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Time to turn the tables on cyber-attackers

04 Nov 2019
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Article by Attivo Networks A/NZ regional director Jim Cook

Outwitting one’s enemy has been a key element of warfare since the ancient Greeks began laying siege to the city of Troy.

That 10-year mythological conflict was brought to a sudden end through the use of subterfuge in the form of a giant wooden horse, concealing an elite fighting force, which was wheeled into the citadel by the unsuspecting Trojans.

More recently, the Allied nations employed an equally effective deception strategy to divert the German high command’s attention away from Normandy, the planned site of the 1944 invasion, which signalled the beginning of the end of World War II.

These lessons in prevailing over formidable and determined adversaries which the cybersecurity sector has begun taking on board.

That’s all to the good of Australian organisations that are serious about minimising risks to the availability and integrity of their critical systems and the privacy of customers whose data they collect and store.

Can trickery enhance traditional security strategies?

Traditional cyber-defence strategies have focused on patrolling the perimeter – using tools and technologies to throw a protective barrier around high tech assets – but emerging ‘deception technology’ solutions take a very different approach.

Rather than only seeking to repel adversaries with a ring of steel, it allows for the possibility that the attacker is already inside and aims to misdirect them with a clever ruse:  setting up decoys and lures that look like real networks and systems, which are designed to appear as though they are able to be infiltrated without detection.

A well-spun fabric of deception is one that has mirror-match authenticity – network attributes, operating systems, software, services, and credential identities that strongly resemble the genuine article and an environment populated with credible content.

Historically, it’s been the bad actors who’ve looked to pull a fast one on organisations and individuals.

Usually, it’s been by way of a convincing social engineering gambit that tricks them into revealing confidential credentials or downloading malware, thereby compromising corporate systems or data.

Cyberattackers have the luxury of time on their side and, in some instances, may spend weeks or months in the reconnaissance phase, staking out an organisation, identifying key players and gathering intelligence, before moving in for the kill.

By contrast, defenders are often caught on the hop – forced to respond reactively and often with little context, to contain the threat and mitigate the damage.

Gathering information about the malefactors and their modus operandi is usually less of a priority than ejecting them off the network and dealing with the havoc they’ve wreaked.

High-stakes warfare

Very often, that havoc can be significant and the fall-out financially crippling, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

According to Stay Smart Online, cyber-crime attacks cost Australian businesses an average of $276,323, when including business disruption, equipment damage, and information, revenue and productivity losses in the tally.

Attacks which result in significant breaches of customer data can also cost companies dearly on the compliance front.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, Australia’s privacy watchdog, has the power to impose fines of up to $1.8 million on organisations which experience serious or repeated data breaches.

Local enterprises may also find themselves subject to the EU’s punitive GDPR privacy legislation if their customer list includes citizens of the bloc.

Every move they make…you’ll be watching them

Using adversaries’ sneaky tactics against them can deliver benefits on several fronts.

Keeping attackers occupied investigating the traps and lures you’ve laid gives them less time to spend attempting to infiltrate the genuine assets those instruments of deception have been put in place to protect.

It’s also possible attackers will abandon their attack and look for a softer target, once they realise that decoys and deceptions have made their activity increasingly complex and that they can no longer trust in what they see or the tools that they use.

Equally importantly, deception technology is an excellent means of obtaining company-centric adversary intelligence.

Being able to observe would-be attackers as they believe they are advancing their attack can provide unparalleled insight into the tactics, techniques, and procedures that form their modus operandi.

That’s information that can be hard to come by, as threat actors tend to be nothing if not assiduous in masking their techniques and covering their tracks.

Security-savvy companies are using this intelligence to help them not only shut down the current attack but also to prepare for and guard against future attacks.

Knowing where the attacker entered the network, the targets they are homing in on, and how they’re going about it, enables them to fortify their defences in areas where they’re vulnerable or at a higher risk of attack.

Is it time to turn trickery to your advantage?

Globally, the market for deception technology is growing fast.

Research suggests it will be worth $US2.09 billion by 2021, as organisations continue to embrace the idea of outwitting, rather than outmuscling, their high-tech foes.

For Australian enterprises that are committed to safeguarding their ICT assets, deception has proven itself as a valuable addition to the cybersecurity armoury of companies, both small and large.