LAS VEGAS—There was plenty of news last week during Black Hat USA about new cyber-threats, vulnerabilities and exploits. The good news is that security technologies are more advanced than ever and researchers are getting better at spotting hacks and malware.
The bad news is that most threats are preventable by following “Security 101” practices that require only basic common sense and preparation—advice which often is ignored, overlooked or deemed not cost-effective by executives.
Patching operating systems and applications, training staff and employees to spot threats, and backing up data will do more to protect an enterprise than the latest machine-learning threat-detection technology, experts here said.
No security system can stop a phishing attack—which dupes users to click on links that deliver malicious code to their computers—if users continue to click on email attachments or web links without understanding the signs of a threat or the potential risks.
One company getting a lot of attention in this area is KnowBe4, a security awareness training company notable for its chief hacking officer—former infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick—who is offering years of social engineering experience to help enterprises fend off phishing and ransomware attacks.
"I've been involved with social engineering since I was 16," he said in an interview here. "I was mischievous but not malicious. The techniques that I used in the 1970s still work today. Back then, it was the phone. Now it's email."
KnowBe4's team teaches people the "street craft of the bad guys" to inoculate them, Mitnick said. Then he trains IT staff members to create simulated phishing attacks on their own users to keep them on their toes and aware of possible threats.
Other types of vulnerabilities take a different kind of diligence: patching and updating business-critical applications. In recent weeks, enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, including SAP and Oracle, have been singled out as especially vulnerable, mainly because keeping the systems patched often is beyond the time, budget and wherewithal of many organizations.
In May the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning—the first of its kind—of security holes in SAP systems that the company had patched. But because the patches were never implemented, users remain at risk.
Even the most mature organizations are just trying to keep up with security patches, said Juan Perez-Etchegoyen, CTO of SAP security consultancy Onapsis. "Security is a big pain point for customers," he said, as they often decide to wait for a major upgrade to fix an issue, rather than try a patch and risk breaking proprietary customizations. "No two SAP installations are alike."
All this said, no enterprise network will be completely secure if top-level management does not buy in to security and make it a priority. This issue is coming to a head with ransomware: An increasing number of businesses, especially health care and financial services, are being hit by hackers who encrypt files and then demand payment for the keys to unlock the files.
According to new research released this week, 80 percent of organizations have been hit with a cyber-attack in the past year and about 50 percent have been hit with a ransomware attack, according to Malwarebytes, which conducted the study with Osterman Research.
Malwarebytes CEO Marcin Kleczynski said ransomware is not just targeted at individual victims any more. "It has evolved into a wildfire on the business side," he said, adding that the type of schemes dramatized on the TV show "Mr. Robot" are not really fiction at all.
In such cases, it's often easier for businesses to pay the ransom rather than try to remediate the situation themselves or take more preventative measures in the first place—which does nothing to stem the tide of more ransomware attacks.
In most ransomware cases, the ransom currency of choice is Bitcoin, which takes time to obtain if a victim is not prepared. So, increasingly, savvy chief security officers are starting to keep a funded Bitcoin wallet available for such occurrences.
"User training is still the most effective solution," Kleczynski said.
Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. He has an extensive background in the technology field. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture, at TechTarget. Before that, he was the director, Editorial Operations, at Ziff Davis Enterprise. While at Ziff Davis Media, he was a writer and editor at eWEEK. No investment advice is offered in his blog. All duties are disclaimed. Scot works for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.