With 2014 marking the 25th anniversary of the internet, how do modern cyber security challenges compare to those of the early days of the World Wide Web?
In the beginning
One of the earliest pieces of recorded malware was the Morris worm, created in 1988. According to its creator, Robert Morris, it was not intended to cause harm. The worm was intended to quietly gauge the size of the internet, however due to a slight miscalculation it nearly brought it down instead.
The worm spread using techniques that are still used by threat actors today, exploiting known vulnerabilities and weak login credentials.
The similarities don’t end there though. In 1995, Kevin Mitnik, the FBI’s most wanted hacker was arrested. His crimes were compromising computer systems, databases and telephone networks across the world. So how did one man access all these systems? He just asked nicely.
Kevin had discovered social engineering and that by pretending to be a colleague or IT administrator, he could talk his way into systems without a single software exploit.
Fast forward to 2014
Now, organizations are facing malware and Advanced Persistent Threats every day. Take the latest US breach at ‘Splash Carwash’ where the POS system was compromised, leading to the loss of customer credit card information. It is believed that the attackers exploited known vulnerabilities in an old version of pcAnywhere and default login credentials; clearly a lesson not learned from history.
Another anniversary in 2014 is Edward Snowden’s first year in asylum. The former technical assistant for the CIA is well known for releasing top secret documents documenting global surveillance. So how did one man amass 1.7 million US intelligence files? He asked nicely, reportedly persuading fellow workers that he needed their logins to do his job. As a system administrator, Snowden’s influence allowed him to manipulate people and computer systems.
So what conclusions can we draw to protect organizations against the next generation of threats in 2014? We recently discussed next generation solutions in our on-demand webinar with Forrester analyst Chris Sherman. The webinar shares the latest research findings and discusses which controls can combat next generation threats.
The worrying conclusion is that despite wide spread awareness and understanding, there are still lessons to be learned. For example, there are still unpatched systems and increasing numbers of unmanaged admin users.
The best solutions learn the lessons of history and prioritize the controls with the biggest impact. The Council on Cyber Security and analysts such as SANS recommend regular patching, privilege management and application allow listing as the most effective ‘quick wins’ against real-life attacks.
Ultimately, by learning from cyber history and layering these controls as part of a defense in depth strategy, organizations can mitigate the vast majority of threats and proactively prepare for what’s next in the world of cyber security.
James Maude is the Lead Cyber Security Researcher at BeyondTrust’s Manchester, U.K., office. James has broad experience in security research, conducting in-depth analysis of malware and cyber threats to identify attack vectors and trends in the evolving security landscape. His background in forensic computing and active involvement in the security research community makes him an expert voice on cybersecurity. He regularly presents at international events and hosts webinars to discuss threats and defense strategies.