SE Labs

Posts tagged 'targeted attacks'

Enemy Unknown: Handling Customised Targeted Attacks

Detecting and preventing threats in real-time

Computer security products are designed to detect and protect against threats such as computer viruses, other malware and the actions of hackers.

A common approach is to identify existing threats and to create patterns of recognition, in much the same way as the pharmaceutical industry creates vaccinations against  known biological viruses or police issue wanted notices with photographs of known offenders.

The downside to this approach is that the virus or criminal has to be known to be harmful, most likely after someone has become sick or a crime has already been committed. It would be better to detect new infections and crimes in real-time and to stop them in action before any damage is caused.

This approach is becoming increasingly popular in the cyber security world.

Deep Instinct claims that its D-Client software is capable of detecting not only known threats but those that have not yet hit computer systems in the real world. Determining the accuracy of these claims requires a realistic test that pits the product against known threats and those typically crafted by attackers who work in a more targeted way, identifying specific potential victims and moving against them with speed and accuracy.

This test report used a range of sophisticated, high-profile threat campaigns such as those believed to have been directed against the US Presidential election in 2016, in addition to directing more targeted attacks against the victim systems using techniques seen in well-known security breaches in recent months and years.

The results show that Deep Instinct D-Client provided a wide range of detection and threat blocking capability against well-known and customised targeted attacks, without interfering with regular use of the systems upon which it was deployed. The deep learning system was  trained in August 2018, six months before the customised targeted threats were created.

Latest report now online.

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.

Latest security tests introduce attack chain scoring

When is a security breach serious, less serious or not a breach at all?

Latest reports now online.

UPDATE (29/10/2018): This set of reports are confirmed to be compliant with AMTSO Standard v1.0 by the Anti-Malware Testing Standards Organization.


Our endpoint protection tests have always included targeted attacks.

These allow us to gauge how effectively anti-malware products, in use by millions of customers, can stop hackers from breaching your systems.

We penalise products heavily for allowing partial or full breaches and, until now, that penalisation has been the same regardless of how deeply we’ve been able to penetrate into the system. Starting with this report we have updated our scoring to take varying levels of ‘success’ by us, the attackers, into account.

The new scores only apply to targeted attacks and the scoring system is listed in detail on page eight of each of the reports.

If the attackers are able to gain basic access to a target, which means they are able to run basic commands that, for example, allow them to explore the file system, then the score is -1.

The next stage is to attempt to steal a file. If successful there is a further -1 penalty.

At this stage the attackers want to take much greater control of the system. This involves increasing their account privileges – so-called privilege escalation. Success here turns a bad situation worse for the target and, if achieved, there is an additional -2 penalty.

Finally, if escalation is achieved, certain post-escalation steps are attempted, such as running a key logger or stealing passwords. A final -1 penalty is imposed if these stages are completed, making possible scores for a breach range between -1 and -5 depending on how many attack stages are possible to complete.

We have decided not to publish exact details of where in the attack chain each product stands or falls, but have provided that detailed information to the companies who produce the software tested in this report and who have asked for it.

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.

SE Labs introducing cyber security to schools

It’s widely acknowledged that the cyber security workforce needs more talented young people to engage. Just as we, at SE Labs, want to help fix information technology security by testing products and services, we also want to encourage an interest among young people, hopefully igniting a passion for understanding and defending against hacking attacks.

We test next-gen security products AND encourage the gen-next!

Our attempts to enable youth from progressing from complete novice, through to getting their first job and then to reaching the top of industry, is an initiative to bring about the needed change and fill the gaps.

As part of our new corporate social responsibility programme we set up an event at Carshalton Boys Sports College to introduce the concept of cyber security and its career prospects to the students.

Around 15 participants ranged from year 10s to sixth formers (aged 16-18) attended the main presentation and all year groups approached us at the stand we set up.

We outlined various topics in the presentation including the different types of cybercrime and attacks; and institutions offering free and paid courses to certain age groups on cyber security, aimed at students.

We also addressed how to break into the cyber security sector; what positions are available in the industry; and how employees are in high demand in both public and private sectors, part- and full-time, in virtually every industry in countries around the world.

Then we went through a test run of a targeted attack to demonstrate what it looks like and what it means.

“Why do we use Kali Linux?”, “What should I do to get into cyber security?”, “What are the skills required?”, were a few curious questions asked by the students at the end of the presentation.

Those who came over to the stand wanted to know who we were, what we do and simply, “what is cyber security?”

They were interested in who are clients are (we gave limited answers due to NDAs), what do they need us and how did we manage to get this far. A lot of these were asked by the younger years who were inquisitive to learn more about this subject. Positive!

Feedback from the college:

On behalf of the Governors, Head Principle, students and parents of Carshalton Boys Sports College, I would like to thank you for your valued input, helping to make our Directions and Destinations Day a great success. 

Our staff work tirelessly to open our students’ minds to the possibilities available to them, but without the support of partners like you, that job would be impossible. Together we had the school filled with a sense of purpose all day and responses we have had from students and parents have shown us that the day has inspired our students. 

We have already started thinking about the future and would be grateful if you have any suggestions about how we might make things even better next year. 

Thank you once again for giving your time, energy and expertise last week.

Well, yes! A career in cyber security is a journey for sure, but a worthwhile one. And in the end, it’s more about people than machines, as a mind’s software can be more powerful than any hardware.

Pooja Jain, March 2018

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.

Tough test for email security services

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Our latest email cloud security test really challenged the services under evaluation.

Latest report now online.

Last summer we launched our first email cloud security test and, while it was very well received by our readers and the security industry as a whole, we felt that there was still work to do on the methodology.

This report shows the results of six months of further development, and a much clearer variation in the capabilities of the services under test.

The most significant change to the way we conducted this test lies in the selection of threats we used to challenge the security services: we increased the number and broadened the sophistication.

Whereas we might have used one fake FBI blackmail email previously, in this test we sent 10, each created using a different level of sophistication. Maybe a service will detect the easier versions but allow more convincing examples through to the inbox?

We wanted to test the breaking point.

We also used a much larger number of targeted attacks. There was one group of public ‘commodity’ attacks, such as anyone on the internet might receive at random, but also three categories of crafted, targeted attacks including phishing, social engineering (e.g. fraud) and targeted malware (e.g. malicious PDFs).

Each individual attack was recreated 10 times in subtly different but important ways.

Attackers have a range of capabilities, from poor to extremely advanced. We used our “zero to Neo” approach to include basic, medium, advanced and very advanced threats to see what would be detected, stopped or allowed through.

The result was an incredibly tough test.

We believe that a security product that misses a threat should face significant penalties, while blocking legitimate activity is even more serious.

If you’re paying for protection threats should be stopped and your computing experience shouldn’t be hindered. As such, services that allowed threats through, and blocked legitimate messages, faced severe reductions to their accuracy ratings and, subsequently, their chances of winning an award.

Intelligence-Led Testing

We pay close attention to how criminals attempt to attack victims over email. The video below shows a typically convincing attack that starts with a text message and ends stealing enough information to clean out a bank account.
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.

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.

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