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Ransomware: Expect it to get worse. Much worse.

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It is mind-boggling that, despite the world being warned, the past week’s ransomware attack almost took down a country’s healthcare system. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK reports.

If the world didn’t know what ransomware was before, the incessant global headlines of the past week have provided an instant education.

The healthcare system in the United Kingdom was almost brought down by the WannaCry virus, which locks and encrypts computer files, rendering entire networks useless until a ransom is paid. The National Health Service had staff working overtime, not on patient care, but on using paper systems to manage patient information.

IT security company Kaspersky Lab defines ransomware as “a type of malware that severely restricts access to a computer, device or file until a ransom is paid by the user”. It can be installed through deceptive links in an email message, instant message or website, and can encrypt important files with a password.

Kaspersky Lab has detected at least 45 000 WannaCry (also known as WannaCrypt) infection attempts in 74 countries. While most have been in Russia, an animated map of infections published online by the New York Times (See http://bit.ly/wannaRSA) shows that targets were hit in every South African city.

Kaspersky explains that the ransomware infects victims by exploiting a Microsoft Windows vulnerability described and fixed in a Microsoft Security Bulletin in March 2017. The exploit is called Eternal Blue, and was stolen from the American National Security Agency (NSA) by a hacking gang going by the name of Shadowbrokers.

“Once inside the system, the attackers install a rootkit, which enables them to download the software to encrypt the data. The malware encrypts the files. A request for $600 in Bitcoin is displayed along with the wallet – and the ransom demand increases over time.”

Kaspersky is hoping to develop a decryption tool similar to those created for previous ransomware attacks, and available at noransom.kaspersky.com.

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It should not have come to this, however. When the Windows vulnerability was revealed two months ago, it came with warnings that ransomware attacks and other cyber exploits were certain to follow. All Windows users were advised to update their software immediately, and IT administrators were advised to download and install the latest security patches. Users of the latest Microsoft operating system, Windows 10, were safe, as it did not contain the vulnerability.

Two months later, hospitals in the UK and elsewhere, along with businesses, public transport systems and even police stations globally, found themselves in crisis mode as their systems were brought down. By a known and well-publicised vulnerability.

It’s little wonder that scorn has been poured on UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s claim that there were “good preparations in place by the NHS to make sure they were ready for this sort of attack”. Guardian technology columnist Charles Arthur wrote that underfunding of the NHS “made the events of the past few days a disaster waiting to happen”.

In truth, it’s an ongoing disaster. As Arthur reports, between mid-2015 and the end of 2016, 88 of the UK’s 260 NHS trusts had been hit by ransomware.

In South Africa, it’s also an ongoing threat. Numerous individuals – particularly older users – have fallen for scammers supposedly phoning from Microsoft to say they have detected  a virus on the user’s computer.

For some reason, the most suspicious of old-timers become like gullible children when receiving a call about their computers from a stranger. It does not cross their minds for a moment that the giant Microsoft is not about to phone an individual user about an issue on their system.

They are then persuaded to open a specific web address, download a piece of software and open it. Which instantly locks down their computer, and encrypts all files. They are told that, if they don’t pay a specific ransom amount by a given date, all the contents of their computer will be deleted.

Unfortunately, there is no Windows patch for gullibility. However, the same thing can happen via any number of exploits. In most cases, it is a result if clicking on a link or attachment in an email from a stranger.

The methods are going to keep evolving, and the trickery will keep getting more sophisticated.

“People in ransomware are thinking like business people,” said Ton Maas, digital coordinator of the Dutch National Police, during Kaspersky Lab’s annual Cyber Security Weekend in Malta last year. In 2015, he personally arrested two young ransomware creators, brothers who were conducting the business in their parents’ home.

“In this case, they were both the coders and the distributors,” said Maas. “Usually, you start with the coder, who offers code to distributors, who then target end-users. You even get code specifically written for the distributor, on request.

“The distributors buy the codes and earn their own money, but sometimes have to pay a percentage back to the coder. It is also possible to have a service contract, paying a fixed amount a month, so if you have problems and want to change something in the code, the coder will do it for you. You can call this ransomware-as-a-service.”

Kasperksy Lab’s 2016 Corporate IT security Risks Survey, presented at the Malta event, revealed that 20 per cent of businesses across the world experienced a ransomware attack in the previous 12 months. In South Africa, 19 per cent of businesses had come under attack.

The Lab helped the Dutch police track down the hackers responsible for a ransomware program called CoinVault, which added a new element: if victims did not pay immediately, the ransom “fee” steadily increased. That exact approach has now been taken by the WannaCry creator.

For now, WannaCry appears to be contained, but that is merely a respite in an escalating crisis. Expect worse. Far worse.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Data gives coaches new eyes in sports

Collecting and analysing data is entering a new era as it transforms both coaching and strategy across sports ranging from rugby to Formula 1, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Coaches and managers have always been among the stars of any sports. They become household names as much as the sports heroes that populate their teams. Now, thanks to the power of data collection and analysis, they are about to raise their game to unprecedented levels.

The evolution of data for fine-tuning sports performance has already been experienced in Formula 1 racing, baseball and American football. All are known for the massive amount of statistic they produce. Typically, however, these were jealously guarded by coaches trying to get an edge over their rivals. Thanks to the science of “big data”, that has changed dramatically.

“American baseball has the most sophisticated data science analytics of any sports in the world because baseball has this long history of stats,” said Ariel Kelman, vice president of worldwide marketing at Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing giant that is working closely with sports teams and leagues around the world. “It’s an incredibly opaque world. I’ve tried for many years to try and get the teams to talk about it, but it’s their secret sauce and some of these teams have eight, nine or ten data scientist.”

In an interview during the AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last week, Kelman said that this statistical advantage was not lost on other sports, where forward-thinking coaches fully understood the benefits. In particular, American football, through the National Football League there, was coming on board in a big way.

“The reason they were behind is they didn’t have the player tracking data until recently in in the NFL. They only had the player tracking data three years ago. Now the teams are really investing in it. We did an announcement with the Seattle Seahawks earlier this week; they chose us as their machine learning, data science and cloud provider to do this kind of analysis to help figure out their game strategy. 

“They are building models predicting the other teams and looking at players and also evaluating all their practices. They are setting up computer vision systems so that they can track the performance of the players during their practices and have that inform some of the game strategies. The teams then even talk about using it for player evaluation, for example trying to figure out how much should we pay this player.”

Illustrating the trend, during Re:Invent, Kelman hosted a panel discussion featuring Rob Smedley, a technicalconsultant to Formula 1, Cris Collinsworth, a former professional footballer in the NFL and now a renowned broadcaster, and Jason Healy, performance analytics managerat New Zealand Rugby.

Healey in particular represents the extent to which data analysis has crosses sporting codes. He has spent four yearswith All Blacks, after 10 years with the New Zealand Olympic Committee, helping athletes prepare for the OlympicGames. 

“The game of rugby is chaos,” he told the audience. “There’s a lot of a lot of things going on. There’s a lot of trauma and violence and it can be difficult to work out the load management of each player. So data collection is a big piece of the technical understanding of the game.

“A problem for us in rugby is the ability to recall what happened. We have to identify what’s situational and what’s systemic. The situational thing that happens, which is very unlikely to be replicated, gets a lot of attention in rugby. That’s the sensational big moment in the game that gets talked about. But it’s the systemic plays and the systemic actions of players that lies underneath the performance. That’s where the big data starts to really provide some powerful answers. 

“Coaches have to move away from those sensational andsituational moments. We’re trying to get them to learn what is happening at that systemic level, what is actually happening in the game. How do we adjust? How do we make our decisions? What technical and defensive strategies need to change according to the data?”

Healey said AWS was providing platforms for tracking players and analysing patterns, but the challenge was to bring people on this technology journey.

“We’re asking our coaching staff to change the way they have traditionally worked, by realising that this data does give insights into how they make their decisions.”

Kelman agreed this was an obstacle, not just in sport, but in all sectors.

“Across all of our customers, in all industries, one of the things that’s often underestimated the most is that getting the technology working is only the first step. You have to figure out how to integrate it with the processes that us humans, who dislike change, work with. The vast majority of it is about building knowledge. There’s ways to transfer that learning to performance.”

Of course, data analytics does not assure any side of victory, as the All Blacks discovered during the recent Rugby World Cup, when they were knocked out in the semi-finals, and South Africa went on to win. We asked Healey how the data-poor South Africans succeeded where the data-rich All Blacks couldn’t.

“You have to look at how analytics and insights and all thesetechnologies are available to all the coaches these days,” he said. The piece that often gets missed is the people piece. It’s the transformation of learning that goes into the player’sactual performance on the field. We’re providing them with a platform and the information, but the players have to make the decisions.. We can’t say that this particular piece of technology played a role in winning or losing. It’s simply just a tool.”

The same challenge faces motor racing, which generates massive amounts of data through numerous sensors and cameras mounted in vehicles. Rob Smedley, who spent 25 years working in engineering roles for Formula 1 teams, quipped that his sport had a  “big data” problem before the phrase was invented. 

“We’ve always been very obsessive about data. Take car telemetry, where we’ve got something like 200 to 300 sensors on the car itself. And that goes into something like two to three thousand data channels. So we’re taking about around 600 Gigabytes of data generated every single lap, per car. 

“On top of that, where we’ve also got all the time data and GPS data. The teams are using it for performance advantage. We’re into such marginal gains now because there are no bad teams in Formula 1 anymore. Data analytics provide those marginal gains.”

• Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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IoT faces 5-year gap

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In five years, the world will have more than 40 billion devices. Locally, IoT specialist,Eseye, says that South African CIOs are recognising IoT (Internet of Things) and M2M (Machine to Machine) technologies as strategic imperatives, but the journey is still in its infancy.

“As legacy systems start to reach end of life, digital shifts will become inevitable. This, coupled with an increasing demand for improved bottom line results from existing and new markets, makes IoT a more viable option over the next five years. This is particularly prevalent in manufacturing, especially where time to market and product diversification has become necessary for business survival,” says Jeremy Potgieter, Regional Director – Africa, Eseye.

He says that within this sector one thing matters – output: “Fulfilling the product to market lifecycle is what makes a manufacturer successful. Addressing this functionality and production optimisation through technology is becoming more critical as they focus on increasing output and reducing downtime. By monitoring machinery and components in the production line, any concerns that arise, which impacts both the manufacturer and consumers alike, will be more efficiently dealt with by using an IoT approach.”

Potgieter says that there is also the growing strategic approach to increase the bottom line through new markets. As manufacturers seek new revenue streams, Eseye is encouraging the use of rapid IoT enabled device product development : “By addressing the connectivity aspects required at deployment, manufacturers are immediately diversifying their portfolios. Eseye, as an enabler, assists by providing market ready SIMs, which can be embedded into IoT connected devices at OEM level, connecting them to a plethora of services (as designed for) upon entry to market, anywhere in the world.”

In addition, Potgieter says that organisations are increasingly looking towards IoT connectivity managed services to capitalise on specialist expertise and ensure the devices are proactively monitored and managed to ensure maximum uptime, while reducing data costs.

Impacting IoT adoption though, is undoubtedly the network infrastructure required. Potgieter says that this varies significantly and will depend on criteria such as sensor types and corresponding measurements, the overall communication protocols, data volume, response time, and analytics required: “While the majority of IoT implementations can be enabled using cloud-based IoT platform solutions, the infrastructure required still remains important. A cloud platform will simplify infrastructure design and enable easy scaling capability, while also reducing security and data analytics implementation issues.”

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