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New ransomware threat: Bluekeep is coming for you

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Remember the panic that hit organisations around the world on May 12th, 2017 when machine after machine displayed the WannaCryptor ransom screen? Well, we might have a similar incident on our hands in the coming days, weeks or months if companies don’t update or otherwise protect their older Windows systems right away. The reason is BlueKeep, a ‘wormable’ critical Remote Code Execution (RCE) vulnerability in Remote Desktop Services that could soon become the new go-to vector for spreading malware, says Carey van Vlaanderen,  CEO at ESET South Africa.

A patch by Microsoft for supported, as well as some unsupported, operating systems has been available since May 14th

The BlueKeep vulnerability was found in Remote Desktop Services (also known as Terminal Services). If successfully exploited in the future, it could enable access to the targeted computer via a backdoor with no credentials or user interaction needed.

To make the bad news even worse, the vulnerability is ‘wormable’. This means that future exploits might use it to spread malware within or outside of networks in similar ways to what was seen with WannaCryptor.

Following Microsoft’s release of these latest patches, security researchers were able to create several working proofs-of-concept, but at the time of writing, none of these have been publicly released and there are no known cases of the flaw being exploited in the wild.

The flaw, listed as CVE-2019-0708, affects multiple in-support and out-of-support versions of Microsoft’s operating systems. Users of Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, and Windows Server 2008 with automatic updates enabled are protected. Microsoft also issued special updates for two non-supported versions – namely Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 – which are available via this site. Windows 8 and Windows 10 are not affected by the vulnerability.

Microsoft has not released patches for Windows Vista, despite this version also being affected by the vulnerability. The only solution here is to disable Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) completely or only allow its use when accessed via VPN.

It is important to note that any company using misconfigured RDP over the internet is putting its users and resources at risk. Apart from vulnerabilities such as BlueKeep, attackers also try to brute force their way into company machines and internal systems.

The BlueKeep case bears a strong resemblance to the events from two years ago. On March 14th, 2017, Microsoft released fixes for a wormable vulnerability in the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol, advising all users to patch their Windows machines immediately.

The reason for this was the EternalBlue exploit – a malicious tool allegedly designed by and stolen from the National Security Agency (NSA) – which targeted the SMB loophole. A month later, EternalBlue leaked online and in a few weeks became the vehicle for the two most damaging cyberattacks in recent history – WannaCry(ptor) and NotPetya (Diskcoder.C).

A similar scenario might unfold with BlueKeep given its wormable nature. Right now, it is only a matter of time until someone publishes a working exploit, or a malware author starts selling one on the underground markets. Should that happen, it will probably become very popular among less skilled cybercriminals and a lucrative asset for its originator.

BlueKeep will also show if organizations around the world learned a lesson after the large 2017 outbreaks and improved their security posture and patching routines.

To sum it up, organisations and users are advised to:

1.       Patch, patch, patch. If you or your organisation run a supported version of Windows, update it to the latest version. If possible, enable automatic updates. If you are still using unsupported Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 – for whatever reason – download and apply the patches as soon as possible.

2.       Disable Remote Desktop Protocol. Despite RDP itself not being vulnerable, Microsoft advises organisation to disable it until the latest patches have been applied. Further, to minimize your attack surface, RDP should only be enabled on devices where it really is used and needed.

3.       Configure RDP properly. If your organisation absolutely must use RDP, avoid exposing it to the public internet. Only devices on the LAN, or accessing via a VPN, should be able to establish a remote session. Another option is to filter RDP access using firewall, whitelisting only a specific IP range. The security of your remote sessions can be further improved by using multi-factor authentication.

4.       Enable Network Level Authentication (NLA). BlueKeep can be partially mitigated by having NLA enabled, as it requires the user to authenticate before a remote session is established and the flaw can be misused. However, as Microsoft adds, “affected systems are still vulnerable to Remote Code Execution (RCE) exploitation if the attacker has valid credentials that can be used to successfully authenticate.”

5.       Use a reliable multi-layered security solution that can detect and mitigate the attacks exploiting the flaw on the network level.

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Small SA town goes smartphone-only

Vodacom partners with farming business to upgrade all residents of Wakkerstroom from 2G devices to smartphones

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All residents of the small town of Wakkerstroom, which straddles Mpumalanga and kwaZulu-Natal provinces, have had their 2G feature phones upgraded to 3G devices.

The initiative is a result of Vodacom partnering with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of the people living in Wakkerstroom. It is now the first smartphone-only town in South Africa. This is a model the network provider says it hopes to replicate across the country as part of its mission to connect people who live in deep rural areas and are still dependent on 2G networks.

Wakkerstroom, is the second oldest town in Mpumalanga province, on the KwaZulu-Natal border, 27 km east of Volksrust and 56 km south-east of Amersfoort.  

“There are growing expectations for big corporates the size of Vodacom to serve a social purpose, and for us to use our resources and core capabilities to make a significant contribution in transforming the lives of ordinary people,” says Zakhele Jiyane, Managing Executive for Vodacom Mpumalanga. “We are helping to remove communication barriers, so that citizens in the area can be part of the digital revolution and reap the associated benefits. By moving the more than 1400 farm workers from 2G to 3G devices, this will also free much needed spectrum and this spectrum can be re-farmed to provide for faster networks such as 3G and 4G.

“Crucially, the move opens a new world of connectivity for farm workers in Wakkerstroom. As a result, most people in the area will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect on the net and access online government services, eHealth services such as Mum&Baby and eCommerce. Learners can now surf the internet for the first time and access Vodacom’s eSchool free of charge and those who are actively looking for jobs can start using their smartphones and tablets to apply for jobs over the internet on Vodacom’s zero-rated career sites. This will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in this area.”

Vodacom has already deployed 4G base stations in Wakkestroom as part of this initiative.

For the next phase of this project, says Vodacom, it is going to educate the farm workers about data and the benefits of the Internet. Vodacom will also look at various ways in which it can help empower members of this community in areas of education, gender-based violence and health.

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Facebook fact-checking goes to 10 more African countries

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Facebook today announced the expansion of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme to 10 additional African countries, which now join  Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal in the project,

In partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the France 24 Observers, Pesa Check and Dubawa, this programme forms part of its work in helping assess the accuracy and quality of news people find on Facebook, whilst reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform.

Working with a network of fact-checking organizations, certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, third-party fact-checking will now be available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso through AFP, Uganda and Tanzania through both Pesa Check and AFP, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire through the France 24 Observers and AFP, Guinea Conakry through the France 24 Observers, and Ghana through Dubawa.

Feedback from the Facebook community is one of many signals Facebook uses to raise potentially false stories to fact-checkers for review. Local articles will be fact-checked alongside the verification of photos and videos. If one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, Facebook will show it lower in News Feed, significantly reducing its distribution.

Kojo Boakye, Facebook Head of Public Policy, Africa, said: “The expansion of third-party fact-checking to now cover 15 countries in a little over a year shows firsthand our commitment and dedication to the continent, alongside our recent local language expansion as part of this programme. Taking steps to help tackle false news on Facebook is a responsibility we take seriously, we know misinformation is a problem, and these are important steps in continuing to address this issue. We know that third-party fact-checking alone is not the solution, it is one of many initiatives and programmes we are investing in to help to improve the quality of information people see on Facebook. While we’ve made great progress, we will keep investing to ensure Facebook remains a place for all ideas, but not for the spread of false news.”

When third-party fact-checkers fact-check a news story, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.

Providing fact-checking in English and French across eight countries, Phil Chetwynd, AFP Global News Director said: “AFP is delighted to be expanding its fact-checking project with Facebook. We are known for the high quality of our journalism from across Africa and we will be leveraging our unparalleled network of bureaus and journalists on the continent to combat misinformation.”

Eric Mugendi, Managing Editor from Pesa Check who will provide fact-checking services in Swahili and English added: “Social networks like Facebook haven’t just changed how Africans consume the news. Social media is often the primary access to digital content or the ‘Internet’ for many Africans. They shape our perceptions of the world, our public discourse, and how we interact with public figures. This project helps us dramatically expand our fact-checking to debunk claims that could otherwise cause real-world harm. The project helps us respond more quickly and directly. We’re seeing real positive results in our interactions with both publishers and the public itself. The project also helps our fact-checks reach a far larger audience than we would otherwise. This has helped us better understand the information vacuum and other viral dynamics that drive the spread of false information in Africa. Our growing impact is a small but tangible contribution to better informed societies in Africa.”

Caroline Anipah, Programme Officer, Dubawa (Ghana) said: “Dubawa is excited to be in Ghana where the misinformation and disinformation have become widespread as a result of technological advancement and increasing internet penetration. Dubawa intends to raise the quality of information available to the public with the ultimate aim of curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and promoting good governance and accountability.”

Derek Thomson, editor-in-chief of the France 24 Observers, said: “Our African users are constantly sending us questionable images and messages they’ve received via social media, asking us ‘Is this true? Can you check it?’ It’s our responsibility as fact-checking journalists to verify the information that’s circulating, and get the truth back out there. Participating in the Facebook programme helps ensure that our fact-checks are reaching the people who shared the false news in the first place.”

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