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Monday, 30 March 2020 09:01

Cyber attackers taking aim at VPNs as more work from home: sec pro Featured

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Carolyn Crandall: "Cyber attackers are definitely going to be targeting VPNs as a means of accessing the corporate network or SaaS accounts from a compromised user's personal computer." Carolyn Crandall: "Cyber attackers are definitely going to be targeting VPNs as a means of accessing the corporate network or SaaS accounts from a compromised user's personal computer." Supplied

Cyber attackers are definitely going to be targeting VPNs as a means of accessing users' PCs during this period when the number who are working from home has risen exponentially, Carolyn Crandall, chief deception officer of Attivo Networks which describes itself as a leader in deception for cyber security defence.

Crandall was reacting to statements made by the acting head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, Karl Hanmore on ABC Radio last Friday, to the effect that the number of phishing and other scams have been on the rise recently.

"Attackers will definitely be targeting access through VPNs as many companies are simply not ready for an attack from this vector," Crandall said.

"With VPN split-tunnelling, which is used to separate home and corporate traffic, remote workers won’t have existing network protections such as web filtering, firewalls, or IDS/IPS (intrusion detection systems/intrusion prevention systems).

"Cyber attackers are definitely going to be targeting VPNs as a means of accessing the corporate network or SaaS accounts from a compromised user's personal computer."

She said with the increase in the number connecting through VPNs, it had become harder to pinpoint the source of an attack, "such as a rogue Active Directory query from a compromised host or network reconnaissance of systems on VPN".

"Relying on historical activity baselines to detect anomalies has also now become useless since the surge in remote workers has changed everything. Notably, organisations are using cyber deception in the form of decoy VPN, SaaS, and public cloud credentials to detect these attacks quickly," Crandall added.

Jeff Costlow, the chief information security officer at cloud-native network detection and response provider ExtraHop, said: "We're already starting to see significant increases in phishing attacks and other email scams, many of which play on themes of fear and sympathy surrounding the pandemic to lure victims."

The effect of these scams was compounded by the compromised security associated with the rapid transition to a distributed workforce.

"Many organisations are relaxing VPN policies in order to give broad swaths of their workforce remote access to critical information and systems. Many employees not equipped with laptops are now using personal devices to access company systems and data," Costlow said.

"Other employees are taking home desktop computers which aren't configured to be used outside the regulated confines of a corporate network. All of these factors increase risk for enterprise security organisations."

He said the best advice he could give to these organisations — and what he was practising at his own firm — was "regularly reminding employees to stay on their guard, as well as closely monitoring network activity for anomalies and indications of compromise. This is going to require vigilance from all sides".

Simon Howe, vice-president of sales in the Asia-Pacific for security intelligence company LogRhythm, said that emails and direct messages were being leveraged to conduct malicious cyber activities.

"Through these means, cyber criminals entice users to open malicious attachments by offering more information related to the current pandemic, for instance," he added.

"The malicious files in these emails or messages are usually disguised as legitimate links, pdf, mp4 or docx files. These may include information on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus, or updates on the threat or detection procedures.

"These files, when opened, can be extremely harmful as they could host a range of threats from trojans to worms capable of destroying, blocking, or modifying data."

Watchguard Technologies ANZ regional manager Mark Sinclair pointed out that there were hundreds of new domain names relating to COVID-19 being registered.

"Over the last week or so we have seen a dramatic increase in new malicious COVID-19 related websites," he said. "These are springing up to host phishing attacks, distributing malware, committing financial fraud or tricking users into purchasing questionable cures. Attackers love to prey on fear and uncertainty."

Sinclair said while companies were sending out legitimate COVID-19 emails to most of their customers, cyber criminals were taking advantage of this by weaving in their phishing emails in amongst the legitimate ones and making it a lot more difficult to detect.

"More online purchasing provides cyber criminals with a larger attack surface for attached to steal credit card information. The NutriBullet shopping cart was a recent victim of a Magecart attack where the attackers injected malicious code into the NurtriBullet website and began siphoning card information of unsuspecting online shoppers," he said.

"Australian businesses can help their remote workers by producing a simple working from home guideline document so that employees can be better educated on the threats. This should include instructions on how to set themselves up securely and how to spot common COVID-19 phishing attempts."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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