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Threat hunters emerge from the shadows

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As a new generation of cyber threats emerges, a new breed of cyber security defenders is emerging. They don’t wait for enemies to strike, but go looking for them, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Meet Alex and Andy. They are young, clean-cut and casually dressed men who may not draw a second glance if you bump into them in public. Behind closed doors, however, they are the information age’s equivalent of fearsome warriors. They are called threat hunters.

No, they are not super-heroes. Although they are heroes to some organisations.

Five years ago, the job description didn’t even exist. Back then, security experts waited for the hackers to strike, then rushed around repairing the damage, fixing the holes and, just maybe, chasing down the bad guys.

But that’s not good enough today. As hackers become more sophisticated in both their methods and their tools, and the stakes get higher in lost data and massive financial fraud, the security industry also has to evolve.

Alex and Andy represent the cutting edge of this evolution. In an age of heavy reliance on algorithms and artificial intelligence to predict and block standard threats, it turns out that human intuition is far more powerful in spotting unusual and new kinds of attack.

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They work in Johannesburg for a global cyber security consultancy called MWR InfoSecurity, which develops tailored security solutiosn for clients that range from governments to corporations.

Their boss, Jacques Louw, MWR director and head of Cyber Defence, describes threat hunting as a technique that “focuses on the human elements in attack detection”. In this environment, he says, “one cannot have automated threat hunting”.

He uses the evolution of physical home security as an analogy for the growing need for a new kind of approach.

“We’ve seen in the last decade or so that, ultimately, you cannot prevent attackers from climbing over your walls no matter how high you build them; they always seem to find a higher ladder. So the focus has really been towards detection and response for when they do manage to get over. In this regard, detection is critical – if you don’t see the intruder, then the armed response never arrives, whereas if you have too many false alarms, the armed response will stop showing up.”

Add the fact that organised crime syndicates are now targeting major corporations, and state sponsored teams are going after national governments, the challenge becomes even more complex. Enter a new kind of detection.

“Detecting attacks is not a new idea,” says Louw. “In fact it’s been around for many years, comprising automated systems like anti-virus and intrusion detection or prevention systems. Think of them as anti-virus for a network traffic.

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“Such systems were originally built to deal with viruses or malicious software or malware that was self-propagating – which means it spreads on its own in an automated way. After the malware is created, it acts automatically, executing the tasks it was initially programmed to do.

“Traditional anti-virus works by analysing a piece of malware, creating a signature for it and adding it to a database – similar to that of a book of criminal records. The anti-virus then checks each new program on a system against these records, and alerts you when it finds one with features similar to that of one of the records.

“Unfortunately, the first problem here is that you need to discover a piece of malware before you can create a signature for it, so it has to succeed in attacking someone first before a signature can exist. Moreover, it is quite easy for a programmer to change what the malware looks like – while still having the malware do the same thing. So changing features, but not behaviour.”

A key reason traditional security is no longer enough is that the threat has evolved from the equivalent of a property invasion to something far more elaborate.

Louw compares a modern corporate network to a large city, with multiple roads in and out and many thousands of everyday people performing many different activities across the city.

“In this analogy, a signature-based system is similar to a simplistic robot that walks around the city, trying to match faces of people he sees to a photo in the mugshot book. In contrast, threat hunting is like a human policeman that can actually spot bad behaviour, not because each bad activity has been strictly defined and given to him on a long list, but rather because he can use his experience, knowledge of the law and judgement to make a call on some behaviour that has never been seen before.”

An example is a form of malware that operates not like a virus spreading through the system, but like a hole in the system. Appropriately called RATS, for Remote Access Trojans, these are “exploits” that can easily be altered slightly to bypass anti-virus every time they are used.

“The attacker only needs to find a single entry-point to compromise an organisation, so the defender must defend all systems perfectly all the time to be secure,” says Louw. This concept is known in security as “the defender’s dilemma”
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“In threat hunting, one of the ways we are responding to this dilemma is by using a judo-like technique called the anomaly analysis, where we can turn the attackers greatest advantage into a disadvantage. Instead of looking for something bad on a large network of systems, we look for something that is different and investigate it accordingly.

“If the attacker attacks a system on the network, that system will appear different to all of the other systems in some way – allowing the attack to be detected even if we don’t have a signature for exactly what the attacker is doing.  This may sound simple, but you can easily recognise that certain differences are more interesting than others and that is where human skill comes into play.

“You can have automated systems gathering data from all systems, collecting network traffic and pulling in logs from systems. Ultimately, however, you need a human to drive the analysis.”

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Opera launches built-in VPN on Android browser

Opera has released a new version of its mobile browser, which features a built-in virtual private network service.

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Opera has released a new version of its mobile browser, Opera for Android 51, which features a built-in VPN (virtual private network) service.

A VPN allows users to create a secure connection to a public network, and is particularly useful if users are unsure of the security levels of the public networks that they use often.

The new VPN in Opera for Android 51 is free, unlimited and easy to use. When enabled, it gives users greater control of their online privacy and improves online security, especially when connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots such as coffee shops, airports and hotels. The VPN will encrypt Internet traffic into and out of their mobile devices, which reduces the risk of malicious third parties collecting sensitive information.

“There are already more than 650 million people using VPN services globally. With Opera, any Android user can now enjoy a free and no-log service that enhances online privacy and improves security,” said Peter Wallman, SVP Opera Browser for Android.

When users enable the VPN included in Opera for Android 51, they create a private and encrypted connection between their mobile device and a remote VPN server, using strong 256-bit encryption algorithms. When enabled, the VPN hides the user’s physical location, making it difficult to track their activities on the internet.

The browser VPN service is also a no-log service, which means that the VPN servers do not log and retain any activity data, all to protect users privacy.

“Users are exposed to so many security risks when they connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots without a VPN,” said Wallman. “Enabling Opera VPN means that users makes it difficult for third parties to steal information, and users can avoid being tracked. Users no longer need to question if or how they can protect their personal information in these situations.”

According to a report by the Global World Index in 2018, the use of VPNs on mobile devices is rising. More than 42 percent of VPN users on mobile devices use VPN on a daily basis, and 35 percent of VPN users on computers use VPN daily.

The report also shows that South African VPN users said that their main reason for using a VPN service is to remain anonymous while they are online.

“Young people in particular are concerned about their online privacy as they increasingly live their lives online,” said Wallman. “Opera for Android 51 makes it easy to benefit from the security and anonymity of VPN , especially for those may not be aware of how to set these up.”

Setting up the Opera VPN is simple. Users just tap on the browser settings, go to VPN and enable the feature according to their preference. They can also select the region of their choice.

The built-in VPN is free, which means that users don’t need to download additional apps on their smartphones or pay additional fees as they would for other private VPN services. With no sign-in process, users don’t need to log in every time they want to use it.

Opera for Android is available for download in Google Play. The rollout of the new version of Opera for Android 51 will be done gradually per region.

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Future of the car is here

Three new cars, with vastly different price-tags, reveal the arrival of the future of wheels, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Just a few months ago, it was easy to argue that the car of the future was still a long way off, at least in South Africa. But a series of recent car launches have brought the high-tech vehicle to the fore in startling ways.

The Jaguar i-Pace electric vehicle (EV), BMW 330i and the Datsun Go have little in common, aside from representing an almost complete spectrum of car prices on the local market. Their tags start, respectively, at R1.7-million, R650 000 and R150 000.

Such a widely disparate trio of vehicles do not exactly come together to point to the future. Rather, they represent different futures for different segments of the market. But they also reveal what we can expect to become standard in most vehicles produced in the 2020s.

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The i-Pace may be out of reach of most South Africans, but it ushers in two advances that will resonate throughout the EV market as it welcomes new and more affordable cars. It is the first electric vehicle in South Africa to beat the bugbear of range anxiety.

Unlike the pioneering “old” Nissan Leaf, which had a range of up to about 150km, and did not lend itself to long distance travel, the i-Pace has a 470km range, bringing it within shouting distance of fuel-powered vehicles. A trip from Johannesburg to Durban, for example, would need just one recharge along the way.

And that brings in the other major advance: the i-Pace is the first EV launched in South Africa together with a rapid public charging network on major routes. It also comes with a home charging kit, which means the end of filling up at petrol stations.

The Jaguar i-Pace dispels one further myth about EVs: that they don’t have much power under the hood. A test drive around Gauteng revealed not only a gutsy engine, but acceleration on a par with anything in its class, and enough horsepower to enhance the safety of almost any overtaking situation.

Specs for the Jaguar i-Pace include:

  • All-wheel drive
  • Twin motors with a combined 294kW and 696Nm
  • 0-100km/h in 4.8s
  • 90kWh Lithium-ion battery, delivering up to 470km range
  • Eight-year/160 000km battery warranty
  • Two-year/34 000km service intervals

Click here to read about BMW’s self-driving technology, and how Datsun makes smart technology affordable.

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