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Cryptojacking rises

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BRENDAN MCARAVEY, Country Manager, Citrix South Africa, takes a look at what Cryptojacking jacking is, how it works and how it can be avoided.

Parasites in the digital world don’t kill, encrypt, or ransom the hosts as compared to the parasites in the real world. However, they do siphon off compute resources – preferably undetected. Compute resources are a valuable commodity in the world of crypto-mining. This stealthier malware phenomenon called ‘cryptojacking’ is becoming a popular payload since it’s an effective way to generate revenue with a lower chance of detection. The goal is to run undetected – stealing CPU cycles – essentially becoming a digital parasite.

Crafty adversaries driven by the opportunity of financial gain are weaponising crypto-mining to exploit the digital currency boom. Before we go any further, it is key to understand what ‘crypto-mining’ is? It is an intensive process – consistently running mathematical calculations that keep processors at 100% usage.

Professional miners make a large upfront investment in specialised hardware and infrastructure. Case in point, according to a South African gaming website, since the cryptocurrency boom, it has become extremely hard to get hands on graphics cards. They are mostly out of stock, with no guarantee on when they will be back in stock and sky-high prices are being asked for second-hand cards in local classifieds.

As more miners came online, the difficulty level adjusted so that running multiple graphics processing units (GPUs) became more effective at mining. Next came specialised chipsets or ASICs designed specifically for mining Bitcoin – these are getting smaller and more efficient. To increase the chances of pay-out, multiple miners join pools in which they are compensated based on their contribution of compute resources or hash power.

A tell-tale symptom of your CPU being used by miners is sluggishness, high CPU usage, and the whine of maxed-out RPM on the cooling fans. Cryptojacking is not just limited to laptops and PCs, mobile devices and gadgets are also susceptible, even more so since the mining scripts can run in the background or are more difficult to identify.

As with other attacks, server side cryptojacking can be more complex and more complicated once it spreads. If the attacker gets access to the infrastructure, he or she may provision additional servers – in cloud environments, expect to see new servers with high end specs and cost.

Locally we haven’t as yet witnessed cryptojacking attacks, however, globally an example is WannaMine, where the attackers use ‘live off the land’ technique such as Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) permanent event subscriptions as a persistence mechanism. It also propagates via the EternalBlue exploit popularised by WannaCry.

It’s fileless nature and use of legitimate system software such as WMI and PowerShell make it difficult, if not impossible, for organisations to block it without some form of next-generation antivirus. Defending against cryptojacking requires a holistic approach and building a security architecture with a secure digital perimeter. The approach must focus on prevention as well as detection. Citrix has partnered with multiple security companies that enhance endpoint, network, server, and cloud protection.

For enterprises, delivering a locked down Secure Browser as a service can help reduce the attack surface by blocking the mining scripts as well as blocking the periodic call-backs to the mining pools – which are the command and control for crypto mining.

A critical component is early detection of CPU spikes above normal range – typically sustained. IT Operations should have defined CPU thresholds and analytics with alerts sent to admins when the CPU usage rises above the threshold. A couple of side notes here are that the alerts should disregard the process names – the digital parasite wants to remain undetected and can be disguised to be a system service or process.

Secondly, more devious adversaries will tune down the CPU leeching to not stand out as dramatically – effectively flying under the radar. Establishing a baseline and identifying aberrations quickly is the goal. Once detected, restoring the server to a golden image makes the process easier – local backdoor accounts, services, other changes can be undone.

Protecting against cryptojacking is very much the same as protecting against other malware – however, we are looking for different symptoms and long-term effects in hardware wear and tear, user performance degradation and loss of scalability. Higher costs in electricity or cloud usage are both more intermediate financial symptoms. Stay vigilant even if there are no demand notes or immediate indicators of compromise.

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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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