Another year is upon us in the world of cyber-security, and few things are certain. Commentators are always prone to hyperbole: I remember in late 2017 reading claims that, “2017 was the year cyber nukes were dropped in the ocean, in 2018 they will hit land”.
While, thankfully, nothing equating to a cyber nuke surfaced in 2018, we did, of course, continue to see the development of novel tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), as well as new threat actors popping up around the world. Who will be next year’s Magecart, and who will be the recipient of the dreaded award for largest breach? The truth is we don’t know, but there are some practices we can all follow to minimize these negative outcomes. It’s about time we make our 2019 New Year’s security resolutions, so here are some of mine.
1. Take greater care with emails
Do you have an email address? Yes? Well then, you’ve either been phished before or you’re vulnerable to it.
It’s no surprise that phishing continues to be by far the largest attack vector and these numbers don’t appear to be trending down in 2019. While most commercial email providers we use come with built in anti-phishing/spam features, the end user is ultimately the last line of responsibility. So here are some basic tips to staying safe from those malicious attachments that look oh so tempting:
- Check the sender. The first thing I do when reading an email is to closely look at the email address from the sender. Luckily for me, my company has ingrained this into my head, and it has now become second nature. Look at the top-level domain (TLD); is the email coming from a .io or a .biz domain? Emails with seemingly recognizable domain names often use a sneaky TLD to appear legitimate to the user.
- Look for spelling errors. Large-scale phishing campaigns can be often poorly translated or just poorly crafted. These blast-and-pray types of campaigns are looking for that small percentage of Internet illiterate people who see an email and trust it must be real. Make sure to approach your emails with scepticism and look for clues of illegitimacy.
- Expand the email pane. Often, this will also allow you to see who else the email was sent to. Checking who the other recipients of the email are is a good way to identify whether you’re being scammed, as untargeted phishing campaigns are often characterized by emails sent on a mass scale to multiple recipients.
For more on combating email phishing and social engineering techniques, check out our report, Tackling Phishing: The Most Popular Phishing Techniques and What You Can Do About It.
2. Use multifactor authentication and different passwords for important accounts
It still amazes me that breaches in the tens of millions barely scratch the headlines of mainstream media outlets. In the security industry we have become so desensitized to breaches that now they are rarely met with a surprise when they occur. In 2018, we saw hundreds of millions of credentials compromised and this has unfortunately become the norm. So, while our faith in the institutions and companies housing our precious creds continues to erode, our discipline of personal security needs to improve. With that comes two key steps: using multifactor (or two-factor) authentication and sensible personal password policies.
If you don’t know, multifactor authentication (MFA) is when you use an additional factor (like a code generated by an app, a token, or received via SMS) in addition to a username/password for logging in to a site. It’s a small extra step but a massive improvement on your own security.
MFA is not a perfect solution; however, anything that increases obstacles for attackers is welcome. Think of the difference between an actor gaining access to accounts through finding your email and passwords compared to that attacker now needing to intercept and input a time-sensitive two-factor code sent to your phone or generated on an authentication token. If you take away anything from this blog, remember this: enable MFA.
When it comes to good password policies, the simplest practices to keep in mind can be copied from the recent . I’ve listed the two most important bits below:
- Passwords should have a minimum of eight characters. A good practice here is to think of two, unrelated words and separate them by unique characters (e.g. Shiba%*&pizza)
- Use ASCII or Unicode characters when available. Using both letters and numbers, as well as characters like a random “&” or “$” adds an extra level of complexity to your password.
3. Don’t trust the padlock
For years we’ve been told to look for the HTTPS padlock because that ensures the data being transmitted back and forth is encrypted. While the encryption bit may be true, it is important to note that the padlock does not mean the site is legitimate or benign. We shouldn’t think of the padlock as sort of a certification ticker on the top left of your screen. Some SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates, such as X509 certificates, are free via Let’s Encrypt. Attackers also can easily purchase e-commerce sites with SSL included on criminal marketplaces (Figure 1 below).
Figure 1: e-commerce site with SSL included advertised on Dream Market
An increasing number of phishing sites now use the once comforting padlock; in one study, over 1,150 new HTTPS phishing sites were identified in just one day. So, if you need to input credentials or bank card information into a site, do your diligence and assess the legitimacy before you go ahead and make that Valentine’s Day purchase.
4. Don’t give up your personal data unwittingly
With new GDPR regulations in Europe, we are increasingly learning about how big tech companies are sharing much more of our data than we previously thought. This means that we need to not only be aware of the data we share with each individual website or application, but also keep in mind that information we are offering could end up in places we didn’t initially agree upon.
While it is true that there is sometimes a trade-off between the service and your data in that the service promises a more tailored and efficient user experience with just a little more access, you should ask yourself if it really is worth it. Does that new mobile application really need access to your location or camera roll? More importantly, at what times do we need to give access to a screen overlay?
Of course, there are times when location services are needed (taxi and ride sharing apps for example), but for the most part, we the individual consumers of technology should become a little more private and cagier about what we choose to share.
Next time you sign up for an online service here are a couple of things to look for:
- Check the permissions and settings required. Does that app really need what it is asking for and is there another similar service you can use that isn’t as intrusive?
- Don’t reuse passwords. Every service or application you use increases your attack surface. Assume that these services will be breached or leak your data at some point, so make sure you don’t share passwords across accounts to minimize account takeovers.
- Continuously check if your email has been affected in a breach. Services such as HaveIBeenPwned will let you see if your email appears in any known data breaches. You can also search for your email address across paste sites to see if your password has been publicly exposed.
Figure 2: Using Shadow Search to check whether an email and password has been publicly exposed
To wrap up, I’d like a provide a quote that I constantly think about and it is from retired US General Michael Hayden. He said, “With cyber, we are living in the Wild West.” By this he meant that like the Wild West of the United States in the 1800s, our security isn’t clearly in the hands of the government like much of our physical security is today, but rather in the hands of the individual. So, incorporating is unfortunately (or to the optimist, excitingly) the time we live in. Having a general understanding of the threat landscape is important in understanding your personal exposure.
As I’ve explained, 2019 will bring nothing but surprises and more issues to deal with, but luckily there are some sure-fire ways to watch out for your own personal security. My final bit of advice is to embrace these challenges with excitement rather than scepticism. The threat landscape is daunting, but the better you understand it, the more secure you can become by prioritizing the most appropriate controls and defences.
Let’s look forward to what 2019 has to bring, and a happy New Year to you all.
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