Digital Threats and Countermeasures: How Close are We to a Cyberwar? by@valeryyy

Digital Threats and Countermeasures: How Close are We to a Cyberwar?

At its core, today’s world relies on digital technologies. Public infrastructure, transport, communication, business, government, finance, and healthcare depend on the synergy and stable functioning of IT environments at all levels. A single disruption in a link of IT processes may cause the entire system to fail, resulting in service unavailability. The downtime of banks and public institutions, for instance, leads to significant inconveniences for citizens. A major system disruption as a result of a cyberattack on an IT environment of a particular organization means the probability of critical data loss or theft. In turn, loss or leakage of data causes public image deterioration, unwanted reputational and financial consequences, and even legal fines for organizations due to noncompliance. What is a cyber attack? Who is a cybercriminal and a cyberterrorist? Where does a cyberwar start? What is cyber security and how to design it? In this post, we will explain what are cyberattacks, the main types of cyber threats, examples of cyberwar, and IT cyber security approaches.
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Valery

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At its core, today’s world relies on digital technologies.

Public infrastructure, transport, communication, business, government, finance, and healthcare depend on the synergy and stable functioning of IT environments at all levels. A single disruption in a link of IT processes may cause the entire system to fail, resulting in service unavailability.

The downtime of banks and public institutions, for instance, leads to significant inconveniences for citizens.

A major system disruption as a result of a cyberattack on an IT environment of a particular organization means the probability of critical data loss or theft.

In turn, loss or leakage of data causes public image deterioration, unwanted reputational and financial consequences, and even legal fines for organizations due to noncompliance.

What is a cyber attack? Who is a cybercriminal and a cyberterrorist? Where does a cyberwar start? What is cyber security and how to design it? In this post, we will explain what are cyberattacks, the main types of cyber threats, examples of cyberwar, and IT cyber security approaches.

What is a Cyber Attack?

In a broad sense, a cyberattack is the use of digital instruments to, for example, gain unauthorized access to IT environments, cause disruption, hardware malfunction, and corrupt or steal data.

The type of instruments used to conduct an attack and the goals that the initiator pursues may vary, but the principle remains unchanged: A cyberattack is an attempt to intrude, damage, or disrupt digital or physical infrastructures with the use of software.

Cyber Security Threats by Type

Not all cases of cyber security breaches are the same. Three main categories of cyber threats include cybercrimes, cyberattacks, and cyberterrorism. We will highlight the differences between them now.

Cybercrime

Cybercrime includes the actions of individuals or organized groups who use digital instruments to attack computers or whole IT systems with the intention of financial profit and causing disruption. The most spectacular example of cybercriminal activity is the creation and spread of ransomware.

The frequency and danger of ransomware attacks have been growing in past years, so solid ransomware protection is vital for corporate, personal, and any other critical data.

Cyberattacks

A cyberattack in its narrow sense is a category of cybercrime. Cybercriminals are mostly driven by financial goals or just having fun with casual users who are unaware of security breaches in their systems.

Coordinated cyberattacks conducted either by individuals or organized groups, however, might have motivators other than direct profit: politics, corporate and state espionage, and gaining unfair competitive advantage for businesses are primary motivators here. Hackers paid by a particular company to intrude into a competitor’s IT environment and collect confidential data about intellectual property can serve as an example here.

Cyberterrorism

Cyberterrorists are criminals and attackers. Why are they distinguished as a separate threat category? Unlike regular criminals and organized hacker groups, terrorists target vital objects of public infrastructure to cause panic or fear among citizens.

Cyberterrorists aim to disrupt the stable functioning of governmental services, banks, hospitals, power grid, and so on. Most frequently, the actions of cyberterrorists may be defined as elements of a cyber war. However, that is not quite correct.

Cyberwar: Science Fiction or Reality?

Many think that a cyberwar is either a fictional concept or something that much of humanity seems to expect in the relatively distant future.

Fortunately, a full-scale cyberwar has not occurred so far. However, governments are analyzing cyberwar concepts, and some elements of a nextgen military conflict have already been tested in action.
But still, how can we define a cyberwar? The word “cyberwarfare” can fit the use of digital means like viruses and hacking software by one state to attack the vital computer systems of another state to cause disruption, destruction, and even loss of life.

Although there have been no confirmed cases of cyberattacks directly resulting in death yet, the use of computer programs by state-affiliated structures against the digital environments of a political rival to gain military advantage or achieve other goals has been around for years.

One of the first known examples of a war going beyond the use of regular military force and entering cyberspace is the series of cyberattacks conducted during the short military conflict between Russia and Georgia in August 2008.

Allegedly, Russian hackers took control over key sections of the Georgian web by rerouting traffic to Russian and Turkish servers and blocking or diverting the rerouted traffic there. This was the first publicly known case of cyberattacks synchronized with offensive army operations to achieve military goals.

Another spectacular example of a cyberwar is the case of the Stuxnet worm, which is considered to be a specialized cyberweapon. That software is said to have been created by the USA and Israel to target Iran, though there is no direct proof of governmental involvement in the development of the worm. Stuxnet is remarkable for being the first-of-a-kind known software that was purposely created to damage critical physical infrastructure.

More precisely, Stuxnet was created to cause a malfunction in the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) used to automate electromechanical processes including the control of gas centrifuges for separating nuclear material.

Stuxnet was confirmed to have compromised the PLCs used in the Iranian nuclear program equipment and caused damage by accelerating the centrifuges’ spinning and destroying them that way.

Regarding cyberwar, one can only understand that the use of digital technologies, computers, and networks to gain an advantage over enemy military forces and rival states is not a hypothetical opportunity or fictional concept anymore.

Cyberwar became a reality more than a decade ago. People not connected to the creation of cyberweapons can see only the tip of the iceberg.

Ways to Bypass IT Cyber Security

The multi-level complexity of IT infrastructures, protocols, connections, among other features, gives cybercriminals the chance to create different types of hacking tools and strategies to break into protected environments through the web.

Those malicious tools and strategies generally fall into definable categories.

Malware

The variety of malware that hackers use to bypass digital security measures continues to expand.

The most common malicious software types include:

  • Viruses: self-replicating programs that attach themselves to clean files and spread across IT systems to infect nodes with malicious codes.
  • Trojans: malware pretending to be regular software applications. Users unknowingly install trojans to their systems, and then unpacked malware codes start corrupting, deleting, or stealing data.
  • Adware: software created for advertising purposes. Adware can be used to spread malware codes as well.
  • Botnets: networks of infected computers used by hackers to perform actions online without the legitimate user’s awareness and authorization.
  • Spyware: malware that infiltrates a system and starts snooping for sensitive data like passwords, email addresses, personal identification information, credit card numbers, among others.
  • Ransomware: malware that encrypts user data and demands a ransom in exchange for the decryption key.

Hackers may rely on a single type or combine multiple types of malware and approaches to plan and conduct a cyberattack. The digital security systems designed to protect IT environments are multi-layered, so criminals mostly come up with hybrid cyberattack tools.

SQL Injection

A structured language query (SQL) injection is used to get access and control to steal sensitive data from databases.

A hacker uncovers a vulnerability in a data-driven app, and then exploits that vulnerability to intrude malicious code into the database via the SQL statement. If the injection is successful, the hacker gets unauthorized access to the data contained in the compromised database.

Man-in-the-Middle Attack

This type of cyberattack is frequently underestimated by regular users and extensively exploited by hackers due to that.

The approach is simple: a hacker injects a malicious code into the device or network they want to attack in order to intercept the data sent through the compromised device.

The most common example of a man-in-the-middle attack is infecting public Wi-Fi routers with spyware and then waiting for careless users to send their sensitive data like credit card information through one of those compromised routers.

Hackers can acquire thousands of personal data records with this approach, and later sell them on dedicated darknet platforms.

Phishing

Phishing is one of the most common tactics used to trick legitimate users and create a breach for malware to sneak into the target IT environment.

A hacker packs malware into a legitimate file such as (but not only) a Microsoft Word document, WinRar or 7zip archive, picture, or link.

After that, the infected file is attached, for example, to an email pretending to be official or familiar, and sent to a receiver who is unaware of the threat.

The recipient opens the email, views the attachment, and lets the malware code in the environment despite all the protection measures taken to secure the organization’s IT perimeter.

Denial-of-Service (DoS) Attack

Denial-of-Service and Distributed-Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are arguably the oldest cyber security threats that IT experts deal with. The idea of a DDoS attack is simple: a hacker aims to cause a service denial on a particular host or environment by sending an overwhelming volume of random data or requests to one of the nodes via the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP).

For instance, an enterprise system receives tens of thousands of newly registered users or millions of emails simultaneously. That means huge volumes of data that even high-end server hardware would be unable to process without performance lags.

Most frequently, DoS attacks are conducted with the use of botnets - previously built networks of nodes that the hacker controls. A botnet can include hundreds or even thousands of devices that send millions of requests, files, or other data to the target server at the particular moment that the hacker defines. Due to the simultaneous activation of multiple computers to cause a critical node disruption, finding the DDoS attack source can be challenging.

Digital Security Delusions Causing Danger

In addition to the growing variety of potential cybersecurity threats and new system vulnerabilities bound to appear with the development of IT industries, several types of threats frequently remain out of sight.

Even experienced IT security specialists need to be careful and vigilant regarding their approach towards digital security. The following delusions need to be taken into account:

The Danger Comes From the Outside

Many organizations falling victim to cyberattacks, losing data, and experiencing prolonged production downtime reasonably blame the outside hackers who break through the digital security of the organization’s IT perimeter.

IT security specialists should keep in mind that cybercriminals often try to involve a person from the inside of an organization to simplify the attack. The insider can be either unaware of the consequences or acting purposely, but the defense is the same: protection against cyber attacks and data theft must be designed to effectively counter both outside and inside threats.

We Know the Risks

You don’t. The truth is, the attacker is always one step ahead of the defender. Just like generals always getting prepared for past wars, digital security measures can cover only the vulnerabilities that have been discovered so far.

Additionally, the probability of human error, especially on the part of system administrators or even CTOs, is always a random risk factor that can lead to the creation or exposition of weaknesses at any moment.
Consequently, countering every possible threat and closing all breaches with a guarantee of total security is unreal.

Attack Vectors are Covered

Cybercriminals are regularly coming up with new malware strains, updating old malicious codes, finding new targets, and more sophisticated infiltration approaches.

Nowadays, Linux systems, Internet of Things (IoT) and operation technology (OT) devices, and cloud IT infrastructures in Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure, and other environments can become cyberattack targets.

"Our Organization Isn’t a Target"

Any organization or individual present online, either informing, providing services, or making products, can become the target of a cyberattack.

It does not matter if the organization or person has commercial, non-commercial, or governmental origins and purposes. You never know a hacker’s intention. Therefore, building an effective IT protection system is obligatory for any device and system with an enabled Internet connection.

What is Cyber Security?

Contemporary cyber security covers the entire set of practical measures applied to protect sensitive information and critical systems from digital attacks. An effective digital security approach ensures:

  • Authorized access to data 
  • Data integrity
  • Data availability
  • Data theft prevention
  • Proper hardware functioning
  • IT infrastructure stability

To maximize the effectiveness of cyber protection measures, solutions able to protect the IT environment and data from both inside and outside threats must be implemented.

Apart from reliable passwords, antiviruses and firewalls, there are other common practices that should not be neglected if you want to maximize your protection of sensitive data and avoid disruption.

Best Practices for Reliable Cyber Protection

The points below may seem to be basic requirements for ensuring against cyber attacks. However, these basic rules are most frequently forgotten. By applying common digital security practices, you can significantly enhance your IT infrastructure’s resilience to cyber threats.

End-User Education

An uneducated computer operator is among the primary targets for hackers. When your colleagues are unaware of potentially dangerous online objects, then hackers can exploit the digital security breach open after a colleague’s click on an untrustworthy link, email attachment, or browser ad.

An educated operator is the most solid cyber security solution. Eliminating human errors entirely is beyond reality, but you can explain threats to colleagues and minimize the chance for accidental security breaches to appear that way.

Principle of Least Privilege

Regardless of whether your IT operators are aware of threats or not, the principle of least privilege (aka PoLP) should be kept for computer cyber security purposes. When you can prohibit an action inside the IT environment without preventing a person from doing their job well, that action should be prohibited.

Thus, hackers won’t be able to reach critical data after they gain access to a computer or account with a lower security level.

Arguably the best strategy to keep the principle of least privilege is to rely on a role-based access model. Role-based access solutions enable you to configure permissions for particular groups of users.

Then, you can manage the users in groups and give every user only suitable access rights. Without the need to configure accesses for every separate user, the probability of human error during configuration significantly decreases.

Digital Threat Monitoring Software

Revealing threats instantly after they appear is as important as the secure IT perimeter.

When you have a cyberattack warning solution in place, the probability of a stealthy malware code injection can be drastically reduced. Moreover, when you are notified about an attack right after someone tries to conduct it, you can react instantly to prevent unwanted consequences before your cyber protection falls.

Data Backups

Usually, data is the most valuable asset, and organizations use digital security measures to prevent data loss. Successful cyberattacks mostly cause disruptions in IT environments and provoke the loss of data.

When hackers bypass digital security systems and cause a data loss disaster, data backup is the only recovery option. Contemporary backup solutions enable you to back up and recover not only the data itself but also to rebuild the entire VM infrastructure directly from backups.

Therefore, with an adequate backup strategy, you can minimize the downtime of your organization’s services and avoid critical data losses.

Conclusion

A cyber attack is the use of digital tools via cyberspace with the aim to disable or damage hardware, gain additional computing resources for further attacks, steal, corrupt, or delete data. Hackers can have different purposes.

For example, regular cybercriminals are usually driven by financial profits and focus on attacking careless individuals and business organizations. On the other hand, cyberterrorists mostly aim to cause panic or fear among citizens by causing disruptions in critical services and structures such as healthcare, banking, or the electric grid.

As cybercriminals and cyberterrorists are remaining active and generating new approaches towards their illegal activities, cyberattacks can be a threat to any individual or organization. A cyberwar is not a myth but a part of reality, too. 

With malware strains spread out all over the web, the cyber security meaning for any IT environment is hard to overestimate.

Reliable cyber protection is vital for businesses, public infrastructure systems, government services, and individuals who want to prevent data loss and theft.

To have a solid digital security system, you should: 

  • Remember that anyone can become a target of a cyberattack;
  • Counter both insider and outsider threats;
  • Make sure end-users know about the main malware intrusion channels;
  • Follow the principle of least privilege (PoLP);
  • Monitor your IT environment for malicious activity;
  • Do regular backups;
  • Avoid thinking that you have everything covered;
  • Regularly update your security solutions.
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