high-value areas of a cyber security threat response.

A Weekend in Incident Response #5: Reducing the Risks of Cyber Attacks in the Healthcare Sector

The healthcare industry is under a constant threat of cyber attacks, mostly due to the fact that organizations within this sector keep a variety of confidential and pertinent information, such as credit card information, social security numbers, insurance-related information, and some believe most importantly personal medical records.

A recent report states that healthcare entities have been under increased risk of targeted attacks lately, including phishing attacks, ransomware attacks, and network hacking attacks. The heightened risk for cyber attacks points to a growing need for enhanced protection, in addition to raising awareness of the different types of cyber attacks that many healthcare organizations are facing.

Healthcare Surpasses Financial Sector as the Most Frequently Attacked Industry

According to data provided by Advisen and Hiscox, the average cost of a cyber incident in the healthcare industry cost $150,000. A recent report published by IBM states that the healthcare industry was attacked more frequently than any other sector last year, replacing the financial services sector at the top. According to the report, over 100 million healthcare records were compromised in 2015, which is a staggering figure by all standards.

The Advisen and Hiscox report also notes that there has been a 1.6-times increase in Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations in the last five years. This statistic suggests that entities such as hospitals and clinics, need to ramp up their efforts for ensuring HIPAA compliance because it is one of the key steps toward achieving improved protection against cyber attacks.

Detecting Ransomware and Phishing Attacks

Currently, the most common cyber threats faced by healthcare entities include phishing attacks and ransomware. These are the most commonly used techniques by hackers trying to retrieve confidential patient information that is critical to protect. The best practices for preventing such threats involve data encryption tools, which are recommended for all covered entities.

Another solution that can be useful to healthcare organizations is a software that can create rules and can be integrated with different tools that can be adjusted in a way that allows them to automatically detect and report problems. Platforms with such capabilities should be a crucial part of each entity’s cyber defense efforts.

How to React in Case You Are Attacked

Even though there are tools designed to detect and prevent ransomware and phishing attacks, hackers often manage to find a way to go around all sorts of defenses and breach even the most sophisticated security armors. When that happens, organizations must be prepared to react as quickly and as effectively as possible with a proven solution.

To that end, all covered entities, including healthcare organizations, need to have a Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) in place. In order to help their CSIRT resolve cyber incidents, entities are advised to acquire platforms that have the ability to automatically notify CSIRTs when a cyber attack occurs, be it via e-mail or SMS, and gather a team of investigators to do the forensics on a given incident.

Incident Response platforms featuring specialized playbooks are also necessary for tackling healthcare-related incidents. They are the most indicated tool for resolving cyber incidents fast and efficiently, through their ability to accelerate the incident triage process, integrate with forensics and response systems, and predict similar events in the future. Some of those platforms (SIRPs) are also able to provide playbooks for vertical regulation, such as HIPAA and similar.