Businesses need to avoid thinking that they will be attacked less because they are small or too niche to bother with, according to one security expert and author who is quick to point out that most hacks are impersonal and directed by automated systems trawling the Web for valuable information and vulnerable systems.
While some large corporations are undeniably targeted by malicious hackers seeking to exfiltrate specific secrets, the genesis of many high-profile hacks like the compromise of US retailer Target – which was compromised by a security lapse in the systems of a small air-conditioning contractor – is often opportunistic rather than the result of hacker prowess.
“The fallacy,” technology strategist and author Marc Goodman told attendees at this week's Australian Security Industry Association Limited (ASIAL) conference at the Security 2015 event in Melbourne, “is that when you think about these cyber attacks, they are not coming against you; they are coming against everybody.”
“People who don't follow this situation very closely think 'why would anyone want to come after my company' but there's a fallacy in that logic: they're not people that are coming against your company. There is software coming after your company.”
The rise of crimeware for hire had put tools for mass-scanning ports and applying operating-system vulnerabilities into the hands of even inexperienced hackers, said Goodman, an ex police officer and counter-terrorism strategist who is founder of the Future Crimes Institute, chair for policy, law and ethics at California's Singularity University, and author of the security manifesto Future Crimes.
Scaling these threats had seen a massive push towards automation – and this, in turn, had driven the indiscriminate targeting of all kinds of systems that were often chosen not because they belong to a particular system, but simply because they are online and insecurely so.
“The days of human hackers sitting at keyboards trying to break into your network are mostly over,” he said. “Almost all of these security threats are carried out by automated tools. This software is going out to try to break every known port, try every vulnerability against every major operating system, and work against your security systems.”
“It's all automated, so it means that they can scale up – so smaller companies have just as much to worry about.”
Once a vulnerability is identified, it is flagged for automatic or manual follow-up. Hackers in the Target case, for example, first slipped through the air-conditioning firm's security defences, then followed its systems to those of Target and stepped through that company's various systems – mapping its network servers using the readily-available BlackPOS malware – until they found a way to access and compromise its network of point-of-sale terminals.
“Many companies spending tremendous sums on security think they're protected and locked down, but a sense of overconfidence is the enemy in situations like this. If you think you are locked down, you are definitely missing something.”
Goodman also touched on emerging security threats such as those posed by broader use of flying drones, which were compromising long-held notions about privacy and challenging authorities to find a balance between existing regulations and the need to embrace the devices' potential.
“Not only are these new technologies creating massive security risks, but they're opening up new challenges for law and public policy,” he said. “The technology is following Moore's law in doubling in capacity over and over, but all of our traditional legacy systems are completely analogue.”
Poor security on video cameras and industrial control systems had made them another common target, with hackers often stumbling across Web-connected systems: “30 percent of these consumer-grade systems come out of the box with no security whatsoever,” Goodman said, warning of broad compromises to come as new and insecure devices join the exploding Internet of Things (IoT).
Read more: How to hack a drone
“These Internet enabled security devices have the opportunity to provide better security, but unless we lock them down they can also be an Achilles' heel. Although we've been excellent at wiring the world, we've failed to secure it.”
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