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Vulnerabilities / Threats

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Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson
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Long Cons: The Next Age of Cyber Attacks

When hackers know that a big payday is coming they don't mind waiting for months for the best moment to strike.

Hackers have been stealing credit card data, targeting valuable intellectual property and holding companies hostage with ransomware for some time. In doing so, these hackers are not only becoming richer and more notorious, they are leaving companies’ shattered reputations and frustrated consumers in their wake. But the savvy hackers will soon be moving on to a more surreptitious and stealthy attack method, the cyber long con.

Hackers tend to be very persistent and very patient; they know that a payday is coming and they don’t mind waiting until the best moment to strike arises. Fueled by evolving tactics and techniques, the door is being opened for longer, slower attacks that take a long time to pay off.

The long cyber con is very real. One possible example: instead of stealing credit cards from a large retailer, a hacker adjusts their systems so only 99 percent of purchases are actually processed. How long does it take the retailer to notice, and in that time, how much financial damage is done? The financial windfall for the hacker is gained not from ransoms or stolen data but from manipulating the stock market. Knowing poor sales performance is imminent, the hacker shorts their victim’s stock or invests in a rival retailer.

Hackers have already begun targeting popular online shopping periods like Cyber Monday. By installing implants that sit silently inside retailer servers months in advanced and then waiting to unleash deny and degrade capabilities on Cyber Monday, hackers can effectively make online retailers unable to participate in the biggest shopping day of the year. While it may make a big-splash, the planning and patience involved certainly classifies it as a long con.

The technology required for these kinds of attacks isn’t anything too sophisticated or beyond your average hacker. A savvy hacker will buy and sell stocks and other financial instruments of both the targeted companies and their rivals in order to profit. With derivatives, small changes in stock price can pay huge profits with the right trading strategy.

These long cons are scary, because if these scenarios happen often enough, the whole system could be at risk. “If it became sufficiently common, it could undermine confidence in the entire investment system, not just among the general public, but within the system itself,” wrote Scott Borg, director of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit in a paper, "Rethinking Financial Sector Cyber Security for the Coming Era of Indirect Payoff Cyber Crimes." 

While these scenarios may sound like the plot to the next Chris Hemsworth movie, they are very real. As hackers become more sophisticated, they will begin experimenting with new ways to profit. Cyber long cons are not currently on most organizations’ radars. As a result, it’s less likely that they’ll be detected quickly. Organizations can’t see (or stop) what they don’t know to look for. Here’s what to look for:

Obtaining insider-like access is the first hurdle. This is often accomplished via spearphishing or obtaining hard-coded credentials. Once inside, a hacker will attempt to map out and find the critical systems, such as point-of-sale, accounting, payroll, etc.

With access to critical systems, they will make small changes that, over time, will have a huge result (have you seen Office Space?), or they will wait until a compelling event and trigger a large change (like Cyber Monday or just prior to a major company announcement). The tools required to perform these types of attacks are not incredibly advanced, especially if they have insider access.

To help protect against the new age of cyber long cons, organizations need to think outside the box and evaluate their defenses based on a few high-level questions:

  • What steps can an outsider take to become an insider?
  • What damage can an insider do to our company?
  • What small changes can an attacker make that have large and lasting, effects?

Above all, organizations have to identify their most valuable assets and build their security around protecting them above all else. In the coming age of the long cyber con, they need to expect their perimeter to be breached and focus on ensuring their adversaries are not able to take advantage of critical systems and information once they’re inside.

Hackers are always innovating and they’re willing to spend a very long time on an attack, so organizations need to protect themselves not just from data breaches, but from more clandestine attacks that will be coming sooner than we think.

Ben Johnson is Bit9 + Carbon Black's Chief Security Strategist. He joined the company when Carbon Black and Bit9 merged. At Carbon Black he was chief technology officer and his development prowess was directly responsible for the powerful functionality of the Carbon Black ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Author
6/9/2015 | 8:53:05 PM
Re: Maybe we will get some action if the attacks are like this
I understand what you're bringing up in terms of if they already have money -- but criminal orgs and state-sponsored groups still need more funding.  With derivates, small investments can pay off huge (leverage), and you can short stocks so you're actually selling and don't usually need the full amount (trading on margin).

Plus, look at the double benefits -- you can cause harm to an organization that might have strategic importance (large US retailer) while also profiting -- two ways it can help your nation or organization.


Thanks for the question!
User Rank: Ninja
6/9/2015 | 10:35:32 AM
Maybe we will get some action if the attacks are like this
At least several new Government agencies may sit up and take interest once one of these types of attacks is brought to the light of day.

Mess with regular folks and no one cares, but once you diddle with a stock price the whole world gets interested.  Another example of follow the money.

No stock company would ever admit to a data loss that messed with the stock price.  They don;t have to report it if no PII is taken so we may never hear of this attack.

One question I would posit is Why would a "hacker" bother to buy and sell manipulated stocks when they already have money to buy stocks.  You are really calling out a new catagory of criminal here.  One that has massive funds and time to work for evil.  Not alot of technical miscreants fit that catagory.  Perhaps we would be looking at a rich guy who never plays by the rules and wants to be richer?

Nice article, made me think.

User Rank: Author
6/8/2015 | 4:05:47 PM
Great thoughts on non-traditional attacks
It is very interesting to consider the vastly increased range of possible attacks when we consider criminal profit paths beyond simply stealing and selling data, or extortion. Thanks very much for the article.
User Rank: Moderator
6/5/2015 | 11:37:46 AM
The need for basics
This really highlights the need for basics, zero-day exploits or targeted phishing might get a foothold but it is basic security 101 procedures that root out these types of things.

Even the most basic of examples: How many companies routinely (as in every month) check the administrators group on every server? EVERY server, not just the easy standardized ones in the server rooms but even the "test" virtual box that the guys in the lab bring up once a week or that one the guy in the remote site who fancies himself as his own tech dept runs.

or get an alert when something important like the membership of the Enterprise Admins group changes and have someone with time to research that alert and then have the documentation to make it possible to discover that something actually is wrong.

sadly even something as basic as that is beyond the reach for many many companies and obviously government organizations.

User Rank: Moderator
6/5/2015 | 11:04:40 AM
"Above all, organizations have to identify their most valuable assets and build their security around protecting them above all else. In the coming age of the long cyber con, they need to expect their perimeter to be breached and focus on ensuring their adversaries are not able to take advantage of critical systems and information once they're inside."

This perhaps the most sensible thing I have seen written on Dark Reading in some time. I have been articulating this perspective for the duration of my career.  There is an inordinate amount of attention and money focused on implementing security improvements for systems and platforms that do not define an organization's value.
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