5 Tech Trends That Explain the Evolution of Online Threats

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Information security professionals need to keep an eye on the always-evolving cyber threat landscape. Accomplishing this involves understanding how changes in people’s use of technology influence the opportunities and techniques pursued by criminals on-line. Below are 5 tech trends that have affected the evolution of threats.

Mainstream adoption of the Internet into daily activities. The Internet has become so interwoven into our lives that we often don’t notice when activities make use of Internet-connected resources. Technology that allows people and businesses to utilize Internet connectivity has become so convenient, that even non-technical people, old and young, are able to harness the power of the web. As the result:

  • The increase in numbers of non-techies present on and accessible via the Internet made social engineering more fruitful. It’s often easier to target people who aren’t technology specialists.
  • Simplification of user interfaces, necessitated by the need to service non-techies, eliminated some of the details that could assist people in spotting malicious activities or intentions.
  • Commerce and other critical activities moved online, so the criminals followed. To paraphrase the famous saying, criminals are online “because that’s where the money is.”

The increase in usefulness and popularity of mobile devices. Powerful pocket-sized computers with always-on Internet connectivity, also known as phones„ have become so common, that we rarely make a distinction between a regular and a “smart” phone. Overall, mobile devices have become as integral to the modern way of life as glasses, wallets and shoes. As the result:

  • The critical role of mobile devices, which act as a wallets, authentication tools and a communication portals, made them attractive targets. A criminal with access to someone’s mobile device has significant insights into and control over the victim’s life.
  • User interface limitations of small screens conceal visual elements that could aid people in making informed information security decisions. Mobile apps often omit security indicators such as SSL icons that have become staples of the traditional desktop browsing experience.
  • The use of personal devices for work purposes (BYOD) increased the attack surface available to criminals looking to compromise information security safeguards of enterprises. Attackers can use employee-owned mobile devices as portals into the organization’s network, systems and applications.

The popularity and acceptance of online social networking. While initially seen as serving the needs of niche groups, websites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, have been joined by numerous others to support new ways in which people socialize online. Social networking sites have become the backbone of modern interactions. As the result:

  • The ease with which people can be reached through online social networks provided criminals with easy access to potential victims. While people might conceal their email addresses, they often allow strangers to contact them through online social networks.
  • The curation culture of online social networks, which encourages people to share links to videos, articles and other items of interest, provided scammers and malware operators convenient ways to distribute malicious links.
  • The wealth of personal data available on people’s social networking profiles provided criminals with the details for executing targeted attacks and social engineering scams.

The connectivity between “physical” and “virtual” worlds. Objects, tools and other constructs (e.g., thermostats, industrial control systems, home automation devices) in the “physical” world are increasingly connected to the web, giving rise to the concept of the “Internet of things.” As the result:

  • The popularity of digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, and game currencies World of Warcraft gold, offered criminals new financial targets and monetization schemes that took them beyond standard currencies such as Dollar, Pound and Euro.
  • The ease of connectivity between VoIP and traditional telephone networks gave rise to new forms of telephone-based scams and denial-of-service attacks (TDoS) that target companies’ phone systems.
  • The addition of online access features to sensors such as video cameras provided attackers with new ways to observe victims remotely, compromising privacy and exposing people and organizations to espionage and other risks.

The acceptance of cloud computing. The use of external, virtualized and/or outsourced IT resources has gained mainstream adoption for not only personal, but also enterprise applications. The cloud is permeating all aspects of modern life. It is becoming increasingly difficult and unnecessary to make a distinction between traditional and cloud-based technologies. As the result:

  • Consolidated data stores outside of the traditional security perimeter of the individual’s PC or the organization’s network established attractive targets. For instance, compromising the email database of a mass-marketing service provider, the attacker can gain access to information useful for further criminal activities.
  • Greater reliance on third-party service providers blurred the line between the roles and responsibilities related to safeguarding data. With each party assuming that the other provides information security oversight and governance, the vulnerabilities available to attackers have increased in number.
  • The proliferation of online cloud-based services has increased the number of passwords that people need to manage, increasing the likelihood that people will select easy-to-remember and, therefore, easy-to-guess logon credentials.

Though I’ve broken out technology trends as distinct observations, they are interrelated within a system that comprises the modern way of life, which incorporates phones, social exchanges, interconnectedness and cloud services into its very fabric. Similarly, the trends in attack strategies, targets and rewards are intertwined to create the reality that infosec professionals need to understand and safeguard.

Lenny Zeltser

Updated

About the Author

Lenny Zeltser is a seasoned business and technology leader with extensive information security experience. He presently oversees the financial success and expansion of infosec services and SaaS products at NCR. He also trains incident response and digital forensics professionals at SANS Institute. Lenny frequently speaks at industry events, writes articles and has co-authored books. He has earned the prestigious GIAC Security Expert designation, has an MBA from MIT Sloan and a Computer Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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