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When ads become dangerous

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Over the past months, the BBC, the New York Times, and other major news and commercial websites became victims of Malvertising attacks. DOROS HADJIZENONOS, Country Manager of Check Point South Africa explains.

One of the most prominent ways malware spreads is by infecting websites and delivering drive-by attacks. When a user visits an infected site an exploit kit is activated. Once activated, the kit checks to see if the machine is vulnerable to one or more of the exploits it contains. If so, it leverages the vulnerability to install malicious software on the user’s device. Since this is a common threat, most websites harden their systems to protect themselves and their visitors from infection.

However, hackers can avoid the need to infect a well-guarded website by infecting the servers that supply advertisements to them instead. This form of attack is called Malvertising and is extremely effective for attackers who wish to reach a broad audience with their malware. The more popular the website, the larger the impact will be.

A Growing Trend

Malvertising is not a new form of an attack, but it has become headline news after several recent occurrences. At the beginning of March, a large Malvertising campaign targeting Baidu’s advertising platform was revealed. Despite having started in October 2015, this campaign’s evasive and elaborate nature enabled it to remain undercover and impact countless users in China for over four months. Two weeks later, several major news sites, including the BBC and New York Times, were hit with a Malvertising campaign. Visitors to these sites were targeted by a ransomware variant, similar to the infamous Cryptolocker attack, served by the Angler exploit kit. The attackers did not stop after the campaign was finally exposed.

They simply changed tactics to target videos as their Malvertising platform, instead of infecting users as they previously had through web banners. The campaign continued successfully targeting the Fox News website, among others.

Another recent Malvertising campaign targeted Australian users with an even more complex attack flow. First, they infiltrated a law firm’s website. Then they created fake advertisements containing the firm’s logo and published them on the Gumtree website, a subsidiary of eBay, which receives 48 million visitors a month. The attackers were able to stay hidden by altering the supplied ads, switching between benign and malicious ones, making it harder for security vendors to identify them.

Why Malvertising?

It is interesting to notice that hackers often attack suppliers who work with the main websites, rather than attacking the sites themselves. Often times, leveraging an attack through a supplier proves an easier path to success than a direct attack on the intended victim. We have seen this pattern with several Malvertising attacks. The same approach was used in the infamous Target hack, in which the attackers infiltrated Target’s network by compromising the network of Target’s suppliers first.

For this reason, we believe that the Malvertising trend will continue to impact major sites and users worldwide. In order to mitigate it, Ad servers must enhance their security measures and ensure the content they supply is legitimate.

How Can You Protect Your Organisation?

What we have learned from recent Malvertising attacks is that education and awareness about these threats are not enough to stay protected. Even the standard security measures that already exist in most organisations are only capable of preventing known threats and are not capable of countering the advanced, continuously evolving tactics of today’s cybercriminals.

Organisations that wish to stay fully protected must elevate their threat prevention strategies and protect themselves, not only from known threats, but also against unknown malware and zero-day threats, like Malvertising. To address this challenge, Check Point offers SandBlast Zero-Day Protection; the most advanced solution to protect against these new and unknown malware and advanced threats.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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