You don’t have to look far these days to find cyber security news of hackers, cyber criminals and other hostile agents successfully compromising computer networks and systems for their own benefit.
Here’s a look at some of the more common cyber security threats and how smart cyber security professionals counteract them to protect the organizations, users and systems under their care.
Cyber Security Threat: Malware
Malware is an umbrella term for a broad range of software designed to intrude on, compromise or harm digital systems.
As cyber security researcher Dr. Samuel McQuade has noted, all malware has one thing in common: It is unwanted, unknown and/or hostile to the interests of the end user or owner of the system it’s running on.
Malware that can penetrate networks, steal information and cover up its tracks will continue to emerge, responding to the rise in cyber security and law enforcement. This “ghostware” will hinder organizations’ ability to track exactly how much data has been compromised, and hide the identities of the cyber criminals behind the breach.\
Another new method is “two-faced malware”: malevolent software that seems benign under surveillance but morphs into malicious code once it’s no longer under suspicion. This was developed in response to a cyber security method where companies test new software in a safe environment called a“sandbox” before exposing it to their live networks.
Fortinet global security strategist Derek Manky says these new forms of malware are in response to more sophisticated levels of cyber security: “They know about security vendors, they know about law enforcement, they’re trying to constantly morph and shift their tactics.”
Cyber Security Threat: Viruses
Though often used interchangeably with the term “malware”, viruses are actually a specific subtype of malware.
Viruses require action by the user, such as clicking on an email attachment or running an infected program, in order to activate.
Once launched, viruses replicate their code on the infected system with results that can cause serious damage to hardware, software or files. “Viruses can range in severity from causing mildly annoying effects to damaging data or software and causing denial-of-service (DoS) conditions,” according to Cisco.
Cyber Security Threat: Worms
Similar to a virus, but with the ability to infect a system without any action from an end user, a worm often exploits security flaws in the targeted system.
While these worms have typically targeted computers, 2016 has seen the development of “headless worms” — i.e. malicious code — which target “headless” devices such as smartwatches, smartphones and medical hardware.
Gartner predicts that 6.4 billion connected “things” will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30 percent from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. This continued rise in connected devices will prove to be a goldmine for hackers who leverage headless worms.
Cyber Security Threat: Trojan Horses
A Trojan horse is a type of malware that’s disguised as legitimate software. According to anti-malware firm Kaspersky, Trojans are unlike viruses and worms, in that they don’t self-replicate.
Once activated, Trojans can give hackers the ability to steal personal data and damage, access and/or control a system.
Cyber Security Threat: Phishing
Phishing attacks typically take the form of an email or other communication made to look like it came from a trusted source, such as a user’s bank, university or employer.
They are often sent with the intention of manipulating users into disclosing sensitive data (including passwords and financial or personal information) and more.
Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Resilient, an IBM company, and who is also a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, believes cyber security professionals need to stop blaming the user and start designing more secure systems: “The problem isn’t the users: it’s that we’ve designed our computer systems’ security so badly that we demand the user do all of these counterintuitive things. Why can’t users choose easy-to-remember passwords? Why can’t they click on links in emails with wild abandon? Why can’t they plug a USB stick into a computer without facing a myriad of viruses? Why are we trying to fix the user instead of solving the underlying security problem?”
He argues that instead, the cyber security industry needs to develop security solutions which deliver on users’ security goals and preferences, actually working with users, not against them.
Cyber Security Threat: Whaling
“Whaling” is a phishing attack that specifically targets high-level officials, executives and other VIPs within government, business or other fields.
Commonly referred to as “CEO fraud,” these attacks can take the form of a hacker posing as a senior executive and asking an employee to transfer money.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) believes these attacks have cost companies more than $2.3 billion in losses over the past three years.
Nathan Sorrentino, marketing program manager at STEALTHbits Technologies, says that number is expected to skyrocket as whaling continues to increase: “No type of anti-virus can protect an organization from being the victim of this type of attack. So, once that email shows up in the inbox of that employee in the payroll department, it’s game on. Until organizations become more proactive in training their employees to look for the signs of this now all-too-common phishing scam, the attacks will continue into the foreseeable future.”
Cyber Security Best Practices
It’s worth mentioning that many cyber criminals employ multiple types of attack.
At a bare minimum, security professionals should be ensuring that reliable, effective anti-malware software is installed and running on each device in a network and under your care, from desktop computers to laptops, mobile phones and tablets.
Care should also be taken to ensure that all software on those systems – including operating systems and anti-malware programs – receive prompt and regular updates to minimize the chance of malefactors taking advantage of security flaws.
Likewise, sensitive data, such as passwords and personal information, should be closely guarded and only given out under certain carefully defined circumstances.
Finally, consider assessing the overall resilience of your organization via tools such as the Baldridge Cybersecurity Excellence Builder. This self-assessment was developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to help enterprises determine the impact and effectiveness of theircyber security initiatives.
To explore how you can advance the fight against these malicious attacks, visit our education section and see if a Master’s degree in Cyber Security is right for you.