SE Labs

Posts tagged 'hacking'

Targeted attacks with public tools

Over the last few years we have tested more than 50 different products using over 5,000 targeted attacks. And there’s news, both good and bad.

In this article we will look at the different tools available, how effective they are at helping attackers bypass anti-malware products and how security vendors have been handling this type of threat for over a year.

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Assessing next-generation protection

Malware scanning is not enough. You have to hack, too.

Latest report now online.
The amount of choice when trialling or buying endpoint security is at an all-time high. It has been 36 years since ‘anti-virus’ first appeared and, in the last five years, the number of companies innovating and selling products designed to keep Windows systems secure has exploded.
And whereas once vendors of these products generally used non-technical terms to market their wares, now computer science has come to the fore. No longer are we offered ‘anti-virus’ or ‘hacker protection’ but artificial intelligence-based detection and response solutions. The choice has never been greater, nor has the confusion among potential customers.
While marketing departments appear to have no doubt about the effectiveness of their product, the fact is that without in-depth testing no-one really knows whether or not an Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) agent can do what it is intended.

Internal testing is necessary but inherently biased: ‘we test against what we know’. Thorough testing, including the full attack chains presented by threats, is needed to show not only detection and protection rates, but response capabilities.

EventTracker asked SE Labs to conduct an independent test of its EDR agent, running the same tests as are used against some of the world’s most established endpoint security solutions available, as well as some of the newer ones.
This report shows EventTracker’s performance in this test. The results are directly comparable with the public SE Labs Enterprise Endpoint Protection (Oct – Dec 2018) report, available here.

How well do email security gateways protect against targeted attacks?

Email security test explores how and when services detect and stop threats.

Latest report now online.

This new email protection test shows a wide variation in the abilities of the services that we have assessed.

You might see the figures as being disappointing. Surely Microsoft Office 365 can’t be that bad? An eight per cent accuracy rating seems incredible.

Literally not credible. If it misses most threats then organisations relying on it for email security would be hacked to death (not literally).

But our results are subtler than just reflecting detection rates and it’s worth understanding exactly what we’re testing here to get the most value from the data. We’re not testing these services with live streams of real emails, in which massive percentages of messages are legitimate or basic spam. Depending on who you talk to, around 50 per cent of all email is spam. We don’t test anti-spam at all, in fact, but just the small percentage of email that comprises targeted attacks.

In other words, these results show what can happen when attackers apply themselves to specific targets. They do not reflect a “day in the life” of an average user’s email inbox.

We have also included some ‘commodity’ email threats, though – the kind of generic phishing and social engineering attacks that affect everyone. All services ought to stop every one of these. Similarly, we included some clean emails to ensure that the services were not too aggressively configured. All services ought to allow all these through to the inbox.

So when you see results that appear to be surprising, remember that we’re testing some very specific types of attacks that happen in real life, but not in vast numbers comparable to spam or more general threats.

The way that services handle threats are varied and effective to greater or lesser degrees. To best reflect how useful their responses are, we have a rating system that accounts for their different approaches. Essentially, services that keep threats as far as possible from users will win more points than those who let the message appear in or near the inbox. Conversely, those that allow the most legitimate messages through to the inbox rate higher than those which block them without the possibility of recovery from a junk folder or quarantine.

If you spot a detail in this report that you don’t understand, or would like to discuss, please contact us via our Twitter or Facebook accounts.

SE Labs uses current threat intelligence to make our tests as realistic as possible. To learn more about how we test, how we define ‘threat intelligence’ and how we use it to improve our tests please visit our website and follow us on Twitter.
Our latest reports, for enterprisesmall business and home users are now available for free from our website. Please download them and follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook to receive updates and future reports.

Network security appliances vs. Word and PowerShell

Over the last few months we have seen a surge in attacks using apparently innocent documents that install malware covertly on victims’ systems.

Unless you are running specialist monitoring tools, or very effective security software, you probably won’t see any symptoms of the attack.

The goals of these attacks are varied. In some cases they provide remote access to hackers. In others so-called cryptocurrency mining software is installed. These programs (ab)use your systems’ processing power in an attempt to generate cryptocurrencies such as Monero. The attackers get rich off your power bill.

While there are variations in how the attacks work, the typical path to compromise involves opening the document, which could be in Microsoft Word format, after which an exploit runs a PowerShell script. This, in turn, downloads and installs the malware.

In this report we investigate how effectively some very popular network security products are at handling these and other threats.

As usual, we have also thrown in some particularly devious targeted attacks that appear to be completely legitimate applications but that provide us with remote access to unprotected targets. When we gain this access we try to hack the target in the same way a real attacker would. This gives the security products the best chance of detecting and potentially blocking the bad behaviour.

The good news is that all of these products were able to detect many (if not all) of the threats. Some were able to block most, although complete protection is not guaranteed. As always, a layered approach to protection is best. For advice on which endpoint software to choose see our Endpoint Protection test results on our website.

Latest report (PDF) now online.

What’s the difference between SE Labs and a cyber-criminal?

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As we prepared this network security appliance report for publication we were also getting ready to present at BT’s internal security conference Snoopcon.

We had been asked to talk about security products and how they might not do what you assume they will.

Reports like this (PDF) provide an interesting insight into how security products actually work. Marketing messages will inevitably claim world-beating levels of effectiveness, while basic tests might well support these selling points. But when you actually hack target systems through security appliances you sometimes get a very different picture.

Some vendors will support the view that testing using a full attack chain (from a malicious URL pushing an exploit, which in turn delivers a payload that finally provides us with remote access to the system) is the right way to test. Others may point out that the threats we are using don’t exactly exist in the real world of criminality because we created them in the lab and are not using them to break into systems worldwide.

We think that is a weak argument. If we can obtain access to certain popular, inexpensive tools online and create threats then these (or variants extremely close to them) are just as likely to exist in the ‘real world’ of the bad guys as in a legitimate, independent test lab. Not only that, but we don’t keep creating new threats until we break in, which is what the criminals (and penetration testers) do. We create a set and, without bias, expose all of the tested products to these threats.

But in some ways we have evolved from being anti-malware testers to being penetration testers, because we don’t just scan malware, execute scripts or visit URLs. Once we gain access to a target we perform the same tasks as a criminal would do: escalating privileges, stealing password hashes and installing keyloggers. The only difference between us and the bad guys is that we’re hacking our own systems and helping the security vendors plug the gaps.

Latest report (PDF) now online.

Hacked! Will your anti-malware protect you from targeted attacks?

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The news isn’t good. Discover your best options in our latest reports.

Latest reports now online.

Criminals routinely create ingenious scams and indiscriminate attacks designed to compromise the unlucky and, occasionally, foolish. But sometimes they focus on a specific target rather than casting a net wide in the hope of landing something interesting.

Targeted attacks can range from basic, like an email simply asking you to send some money to an account, through to extremely devious and technical. If you received an email from your accountant with an attached PDF or Excel spreadsheet would you open it?

Most would and all that then stands between them and a successful hack (because the email was a trick and contained a dodgy document that gives remote control to the attacker) is the security software running on their PC.

In this test we’ve included indiscriminate, public attacks that come at victims from the web and via email, but we’ve also included some devious targeted attacks to see how well-protected potential victims would be.

We’ve not created any new types of threat and we’ve not discovered and used ‘zero day’ attacks. Instead we took tools that are freely distributed online and are well-known to penetration testers and criminals alike. We used these to generate threats that are realistic representations of what someone could quite easily put together to attack you or your business.

The results are extremely worrying. While a few products were excellent at detecting and protecting against these threats many more were less useful. We will continue this work and report any progress that these companies make in improving their products.

Our latest reports, for enterprise, small business and home users are now available for free from our website. Please download them and follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook to receive updates and future reports.

Network appliances vs. targeted attacks

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There have been so many publicised data breaches in 2017 that we didn’t even have enough space in our latest report to provide a basic summary. In many cases a business network was breached. Business networks comprise endpoints (usually Windows PCs), servers, Point of Sale computers and a range of other devices.

Latest reports now online.

In this report (PDF) we explore the effectiveness of network appliances designed to detect and block attacks against endpoint systems.

One approach to compromising a business is to hack an endpoint (PC) and then to use it as a platform from which to launch further attacks into the network. For example, rather than going straight for a company’s main servers why not trick a user into infecting his/ her computer with malware? We can then scan and infect the entire network, stealing information, causing damage and generally behaving in ways contrary to the business’ best interests.

There is some really good endpoint software available, as we see in our regular Endpoint Protection tests, but nothing is perfect and any extra layers of security are welcome. If one layer fails, others exist to mitigate the threat. In this report we explore the effectiveness of network appliances designed to detect and protect against attacks against endpoint systems.

The systems we have tested here are popular appliances designed to sit between your endpoints and the internet router. They are designed to detect, and often protect against, threats coming in from the internet or passing through the local network. Their role is to stop threats before they reach the endpoints. If they fail to stop a threat, they might learn that an attack has happened and generate an alert, while subsequently blocking future, similar attacks.

There are no guarantees that technology will always protect you from attackers, but our results show that adding layers of security is an effective way to improve your prospects when facing general and more targeted attacks.

Anatomy of a Phishing Attack

phishing_magnifying_glass_fi-3673555Who attacked a couple of Internet pressure groups earlier this year? Jon Thompson examines the evidence.

For those on those of us engaged in constructing carefully-crafted tests against client email filtering services, the public details of an unusually high-quality spear-phishing attack against a low value target make for interesting reading.

In this case, there were two targets: Free Press, and Fight for the Future. The attack, dubbed “Phish for the Future” in a brief analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is curious for several reasons.

Free Press is a pressure group campaigning for an open internet, fighting media consolidation by large corporations, and defending press freedom. Fight for the Future works to protect people’s basic online freedoms. Objectively, they’re working for a better online future, which makes the whole affair stand out like a pork buffet at a bar mitzvah.

The first thing that struck me was that the emails were apparently all sent during office hours. The time zones place the senders anywhere between Finland and India, but apparently resolve to office hours when normalised to a single zone.

Another interesting aspect is that even though the emails were sent on 23 active days, the attackers didn’t work weekends. This immediately marks them out as unusual. Anyone who’s run an email honeypot knows that commodity spam flows 24 hours a day.

The attackers first tried generic phishing expeditions, but quickly cranked up their targeting and psychological manipulation. This begs an interesting question: If you’re an experienced, professional, disciplined crew, why jeopardise the operation by beginning with less convincing samples that may alert the target to be on the lookout? Why didn’t they simply start with the good stuff, get the job done, and move on?

One possible explanation is that the attackers were trainees on a course, authorised to undertake a carefully controlled “live fire” exercise. Psychologically manipulative techniques such as pretending to be a target’s husband sending family photos, or a fan checking a URL to someone’s music, imply a level of confident duplicity normally associated with spying scandals.

The level of sophistication and persistence on display forms a shibboleth. It looks and smells somehow “wrong”. The published report reveals an attention to detail and target reconnaissance usually reserved for high value commercial targets. Either the attackers learn at a tremendous rate
through sheer interest alone, or they’re methodically being taught increasingly sophisticated techniques to a timetable. If it was part of a course, then maybe the times the emails were sent show a break for morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea, or fall into patterns of tuition followed by practical exercises.

phishing2b-6448783The timing of the complete attack also stands out. It began on 7th July, ended on 8th August, and straddled the Net Neutrality Day of Action (12th July). With a lot happening at both targets during that time, and one assumes a lot of email flying about, perhaps the attackers believed they stood a better chance when the staff were busiest.

So, to recap, it looks like highly motivated yet disciplined attackers were operating with uncommonly sophisticated confidence against two small online freedom groups. Neither target has the business acumen of a large corporation, which rules out criminal gain, and yet an awful lot of effort was ranged against them.

The product of phishing is access, either to abuse directly or to be sold to others. Who would want secret access to organisations campaigning for online freedom? Both targets exist to change minds and therefore policy, which makes them political. They’re interesting not only to governments, but also to media companies seeking to control the internet.

I’m speculating wildly, of course. The whole thing could very easily have been perpetrated by an under-worked individual at a large company, using their office computer and keeping regular hours to avoid suspicion. The rest is down to ingenuity and personal motivation.

We’ll never know the truth, but the supporting infrastructure detailed in the EFF report certainly points to some considerable effort over a long period of time. If it was an individual, he’s out there, he’ll strike again, and he learns fast. In many ways, I’d prefer it to have been a security service training new recruits.

Next-generation firewalls: latest report

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Using layers of security is a well-known concept designed to reduce the chances of an attacker succeeding in breaching a network. If one layer fails, others exist to mitigate the threat.

Latest reports now online.

In this report (PDF) we explore the effectiveness of network appliances designed to detect and block attacks against endpoint systems.

The systems we have tested here are popular appliances designed to sit between your endpoints and the internet router. They are designed to detect, and often protect against, threats coming in from the internet or passing through the local network.

Their role is to stop threats before they reach the endpoints. If they fail to stop a threat, they might learn that an attack has happened and generate an alert, while subsequently blocking future, similar attacks.

In some cases an appliance will take information it considers suspicious and send it to a cloud-based service for further analysis. In this way it might allow a threat through the first time, explore it more deeply using the cloud service and send back information to the appliance so that it will block  that same (or similar) attack in future.

It’s a little like an immune system.

As immune systems adapt to protect against known threats, so threats adapt in an arms race to defeat protection mechanisms. This report includes our first public set of network security appliance results.

Future reports will keep you updated as to how well the industry competes with the bad guys in the real world.

Brexit and Cybersecurity

Is the UK headed for a cybersecurity disaster?

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With Brexit looming and cybercrime booming, the UK can’t afford major IT disasters, but history says they’re inevitable.

The recent WannaCry ransomware tsunami was big news in the UK. However, it was incorrectly reported that the government had scrapped a deal with Microsoft to provide extended support for Windows XP that would have protected ageing NHS computers. The truth is far more mundane.

In 2014, the government signed a one-year deal with Microsoft to provide security updates to NHS Windows XP machines. This was supposed to force users to move to the latest version of Windows within 12 months, but with a “complete aversion to central command and control” within the NHS, and no spare cash for such an upgrade, the move was never completed.

This isn’t the first IT Whitehall IT disaster by a very long way.

During the 1990s, for example, it was realised that the IT systems underpinning the UK’s Magistrates’ Courts were inadequate. It was proposed that a new, unified system should replace them. In 1998, the Labour government signed a deal with ICL to develop Project Libra. Costing £146m, this would manage the courts and link to other official systems, such as the DVLA and prisons systems.

Described in 2003 as “One of the worst IT projects ever seen“, Project Libra’s costs nearly tripled to £390m, with ICL’s parent company, Fujitsu, twice threatening to pull out of the project.

This wasn’t Labour’s only IT project failure. In total, it’s reckoned that by the time the government fell in 2010, it had consumed around £26b of taxpayer’s money on failed, late and cancelled IT projects.

The coalition government that followed fared no better. £150m paid to Raytheon in compensation for cancelling the e-Borders project, £100m spent on a failed archiving system at the BBC, £56m spent on a Ministry of Justice system that was cancelled after someone realised there was already a system doing the same thing: these are just a few of the failed IT projects since Labour left office seven years ago.

The Gartner group has analysed why government IT projects fail, and discovered several main factors. Prominent amongst these is that politicians like to stamp their authority on the nation with grandiose schemes. Gartner says such large projects fail because of their scope. It also says failure lies in trying to re-implement complex, existing processes rather than seeking to simplify and improve on them by design. The problem is, with Brexit looming, large, complex systems designed to quickly replace existing systems are exactly what’s required.

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A good example is the ageing HM Customs & Excise CHIEF system. Because goods currently enjoy freedom of movement within the EU, there are only around 60 million packages that need checking in through CHIEF each year. The current system is about 25 years old and just about copes. Leaving the EU will mean processing an estimated 390 million packages per year. However, the replacement system is already rated as “Amber/Red” by the government’s own Infrastructure and Projects Authority, meaning it is already at risk of failure before it’s even delivered.

Another key system for the UK is the EU’s Schengen Information System (SIS-II). This provides real time information about individuals of interest, such as those with European Arrest Warrants against them, terrorist suspects, returning foreign fighters, missing persons, drug traffickers, etc.

Access to SIS-II is limited to countries that abide by EU European Court of Justice rulings. Described by ex-Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as a “fantastically useful weapon” against terrorism, after Brexit, access to SIS-II may be withdrawn.

Late last year, a Commons Select Committee published a report identifying the risks to policing if the UK loses access to SIS-II and related EU systems. The report claimed that then-Home Secretary Theresa May had said that such systems were vital to, “stop foreign criminals from coming to Britain, deal with European fighters coming back from Syria, stop British criminals evading justice abroad, prevent foreign criminals evading justice by hiding here, and get foreign criminals out of our prisons.

The UK will either somehow have to re-negotiate access to these systems, or somehow quickly and securely duplicate them and their content on UK soil. To do so, we will have to navigate the EU’s labyrinthine data protection laws and sharing agreements to access relevant data.

If the UK government can find a way to prevent these and other IT projects running into problems during development, there’s still the problem of cybercrime and cyberwarfare. Luckily, there’s a strategy covering this.

In November 2016, the government launched its National Cyber Security Strategy. Tucked in amongst areas covering online business and national defence, section 5.3 covers protecting government systems. This acknowledges that government networks are complex, and contain systems that are badly in need of modernisation. It asserts that in future there will be, “no unmanaged risks from legacy systems and unsupported software”.

The recent NHS WannaCry crisis was probably caused by someone unknowingly detonating an infected email attachment. The Strategy recognises that most attacks have a human element. It says the government will “ensure that everyone who works in government has a sound awareness of cyber risk”. Specifically, the Strategy says that health and care systems pose unique threats to national security due to the sector employing 1.6 million people in 40,000 organisations.

The problem is, the current Prime Minister called a snap General Election in May, potentially throwing the future of the Strategy into doubt. If the Conservatives maintain power, there’s likely to be a cabinet reshuffle, with an attendant shift in priorities and funding.

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If Labour gains power, things are even less clear. Its manifesto makes little mention of cyber security, but says it will order a complete strategic defence and security review “including cyber warfare”, which will take time to formulate and agree with stakeholders. It also says Labour will introduce a cyber charter for companies working with the Ministry of Defence.

Regardless of who takes power in the UK this month, time is running out. The pressure to deliver large and complex systems to cover the shortfall left by Brexit will be immense. Such systems need to be delivered on time, within budget and above all they must be secure – both from internal and external threats.

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