It was speculated 2016 would see even more cybersecurity activity than 2015, and it did not disappoint. Consider the $81 million stolen from Bangladesh Bank, the 500 million accounts swiped from Yahoo, or the 19,000 emails leaked from Democratic Party officials in the run-up to the election. Not to mention the IoT-powered botnets launching record-breaking DDoS attacks that have brought down major parts of the Internet.
But, in reality, this year’s cyber-attack headlines offer just a glimpse of a cyber war between hackers and security personnel that is being waged on a grand scale every day. More than anything, they are harbingers of worse to come.
Here are some of the escalated challenges we will face in 2017.
1. Attackers won’t just steal data — they will change it
Today’s savvy attackers are moving away from pure data theft and website hacking to attacks that have a subtler target: data integrity. They will use their ability to hack information systems not just to make a quick buck but also to cause long-term, reputational damage to individuals or groups through the erosion of trust in the data itself.
In the past six months alone, we’ve seen attacks like the DNC and Yahoo breaches, which focused on influencing political and economic public opinion, rather than simply gaining a profit. And the hackers aren’t done yet – the Russian group thought to be behind the election-related breaches is moving on to Germany’s elections next, according to a recent statement.
The scenario is particularly worrying for industries that rely heavily on public confidence. In fact, data from the analysis of SEC disclosures found 83 percent of publicly traded companies worry most about risk of brand damage via hacks. But it’s not just them. A laboratory that cannot vouch for the fidelity of medical test results, or a bank that has had account balances tampered with, are examples of organizations at particular risk. Governments, as pointed out above, may also suffer significant damage from such attacks, as critical data repositories are altered and public distrust in national institutions rises.
We’re also seeing this kind of manipulation at smaller scale. For example, we were deployed in a manufacturing firm that used biometric scanners to restrict access to their machinery and industrial plants. We noticed an unusual Telnet for a biometric scanner that was hooked to the corporate network. After further investigation, we found that legitimate data was being altered – quite possibly to add new fingerprints. This type of manipulation, had it not been detected early, would have have let attackers right in through the front door.
While some of the recent breaches and the result of this year’s U.S. presidential election may seem straight out of a movie, tomorrow’s cyber-attacks will make it harder than ever to parse fact from fiction.
2. Consumer devices will be held for (cyber) ransom
Ransomware, like Cryptolocker, has plagued companies around the world — experts reckon these attacks have increased fivefold in 2016 alone. They encrypt critical files at a speed that is virtually impossible to keep up with and leave companies facing hefty fees for their release.
Hospitals have suffered particularly at the hands of ransomware attacks. They are prime targets, as they have become digital jungles full of everything from life-saving medical equipment and critical patient records to patient devices and staff computers — all with cyber defenses that have failed to keep pace. The result is organizations that pay up. Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles paid the equivalent of $17,000 in Bitcoin to extortionists after its computers were taken offline for over a week.
In 2017 and beyond, we will start to see the beginning of a new type of extortion on a micro level, as consumers are targeted across a range of connected objects. Imagine getting home and turning on your smart TV only to find that cybercriminals are running a ransomware attack on your device. Would you pay $50 to unlock it? Or what if the new GPS system in your car got hacked when you were late for a meeting — how much would you pay to unlock it?
3. Artificial intelligence will be a weapon
Artificial intelligence is exciting for many reasons — self-driving cars, virtual assistants, better weather forecasting, the list goes on. But attackers will use AI to wield highly sophisticated and persistent attacks, attacks that blend into the noise of busy networks.
We have already seen the first glimpses of attacks going this direction in automated polymorphic and metamorphic malware. Polymorphic malware, which changes its attributes mid-attack to evade detection, has reinforced the obsoleteness of signature-based detection methods. It self-learns and understands its environment and network before choosing its next action. Automation has also been a major factor in the resurgence of ransomware. We can anticipate that artificial intelligence threats will be similar. Imagine a piece of artificially intelligent malware sitting silently on a network, observing its surroundings and learning how to disguise itself. If it understands how to completely blend in with the background noise of a network, could it ever be detected?
The next generation of AI-powered attacks to emerge will use customized code to emulate the behaviors of specific users to fool even skilled security personnel. This includes the ability to craft sophisticated and bespoke phishing campaigns that will successfully dupe even the most threat-conscious employee.
Earlier this year, we were deployed in a charity in California for a proof-of-value. One day, a receptionist received an email containing a fake invoice, supposedly coming from a stationary supplier known to the company. The receptionist opened the attachment, as she recognized the company, and typically handled many invoices per day. As soon as she clicked the attachment, her computer immediately connected to a server in Ukraine and downloaded a malware that rapidly began encrypting files. This will only get worse with “smart” malware driving attacks specifically tailored for their victims.
Next year’s attackers can see more than your social media profile. They’ll know that your 10 a.m. meeting with your supplier is being held at its new headquarters. At 9:15 a.m., an email with the subject line “Directions to our office” arrives in your inbox, apparently from the person you are meeting, as you get off the train. Do you click the map link in the email?
Justin Fier is Director of Cyber Intelligence and Analysis at Darktrace.