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Threat hunters emerge from the shadows

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As a new generation of cyber threats emerges, a new breed of cyber security defenders is emerging. They don’t wait for enemies to strike, but go looking for them, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Meet Alex and Andy. They are young, clean-cut and casually dressed men who may not draw a second glance if you bump into them in public. Behind closed doors, however, they are the information age’s equivalent of fearsome warriors. They are called threat hunters.

No, they are not super-heroes. Although they are heroes to some organisations.

Five years ago, the job description didn’t even exist. Back then, security experts waited for the hackers to strike, then rushed around repairing the damage, fixing the holes and, just maybe, chasing down the bad guys.

But that’s not good enough today. As hackers become more sophisticated in both their methods and their tools, and the stakes get higher in lost data and massive financial fraud, the security industry also has to evolve.

Alex and Andy represent the cutting edge of this evolution. In an age of heavy reliance on algorithms and artificial intelligence to predict and block standard threats, it turns out that human intuition is far more powerful in spotting unusual and new kinds of attack.

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They work in Johannesburg for a global cyber security consultancy called MWR InfoSecurity, which develops tailored security solutiosn for clients that range from governments to corporations.

Their boss, Jacques Louw, MWR director and head of Cyber Defence, describes threat hunting as a technique that “focuses on the human elements in attack detection”. In this environment, he says, “one cannot have automated threat hunting”.

He uses the evolution of physical home security as an analogy for the growing need for a new kind of approach.

“We’ve seen in the last decade or so that, ultimately, you cannot prevent attackers from climbing over your walls no matter how high you build them; they always seem to find a higher ladder. So the focus has really been towards detection and response for when they do manage to get over. In this regard, detection is critical – if you don’t see the intruder, then the armed response never arrives, whereas if you have too many false alarms, the armed response will stop showing up.”

Add the fact that organised crime syndicates are now targeting major corporations, and state sponsored teams are going after national governments, the challenge becomes even more complex. Enter a new kind of detection.

“Detecting attacks is not a new idea,” says Louw. “In fact it’s been around for many years, comprising automated systems like anti-virus and intrusion detection or prevention systems. Think of them as anti-virus for a network traffic.

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“Such systems were originally built to deal with viruses or malicious software or malware that was self-propagating – which means it spreads on its own in an automated way. After the malware is created, it acts automatically, executing the tasks it was initially programmed to do.

“Traditional anti-virus works by analysing a piece of malware, creating a signature for it and adding it to a database – similar to that of a book of criminal records. The anti-virus then checks each new program on a system against these records, and alerts you when it finds one with features similar to that of one of the records.

“Unfortunately, the first problem here is that you need to discover a piece of malware before you can create a signature for it, so it has to succeed in attacking someone first before a signature can exist. Moreover, it is quite easy for a programmer to change what the malware looks like – while still having the malware do the same thing. So changing features, but not behaviour.”

A key reason traditional security is no longer enough is that the threat has evolved from the equivalent of a property invasion to something far more elaborate.

Louw compares a modern corporate network to a large city, with multiple roads in and out and many thousands of everyday people performing many different activities across the city.

“In this analogy, a signature-based system is similar to a simplistic robot that walks around the city, trying to match faces of people he sees to a photo in the mugshot book. In contrast, threat hunting is like a human policeman that can actually spot bad behaviour, not because each bad activity has been strictly defined and given to him on a long list, but rather because he can use his experience, knowledge of the law and judgement to make a call on some behaviour that has never been seen before.”

An example is a form of malware that operates not like a virus spreading through the system, but like a hole in the system. Appropriately called RATS, for Remote Access Trojans, these are “exploits” that can easily be altered slightly to bypass anti-virus every time they are used.

“The attacker only needs to find a single entry-point to compromise an organisation, so the defender must defend all systems perfectly all the time to be secure,” says Louw. This concept is known in security as “the defender’s dilemma”
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“In threat hunting, one of the ways we are responding to this dilemma is by using a judo-like technique called the anomaly analysis, where we can turn the attackers greatest advantage into a disadvantage. Instead of looking for something bad on a large network of systems, we look for something that is different and investigate it accordingly.

“If the attacker attacks a system on the network, that system will appear different to all of the other systems in some way – allowing the attack to be detected even if we don’t have a signature for exactly what the attacker is doing.  This may sound simple, but you can easily recognise that certain differences are more interesting than others and that is where human skill comes into play.

“You can have automated systems gathering data from all systems, collecting network traffic and pulling in logs from systems. Ultimately, however, you need a human to drive the analysis.”

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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Buy 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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Pizoelectrics: Healthcare’s new gymnasts of gadgetry

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Healthcare electronics is rapidly deploying for wellness, electroceuticals, and intrusive medical procedures, among other, powered by new technologies. Much of it is trending to diagnostics and treatment on the move, and removing the need for the patient to perform procedures on time. 

Instruments become wearables, including electronic skin patches and implants. The IDTechEx Research report, “Piezoelectric Harvesting and Sensing for Healthcare 2019-2029”, notes that sensors should preferably be self-powered, non-poisonous even on disposal, and many need to be biocompatible and even biodegradable. 

We need to detect biology, vibration, force, acceleration, stress and linear movement and do imaging. Devices must reject bacteria and be useful in wearables and Internet of Things nodes. Preferably we must move to one device performing multiple tasks. 

So is there a gymnast material category that has that awesome versatility? 

Piezoelectrics has a good claim. It measures all those parameters. That even includes biosensors where the piezo senses the swelling of a biomolecule recognizing a target analyte. The most important form of self-powered (one material, two functions) piezo sensing is ultrasound imaging, a market growing at 5.1% yearly. 

The IDTechEx Research report looks at what comes next, based on global travel and interviewing by its PhD level analysts in 2018 with continuous updates.  

Click here to read how Piezo has been reinvented.

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