Beyond Ransomware: Four Threats Facing Companies Today

The recent DarkSide attack makes it clear: no system is safe from ransomware. And while the attackers say they weren’t out to hurt anyone, only to make money, the impact is the same. It could lead to potential disruptions of critical services across the country. At the same time, it stokes fears that similar attacks could happen more often in the future.

The long-term outcome of these attacks, however, is a hyper-focus on ransomware as the top threat to governments and enterprises. For example, the federal government recently pledged billions of dollars to fight ransomware. There’s no doubt that ransomware remains a major (and evolving) risk. However, this IT tunnel vision makes it easy to miss the forest for the trees. You don’t want to let distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and other problems slip behind network defenses unnoticed.

Here’s a look at four threats just as frightening as ransomware, and what enterprises can do about them.

Third-Party Software Problems

Third-party software solutions are key to keeping business running smoothly, but come with the risk of undetected or zero-day threats. Left unchecked, at-risk third-party programs could provide lateral access points for threat actors to compromise key systems.

Consider the SolarWinds attack in February. Threat actors managed to infiltrate a software update package with malicious code. They then pushed it out to more than 18,000 businesses, along with government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Treasury.

The most frightening part of this third-party problem? Trust. Companies remain vigilant for ransomware attacks on their networks. Meanwhile, trusted third-party providers often get a free pass into corporate systems because they’ve never been the source of problems in the past. The result is an infosec complacency that can lead to serious security risk. On average, it now takes 280 days for companies to detect security risks, even when they’re actively looking.

The solution starts with zero trust security. By setting up protective frameworks that use authentication rather than assumption, enterprises can reduce the risk of third-party compromise. It’s worth taking the time to look at all third-party interactions, even those deemed safe in the past. This increases the chances of detection and identification of security risks outside the network perimeter.

MITM Attacks

The rising use of remote connections has created a perfect storm for man-in-the-middle (MITM) malware attacks. This type of attack listens in on digital connections and could exfiltrate key data. Often designed for minimal impact, these attacks can go unnoticed for weeks or months.

In the past, the fear around MITM attacks has been the risk of data eavesdropping. People feared threat actors could capture unencrypted data, such as plaintext emails, and then use it to compromise systems at scale.

As noted by Ars Technica, however, MITM attacks are now evolving to target supposedly secure HTTPS protected websites. Known as cross-protocol attacks, these efforts leverage the function of transport layer security protocols. With them, they can protect the integrity of TCP connections rather than the server itself. This makes it possible for attackers to redirect HTTPS traffic to a substitute file transfer protocol server. From there, that could empower cross-site scripting or cookie-stealing attacks.

Standard MITM attacks can often be prevented with robust VPN solutions. However, security experts recommend stricter enforcement of two current protections, application layer protocol negotiation and server name indication. This will help deal with new MITM efforts.

DDoS Attacks 

Internet of things (IoT) devices are now commonplace across enterprises in all industries. So, DDoS attacks have increased in a big way. Threat actors can ramp up attack volumes rapidly, giving companies almost no time to respond before critical systems come crashing down.

For cyber criminals, DDoS offers a low-cost, high-return attack type. IoT devices are cheap, plentiful and many are easy to compromise thanks to minimal or non-existent factory security settings. Companies are often willing to pay once they realize online services won’t be coming back up anytime soon unless the attackers turn down the traffic. The result is a frightening scenario for enterprises. Sudden, high-volume attacks from disparate sources could knock critical services offline for days or weeks. That, in turn, leads to major revenue and reputation loss.

When it comes to defending against DDoS attacks, two components are critical. First is preparation. These attacks are a matter of when, not if. Companies need incident response plans in place that find potential weak points, critical control mechanisms and simple ways of reducing their impact — such as blocking traffic from specific locations. It’s also a good idea to outsource DDoS protection where possible. Using a trusted provider with cloud experience and a reputation for reliable work and real-time detection can give you more lead time to mitigate DDoS impacts and other problems.

Social Engineering Efforts

Despite how simple it is, social engineering efforts, such as phishing, remain popular. Why? Because they continue to see success. By collecting both publicly available and private corporate data, attackers can build social profiles that appear real, compromise corporate accounts and gain access to high-level systems and services.

Consider the Colonial Pipeline attack. While the initial effort was ransomware, cyber criminals have leveraged the desire for improved enterprise defenses to craft a targeted phishing campaign. Companies have been receiving emails that discuss how severe this attack was and then encourage them to download ‘ransomware system updates’ — which are really links to malware. Similar campaigns have been carried out around COVID-19 vaccines, natural disaster relief and nearly every other news-worthy event in the last five years.

For enterprises, the prevalence of phishing attacks is the most frightening thing about them. While on their own they represent minimal risk, increasing volume and velocity means that one of these efforts is bound to break through. Even worse? Staff who fall for these attacks may not be aware they’ve done it. Or, they may be worried about the consequences if they come clean about their mistake.

Mitigating the risk of social engineering efforts relies on education. That’s because this is an inherently human problem. Social attacks are designed to take advantage of our natural, social tendencies. By educating staff about common phishing techniques, appropriate threat responses and making it clear that risk reporting — either of a potential phish or already clicked links — will be met with immediate action, companies can create a culture that prioritizes safety over speed.

Watching for Threats Beyond Ransomware

While ransomware remains a substantive risk, other threats are similarly frightening. But at the same time, compromised third-party software, MITM attacks, DDoS attacks and social engineering can be mitigated with robust security management.

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Author: Douglas Bonderud