While there is a certain amount of focus by security vendors on zero-day threats that have not yet been patched, networking giant Cisco Systems doesn’t want people to forget about the need for good Internet hygiene to protect against all the other types of online threats.
In a press briefing today, Craig Williams, technical leader of Threat Research Analysis & Communications (TRAC) at Cisco, talked about three recent sets of attacks, all of which could have been prevented if the victims had properly followed a few simple Internet security best practices.
One of the attacks, known as a “watering hole” attack, targeted oil and gas companies. In a watering hole attack, a commonly visited Website (the watering hole) is infected with some form of malware, which is then distributed to all subsequent visitors to the site.
Cisco TRAC discovered 10 Websites in the oil and gas sector that had become watering hole sites. Williams did not specifically identify all 10 sites, though he did note that they include a large firm with operations in Africa, Morocco and Brazil; a natural gas power station in the U.K.; and a gas distributor in France.
In the oil and gas industry attack, Cisco TRAC found that three publicly reported vulnerabilities were to blame as the root cause of the infections. The vulnerabilities included CVE 2012-1723, which is a Java exploit, as well as the Microsoft IE 8 CVE 2013-1347 exploit and the Firefox CVE 2013-1690 exploit. Williams said all three of the vulnerabilities have already been patched by the affected software vendors with updates that are generally available for organizations and end users to deploy.
“There is no reason why these boxes should have been vulnerable except for the fact that they weren’t following best practices,” he said.
The oil and gas vendors, or anyone else for that matter, could have protected themselves from the watering hole attack with patching vigilance, Williams said. He recommends that users and organizations keep all servers up-to-date with the latest patches. It’s also important to update all plug-ins for Web browsers, especially Java—an oft-targeted technology that is frequently updated.
Network security solutions, including antivirus and intrusion prevention systems (IPSes), can further reduce the risk, Williams said.
Another type of attack that good hygiene could easily prevent is the Cryptolocker ransomware attack, Williams added. The way Cryptolocker works is it infects user desktops and then encrypts data. The only way users get access back to their data is if they pay the ransom (hence the term “ransomware”) to the hackers.
Cisco Warns of Internet Dangers That Are Easily Preventable
Even if a device is infected with Cryptolocker, there is at least one easy fix: Users can reimage their PCs and then reload data from backups performed before the device was infected, Williams said.
“Due to the effective use of encryption, decryption is computationally prohibitive,” Williams told eWEEK. “The best defense against Cryptolocker is to perform regular backups.”
To prevent infection from Cryptolocker in the first place, use up-to-date antivirus software, as Williams said that among Cisco’s active security customers, he is unaware of any infections.
Another type of attack that has recently been active is a DNS (Domain Name System) takeover, performed by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). In a DNS attack, the hacker gets access to the records that identify where a given domain name is supposed to go and then redirects that to a different Internet address. The SEA has successfully executed DNS attacks against The New York Times and Twitter, among other organizations.
In the SEA attacks, organizations were exploited and tricked into giving up their DNS log-in credentials. Again, Williams stressed that there are a number of basic best practices that organizations can and should undertake to protect their domain name information.
Williams suggests that organizations lock down their domains with their domain registrar to prevent unauthorized transfers. He also advocates for improved email security as well as the use of two-factor authentication mechanisms. With two-factor authentication, users need more than just a username and a password to gain access to a site or service.
Overall, Williams stressed that the best security comes with defense in depth. As such, it’s critically important for organizations to keep up-to-date with patches, avoid phishing scams, use two-factor authentication and lock down domain registration settings.
“It is very similar to using the ‘Club’ on your car’s steering wheel—you raise the bar so that a successful attack is less likely,” Williams said. “However, users must remain vigilant because complete security can never be guaranteed.”
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.