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Threats from Russia, North Korea Loom as Geopolitics Spills into Cyber Realm

Threat actors from both nations ramped up their activities sharply in 2017, Flashpoint says in a new threat intelligence report.

Cyberthreat activity from Russia and North Korea ramped up last year in response to several geopolitical factors, while that from China — long a source of problems for US organizations — tapered off a bit, a new business risk intelligence report from Flashpoint shows.

Flashpoint's report provides an assessment of how cybercriminals and nation-state actors evolved their tactics, techniques, and procedures over the past year and what enterprises can expect from them in the short term. Such threat intelligence can often help organizations acquire a better awareness of threats surrounding them so they can prepare for it better.

The Flashpoint report shows that ransomware continued to be a major driver for profit-motivated attacks and will likely remain that way in 2018 as well. But also emerging as a threat to organizations were geopolitical conflicts spilling over into cyberspace.

Threat activity by state-sponsored actors in North Korea, for instance, ramped up sharply in response to the tightening international sanctions against the country over its controversial nuclear missile program. "North Korea really does seem to be engaged in a large-scale effort to steal funds to support the regime," says Jon Condra, author of the intelligence report and Flashpoint's director of Asia Pacific Research.

North Korean attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges and the SWIFT financial network and the growing use of ransomware attacks by threat actors in the country suggest that the government there is feeling the crunch from the sanctions, Condra says. A lot of the activity stemming from North Korea these days is the sort typically associated with financially motivated cybercriminals, not nation-state actors. "North Korea is notoriously unpredictable. We see them as a continuing threat to almost any organization," he says.

The threat from Russia is somewhat different. Recently, threat actors from the country appear to have ramped up cyber espionage and disinformation campaigns aimed at Western governments. Russia's suspected meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and the 2017 French elections and the leaking of classified NSA cyberattack tools by the Russian-speaking Shadow Brokers group in 2016 are some examples of likely nation-state sponsored activities from the country. "Russia has embraced cyber espionage and cyber-enabled disinformation as a core component of its international strategy," Condra says.

Moves by the US and European Union to tighten or extend some existing sanctions against Russia could trigger more such cyber threat activity from the country, Flashpoint said.

In Flashpoint's assessment, nation-state-sponsored threat actors in Russia have the ability to do catastrophic damage to critical systems and infrastructure resulting in destruction of property and possible loss of life. China, though less active last year, has the same ability, as do the so-called Five Eyes nations: the United States, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Flashpoint has currently pegged North Korea as a Tier 4 threat with the ability to cause moderate damage like temporarily disrupting core business functions and critical assets. But the country's ability to marshal state resources as necessary to meet its objectives makes it a more dangerous player. "North Korea in particular is likely capable of using destructive and highly disruptive attacks in kinetic conflict scenarios to support military objectives," the Flashpoint report said.

In addition to nation-state threats, expect to see more activity from hacktivists, hate groups, and jihadists, according to the security vendor. The Turkish Aslan Neferler Tim (ANT) has been one the most active hacktivist outfits since the start of 2017 and has carried out a string of distributed denial-of-service attacks using attack infrastructure based in the US, Austria, and Turkey. While its targets are primarily Turkish, ANT has attacked airports, banks, and government organizations in the US, Greece, Denmark, Germany, and several other countries.

The continuing political polarization in the US has also resulted in a resurgence of cyber activity by hate groups and non-jihadist threat actors. Many of them used the Internet, social media platforms, and messaging services such as Discord to disseminate propaganda and to publicize protests such as the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August, Flashpoint said. Groups like Antifa and the Resist Trump movement, too, used these channels to maintain their visibility among supporters, the report said.

To organizations struggling with daily attacks by common cybercriminals, the danger from sophisticated nation-state foes can sometimes seem remote. But as the report from Flashpoint highlights, geopolitical conflicts, hacktivist actions, and other seemingly unrelated developments have been increasingly spilling over into the cyber realm.

The trend has driven growing interest in threat intelligence service among organizations. Many want to build context around their internal telemetry by combining it with external threat data. The use of such services is especially prevalent in large organizations with established security operations centers, says John Pescatore, director of emerging security threats at the SANS Institute.

"Mature SoC processes can make good use of threat data. It can help them more quickly adjust filters and shields for protecting against threats" that might still only be developing, Pescatore says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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