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Security: Connected, Ubiquitous Networks—Vulnerable to Malicious Hackers

Hackers exploit the inherent openness of the Internet and common protocols to steal personal and corporate information, earning billions of dollars from selling information they steal. Hacking into networks and selling information is not only lucrative, it’s comparatively punishment free. Hackers are rarely caught and jailed for stealing personally identifiable information such as Social Security numbers, birthdays, and intellectual property from businesses. For one thing, it’s not always easy to trace IP addresses back to their origin; secondly, many countries from which hackers launch attacks don’t have extradition treaties with Europe and the United States. Without a treaty, attacked countries are not able to extradite hackers and bring them to trial. This prevents hackers from countries such as Russia, China, and Iran from being brought to trial in countries such as the United States and many in Europe in which hacking attacks occurred.

Methods Hackers Use to Attack and Infiltrate Networks

The following are the most common ways that hackers attack networks:

  • Phishing emails

  • Stolen passwords

  • Weak Wi-Fi security

  • Incorrectly configured software

  • Unpatched software applications with known vulnerabilities

  • Ransomware that encrypts organizations’ computer files, making these files unreadable

  • Distributed Denial of Service where massive amounts of hacker traffic block legitimate users’ access

The Five Rs of Information Security

Managing security in government agencies, enterprises and commercial organizations requires 24-hour-a-day scrutiny. Organizations must put in place the tools to resist multiple types of attacks. They need the capability to recognize when they’ve been attacked. Viruses have been known to hide in corporate software undetected for months and even years. Additionally, companies need to respond to, and recover from attacks. Many also seek legal redress by attempting to identify attack perpetrators and initiate legal proceedings against them.

Resistance to Hacking

Resistance to hacking is an important way to safeguard private information about personnel, customers, and intellectual property containing product and software designs crucial to organizations’ business success. Firewalls are one way organizations screen incoming traffic for known viruses. Firewalls are software- or hardware-programmed to block incoming known viruses and malware. In addition to firewalls, organizations typically have specialized appliances with security software that identifies and blocks malware.

Because of the criticality of security, large and medium-sized organizations hire Chief Security Officers and specialized security staff that monitor incoming and outgoing traffic to keep information secure. The jobs of Chief Security Officers and their staff are increasingly complex due to the fact that employees now access organizations’ data stored on the cloud, at hosting centers, and branch offices, as well as at company servers and computers. Staff access this data from mobile as well as landline devices and from remote locations as well as from headquarters. There are multiple places where viruses can infect internal networks. To protect data stored in the cloud, organizations use a combination of, for example, Amazon cloud security software and/or security software designed to operate in the cloud. Security software can additionally be located on servers to protect particular applications and at remote branch offices.

Specialized Security Software

Specialty security software is also available for e-mail and other applications. In addition to security software, firms hire outside organizations to conduct security audits to identify weaknesses that leave the organization vulnerable to attacks. Auditors might identify out-of-date software that needs to be patched, or they might find unauthorized wireless devices without the requisite security software.

As security programs become more sophisticated, hackers find new ways to get around them by creating increasingly sophisticated malware. It is an ongoing challenge to respond to every new type of security breach with improved defenses. This is a particularly difficult challenge because there is generally a lag between when a new software bug or worm is discovered and a software patch is created to guard against it. It’s also time-consuming to add patches to not only software security but also application programs such as browsers that might introduce security vulnerabilities. One advantage of Software as a Service (applications in the cloud) is that the cloud provider adds patches to these applications, thus eliminating breaches caused by software with known vulnerabilities.

Intentional and Inadvertent Security Breaches by Insiders

Employees who have been fired or those who feel entitled to access information are frequent causes of these incidents. An employee with high-level authorization to sensitive data can copy it or corrupt it in some way. The employee might then provide the sensitive data to competitors or cyber criminals.

Employees who change jobs are often in the position to copy entire files and use them in their new positions. They might use information such as lists of customers to help them succeed in their new job. They additionally may sell inside information or use it to start a competing company.

In other instances, employees inadvertently open infected e-mail attachments. They might unknowingly insert infected portable storage devices such as USB flash drives into network-connected computers. These viruses can then spread through a corporate network. To prevent this from happening, organizations often purchase security software that automatically screens e-mail attachments, laptops, and external devices for known malware. They can also install software that prevents USB devices from being inserted into LAN-connected computers.

Other inadvertent security lapses caused by insiders include lost laptops, smartphones, tablet computers, backup disks, or flash drives containing files with medical and demographic patient data or other private or strategic information.

User training is an important strategy toward preventing inadvertent security breaches and in gaining the cooperation of employees in adhering to corporate practices. If employees understand the crucial nature of lost data, they might take extra precautions to protect it. This can include measures as simple as not taking strategic information out of the organization, reporting losses immediately, and not leaving passwords on sticky notes under keyboards. They will also be more careful in not allowing unauthorized outsiders entry into the organization. This can be something as fundamental as not allowing people without badges to walk into secure areas behind them. Another point that should be stressed is not leaving unattended computers active so that other users have access to strategic information and e-mail messages. To prevent this, some organizations configure their computers to time out and enter a password-protected standby mode if they are inactive for a specified amount of time, or they institute rules that all employees must shut down their computers at night.

Recognition of a Hacking Attack—Tactics for New Types of Viruses

Just knowing when an organization has been infected with rogue, malignant data is one of the most difficult aspects of security management. Malware can lurk in company networks undetected for years. This occurred in the 2017 Equifax and the 2016 Yahoo! attacks. Publicity about customers whose private information has been compromised can cost companies millions of dollars in damages and legal fees responding to lawsuits, and from harm to a company’s reputation.

In past years, organizations have screened traffic for known viruses. This is no longer as effective as other strategies because of the tens of thousands of known viruses. Newer security software is able to differentiate a list of applications and bitstreams from new, unrecognized data streams. The security software quarantines unrecognized traffic until security staff determines whether the streams contain viruses or are permitted traffic. Never-before-seen attacks are known as zero day attacks. As extra protection, large organizations often have their broadband provider screen known (zero list) viruses and the enterprises inspect and quarantine the whitelist of unrecognized bit patterns that may contain viruses.

Responding to an Attack

To limit damage from malware, organizations use security software to monitor all incoming and outgoing traffic. Security software is able to issue alerts to specified telephone or mobile numbers, or send e-mails to security staff. Once alerted, staff can take action against the attack. For example, infected computers and servers can be taken offline until the malware is erased from all hard drives and disks connected to it.

Many organizations use Intrusion Detection System (IDS) software or devices to monitor traffic and attempt to block Distributed Denial of Service attacks of millions messages meant to block legitimate incoming traffic. These systems monitor packets for malware and report them. Intrusion Detection and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IDPSs) attempt to stop these attacks as well as identify and report them. Often these types of software can divert the attacking bits to a part of the LAN separated from legitimate servers and computers. However, this is one of the most difficult breaches to protect against as automated bots, short for robots, are programmed to send millions of simultaneous strings of data to enterprises. This makes the network unavailable to legitimate incoming and outgoing traffic.

Security Software

Security software can be embedded in virtualized servers and containers with other applications or in a standalone appliance (a computer with a dedicated application). There is a trend to embed security in multifunctional devices. Routers are often equipped with firewalls, and Local Area Network (LAN) switches also contain optional security software.

There is also specialty security for e-mail and other applications. Security software can be used to encrypt files containing passwords to protect the files from snoopers and employees not authorized to view sensitive files with personal information or intellectual property. This is important because many employees, contractors, and business partners now access files remotely and are allowed access only to particular applications and files.

In addition to all of these practices, firms hire outside organizations to conduct a security audit to identify weaknesses that leave the organization vulnerable to attacks. Auditors might identify out-of-date software that needs to be patched, or they might find unauthorized wireless devices.

Most security software and hardware products and services offer software that generates audit trails. Software records display indications of security breaches. Paying attention to them is an aid to identifying network weaknesses. In IT departments with large workloads, this does not always happen.

Mounting Defenses via Firewalls

Firewalls are used to screen incoming messages for known viruses, worms, and Trojan horses. Trojan horses are computer programs that appear to have useful functions but actually contain malicious code. A video sent from Facebook can have a Trojan horse embedded within it. Some firewalls can also detect anomalies that are indicative of an attack, including packets that are too short. Firewalls can be in the form of software located at the ISP, the cloud, or at enterprise locations.

Protection from Internal Sabotage

The human factor is the weakest link in securing networks. Current technology is unable to prevent humans from acting in opposition to policy. Many human errors that result in security lapses are inadvertent. However, there are malicious employees who purposely steal or copy intellectual property or insert malware into computer files. An important safeguard against malicious employees is careful screening and reference checks before hiring staff.

An additional way to guard corporate data is a need to know policy that allows employees to access only applications that they need for their job. Other strategies include setting up rules such as not allowing the use of thumb drives in USB ports on computers, and building in alerts if a thumb drive is inserted into a staff person’s computer. In addition, security staff can revoke all passwords and access to files as soon as a person’s employment is terminated. Some organizations have security personnel walk fired staff or staff that quit their job out the door to ensure that they don’t take company computers and/or files with them when they leave.

Recovery from Ransomware and Other Hacks

Recovery from attacks containing malware requires organizations to rid their network of corrupted files and computers that have viruses and other malware that enables hackers to spy on computer files. If duplicate files are stored offsite, the damaged disks containing viruses can be wiped clean or removed and replaced with the back-up files.

Ransomware attacks occur when a user clicks on a phishing link in their email that sends her to a malicious web site. The web site then automatically downloads encryption software to the user’s computer and to other computers connected to the same LAN segment. The encrypted files are unusable because in most instances only the hacker has the software key that can decrypt (unlock) the files. Hackers behind ransomware attacks demand a payment in return for decrypting files to make them readable. This is a common ploy used against mostly small but also large organizations.

Small organizations are likely to pay the ransom to get use of their files back. Larger companies are more likely to have backups to the encrypted files, thus making them more immune to ransomware. An exception is Uber, which secretly paid a $100,000 ransom to a hacker in 2016 and only disclosed the breach in November of 2017. Uber is now facing five lawsuits because of its delay in reporting the breach.

In a minority of attacks, hacked companies have access to the decryption keys that can unlock the particular encryption used on their files. This is because they belong to a ransom security organization that stores decryption keys for a limited number of encryption codes. No More Ransom is an example of an organization specializing in decryption and protection against ransomware.

Redress—Taking Legal Action Against Hackers

Redress is the ability to take legal action against hackers and bring them to trial. One challenge in taking legal action against people responsible for hacking is the lack of extradition treaties between many western countries with China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Thus the hackers originating attacks from these countries don’t necessarily face trials and legal actions for their crimes of hacking into organizations in Europe and the Americas. Many of the hackers in these countries have the blessing of their government to steal data useful in manufacturing or weapons development.

When a hacker is brought to trial, building an airtight case is challenging. Hard drives containing viruses must be preserved exactly as they were following the attack. Computer forensics, evidence on computers, and storage systems must be conserved and presented in court. Any evidence of tampering with the evidence can invalidate the court proceeding.

Cyber Terrorism between Countries

In the past, countries engaged in spying and sabotage by planting agents in other countries. They hoped to learn strategic information about their enemies and potential enemies through networks of spies who often disguised themselves as friendly citizens. Some spies went beyond gaining information to planning acts of sabotage that damaged property, such as roads, bridges, and factories. These same countries also used networks of agents to ferret out spies trying to infiltrate their own institutions. All of these strategies still exist, but they are supplemented by cyber terrorism. Most cyber terrorism is conducted via the Internet.

Acts of cyber terrorism can also be implemented by using sneaker attacks, whereby inside employees are co-opted by foreign governments or terrorist groups to learn government secrets, plant software bugs in computer-controlled weapons systems, or copy strategic information inside the organization. This strategy is used to circumvent security measures whereby strategic departments such as armed forces or defense departments attempt to shield themselves by bypassing the Internet for all data communications. Entities such as these communicate to other locations on private lines that they lease or build. These networks only connect to other trusted departments or perhaps suppliers.

Cyber terrorism attacks not only cause computers systems to malfunction; they can also disable computer-controlled weapons systems. This is what occurred when North Korea launched its WannaCry worm that infiltrated computers networks worldwide. A worm is a software bug programmed to be activated at a later time. Worms are also referred to as bots. However, bots are more complex than worms and can do more damage. The May 2017 WannaCry attack was so sophisticated that many security experts thought a government, not an individual, planned it. WannaCry attacked hospitals, banks, and over 300 computers in hundreds of countries worldwide. Microsoft had issued a patch, which it classified as critical. However, it was ignored by many organizations, highlighting the criticality of keeping patches up-to-date.

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