Hiding Behind the APT Helplessness Defense…Really?

Former Equifax CEO Richard Smith’s Congressional Testimony was a real WTF moment for many of us who work in the cyber field. Last week, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer testified about Yahoo’s 2013 and 2014 data breaches, leaving us with intentionally vague, if not misleading statements. Mayer asserted that in both of the breaches, “Russian Intelligence Officers and state-sponsored hackers were responsible for highly complex and sophisticated attacks on Yahoo’s systems.” What we haven’t seen in Yahoo’s case is any further detailing of what these “sophisticated attacks” actually looked like.

In cyber, details matter A LOT. We do forensic analysis and read through numerous incident reports, gaining knowledge, identifying patterns and trying to step up our game. We know that all threat actors, including government intelligence services, cyber criminals, and hacktivists, readily use common exploits and phishing techniques whenever possible. Why? Because among other reasons, they’re readily available at no cost and make attack attribution harder.

In a vast supermajority of breaches, the victims were ultimately compromised by the seemingly simple things. Equifax’s catastrophic breach occurred because they failed to identify and patch a known vulnerability in their Apache Struts implementation for which updates and workarounds were available. After one quarter, they claim the incident has cost the company over $75M. On the last earnings call, Merck’s CFO announced that Petya, which leveraged a known vulnerability with readily available patches and workarounds, resulted in $135M of lost revenue and $175M in additional cost. Home Depot, Target — the list goes on and on.

When breaches occur, we — shareholders, customers, citizens, lawmakers — start looking for answers. It seems that many leaders are happy to claim that “an APT did it” and “how are we supposed to protect ourselves from nation-state adversaries?” These are perfect examples of learned or at least misleading helplessness. We know perfect security doesn’t exist. What we are seeing, however, is far from that — organizations falling victim to simple exploits, not sophisticated, super-advanced hacking techniques. Let’s be clear, state actors may be behind an attack, but they’re taking full advantage of lackadaisical security practices to get in. The questions Congress should and ultimately the courts will be asking ought to be less focused on who the attackers were and more on how they got in. Were these organizations exercising a reasonable standard of care in protecting themselves? Verizon, for example, since the acquisition appears to be stepping up Yahoo’s security posture.

The questions Congress should and ultimately the courts will be asking ought to be less focused on who the attackers were and more on how they got in.

We can’t be lulled into a false sense of helplessness based on our worst fears. When it boils down to it, it’s very rarely the most sophisticated of zero-day exploits for which very little could have been done that’s tripping us up, it’s the simple and seemingly easy stuff.

I’m frequently asked what organizations can do to protect themselves from APTs. The first step is obvious — do the basics really, really well. Know where you have systems, and which ones you rely on. Know where they are exposed and exercise good cyber hygiene practices in maintaining them. Use multi-factor authentication pervasively and make sure tight controls are in place to manage privileged accounts. Use any number of modern techniques to monitor for intrusions. Doing the cyber basics well might not be sexy, but it is foundational to defend against APTs and it makes a huge difference.

Good cyber hygiene makes a difference and is ultimately the reason why organizations that run tight ships suffer far fewer intrusions, including fewer intrusions from advanced threat actors.

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