Guest Editorial by Dr. Brian Gant, Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity at Maryville University
It turns out that an effective way for hackers to infiltrate networks is not by targeting those networks directly but by targeting cybersecurity tools on the edges of those networks designed to protect them.
This was shown recently when the cybersecurity firm Mandiant, now owned by Google, reported that for the past year, suspected Chinese state-sponsored hackers have been using this indirect method of cyber espionage for hacking into networks while avoiding detection.
As with each new major cybersecurity incident, this points to some important issues and risks that both the general public and IT and cybersecurity professionals in particular, need to become more aware of to better protect themselves and the organizations they work for.
Why These New Methods Are Hard to Detect
Let’s first look at why this latest tactic can be difficult to detect. One reason involves the common perception that hackers usually target networks directly.
Most organizations recognize this as a risk and depending on their available resources and budget, they’ll devote at least some resources toward protecting their networks. This can be through an in-house team of cybersecurity professionals, outsourcing to third-party vendors, or a combination of both.
However, a risk that’s less widely recognized by both the public and even IT professionals is the way that hackers can indirectly access networks by targeting the very tools designed to protect those networks, tools designed by companies such as VMware, Citrix Systems, SonicWall, and Fortinet.
Since organizations tend not to monitor their security tools as closely as their networks, compromises can go undetected for a long time. Combined with this, even though these tools are designed to protect networks, the tools themselves are often inadequately protected and vulnerable.
Unfortunately, once hackers compromise these security tools, they can use them as peripheral gateways into networks.
With high-profile events such as the Colonial Pipeline ransomware incident, the motive of the hackers was profit-oriented. Still, with this latest string of intrusions, that is not necessarily the case.
(See how the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack caused a major blow to the gasoline industry in the southern and eastern parts of the United States, but it also showed how vulnerable the US energy grid is to more attacks in the future. Courtesy of CNET and YouTube.)
These state-sponsored actors are likely after any kinds of new technology, research, and information they could use now or in the future to benefit the state sponsoring their activities, most likely China.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily out of a motive to actively harm or dominate so much as wanting just to assert their presence and relevance on the world stage. But regardless of the reason, organizations need to protect themselves.
Stepping Up Protection and Minimizing Vulnerabilities
It’s easy to get desensitized to news about cyber intrusions and data breaches due to how many there have been in recent years. However, the significance of this latest development is that it suggests the scale of China’s breach of U.S. organizations may be more serious than previously realized.
This is partly because of the aforementioned way that this method of cyber espionage can be difficult to detect. It took this long to figure out that this has been happening, which suggests there may be more of it going on than has been uncovered.
This should be very concerning to organizational leaders, IT and security professionals, and the general public alike.
There are many reasons why the public should be concerned and why IT and cybersecurity professionals should help them understand these reasons. Cybercrime impacts everyone at multiple levels simultaneously: themselves as individuals, the organizations they work for, and society as a whole.
The same method of indirect infiltration that these state-sponsored hackers have been using can also be used on small businesses and individuals.
These Chinese espionage groups are also known to target at least 39 different industries. Many of these are linked to the 16 critical infrastructures in the U.S. that make everything we do at almost every minute of our day possible.
This is why it would be beneficial for organizations to invest more in developing an overall security awareness culture to help their employees understand these risks and to habituate them to certain basic practices and precautions that protect both the organization and themselves.
Organizations must also do their due diligence regarding whether any third-party vendors they work with adequately protect themselves.
Despite how obvious this may seem, I am continually surprised at how unaware these many organizational leaders, and even the IT professionals who work for them, can be and how lax they are about verifying that the security firms they work with are securing their tools.
After all, how can a cybersecurity firm protect your organization if they don’t protect itself? This is a major reason why these recent cyber attacks happened in the first place.
Likewise, it’s extremely important to have good device and asset management practices: knowing what’s in your network, how many Windows machines you have, how many Linux machines you have, and which departments and persons own those machines.
It’s common for vulnerabilities to be allowed to persist, allowing Advanced Persistent Threat groups ample opportunities to exploit those vulnerabilities. Often, these vulnerabilities are allowed to persist even if administrators are aware of them and even if they have the patches for them, simply because they don’t know who the owner of the compromised devices in question are.
Other times, even if they know who the owners are, the organization may not have sufficient resources, manpower, or skill level of their personnel to employ the fix.
Finally, organizations across all industries need to be more proactive and vigilant about immediately sharing information whenever there’s an indication of a compromise.
Unfortunately, despite ISACs (Information Sharing and Analysis Centers), many organizations neglect to share information about possible cybersecurity compromises with the ISACs of their industries and/or law enforcement.
This can be for a variety of reasons but frankly, whatever those reasons are, organizations need to do it and understand that it hurts everyone when they don’t, including themselves.
Rather than being attributable to a single cause, this latest string of cyber espionage is likely a result of a combination of the reasons I’ve mentioned.
But whether it’s lack of awareness, poor asset and device management, insufficient resources and personnel, working with cybersecurity firms that don’t adequately protect themselves, or neglecting to share information—the result is that organizations across a wide range of industries have become increasingly vulnerable to stealthier and more sophisticated methods of cyber espionage.
Solving the problem will, therefore, also require a combined and comprehensive approach to being more proactive and less reactive in the ways described.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Gant, an accomplished information technology, cybersecurity, and critical infrastructure educator and researcher, is an Assistant Professor & Program Coordinate of Undergraduate Cybersecurity Programs at Maryville University.
Dr. Gant brings more than 15 years of teaching experience into his practice. He is a 2003 alumnus of Maryville and continues to serve in various capacities across campus.
Dr. Gant is dedicated to practical instruction and allowing his students to think abstractly about complex problems which require multilayered approaches. His instruction is hands-on, allowing his students to learn at different levels and communicate with each other as future cybersecurity leaders.
CISA Honored in 2022 ‘ASTORS’ Homeland Security Awards Program
American Security Today’s Annual ‘ASTORS’ Awards is the preeminent U.S. Homeland Security Awards Program, and now entering its Eighth Year, continues to recognize industry leaders of Physical and Border Security, Cybersecurity, Emergency Preparedness – Management and Response, Law Enforcement, First Responders, as well as federal, state and municipal government agencies in the acknowledgment of their outstanding efforts to Keep our Nation Secure.
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)
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Active Assailant Security Branch, Active Shooter Preparedness Program
Active shooter incidents are often unpredictable and evolve quickly.
Amid chaos, anyone can play an integral role in mitigating the impacts of an active shooter incident. DHS aims to enhance preparedness through a “whole community” approach by providing products, tools, and resources to help you prepare for and respond to an active shooter incident.
(For example, CISA’s “Active Shooter Preparedness: School Security and Resilience” video provides information geared towards educators, school resource officers, and school administrators who serve in important roles in safeguarding schools. Courtesy of CISA and YouTube.)
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Active Assailant Security Branch, Vehicle Ramming Self-Assessment Tool
Using a vehicle as a weapon in a terrorist attack is not new.
Recent terrorist incidents and violent extremist propaganda demonstrate that using vehicles as a weapon continues to be of interest to those wishing to cause harm.
Attacks of this nature require minimal capability but can have a devastating impact in crowded places with low levels of visible security.
To aid our nation’s first responders and citizens, CISA offers the following resources: the Vehicle Ramming Self-Assessment Tool, the Self-Assessment Tool Resources, the First Responder Toolbox, General Resources, and videos.
(Learn More. The FBI, DHS, and TSA—in coordination with the Truck Renting and Leasing Association and the American Car Rental Association—have released a short training video to help vehicle rental employees identify suspicious activities and behavior by customers who may wish to use a rented vehicle for nefarious purposes. Courtesy of the FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation and YouTube. Posted on Aug 3, 2022.)
To contact the Vehicle Ramming Attack Mitigation team or to get more information on Vehicle Ramming Attack Mitigation, please contact CISA.ISD.OSP.VehicleRammingMitigation@cisa.dhs.gov.
Nitin Natarajan, Deputy Director, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA)
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Nitin Natarajan was appointed to serve as the Deputy Director for CISA on February 16, 2021. Before joining CISA in February 2021, Natarajan served in various public and private sector positions spanning over 30 years.
Most recently, he served as an executive at consulting firms providing subject matter expertise on a number of topics, including IT, cybersecurity, homeland, and national security, critical infrastructure protection, environmental emergency management, continuity of operations, and health security matters.
Natarajan also held several federal government roles, including serving as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Director of Critical Infrastructure Policy at the White House/National Security Council, and the Director at the U.S. Health and Human Services overseeing their critical infrastructure, continuity of operations (COOP), and medical logistics programs.
Prior to serving in the federal government, Natarajan served in positions at the state/local government level and served as a hospital administrator.
Natarajan started his career spending 13 years as a first responder in New York including service as a flight paramedic. He was the Commander of a federal medical response team, based in New York, and has extensive experience deploying to natural and man-made disasters throughout the nation.
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(Hear from Nitin Natarajan to learn more about the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is an operational component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Under the leadership of Director Jen Easterly, CISA works to understand, manage, and mitigate risk to the nation’s cyber and physical infrastructure in the public and private sectors. Their virtual mini-Industry Day events allow CISA and industry leaders to have meaningful discussions about cybersecurity, infrastructure, risk management, and communications capabilities, challenges, and technologies, as well as future business opportunities. Courtesy of CISA and YouTube.)
CISA Interagency Security Committee (ISC)
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Risk Management Process and Facility Security Committee Training Course
In response to the 1995 domestic terror bombing at the Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the Interagency Security Committee was created and, with collaboration, establishes policies, monitors compliance, and enhances the security and protection of Federal Facilities.
(2020 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Interagency Security Committee. On October 19, 1995, six months after the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Executive Order 12977 created the Interagency Security Committee to address continuing government-wide security for federal facilities. Courtesy of CISA and YouTube.)
With growing recognition among the Federal security community that a “one-size-fits-all” approach is no longer acceptable, the ISC’s Risk Management Process has become the standard for physical security within the federal government.
Realizing the need to educate security personnel, the ISC RMP Training Program was formed. The ISC RMP is the first training program recognized and certified by the ISC to train federal security professionals in the ISC Risk Management Process.
This is done through collaborative exercises and hands-on interactive instruction based on an Instructional Systems Design, a nationally recognized process.
The Risk Management Process and Facility Security Committee Training Course awards Continuing Education Units is offered at no cost to participants and provides an understanding of the ISC Risk Management Process Standard, and the roles and responsibilities of Facility Security Committees.
To learn more about the ISC RMP Training and how to register, please visit www.cisa.gov/interagency-security-committee-training.
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Highlighting CISA & NIST’s Efforts Under EO 14028: Standards & Security