Cyber sleuths have already blamed China for a hack that exposed tens of thousands of servers running its Exchange email program to potential hacks. The CEO of a prominent cybersecurity firm says it now seems clear China also unleashed an indiscriminate, automated second wave of hacking that opened the way for ransomware and other cyberattacks.
The second wave, which began Feb. 26, is highly uncharacteristic of Beijing’s elite cyber spies and far exceeds the norms of espionage, said Kevin Mandia of FireEye. In its massive scale it diverges radically from the highly targeted nature of the original hack, which was detected in January.
“You never want to see a modern nation like China that has an offense capability — that they usually control with discipline — suddenly hit potentially a hundred thousand systems,” Mandia said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Mandia said his company assesses based on the forensics that two groups of Chinese state-backed hackers — in an explosion of automated seeding — installed backdoors known as “web shells” on an as-yet undetermined number of systems. Experts fear a large number could easily be exploited for second-stage infections of ransomware by criminals, who also use automation to identify and infect targets.
Across the globe, cybersecurity teams are scrambling to identify and shore up hacked systems. The National Governors Association sent a rare alert to governors on Tuesday asking them amplify “both the severity of the threat and the next steps” local governments, businesses and operators of critical infrastructure should take.
David Kennedy, CEO of the cybersecurity firm TrustedSec, tweeted Tuesday that resource-demanding programs that “mine” cryptocurrencies were being installed on some compromised Exchange servers.
The White House has called the overall hack an “active threat,” but so far has not urged tough action against China or differentiated between the two waves — at least not publicly. Neither the White House nor the Department of Homeland Security offered immediate comment on whether they attribute the second wave to China.
The assessment of Mandia, who has been dealing with Chinese state-backed hackers since 1995 and has long had the ear of presidents and prime ministers, squares with that of Dmitri Alperovitch, former chief technical officer of CrowdStrike, the other cybersecurity powerhouse in the Washington, D.C., area. Alperovitch says China needs to be immediately put on notice: Shut down those web shell implants and limit collateral.
The explosion of automated backdoor-creating hacks began five days before Microsoft issued a patch for the vulnerabilities first detected in late January by the cybersecurity firm Volexity. It had found evidence of the vulnerabilities being used as far back as Jan. 3 by Chinese state-backed hackers, who researchers say targeted think tanks, universities, defense contractors, law firms and infectious-disease research centers.
Suddenly, all manner of organizations that run email servers were infected with web shells associated with known Chinese groups, who — knowing the patch was imminent — rushed to hit everything they could, said Mandia.
“They could sense it was going to end-of-life soon, so they just went wild. They machine gun-fired down the stretch,” he said in an interview in FireEye’s offices.
It’s possible the second infection wave was not approved at the highest levels of China’s government,” Mandia said.
“This doesn’t feel consistent with what they normally do,” he said. “A lot of times there’s a disconnect between senior leadership and front-line folks. All I can tell you is it was surprising to me to see four ‘zero days’ wantonly exploited,” adding, “If you could be exploited by this act, for the most part, you were.”
“Zero days” are vulnerabilities that hackers discover and use to pry open secret doors in software. Their name derives from the countdown to patching that begins after they are deployed. In this case, it took Microsoft 28 days to produce a patch once it was notified.
Mandia cautioned that the mass hack is not apt to trigger any critical infrastructure failures or cost lives. “It’s not going to draw blood.” But it highlights how there are no rules of engagement in cyberspace, something governments urgently need to address “before something catastrophic happens.”
Asked for comment on Monday about allegations it was behind the hack, the Chinese Embassy in Washington pointed to remarks last week from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying that China “firmly opposes and combats cyber attacks and cyber theft in all forms.” He said attribution of cyberattacks should be based on evidence and not “groundless accusations.”
Mandia compared the Exchange hack with the SolarWinds hacking campaign that Washington has blamed on elite Russian intelligence agents that his company discovered in December.
“The SolarWinds attack was very surreptitious, very stealthy, very focused. The operator showed restraint and they went deep not wide,” said Mandia, who appeared in multiple Capitol Hill hearings on SolarWinds. “This attack (Exchange) feels very wide, but what I don’t have an answer to yet is just how deep it is.”
U.S. officials say at least nine federal agencies and over 100 private sector targets were affected by the SolarWinds campaign, named after the Texas company whose network management software was used to seed malware to more than 18,000 customers. Only a small number were hacked during the campaign, which went eight months without being detected.
Mandia said Russian intelligence operatives had manually penetrated the networks of between 60 and 100 different victims. Security researchers say telecommunications and software companies and think tanks were especially hard hit
RESTON, Va. (AP) — By FRANK BAJAK and NATHAN ELLGREN.
Sanctioned Russian IT firm was partner with Microsoft, IBM
The Treasury Department on Thursday slapped six Russian technology companies with sanctions for supporting Kremlin intelligence agencies engaged in “dangerous and disruptive cyber attacks.”
But only one of them stands out for its international footprint and partnerships with such IT heavyweights as Microsoft and IBM.
That company, Positive Technologies, claims more than 2,000 customers in 30 countries, including major European banks Societe Generale and ING, as well as Samsung, SK Telecom of South Korea and BT, the British telecommunications giant.
Its clients also include the FSB, a successor to the KGB that “cultivates and co-opts criminal hackers” who carry out ransomware and phishing attacks, the Treasury Department said. The U.S. said big conventions hosted by Positive Technologies are “used as recruiting events” by the FSB and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.
GRU agents are the swashbucklers of Russian intelligence. The agency stands accused of spearheading the hack-and-leak operation that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to favor Donald Trump. Its agents also conducted the most damaging cyberattack on record, the runaway 2017 NotPetya virus that did more than $10 billion in global damage, its victims including the shipping giant Maersk and pharmaceutical company Merck.
The CEO of the software industry-supported Internet Research Institute in Moscow, Karen Kazaryan, said he was not familiar with most of the Russian IT companies sanctioned on Thursday. But Positive Tech is well-known in the industry for its annual Hack Days conference, which is scheduled for May 20-21 at a Moscow hotel.
Former CIA analyst Michael van Landingham applauded the naming and sanctioning of Russian IT companies known to have aided and abetted malign government activity.
“Naming specific companies can create incentives for educated and skilled Russians who might be able to obtain jobs elsewhere where they don’t support Russian state hacking,” he said.
Positive Tech’s specialty is identifying vulnerabilities in popular software such as Microsoft’s Windows operating system. The world’s intelligence agencies regularly lean on companies like it not to disclose potent vulnerabilities publicly when they find them but to instead quietly share them for hacking adversaries’ networks.
The U.S. did not accuse Positive Technologies of any such behavior and the Treasury Department declined to answer questions about the company’s activities beyond a press release.
Microsoft would not offer details on the the company’s business relationship with Positive Tech but did say it would comply with the sanctions. Spokesmen also said the company was removing Positive Tech from a list of more than 80 security software providers to which it gives early access to vulnerability information so they can make sure their customers get patches quickly. IBM also lists Positive Technologies as a security partner, offering customers one of its scanning tools.
IBM didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday. Neither did U.S. tech companies HP and VMware, which Positive Technologies lists as technology partners.
On its website, Positive Technologies lists Russia’s Defense Ministry as among its first major clients, in 2004 when it was two years old with just 11 employees. It claimed more than 800 employees in 2018.
Russia’s biggest business database lists the company’s CEO and founder as Yury Maximov, about whom little is known other than he graduated from Moscow State University. The company did not respond to questions sent to press contacts on its website.
Positive Tech’s website boasts of a number of accomplishments, such as providing cybersecurity for the 2018 soccer World Cup hosted by Russia and publishing data that same year on 30 high-risk vulnerabilities. It said it opened its first international office in London in 2010 and its first U.S. office in 2012.
The company has sometimes used Framingham, Massachusetts, as its U.S. location in news releases, though it’s not recorded in city or state records as a business by that name. An office building with an address linked to the company is a co-working space that can be rented on flexible terms for “one person or more.”
Market research firm IDC listed Positive Technologies as one of the fastest-growing companies in security and vulnerability management in 2012, in part because it was so small at the time, growing nearly 82% year-over-year to $30 million in worldwide revenue. Nearly all that revenue came from assessing vulnerabilities. But by 2015, its worldwide revenues fell 37.6% to $26.5 million, according to IDC, which eventually stopped tracking the company.
By FRANK BAJAK and MATT O’BRIEN AP Technology Writers
Cybersecurity market to reach $300bn by 2027
The beginning of April was considered the worst week for social media firms across the aisle, as news headlines as far as the finger can scroll were swamped with news of billions of user accounts were leaked on a hacker forum for sale.
Leaks affected social networking giants such as Facebook, popular audio drop-in app Clubhouse, and the Microsoft-owned LinkedIn. These are but a glimpse of how businesses across the world and different industries are susceptible to breaches and leaks.
One cannot argue that such data leaks caught the eyes of many, from Big Tech to your everyday consumer, prompting a deeper look into cybersecurity on every scale.
A sentiment not only expressed through feelings of worry but also backed up by numbers.
According to a recent report by Allied Market Research, the cybersecurity market is on its way to reach $304.91 Billion, Globally, by 2027 at 9.4 percent CAGR; a market that had only generated $149.67 billion in 2019.
Drivers, restraints, and opportunities
An increase in malware and phishing threats among enterprises, rise in adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), as well as demand for cloud-based cybersecurity solutions drive the growth of the global cyber security market.
However, budgetary constraints and complexities involved in the security of devices hinder the market growth.
“On the other hand, surge in adoption of mobile device applications and platforms, requirement for strong authentication methods, and transformation of the traditional antivirus software industry present new opportunities in the coming years,” the report noted.
Impact of COVID-19 on the cybersecurity market
According to the report, the number of cyberattacks has been increased during the lockdown as many organizations adopted the work from home strategy. “The need to implement cybersecurity for addressing security issues and facilitating secured access increased considerably,” the study stressed.
Not only that, one of targets by hackers were classified as being hospital data, healthcare apps, and wearable devices – which have been increased as the volume of patient data increased. “The need to secure and authenticate data in healthcare organizations surged,” the authors advised.
It is important to note the rise in COVID-19-related phishing and ransomware attacks, which is due to the utilization of the virus as bait to lead brands astray and attack their websites and apps.
“Cybersecurity providers have been focusing on innovations and development of advanced solutions by including features such as cloud security & AI-integrated solutions to deal with new types of viruses and ransomware used by attackers,” the report said.
The solution segment to maintain its highest contribution
Based on component, the solution segment accounted for the largest market share, contributing to more than two-thirds of the total share of the global cybersecurity market in 2019, and will maintain its highest contribution in terms of revenue during the forecast period.
“This is due to rise in need for vulnerability assessment, penetration testing, and compliance with the leading federal, defense, and industry security standards,” the report said; however, it also found that the services segment is projected to witness the largest CAGR of 11.2 percent from 2020 to 2027, owing to surge in cyber-attacks on the IT infrastructure of organizations.
The on-premises segment to maintain its dominant share
According to predictions based on deployment, the on-premises segment held the largest share in 2019, contributing to more than half of the global cyber security market, and is expected to maintain its dominant share during the forecast period.
“This is due to rise in need to secure critical data and track the influx of data within the organization,” the report said. However, the cloud segment is estimated to manifest the highest CAGR of 11.2 percent from 2020 to 2027, owing to lack of capital cost and low maintenance cost.
North America to continue to lead by 2027
Based on region, North America contributed to the highest market share in 2019, accounting for nearly one-third of the total share of the global cyber security market and will continue to lead by 2027.
“This is attributed to presence of major key players, high ICT spending, and huge number of cyber-attacks on various enterprises,” the study highlighted.
However, Asia-Pacific is estimated to portray the fastest CAGR of 11 percent during the forecast period, owing to adoption of wireless & mobile devices, rise in cyber-crimes, increase in awareness regarding data security, and strict security standards & government policies.
Biden names 2 ex-NSA officials for senior cyber positions
President Joe Biden has selected two former senior National Security Agency officials for key cyber jobs in his administration, the White House said Monday in moving to fill out a team whose role has grown more urgent after two major hacks that have consumed the government’s attention.
Chris Inglis, a former NSA deputy director, is being nominated as the government’s first national cyber director. Jen Easterly, a former deputy for counterterrorism at the NSA, has been tapped to run the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security. The two officials are expected to work closely with Anne Neuberger, the administration’s deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology.
The cyber director position, a job established by federal law and long championed by lawmakers and outside experts, is designed to help ensure a more streamlined strategy and coordinated response to cyberattacks that invariably pull in officials from multiple agencies. In filling it with a veteran intelligence and national security expert, Biden is likely signaling the importance of cybersecurity to his administration as it continues to grapple with two major cyber incidents.
“I’m proud of what we are building across the U.S. government when it comes to cyber,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement announcing Biden’s plan to nominate Inglis and Easterly. “We are determined to protect America’s networks and to meet the growing challenge posed by our adversaries in cyberspace — and this is the team to do it.”
The administration is expected to soon announce a response to the SolarWinds hack, a breach of federal government agencies and American corporations believed to have been carried out by Russian hackers, and has also been occupied by an intrusion affecting Microsoft Exchange email software. The company has said that hack was carried out by Chinese state hackers.
Former President Donald Trump, who was seen as minimizing the importance of cybersecurity as he diminished Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the National Security Council in 2018. The move was widely condemned by lawmakers at the time who said it made no sense to do so with mounting hostile cyberthreats from adversaries.
The Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a bipartisan group that had recommended the establishment of a cyber director position, praised the appointments, saying “the need for a leader with statutory authority to coordinate the development and implementation of a national cyber strategy to defend and secure everything from our hospitals to our power grid could not be more clear.”
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who has previously expressed frustration with how long the Biden administration took to fill the position, said he’s hopeful the appointments can be quickly confirmed by the Senate.
“We don’t want to rush the process in any way. On the other hand, another attack could occur at any moment,” King said.
Inglis spent 28 years at the NSA, including as a top deputy of the spy agency. His former boss, Gen. Keith Alexander, called Inglis a level-headed leader who excelled at bringing different groups together. He said he had a deep knowledge of U.S. adversaries’ capabilities.
“The seven years that I was with him, I was thankful for every day that he was there,” Alexander said. “He’s a master at working with people and getting people to work together.”
Besides her job at the NSA, Easterly also served on the National Security Council as senior director for counterterrorism and special assistant to the president in the Obama administration, and as a managing director of Morgan Stanley, heading the firm’s cybersecurity fusion center.
Easterly’s private-sector experience will also be valuable at CISA, said Thomas Warrick, a former Department of Homeland Security official.
“Her years at Morgan Stanley give her greater knowledge about how the private sector and CISA will need to work together to address today’s cybersecurity challenges,” Warrick said. “Her nomination bodes well for the kind of leadership that’s needed at CISA today.”
A third official with cyber experience, Robert Silvers, was announced Monday as the president’s pick for Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans at the Department of Homeland Security.
The planned nominations were first reported by The Washington Post.
WASHINGTON (AP) — By ERIC TUCKER, ALAN SUDERMAN and BEN FOX
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