Five Cyber-Tech Trends of 2021 and What it Means for 2022.

Minneapolis 01/08/22

By Jeremy Swenson

Intro:

Every year I like to research and commentate on the most impactful security technology and business happenings from the prior year. This year is unique since the pandemic and mass resignation/gig economy continues to be a large part of the catalyst for most of these trends. All these trends are likely to significantly impact small businesses, government, education, high tech, and large enterprise in big and small ways.

Fig. 1. Facebook Whistle Blower and Disinformation Mashup (Getty & Stock Mashup, 2021).

Summary:

The pandemic continues to be a big part of the catalyst for digital transformation in tech automation, identity and access management (IAM), big data, collaboration tools, artificial intelligence (AI), and increasingly the supply chain. Disinformation efforts morphed and grew last year challenging data and culture. This requires us to put more attention on knowing and monitoring our own social media baselines. We no longer have the same office due to mass work from home (WFH) and the mass resignation/gig economy. This infers increased automated zero-trust policies and tools for IAM with less physical badge access required. The security perimeter is now more defined by data analytics than physical/digital boundaries.

The importance of supply chain cyber security was elevated by the Biden Administration’s Executive Order 1407 in response to hacks including SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline. Education and awareness around the review and removal of non-essential mobile apps grows as a top priority as mobile apps multiply. All the while, data breaches, and ransomware reach an all-time high while costing more to mitigate.

1) Disinformation Efforts Accelerate Challenging Data and Culture:

Disinformation has not slowed down any in 2021 due to sustained advancements in communications technologies, the growth of large social media networks, and the “appification” of everything thereby increasing the ease and capability of disinformation. Disinformation is defined as incorrect information intended to mislead or disrupt, especially propaganda issued by a government organization to a rival power or the media. For example, governments creating digital hate mobs to smear key activists or journalists, suppress dissent, undermine political opponents, spread lies, and control public opinion (Shelly Banjo; Bloomberg, 05/18/2019).

Today’s disinformation war is largely digital via platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, WhatsApp, Yelp, Tik-tok, SMS text messages, and many other lesser-known apps. Yet even state-sponsored and private news organizations are increasingly the weapon of choice, creating a false sense of validity. Undeniably, the battlefield is wherever many followers reside. 

Bots and botnets are often behind the spread of disinformation, complicating efforts to trace and stop it. Further complicating this phenomenon is the number of app-to-app permissions. For example, the CNN and Twitter apps having permission to post to Facebook and then Facebook having permission to post to WordPress and then WordPress posting to Reddit, or any combination like this. Not only does this make it hard to identify the chain of custody and original source, but it also weakens privacy and security due to the many authentication permissions involved. The copied data is duplicated at each of these layers which is an additional consideration.

We all know that false news spreads faster than real news most of the time, largely because it is sensationalized. Since most disinformation draws in viewers which drives clicks and ad revenues; it is a money-making machine. If you can significantly control what’s trending in the news and/or social media, it impacts how many people will believe it. This in turn impacts how many people will act on that belief, good or bad. This is exacerbated when combined with human bias or irrational emotion. For example, in late 2021 there were many cases of fake COVID-19 vaccines being offered in response to human fear (FDA; 09/28/2021). This negatively impacts culture by setting a misguided example of what is acceptable.

There were several widely reported cases of political disinformation in 2021 including misleading texts, e-mails, mailers, Facebook censorship, and robocalls designed to confuse American voters amid the already stressful pandemic. Like a narcissist’s triangulation trap, these disinformation bursts riled political opponents on both sides in all states creating miscommunication, ad hominin attacks, and even derailed careers with impacts into the future (PBS; The Hinkley Report, 11/24/20 and Daniel Funke; USA Today, 12/23/21).

Facebook is significantly involved in disinformation as one recent study stated, “Globally, Facebook made the wrong decision for 83 percent of those ads that had not been declared as political by their advertisers and that Facebook or the researchers deemed political. Facebook both overcounted and undercounted political ads in this group” (New York University; Cybersecurity For Democracy, 2021). Of course, Facebook disinformation whistleblower Frances Haugen who testified before Congress in 2021 is only more evidence of these and related Facebook failings. Specifically that “Facebook executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, misstated and omitted key details about what was known about Facebook and Instagram’s ability to cause harm” (Bobby Allyn; NPR, 10/05/21).

Fig. 2. Facebook Gaps in Ad Transparency (IMEC-DistriNet KU Leuven and NYU Cyber Security for Democracy, 2021).

With the help of Facebook’s misinformation, huge swaths of confused voters and activists aligned more with speculation and emotion/hype than unbiased facts, and/or project themselves as fake commentators. This dirtied the data in terms of the election process and only begs the question – which parts of the election information process are broken? This normalizes petty policy fights, emotional reasoning, lack of unbiased intellectualism – negatively impacting western culture. All to the threat actor’s delight. Increased public to private partnerships, more educational rigor, and enhanced privacy protections for election and voter data are needed to combat this disinformation.

2) Identity and Access Management (IAM) Scrutiny Drives Zero Trust Orchestration:

The pandemic and mass resignation/gig economy has pushed most organizations to amass work from home (WFH) posture. Generally, this improves productivity making it likely to become the new norm. Albeit with new rules and controls. To support this, 51% of business leaders started speeding up the deployment of zero trust capabilities in 2020 (Andrew Conway; Microsoft, 08/19/20) and there is no evidence to suggest this is slowing down in the next year but rather it is likely increasing to support zero trust orchestration. Orchestration is enhanced automation between partner zero trust applications and data, while leaving next to no blind spots. This reduces risk and increases visibility and infrastructure control in an agile way. The quantified benefit of deploying mature zero trust capabilities including orchestration is on average $ 1.76 million dollars less in breach response costs when compared to an organization who has not rolled out zero trust capabilities (IBM Security, Cost of A Data Breach Report, 2021). 

Fig. 3. Zero Trust Components to Orchestration (Microsoft, 09/17/21).

Zero trust moves organizations to a need-to-know-only access mindset with inherent deny rules, all the while assuming you are compromised. This infers single sign-on at the personal device level and improved multifactor authentication. It also infers better role-based access controls (RBAC), firewalled networks, improved need-to-know policies, effective whitelisting and blacking listing of apps, group membership reviews, and state of the art PAM (privileged access management) tools for the next year. In the future more of this is likely to be better automate and orchestrate (Fig. 3.) zero trust abilities so that one part does not hinder another part via complexity fog.

3) Security Perimeter is Now More Defined by Data Analytics than Physical/Digital Boundaries:

This increased WFH posture blurs the security perimeter physically and digitally. New IP addresses, internet volume, routing, geolocation, and virtual machines (VMs) exacerbate this blur. This raises the criticality of good data analytics and dashboarding to define the digital boundaries in real-time. Therefore, prior audits, security controls, and policies may be ineffective. For instance, empty corporate offices are the physical byproduct of mass WFH, requiring organizations to set default disable for badge access. Extra security in or near server rooms is also required. The pandemic has also made vendor interactions more digital, so digital vendor connection points should be reduced and monitored in real-time, and the related exception policies should be re-evaluated.

New data lakes and machine learning informed patterns can better define security perimeter baselines. One example of this includes knowing what percent of your remote workforce is on what internet providers and what type? For example, Google fiber, Comcast cable, CenturyLink DSL, ATT 5G, etc. There are only certain modems that can go with each of these networks and that leaves a data trail. Of course, it could be any type of router. What type of device do they connect with MAC, Apple, VM, or other, and if it is healthy can all be determined in relationship to security perimeter analytics.

4) Supply Chain Risk and Attacks Increase Prompting Government Action:

Every organization has a supply chain big or small. There are even subcomponents of the supply chain that can be hard to see like third/fourth-party vendors. A supply chain attack works by targeting a third/fourth party with access to an organization’s systems instead of hacking their networks directly.

In 2021 cybercriminals focused their surveillance on key components of the supply chain including hacking DNS servers, switches, routers, VPN concentrators and services, and other supply chain connected components at the vendor level. Of note was the massive Colonial Gas Pipeline hack that spiked fuel prices this last summer. This was caused by one compromised VPN account informed by a leaked password from the dark web (Turton, William; and Mehrotra, Kartikay; Bloomberg, 06/04/21). The SolarWinds hack was another supply chain-originated attack in that they got into SolarWinds IT management product Orien which in turn got them into the networks of most of the customers of that product (Lily Hay Newman; Wired, 12/19/21). The research consensus unsurprisingly ties this attack to Russian affiliated threat actors and there is no evidence contracting that.

In response to these and related attacks the U.S. Presidential Administration issued Executive Order 14017, the heart of which requires those who manufacture and distribute software a new awareness of their supply chain to include what is in their products, even open-source software (White House; 05/12/21). This in addition to more spending on CISA hiring and public relations efforts for vulnerabilities and NIST framework conformance. Time will tell what this order delivers as its dependent on what private sector players do.

Fig. 4. Supply Chain Cyber Attack Diagram (INSURETrust, 2021).

5) Data Breaches Have Greatly Increased in Number and Cost:

The pandemic has continued to be a part of the catalyst for increased lawlessness including fraud, ransomware, data theft, and other types of profitable hacking. Cybercriminals are more aggressively taking advantage of geopolitical conflict and legal standing gaps. For example, almost all hacking operations are in countries that do not have friendly geopolitical relations with the United States or its allies – and all their many proxy hops would stay consistent with this. These proxy hops are how they hide their true location and identity.

Moreover, with local police departments extremely overworked and understaffed with their number one priority being responding to the huge uptick in violent crime in most major cities, white-collar cybercrimes remain a low priority. Additionally, local police departments have few cyber response capabilities depending on the size of their precinct. Often, they must sheepishly defer to the FBI, CISA, and the Secret Service, or their delegates for help. Yet not unsurprisingly, there is a backlog for that as well with preference going to large companies of national concern that fall clearly into one of the 16 critical infrastructures. That is if turf fights and bureaucratic roadblocks don’t make things worse. Thus, many mid and small-sized businesses are left in the cold to fend for themselves which often results in them paying ransomware, and then being a victim a second time all the while their insurance carrier drops them.

Further complicating this is lack of clarity on data breach and business interruption insurance coverage and terms. Keep in mind most general business liability insurance policies and terms were drafted before hacking was invented so they are by default behind the technology. Most often general liability business insurance covers bodily injuries and property damage resulting from your products, services, or operations. Please see my related article 10 Things IT Executives Must Know About Cyber Insurance to understand incident response and to reduce the risk of inadequate coverage and/or claims denials.

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC)’s 2021Q3 Data Breach Report, there was a 17% year-over increase as of 09/30/21. This means that by the time they finish their Q4 2021 report it’s likely to be above a 30% year-over-year increase. Breaches are also more costly for organizations suffering them according to the IBM Security Cost of Data Breach Report (Fig 5).

Fig 5. Cost of A Data Breach Increases 2020 to 2021 (IBM Security, 2021).

From 2020 to 2021 the average cost of a data breach in U.S. dollars rose to $4.24 million from $3.86 million. This is almost a 10% increase at 9.1%. In contrast, the preceding 4 years were relatively flat (Fig 5). The pandemic and policing conundrum is a considerable part of this uptick.

Lastly, this is a lot of money for an organization to spend on a breach. Yet this amount could be higher when you factor in other long-term consequence costs such as increased risk of a second breach, brand damage, and/or delayed regulatory penalties that were below the surface – all of which differs by industry. In sum, it is cheaper and more risk prudent to spend even $4.24 million or a relative percentage at your organization on preventative zero trust capabilities than to deal with the cluster of a data breach.

Take-Aways:

COVID-19 remains a catalyst for digital transformation in tech automation, IAM, big data, collaboration tools, and AI. We no longer have the same office and thus less badge access is needed. The growth and acceptability of mass WFH combined with the mass resignation/gig economy remind employers that great pay and culture alone are not enough to keep top talent. Signing bonuses and personalized treatment are likely needed. Single sign-on (SSO) will expand to personal devices and smartphones/watches. Geolocation-based authentication is here to stay with double biometrics likely. The security perimeter is now more defined by data analytics than physical/digital boundaries, and we should dashboard this with machine learning and AI tools.

Education and awareness around the review and removal of non-essential mobile apps is a top priority. Especially for mobile devices used separately or jointly for work purposes. This requires a better understanding of geolocation, QR code scanning, couponing, digital signage, in-text ads, micropayments, Bluetooth, geofencing, e-readers, HTML5, etc. A bring your own device (BYOD) policy needs to be written, followed, and updated often informed by need-to-know and role-based access (RBAC) principles. Organizations should consider forming a mobile ecosystem security committee to make sure this unique risk is not overlooked or overly merged with traditional web/IT risk. Mapping the mobile ecosystem components in detail is a must.

IT and security professionals need to realize that alleviating disinformation is about security before politics. We should not be afraid to talk about it because if we are then our organizations will stay weak and insecure and we will be plied by the same political bias that we fear confronting. As security professionals, we are patriots and defenders of wherever we live and work. We need to know what our social media baseline is across platforms. More social media training is needed as many security professionals still think it is mostly an external marketing thing. Public-to-private partnerships need to improve and app to app permissions need to be scrutinized. Enhanced privacy protections for election and voter data are needed. Everyone does not need to be a journalist, but everyone can have the common sense to identify malware-inspired fake news. We must report undue bias in big tech from an IT, compliance, media, and a security perspective.

Cloud infra will continue to grow fast creating perimeter and compliance complexity/fog. Organizations should preconfigure cloud-scale options and spend more on cloud-trained staff. They should also make sure that they are selecting more than two or three cloud providers, all separate from one another. This helps staff get cross-trained on different cloud platforms and add-ons. It also mitigates risk and makes vendors bid more competitively. 

The increase in number and cost of data breaches was in part attributed to vulnerabilities in supply chains in a few national data breach incidents in 2021. Part of this was addressed in President Biden’s Executive Order 1407 on supply chain security. This reminds us to replace outdated routers, switches, repeaters, controllers, and to patch them immediately. It also reminds us to separate and limit network vendor access points to strictly what is needed and for a limited time window. Last but not least, we must have up-to-date thorough business interruption / cyber insurance with detailed knowledge of what it requires for incident response with breach vendors pre-selected.  

About the Author:

Jeremy Swenson is a disruptive thinking security entrepreneur, futurist/researcher, and senior management tech risk consultant. Over 17 years he has held progressive roles at many banks, insurance companies, retailers, healthcare orgs, and even governments including being a member of the Federal Reserve Secure Payment Task Force. Organizations relish in his ability to bridge gaps and flesh out hidden risk management solutions while at the same time improving processes. He is a frequent speaker, published writer, podcaster, and even does some pro bono consulting in these areas. As a futurist, his writings on digital currency, the Target data breach, and Google combing Google + video chat with Google Hangouts video chat have been validated by many. He holds an MBA from St. Mary’s University of MN, a MSST (Master of Science in Security Technologies) degree from the University of Minnesota, and a BA in political science from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

Microsoft HoloLens, Mobile vs. Good Web-Design, and Security Needs Innovation Not Gov’t.

Microsoft HoloLens1) We knew there would come another well-positioned company who makes a pair of smart glasses like Google Glass and that it will derive more competition and innovation. Microsoft raised their hand right away with their HoloLens glasses which are hologram based, slightly “gamified”, and seemingly better than Google Glass largely because they tied it in with known Windows functionality (broader offerings). See a video of this cool new technology here:

2) It is a fact that on average people now access more of their e-mail via mobile devices more often than on a traditional computer. This has forced websites, news makers, and companies to design their web offerings in a mobile compatible design so when you go to the web on a computer the sites are often overly mobile in their design aspects and sometimes look goofy and the buttons and frames are too big. CNN.com is a good example of a web-site that went too far with their mobile design so if you access it from a normal computer it looks more like a kids play web-site with big buttons and frames optimized for touch with little info presented. Yet their prior design was better especially if you want to read more on one screen view.

(Old vs. New CNN.com, respectively)
Old and New CNN WebsiteThere is no doubt that mobile will continue to grow and will be used on smaller devices like watches, ear buds, pacemakers, and contact lenses. Web design has shifted so fast to mobile that sometimes good web design and user experience is forgotten about for non-mobile users or business users who on average spend much more time on those same sites than mobile users. Thus a better balance of the two design types is needed, and an app is a separate project all together yet still needed. I also think Microsoft will take more mobile market share away from Android and Apple since they have learned a lot from their Windows 8 release and are quickly working to release Windows 10 as a better touch based mobility optimized O.S. that many are excited to try.

3) There will be more data breaches but many of them will be supported by the Western Governments who in effect devalue security standards by corroborating with large companies to quarry vast amounts of metadata all in the name of security. Sadly we know Governments have abused this power in the past and will continue to do so thus the private sector needs to collaborate and inspire innovation in this space for better security and transparency so the masses may have security and corrupt Governments can be exposed.

Equation group victims map

As it stands now hackers are a few steps ahead of antivirus makers and they are constantly tweaking their viruses so they can’t be detected. The newest types of viruses are suspected to be created by the Equation Group, one of the most sophisticated hacking groups ever known. These new viruses hide in your hard drives firmware and are undetectable. Antivirus maker Kaspersky commented on this in their Q&A doc on the Equation Group by stating, “We were able to recover two HDD firmware reprogramming modules from the EQUATIONDRUG and GRAYFISH platforms. The EQUATIONDRUG HDD firmware reprogramming module has version 3.0.1 while the GRAYFISH reprogramming module has version 4.2.0. These were compiled in 2010 and 2013, respectively, if we are to trust the PE timestamps” (http://25zbkz3k00wn2tp5092n6di7b5k.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/files/2015/02/Equation_group_questions_and_answers.pdf).

Kaspersky went on to further speculate that there were clues that the U.S. N.S.A. was involved in the latest hard drive firmware virus and even suggested they had the cooperation of major hard drive makers like Western Digital, Seagate, Samsung, and Toshiba in order to get the code needed to write the virus. Any reasonable technologist would likely agree with this. Yet this decreases innovation and free competition and you know big money likely traded hands to make these deals happen. How can a big company now trust paying a technology company for security or services when they are just going to give it away to supposed governments here or elsewhere? More importantly, if one government has the ability to get into a tech companies data, then other more ill-intentioned governments and organizations can quickly learn how to do that as well and that is the real threat.

If you want to hire me to speak at your next event or consult for your company on these and related topics please contact me.

Lessons Learned From The Target Data Breach: Part 1

In the holiday shopping rush of December 2013 Target (TGT), the 1,778 store middle market retailer, had one of the biggest data breaches in American business history.  The breach apparently affected more than 70-100 million customers over 40 million cards (varying estimates exist) across all U.S. stores but excluded Target.com and stores in Canada.
target date leakThe general consensus is that a HVAC contractor for Target, Fazio Mechanical Services, who had access to Target’s networks got their own networks hacked via an e-mail phishing attack, normally an elementary attack method; yet that attack installed malware that then got onto Target’s network and installed more malware that copied personal data from Target’s payment processing terminals when it was in the “working memory area” or “cache” of the software/system – that is before it gets encrypted to be sent to the bank to be authorized.  This is part of the reason why it was not detected so fast and yes these hackers were smart.

Yet Target also did a bad job separating their networks and servers while they were trying to save money by having less networks and broader access for those who needed them.  Yet I don’t see why an HVAC contractor would need to be so close to the networks that work the registers.  This is simply poor design.  I am sure the HVAC company could have done their job without access to the Target network.  Let’s not hope they just wanted to upload HVAC reports and browse the network.

According to a recent Business Week article, “Target had a team of security specialists in Bangalore to monitor its computers around the clock.  If Bangalore noticed anything suspicious, Target’s security operations center in Minneapolis would be notified.  On Saturday, Nov. 30, the hackers had set their traps and had just one thing to do before starting the attack: plan the data’s escape route.  As they uploaded exfiltration malware to move the stolen credit card numbers—first to staging points spread around the U.S. to cover their tracks, then into their computers in Russia—FireEye spotted them. Bangalore got an alert and flagged the security team in Minneapolis.” (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-03-13/target-missed-alarms-in-epic-hack-of-credit-card-data)
target date leak2Yet Target did not take this alert seriously but why?  Fear of change, ego, poor leadership, and too much bureaucracy got in the way of the costly software’s effectiveness.  At the time of the breach FireEye was a new software tool for Target’s technology group and what I know about new technology is that people delay embracing and learning new systems of out of fear that those systems will be buggy or not as good as the old ones.  I understand this very well having worked part time in the P.C. dept. at Best Buy for more than 3.7 years representing Intel and related software makers Microsoft, Symantec, Trend Micro, and Adobe.  When Windows 8 came out all kinds of people were doubting it not because it was bad but because it was more work to get to know, and if they saw something really different about it, they were inclined to think it was a bug when in fact it was a useful design feature they didn’t yet understand.  The same bias can be applied to Apple computers.  People falsely think that they are immune from viruses because Apple designs them that way.  What a joke.  Apple computers are only as secure as their understanding of the latest virus.  Yes it is true the Apple operating system is not targeted as much for viruses but it is also not used as much and it is hardly used by large companies and governments.

Moving on, the CIO really needs to get behind any major software change like this, and if Target’s former CIO Beth Jacob was really behind FireEye she probably would have done something about the alerts they were giving her.  You would think as CIO she would want to immediately act and reduce any risk.  What was she doing at the time, giving some speech about how she was such a great leader in the industry while some high buck corporate partner pays for her three-course lunch?  Clearly, her eye was not on the ball or even on Target (no pun intended), and she had a big enough ego to think she was smart enough and had put the right people on her team to take care of this.  Yet what an epic fail.  It is also likely that there were people some layers below Jacob that tried to inform others to the alert but I am sure their voice of concern and reason got squashed by Jacob’s massive ego, after all you can’t doubt a CIO – right?  I highly doubt everyone in Target’s IT security team was going to ignore these alerts but it is too many layers of bureaucracy that got in the way of Target’s safety.  Target is better off with a more open style of bureaucracy where concerns can be heard at all levels and tools and processes are shared for innovative solutioning – Google’s culture is a good example of this.

Target has also grossly underestimated the costs associated with the data breach to keep their stock price up but of course they would never say it like that, however I am not alone in thinking Target’s $147 million figure is too low.  According to one analyst, “costs would rise even more over time. “I don’t see how they’re getting out of this for under a billion, over time,” he said, adding, “$150 million in a quarter seems almost like a bargain.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/06/business/target-puts-data-breach-costs-at-148-million.html?_r=0)

Those who have the stolen data are likely outside of the U.S. and when and if they use the data to commit fraud the ability of a U.S. corporation or court to go after them is diminished, timely, and costly.  Moreover, since the U.S is the midst of negative geo-politics with parts of Europe, particularly Russia where some sources have traced the hack, those who have the data are likely to be bold in how they use it and that’s where the cost to Target will add up.  The other areas where the costs will grow is in Target’s own internal policy and procedure changes as well as the growth of their IT security staff and tools, but most importantly their investment in training must grow.  At present Target has over more than 90 lawsuits against them regarding the breach and that number is likely to grow so the costs here are going to be huge overall.

Lastly, I am not all negative on the Twin Cities’ favorite corporate hometown hero as I shop at Target often, have the REDCard, have been to their diversity events, and I have also seen a lot of concerts and sporting events at both Target Field and the Target Center.  However, the mere fact that Target has the money and lobbying power to get their name in the community does not mean they are a true leader in the community.  As the data security community increases consumer awareness retailers like Target will continue to be challenged to innovate and that’s better for all people.

By Jeremy Swenson