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Swarms are attacking

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The most recent Global Threat Landscape Report from Fortinet says that automated and sophisticated swarm attacks are accelerating, making it increasingly difficult for organisations to protect users, applications and devices.

The Fortinet Q4 Global Threat Landscape Report notes that the sophistication of attacks targeting organisations is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. While digital transformation is reshaping business on the one hand, on the other it is opening up the attack surface for cybercriminals to take advantage of new, disruptive opportunities to attack.

Anton Jacobsz, managing director at value-added distributor, Networks Unlimited, which distributes Fortinet throughout Africa, says, “Cyber attackers are making use of newer swarm-like capabilities, while simultaneously targeting multiple vulnerabilities, devices, and access points. This combination creates rapid threat development that is becoming increasingly difficult for many organisations to defend against. Organisations need to adopt strategies based on automation and integration to address these problems of adversarial speed and scale.”

The threat data in the Fortinet Q4 Global Threat Landscape Report reinforces many of the predictions unveiled by the Fortinet FortiGuard Labs global research team for 2018, which had previously predicted the rise of self-learning hivenets and swarmbots, as clarified in a blog entry which noted that: “…cybercriminals will eventually replace botnets built with mindless zombie devices with intelligent clusters of compromised devices to create more effective attacks. This would be a hivenet instead of a botnet. It would be able to use millions of interconnected devices, or swarmbots, to simultaneously identify and tackle different attack vectors, enabling attacks at an unprecedented scale…

“…unlike individual zombies, individual swarmbots are smart. They are able to talk to each other, take action based on shared local intelligence, use swarm intelligence to act on commands without the botnet herder instructing them to do so, and recruit and train new members of the hive. As a result, as a hivenet identifies and compromises more devices it will be able to grow exponentially, and thereby widen its ability to simultaneously attack multiple victims.”

Deeper analysis into the Fortinet Q4 Global Threat Landscape reinforces this earlier insight. The report detected an average of 274 attacks per surveyed firm, which was a significant increase of 82 percent over the previous quarter. The number of malware families also increased by 25 percent (to 3,317) and unique variants grew 19 percent (to 17,671). This indicates a dramatic growth in volume as well as a significant evolution in the malware itself. Organisations must safeguard their networks and data from this onslaught of attacks coming from both corporate and employee devices.

Other notable findings from the report included the following:

·        Encrypted traffic using HTTPS and SSL grew as a percentage of total network traffic to an average high of nearly 60 percent. Encryption can help protect data in motion as it moves between core, cloud, and endpoint environments, but it also represents a challenge for traditional security solutions. This is because this additional layer of security for sensitive data can also disguise more malicious content, such as malware.  Some conventional network security tools cannot inspect SSL encrypted traffic, enabling malware hidden within that traffic to bypass security controls.

·        Three of the top twenty attacks identified targeted Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and exploit activity quadrupled against devices like Wi-Fi cameras. In addition, unlike previous attacks, which focused on exploiting a single vulnerability, new IoT botnets such as Reaper and Hajime can target multiple vulnerabilities simultaneously. This multi-vector approach is much harder to combat. Reaper’s flexible framework means that its code is easily updated to swarm faster by running new and more malicious attacks as they become available. For example, exploit volume associated with Reaper exhibited a jump from 50,000 to 2.7 million over a few days before dropping back to normal.

·        The Q4 2017 report noted that several strains of ransomware topped the list of malware variants, with Locky being the most widespread malware variant, followed by GlobeImposter. A new strain of Locky emerged, tricking recipients with spam before requesting a ransom. There was also a shift by cybercriminals from only accepting Bitcoin for payment to other forms of digital currency such as Monero.

·        Cryptomining malware also increased globally – cybercriminals are recognising the growth in digital currencies and are now ‘cryptojacking’ to mine cryptocurrencies on computers using CPU resources in the background without a user knowing. Cryptojacking involves loading a script into a web browser – nothing is installed or stored on the computer.

The final word goes to John Maddison, senior vice president: products and solutions at Fortinet, who notes in a blog published by Fortinet: “2017 was another landmark year for cybersecurity. In reviewing our quarterly Threat Landscape reports, it is clear that 2017 has been notable primarily for three things: the rapid digital transformation and expansion of the potential attack surface, the increasing sophistication of cyber attacks, and a lapse in basic cybersecurity hygiene, largely being driven by digital transformation coupled with the growing cybersecurity skills gap.”

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Personal computing devices sales still decline in MEA

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The Middle East and Africa (MEA) personal computing devices (PCD) market, which is made up of desktops, notebooks, workstations, and tablets, suffered a decline of -7.3% year on year in Q2 2017, according to the latest insights from International Data Corporation (IDC).

The global technology research and consulting firm’s Quarterly PCD Tracker for Q2 2017 shows that PCD shipments fell to around 6 million units for the quarter.

“As forecast, the market followed a similar pattern to recent quarters, with the downturn primarily stemming from a decline in shipments of slate tablets and desktops,” says Fouad Charakla, IDC’s senior research manager for client devices in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa. “This was the result of desktop users increasingly switching to mobile devices such as notebooks or even refurbished notebooks, while users of slate tablets shifted to smartphones. These trends translated into year-on-year declines of -21.9% for desktops and -15.7% for slate tablets in Q2 2017, while shipments of notebooks and detachable tablets increased 11.0% and 63.3%, respectively over the same period.”

“Market sentiment in the region remained low overall, although an aggressive push from some slate tablet vendors meant the market declined much slower than expected,” continues Charakla. “At the same time, heightened competition has also made it harder for certain players to sustain their slate tablet businesses and generate profits, causing them to lose interest in the slate tablet market altogether. Despite this, slate tablets are still the most popular computing device among home users in the region.”

Looking at the region’s key markets, IDC’s research shows that when compared to Q2 2016 overall PCD shipments were down -11.4% in the UAE, -8.9% in Turkey, and -6.7% in the ‘Rest of Middle East’ sub-region (comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan). South Africa and Saudi Arabia bucked this trend, recording year-on-year increases of 3.5% and 9.6%, respectively.

A massive education delivery in Pakistan acted as a key driver for notebook shipments in the region overall. Similarly, the education sector was the biggest driver of detachable tablet shipments, triggered by a huge delivery in Kenya, as well as two other deliveries in Pakistan and Turkey, which enabled this category to achieve the fastest growth of all the PCD categories.

“While a component shortage prevented market players from reducing their prices too much, the average price of consumer notebooks experienced a considerable year-on-year decline in Q2 2017,” says Charakla. “This played a key role in driving demand from the consumer segment, and was reflected in the growing popularity of lower-priced notebook models.”

Looking at the PC market’s vendor rankings, each of the top five vendors maintained their respective positions compared to the previous quarter, with the top four all gaining share.

Middle East & Africa PC Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
HP Inc. 23.7% 27.6%
Lenovo 19.8% 21.5%
Dell 16.3% 16.7%
ASUS 8.7% 9.4%
Acer Group 5.9% 4.1%
Others 25.7% 20.7%

Although Samsung continued to lead the tablet market, the vendor rankings in the space saw quite a few changes, with Huawei catapulting itself to second place. Lenovo also climbed up a position compared to the previous quarter, causing Apple to drop to fourth place.

Middle East & Africa Tablet Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
Samsung 20.5% 18.9%
Huawei 11.2% 15.8%
Lenovo 12.7% 9.8%
Apple 9.1% 8.8%
Alcatel 2.9% 5.0%
Others 43.5% 41.7%

“Looking to the future, the MEA PCD market is expected to decline at a faster rate than previously forecast for 2017 as a whole,” says Charakla. “Technological shifts are playing a pivotal role in deciding the future of this market, with demand for certain products shifting to other PCD products and beyond (i.e., smartphones). Accordingly, shipments of slate tablets are expected to continue declining over the coming years as demand is cannibalized by smartphones. Meanwhile, the ongoing shift to mobile computing will see growth in the desktop market remain close to flat throughout IDC’s forecast period ending 2021. Notebook shipments will experience very slow growth beyond 2018, while detachable tablets will remain the fastest growing PCD category, eating away share from other computing devices.”

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Gazer cyber-spies exposed

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ESET has released new research into the activities of the Turla cyberespionage group, and specifically a previously undocumented backdoor that has been used to spy on consulates and embassies worldwide.

ESET’s research team are the first in the world to document the advanced backdoor malware, which they have named “Gazer”, despite evidence that it has been actively deployed in targeted attacks against governments and diplomats since at least 2016.

Gazer’s success can be explained by the advanced methods it uses to spy on its intended targets, and its ability to remain persistent on infected devices, embedding itself out of sight on victim’s computers in an attempt to steal information for a long period of time.

ESET researchers have discovered that Gazer has managed to infect a number of computers around the world, with the most victims being located in Europe. Curiously, ESET’s examination of a variety of different espionage campaigns which used Gazer has identified that the main target appears to have been Southeastern Europe as well as countries in the former Soviet Union Republic.

The attacks show all the hallmarks of past campaigns launched by the Turla hacking group, namely:

  • Targeted organisations are embassies and ministries;
  • Spearphishing delivers a first-stage backdoor such as Skipper;
  • A second stealthier backdoor (Gazer in this instance, but past examples have included Carbon and Kazuar) is put in place;
  • The second-stage backdoor receives encrypted instructions from the gang via C&C servers, using compromised, kegitimate websites as a proxy.

Another notable similarity between Gazer and past creations of the Turla cyberespionage group become obvious when the malware is analysed. Gazer makes extra efforts to evade detection by changing strings within its code, randomizing markers, and wiping files securely.

In the most recent example of the Gazer backdoor malware found by ESET’s research team, clear evidence was seen that someone had modified most of its strings, and inserted phrases related to video games throughout its code.

Don’t be fooled by the sense of humour that the Turla hacking group are showing here, falling foul of computer criminals is no laughing manner.

All organisations, whether governmental, diplomatic, law enforcement, or in traditional business, need to take today’s sophisticated threats serious and adopt a layered defence to reduce the chances of a security breach.

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