North Korea Now Suspected in Ransomware Attack

The massive cyberattack that has struck businesses, government agencies and citizens in more than 150 countries may be tied to hackers affiliated with North Korea. Called WannaCry, the ransomware encrypts the victim’s hard drive and demands a ransom of about $300 in the virtual currency bitcoin.

According to the Washington Post:

Several security researchers studying “WannaCry” on Monday found evidence of possible connections to, for instance, the crippling hack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 attributed by the U.S. government to North Korea. That hack occurred in the weeks before Sony released a satiric movie about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The New York Times reported that the malicious software, based on a vulnerability included in the National Security Agency tools published by the Shadow Brokers hacker group, was distributed via email. The ransomware takes advantage of vulnerabilities in Microsoft Windows systems, generating the largest ransomware attack to date. Although the flaw was patched by the company months ago, the wide spread of the attack illustrates how many users fail to update their software. Institutions and government agencies affected included the Russian Interior Ministry, FedEx in the United States and Britain’s National Health Service.

Organizations are advised to save their data and take other measures to avoid being hacked. Kroll said that while the particular ransomware variation involved in hundreds of thousands of incidents has now been rendered largely harmless, its cyber security and investigations team “strongly recommends that organizations recognize that a small change in the malware code could reactivate it. So action should be taken in conjunction with your technology unit to reduce your risk and prepare for inevitable future similar attacks. If the malware has entered your network, it has the ability to spread—and spread rapidly.”

According to Kroll:

  • Obsolete versions of Microsoft Windows are particularly vulnerable. We understand that there may be very specific circumstances that require you to use versions that are no longer supported, but now is the time to revisit the topic. See if there is any way you could use a supported operating system running a virtual version of the operating system you need.
  • Microsoft has been working to roll out updates that can fix the underlying security weakness that this malware exploits. You should make sure that both your personal and business machines running Windows are updated. We know that many people don’t want to take the time to close out all their files and restart their computers to allow updates to occur, but this is an important defense against the WannaCry ransomware. As an indicator of how serious the threat is, note that Microsoft has even released a security patch for the old Windows XP system. Please take steps to assure that all relevant machines running the Windows operating system are updated.
  • Organizations that don’t have well-thought-out backup and recovery plans are also very vulnerable. Management should be asking if there is a plan to assure that all important files are backed up in a way that will prevent a ransomware infection from attacking both the primary files and the backups.

President Trump ordered homeland security adviser Thomas P. Bossert to coordinate a government response to the spread of malware and find out who was responsible. According to the Times:

“The source of the attack is a delicate issue for the United States because the vulnerability on which the malicious software is based was published by a group called the Shadow Brokers, which last summer began publishing cybertools developed by the National Security Agency.”

Government investigators, while not publicly acknowledging that the computer code was developed by American intelligence agencies, say they are still investigating how the code got out. There are many theories, but increasingly it looks as though the initial breach came from an insider, perhaps a government contractor.

In a report, How to Protect Your Networks from Ransomware, the U.S. government recommends that users and administrators take preventative measures, including:

  • Implement an awareness and training program. Because end users are targets, employees and individuals should be aware of the threat of ransomware and how it is delivered.
  • Enable strong spam filters to prevent phishing emails from reaching the end users and authenticate inbound email using technologies like Sender Policy Framework (SPF), Domain Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC), and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) to prevent email spoofing.
  • Scan all incoming and outgoing emails to detect threats and filter executable files from reaching end users.
  • Configure firewalls to block access to known malicious IP addresses.
  • Patch operating systems, software, and firmware on devices. Consider using a centralized patch management system.
  • Set anti-virus and anti-malware programs to conduct regular scans automatically.
  • Manage the use of privileged accounts based on the principle of least privilege: no users should be assigned administrative access unless absolutely needed; and those with a need for administrator accounts should only use them when necessary.

Ransomware Attacks Increase, With U.S. the Primary Target

Ransomware attacks constituted the greatest cybercrime danger in 2016 as the volume and value of attacks rose sharply, according to a new report from internet security firm Symantec.

“Attackers have honed and perfected the ransomware business model, using strong encryption, anonymous Bitcoin payments, and vast spam campaigns to create dangerous and wide-ranging malware,” according to “Internet Security Threat Report (ISTR), April 2017.”

The average ransom amount involved in such attacks jumped 266% to $1,077 during 2016 from just $294 in 2015. Symantec also found that frequency increased, with detection of ransomware up 36% to 463,000 from 340,000 in 2015; or 1,271 per day in 2016 compared to 933 per day in 2015.

The United States saw the largest share of these attacks by far at 34%, followed by Japan (9%) and Italy (7%). “The statistics indicate that attackers are largely concentrating their efforts on developed, stable economies,” Symantec said. Further, research from Norton Cyber Security Insight team said that 34% of those attacked will pay the ransom, but that figure jumps to 64% for U.S. victims, “providing some indication as to why the country is so heavily targeted,” the Symantec report said.

Another indicator of rising ransomware activity is the tripling of new families of ransomware to 101 in 2016 from just 30 in both 2105 and 2014. While the number of new variants (distinct variants of existing ransomware families) declined 29% to 241,000 from 342,000 in 2015, this “suggests that more attackers are opting to start with a clean slate by creating a new family of ransomware rather than tweaking existing families by creating new variants,” the report said.

The proportion of ransomware infections on consumer computers rose only marginally to 69% from 67% in 2015 as the rate of infections for enterprise and other organizations dropped accordingly to 31% from 33% in 2015. Consumer infections totaled between 59% and 79% for every month except December, when they fell to 51%.

Beyond the top threat of ransomware, the report discusses exposures including “New frontiers: Internet of Things, mobile, & cloud threats,” and has a section that lists multiple challenges from malware, spam and phishing via email. Email, for example, was a major avenue of attack in 2016, “used by everyone from state- sponsored cyber espionage groups to mass-mailing ransomware gangs,” it said, adding that one in 131 sent during 2016 were malicious, the highest incidence in five years.

Symantec also discusses a few of the largest cybercrimes of the year, including the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh and alleged tampering with the U.S. electoral process. “Cyber attackers revealed new levels of ambition in 2016, a year marked by extraordinary attacks, including multi-million dollar virtual bank heists, overt attempts to disrupt the US electoral process by state-sponsored groups, and some of the biggest distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on record,” according to the report.

Despite the apparent rising threat level portrayed in the report, the cyber insurance landscape remains untamed, Risk Management Magazine reported in April. Potential customers would be wise to educate themselves prior to approaching the market.

Dallas Alarms Hack a Warning of Infrastructure Vulnerability

Dallas residents were wide awake and in a state of confusion late Friday night when the city’s outdoor emergency system was hacked, causing all of its 156 alarms to blast for an hour-and-a-half until almost 1:30 a.m.

With some interpreting the warning as a bomb or missile, a number of residents dialed 9-1-1, but the number of calls—4,400 in all—overwhelmed the system, causing some callers to wait for up to six minutes for a response, the New York Times reported.

The alarms blasted for 90-second durations about 15 times, Rocky Vaz, the director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, told reporters at a news conference.

Mr. Vaz said emergency workers and technicians had to first figure out whether the sirens had been activated because of an actual emergency. And turning off the sirens also proved difficult, eventually prompting officials to shut down the entire system.

“Every time we thought we had turned it off, the sirens would sound again, because whoever was hacking us was continuously hacking us,” Sana Syed, a spokeswoman for the city told the Times.

Eventually the alarms were turned off, which had to be done manually, one alarm at a time.

On Saturday afternoon the system, used for hurricanes and other warnings, was still down, but officials said they hoped to have it functioning soon. They also said they had pinpointed the origin of the security breach after ruling out that the alarms had come from their control system or from remote access.

Mr. Vaz said that Dallas had reached out to the Federal Communications Commission for help and was taking steps to prevent hackers from setting off the system again, but that city officials had not communicated with federal law enforcement authorities.

Security officials have warned about the risks that such hacking attacks pose to infrastructure, which is often aging and in disrepair. Federal data shows that the number of attacks on critical infrastructure appears to have risen: to nearly 300 in 2015 from just under 200 in 2012. Attacks include a 2008 oil pipeline explosion in Turkey; a 2015 hacking of Ukraine’s power grid, leaving 200,000 people in Western Ukraine without electricity for several hours; and in 2013, hackers tried to gain control of a small dam in upstate New York. Seven computer specialists, who worked for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps., were indicted for trying to take over controls of the dam, according to the Times.

8 Steps to Stronger Passwords Enterprise-Wide

Passwords remain one of the most critical security controls widely used to protect and secure company infrastructure and data. While the need for strong passwords has long been discussed, they continue to be the difference between a secure infrastructure and a potential cyber catastrophe.

Last year was extremely busy in cybercrime, with more than 3 billion credentials and passwords stolen and disclosed on the internet. That works out to a rate of 8.2 million credentials and passwords each day or 95 passwords every second.

Passwords have always been a good security control, but password strength and how they are processed make a major difference in how secure they really are. For example, it is critical to choose an easy password to remember, keep it long, and use some complexity and uniqueness. In addition, how the password is processed and stored in an encrypted format plays a major role in password security.

Here are eight easy steps to get in control and ensure passwords are strong and secure:

  1. Go with encryption: Passwords cannot be left in plain text ever and especially not in an Excel document. Always store passwords with encryption.
  2. Escape complexity: Focus on teaching your end users to use longer and more easily remembered passwords, like password phrases. Don’t let them get bogged down with having to remember special character requirements.
  3. Teach employees: Continued training is critical and is the most important step in implementing your policy. Make sure your users understand their role, prepare quarterly reviews, and make it fun with incentives.
  4. Size matters: The longer the password, the harder for a hacker to break. Make human passwords at least eight characters long and systems passwords 12-50 characters.
  5. Trust no one: Two-factor authentication is a must! No matter the size of your organization, there are two-factor options for you, like RADIUS tokens, DUO, or Google Authenticator.
  6. Omit duplicates: Use a unique password for each of your accounts. The same password should never be used more than once!
  7. No cheating: Remembering a long password can be difficult, but don’t allow password hints. These just make it easier for hackers to get in.
  8. Get a vault: Start using a trusted password manager to enforce strong password best practices. This way, users can always generate long and complex passwords, never have to remember all their passwords and, if you use a vault for your IT team, you can find one that automatically changes your admin passwords. When it comes to IT, automation is key to preventing a breach.

For more information on what’s expected in relation to security and passwords, check out Thycotic’s recent report on the current and future state of password security.