Article | June 1, 2021
Over the last year, the education delivery model has changed rapidly. Universities have learnt to operate entirely remotely and now that learning may resume in person, a hybrid education model will likely continue. The transition from physical to online models happened so quickly that it left many IT networks exposed to serious harm from outside forces. With a hybrid model, there is likely a widening attack surface area.
A recent spate of attacks suggests that cyber-criminals are taking notice of the seemingly infinite weaknesses in learning centers defenses. But why?
One of the primary reasons is that universities operate large corporate-sized networks, but without the budgets to match. Add to that, teachers and students aren’t given training to use and connect their technology in a safe way.
To avoid falling victim to devastating cyber-attacks which often have dire consequences, we share three lessons universities need to quickly take on board.
Your Research is Valuable to Cyber-Criminals
There is a hefty price tag on some of the research conducted by universities, which makes it particularly attractive to cyber-criminals. The University of Oxford’s Division of Structural Biology was targeted in February by hackers snooping around, potentially in search of information about the vaccine the university has worked on with AstraZeneca. It’s not just gangs of cyber-criminals targeting research facilities, last year Russian state backed hackers were accused by official sources in the US, UK and Canada of trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research.
With world-leading research hidden in the networks of universities, its unsurprising that last year over half (54%) of universities surveyed said that they had reported a breach to the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office). The research conducted by many UK universities makes them an attractive target for financially motivated cyber-criminals and state-sponsored hackers in search of valuable intellectual property.
To add insult to injury, ransomware attackers are doubling their opportunity for pay off by selling off the stolen information to the highest bidder, causing a serious headache for the victims while potentially increasing the value of their pay-out.
Personal Information of Students and Staff Can Easily Fall into the Wrong Hands
Based on tests of UK university defenses, hackers were able to obtain ‘high-value’ data within two hours in every case. In many cases, successful cyber-attacks are followed by not only a ransom note demanding payment for the recovery of frozen or stolen data, but also the added threat of sharing any sensitive stolen information with the public.
Article | March 4, 2020
Cybersecurity professionals are always interested in understanding how evolving events shape the threat landscape. Events such as WannaCry and NotPetya may have temporarily crippled technology environments that were running with third-rate security*, but the repercussions from the coronavirus will hit every organization, no matter how resilient they thought they were. No single event to date has changed the tech threat landscape more than the consequences and impacts developing around the Coronavirus (aka SARS-CoV-2 and the disease CoViD-19). Then there are the business consequences, such as the sudden changes in consumer patterns and steep loss of income. The coronavirus is unmistakably a black swan event. It falls outside of the outliers. It creates a situation that many security professionals are familiar with: The Medusa Effect.
Article | April 14, 2020
COVID-19 has significantly affected individuals and organizations globally. Till this time more than 1.7 million people in 210 countries have bore the brunt of this mysterious virus. While this crisis is unparalleled to the past crises that have shaken the world and had lasting impacts on different businesses, economies and societies but the one domain that had remained resilient through all the past crises and is going solid in COVID-19 as well is Cyber security. While most of the sectors globally have been affected, Cybersecurity’s importance to organizations, consumers and home users have not only remained strong but have been increased drastically.
Article | August 30, 2021
As President Biden prepared to meet with Russian President Putin this past week in a high-profile summit in Geneva, Switzerland, cyber-attacks originating from criminals within Russia were near the top of a list of contentious issues on the agenda.
However, there were important events that received minimal media attention that strengthened the U.S. President’s position. President Biden walked into those meetings with something new and bold: the strong backing of NATO countries on a series of new cyber commitments.
In a NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, 2021, the heads of state and government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council reaffirmed their unity and commitments on a long list of mutual defense topics. And there was also a major new commitment discussed in the press release — cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure within any NATO member country were now on the table. That is, online (Internet-based) attacks could result in the same response as physical attacks (with guns and bombs.)
Yes, this is a very significant global development which highlights another way that the physical world and online world are merging fast, with ramifications in both directions.
HOW DID WE GET TO THIS MOMENT?
The ransomware attacks that recently struck critical infrastructure companies such as Colonial Pipeline and JBS resulted in more than just long lines for gas and meat price hikes. It raised alarm bells in countries all over the globe regarding the susceptibility of the majority of countries to ransomware and other forms of malware.
These ransomware incidents led to NATO’s new Comprehensive Cyber Defense Policy. The big news: Cyber-attacks against critical infrastructure might (on a case-by-case basis) now trigger the famous Article 5 clause. “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. …”
Here are two sections I’d like to highlight from last week’s communiqué (take special notice of section in bold):
“In addition to its military activities, Russia has also intensified its hybrid actions against NATO Allies and partners, including through proxies. This includes attempted interference in Allied elections and democratic processes; political and economic pressure and intimidation; widespread disinformation campaigns; malicious cyber activities; and turning a blind eye to cyber criminals operating from its territory, including those who target and disrupt critical infrastructure in NATO countries. It also includes illegal and destructive activities by Russian Intelligence Services on Allied territory, some of which have claimed lives of citizens and caused widespread material damage. We stand in full solidarity with the Czech Republic and other Allies that have been affected in this way.
“Cyber threats to the security of the Alliance are complex, destructive, coercive and becoming ever more frequent. This has been recently illustrated by ransomware incidents and other malicious cyber activity targeting our critical infrastructure and democratic institutions, which might have systemic effects and cause significant harm. To face this evolving challenge, we have today endorsed NATO’s Comprehensive Cyber Defence Policy, which will support NATO’s three core tasks and overall deterrence and defence posture, and further enhance our resilience. Reaffirming NATO’s defensive mandate, the Alliance is determined to employ the full range of capabilities at all times to actively deter, defend against and counter the full spectrum of cyber threats, including those conducted as part of hybrid campaigns, in accordance with international law. We reaffirm that a decision as to when a cyber-attack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis. Allies recognize that the impact of significant malicious cumulative cyber activities might, in certain circumstances, be considered as amounting to an armed attack. We remain committed to act in accordance with international law, including the UN Charter, international humanitarian law and international human rights law as applicable. We will promote a free, open, peaceful and secure cyberspace, and further pursue efforts to enhance stability and reduce the risk of conflict by supporting international law and voluntary norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace.”
MEDIA COVERAGE OF NATO ANNOUNCEMENTS
Global media coverage leading up to this NATO Summit was rather limited, especially when compared to the U.S.-Russia Summit and many of President Biden’s other European meetings – such as the G7 Summit and the his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.
Nevertheless, Meritalk offered this article: “Cybersecurity, Ransomware Climb Policy Ladder at NATO, G-7 Meetings,” which said, “cybersecurity in general, and ransomware in specific, climbed high onto the ladder of major policy issues at both the weekend meeting of G-7 nations this weekend, and the NATO Summit that concluded on June 14.
“The increasing importance of cybersecurity on the national stage tracks with U.S. policy in recent months, including federal government responses to major software supply chain cyber assaults and ransomware attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure sector companies that are believed to have originated from organizations based in Russia. President Biden has promised to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin with cybersecurity and ransomware issues when the two leaders meet on June 16. …”
Also, Info security Magazine ran an excellent piece entitled: “NATO Warns it Will Consider a Military Response to Cyber-Attacks,” which said, “NATO has warned it is prepared to treat cyber-attacks in the same way as an armed attack against any of its allies and issue a military response against the perpetrators.
“In a communique issued by governments attending the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels yesterday, the military alliance revealed it had endorsed a Comprehensive Cyber Defence Policy, in which a decision will be taken to invoke Article 5 “on a case-by-case basis” following a cyber-attack. Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, first signed in 1949, when any NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, it will be considered an attack on all alliance members, who will theoretically take any actions necessary to defend that ally….”
When I posted this NATO cyber topic on LinkedIn, the responses were all over the map. You can join that discussion here.
Here are a few comments worth noting:
Michael Kaiser, president and CEO at Defending Digital Campaigns: “Attribution better be 110 percent.”
Paul Gillingwater, management consultant, Chaucer Group: “A cyber counter-attack *is* a military response. It's now one battlefield, from sea, land, air, space to cyberspace. Next: your AI will be trying to persuade my AI that it was actually a pacifist.”
Kaushik (Manian) Venkatasubramaniyan, project manager, Global Business Research (GBR): “These kind of cyber-attacks targeting hospitals etc. are acts of war anyway.”
FINAL THOUGHTS ON IMPORTANCE OF NATO ANNOUNCEMENT
For many years, cyber pros have been talking about a “Cyber 9/11” or “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” Many experts still believe that those major cyber incidents are inevitable.
Still, “smaller” cyber-attacks are now happening all the time all over the world — with very serious consequences. Bad actors are asking for larger ransoms and causing more harm. Ransomware is evolving, and future cyber-attacks may not be ended by paying a ransom to the cyber criminals.
With many cyber-attacks against governments, hospitals and now critical infrastructure like gas pipeline companies and food processing plants taking place, new government actions were a must. These ransomware attacks via different types of malware are becoming more frequent and serious, and are a growing global challenge for public- and private-sector leaders.
Many questions must be answered quickly, such as: Where are the “red lines” that cannot be crossed? Once the lines are identified, what happens if they are crossed? When does a cyber-attack become an act of war?
Make no mistake, NATO’s new policy on cyber-attacks against critical infrastructures is a big deal. Expect more ransomware attacks to occur and those global commitments for action to be tested in the years ahead.
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