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.

Closing the Vendor Security Gap

What do organizations really know about their relationships with their vendors?

It’s a question that most companies can’t answer, and for many, that lack of knowledge could represent increased risk of a security breach. This year, Bomgar conducted research into vendor security on a global scale, and the findings underscore that much work remains to be done to shore up third-party security.

The 2016 Vendor Vulnerability Index report produced eye-opening results that should be a wake-up call for business leaders, CIOs and senior IT managers. The survey of more than 600 IT and security professionals explores the visibility, control, and management that organizations in the U.S. and Europe have over external parties accessing their IT networks. Some of the most surprising statistics are summarized below:

  • An average of 89 vendors are accessing a company’s network every week.
  • 92% of respondents reported they trusted their vendors completely or most of the time.
  • 69% said they definitely or possibly suffered a security breach resulting from vendor access in the past year.
  • In the U.S., just 46% of companies said they know the number of log-ins that could be attributed to vendors.
  • Only 51% enforce policies around third-party access.

It’s evident from these findings that third-party access is pervasive throughout most organizations. What’s more, this practice is likely to grow—75% of the respondents stated that more vendors access their systems today than did two years ago. An additional 71% believe this number will continue to increase for another two years.

Two-thirds of those polled admit they have a tendency to trust vendors too much—confidence that should be questioned based on the results of this report. The data revealed that, while most organizations place a high level of trust in their vendors, they still have a low level of visibility into how vendors are accessing their systems.

This contradiction is not something organizations should take lightly. As noted above, 69% of respondents admitted they had either definitely or possibly suffered a security breach resulting from vendor access. An additional 77% believe their company will experience a security issue within the next two years as a result of vendor activity on their networks.

As an organization’s network of vendors grows, so too does the risk of a potential breach. For most companies, it is essential that third-parties have access to sensitive systems as a course of doing business—the question centers on how to grant this access securely.

Historically, companies have used VPNs to provide network access to third-parties. While appropriate for the intended end-user—remote and/or traveling employees—issues arise when the scope of VPN is trusted to manage connections from external groups. If a system connected via VPN is exploited and used as a point of persistence for leap-frogging into the broader network, hackers can persist for days or months and move stealthily about the network. Companies have also seen malicious (or well-intentioned) insiders choosing to abuse their access to steal or leak sensitive information, as this is all made fairly trivial when leveraging open-ended VPN connectivity.

To balance the dual demands of access and security, companies need a solution that allows them to control, monitor and manage how external parties are accessing their systems. Rather than providing “the keys to the kingdom,” a modern secure access solution enables organizations to grant vendors and other third-parties access only to the specific systems and applications needed to do their jobs.

To ensure security, organizations should also select a secure access solution that provides video and text logs of all session activity. This allows companies to monitor how remote access is being used and, perhaps more importantly, by whom. With this technology, any suspicious activity can be immediately flagged for further investigation. In addition, these session forensics can help companies meet internal and external compliance requirements.

Another secure access best practice is to employ a password/credential vaulting solution. This enables organizations to mitigate the risk of credentials shared between privileged users, which are often the target of a threat actor. It also reduces the risk of what system administrators often think of as “the stickynote nightmare,” where a sensitive credential is written on a stickynote and stuck on someone’s monitor for all who walk by to see. Password vaulting technologies also help with the dangers posed by embedded system service accounts that have administrative privileges and are rarely rotated for fear of bringing critical business services down. A small, yet strong initiative to protect network security would include requiring every privileged user to access credentials required for elevated work via checking out of a password vault. This removes most of the challenges associated with sharing credentials as, once they are checked back in, those credentials can be immediately rotated and thus become unknown to the employee or the bad actor who may have stolen them. Incorporating multi-factor technology in order to access the password vault and other sensitive systems takes it a step further.

In today’s heightened environment, following these steps should be essential security best practices for any company allowing vendors or other third-parties to access their network.

The Vendor Vulnerability Index report suggests that companies are aware of the threats posed by ineffective management and poor visibility into vendor access. Yet, as the data shows, just slightly over half of the respondents are enforcing any policies around third-party access. In light of these findings, companies should also ensure that they are properly screening any third-parties with whom they share network access. For example, does the vendor provide security awareness training as part of their employee on-boarding process? Asking this and similar questions will give companies a clearer picture of the vendor’s security ethos, and help them to determine if the partnership is a good fit to begin with.

In order to combat this growing vulnerability, organizations need granular control over external access. Only with such a solution in place can companies feel confident that their vendors won’t unintentionally become their weakest security link.

10 Lessons Learned from Breach Response Experts

SAN FRANCISCO—As hacking collectives target both the public and private sectors with a wide range of motivations, one thing is clear: Destructive attacks where hackers destroy critical business systems, leak confidential data and hold companies for ransom are on the rise. In a presentation here at the RSA Conference, the nation’s largest cybersecurity summit, Charles Carmakal and Robert Wallace, vice president and director, respectively, of cybersecurity firm Mandiant, shared an overview of some of the biggest findings about disruptive attacks from the company’s breach response, threat research and forensic investigations work.

In their Thursday morning session, the duo profiled specific hacking groups and the varied motivations and tactics that characterize their attacks. Putting isolated incidents into this broader context, they said, helps companies not only understand the true nature of the risk hackers can pose even in breaches that do not immediately appear to target private industry.

One group, for example, has waged “unsophisticated but disruptive and destructive” against a number of mining and casino enterprises in Canada. The hackers broke into enterprise systems, stole several gigabytes of sensitive data and published it online, created scheduled tasks to delete system data, issued ransom requests, and even emailed executives and board members directly to taunt them about the data exposed and increase the pressure to pay. Further increasing that pressure, the group is known to contact journalists in an attempt to publicize the exposed data. Victims have endured outages for days while trying to recover data from backups, and some have paid the ransoms, typically requested in the range of $50,000 to $500,000 in bitcoin.

Mandiant refers to this group as Fake Tesla Team because the hackers have tried to seem a more powerful and compelling threat by claiming they are members of Tesla Team, an already existing group that launches DDoS attacks. As that group is thought to be Serbian, they have little reason to target Canadian entities, and indeed, the bits of Russian used by Fake Tesla Team appears to be simply translated via Google.

In all of the group’s attacks that Mandiant has investigated, the hackers had indeed gained system access and published data, but they exaggerated their skills and some of the details of access. Identifying such a group as your attacker greatly informs the breach response process based on the M.O. and case history, Mandiant said. For example, they know the threat is real, but have seen some companies find success in using partial payments to delay data release, and they have found no evidence that, after getting paid, the collective does anything else with the access they’ve gained.

Beyond considerations of specific hacking groups or their motivations, Carmakal and Wallace shared the top 10 lessons for addressing a breach Mandiant has distilled from countless investigations:

  1. Confirm there is actually a breach: make sure there has been a real intrusion, not just an empty threat from someone hoping to turn fear into a quick payday.
  2. Remember you face a human adversary—the attacker attempting to extort money or make other demands is a real person with emotional responses, which is critical to keep in mind when determining how quickly to respond, what tone to take, and other nuances in communication. Working with law enforcement can help inform these decisions.
  3. Timing is critical: The biggest extortion events occur at night and on weekends, so ensure you have procedures in place to respond quickly and effectively at any time.
  4. Stay focused: In the flurry of questions and decisions to make, focus first and foremost on immediate containment of the attack.
  5. Carefully evaluate whether to engage the attacker.
  6. Engage experts before a breach, including forensic, legal and public relations resources.
  7. Consider all options when asked to pay a ransom or extortion demand: Can you contain the problem, and can you do so sooner than the attack can escalate?
  8. Ensure strong segmentation and control over system backups: It is critical, well before a breach, to understand where your backup infrastructure is and how it is segmented from the corporate network. In the team’s breach investigations, they have found very few networks have truly been segmented, meriting serious consideration from any company right away.
  9. After the incident has been handled, immediately focus on broader security improvements to fortify against future attacks from these attackers or others.
  10. They may come back: If you kick them out of your system—or even pay them—they may move on, perhaps take a vacation with that ransom money, but they gained access to your system, so remember they also may come back.