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The new normal of cybersecurity: Ransomware, phishing and zero trust

By Shannon Williams
Tue 24 Aug 2021

Cyber criminals have taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic with phishing, DDoS and ransomware attacks all seeing a surge, according to A10 Networks.

"When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, cyber criminals saw their opportunity, and they took it," Adrian Taylor, Vice President, A10 Networks ​says.

"As everything from corporate offices, government agencies, educational institutions and even healthcare services transitioned to remote work models and online services, the rushed shift left inevitable cybersecurity gaps.

Taylor says consumer broadband and personal devices undermined the corporate security stack as unsafe user practices and overlooked security patches opened ample vulnerabilities throughout the environment.

Meanwhile, an anxious and often confused public proved easy prey for phishing attacks. 

The impact was all too predictable: phishing attacks, DDoS attacks, and ransomware attacks all spiked. 80% of firms saw increased incidents in 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic was blamed for a 238% rise in cyberattacks on banks. Phishing scams, alone, have seen a 22% rise in the first half of 2021, compared to the same time period in 2020.

Why Ransomware Attacks and Costs are Soaring

According to Taylor, the pandemic-driven surge in ransomware was immediate and dramatic: attacks rose 148% in March 2020. 

"Before long, the U.S. was reeling from a May 2021 ransomware strike that shut down a critical fuel pipeline," he says.

"While the rise in ransomware strikes was likely the result of greater opportunities for hackers combined with the increased effectiveness of phishing attacks on news-obsessed users, a change in tactics may also have played a role. 

"While earlier attacks generally focused on the traditional encryption-payment-decryption ransomware model, hackers are now seeking to increase their returns through stealing data and offering it for sale on the black market, known as data exfiltration."

Often, ransomware victims, particularly when they are healthcare systems and universities, find that the already-considerable damage of the attack is compounded by this data exfiltration tactic, Taylor says.

"The implications of violating customer or patient privacy, losing corporate data and facing massive regulatory fines can cost more in legal damages than the ransom itself. 

"Add to this hidden costs such as system downtime, reduced efficiency, incidence response costs, and brand and reputation damage—and the total global costs amount to more than $1 trillion each year."

Taking Data Protection Inside the Perimeter with Zero Trust

Taylor says that in the era of public cloud, mobility, and work-from-home, the notion of perimeter security has quickly become outdated. 

"It’s not just that the attack surface has changed; organisations have also gained a new understanding of who can constitute a cyber-threat, even trusted insiders who don’t even realise they are abetting a crime. It’s common to think of an internal threat actor as a disgruntled employee or spy undermining cyber security with ill intent, but it’s even more common for a well-meaning employee to inadvertently open the door to hackers through poor password hygiene, nonsecure practices, or the ever-popular phishing lure," he explains.

"While awareness and education can reduce the risk of successful phishing and ransomware attacks, a single moment of negligence can be enough to devastate the business. 

"In this environment, it is safer to assume that even your most trusted user can pose a security risk - and design your cyber defence strategy accordingly," says Taylor.

"Hence the rise of Zero Trust: the notion that we shouldn’t trust anything or anyone, inside or outside the network, with access to our computer systems."

 In practice, this means measures such as:

  • Moving beyond the idea of inside versus outside and redesigning cyber defence in terms of secure micro-parameters, with multiple points of network defence
  • Implementing the ability to control, inspect, and restrict network traffic traveling in any direction—north-south or east-west—within your organisation
  • Subjecting users to checks and balances, each time they cross into a different area of the network or try to access a new set of resources, to verify their needs and privileges
  • Preventing excess privileges from accumulating by periodically revoking and refreshing access and credentials
  • Continuously monitoring who’s accessing what and the level of risk these activities might present
  • Why SSl Inspection is Critical for Zero Trust
  • "As organisations move to implement Zero Trust, they quickly run into the issue of visibility in a world of pervasive TLS/SSL encryption," says Taylor.

"To enable fast threat detection and response times, it is essential to be able to decrypt, inspect, and re-encrypt network traffic quickly and efficiently at scale, without impairing cost or adding complexity. 

"A centralised, dedicated SSL decryption capability provides visibility into network traffic for each element of the cybersecurity stack without the inefficiencies and performance penalties of device-by-device decryption and re-encryption," he says.

"Similarly, a centralised approach to management can help organisations ensure consistent and efficient policy enforcement across the security infrastructure."

According to Taylor, as a strategy rather than a product category, Zero Trust implementation requires more than simply plugging in a new box. 

"Rather, it represents a new way of thinking about cybersecurity, embodied in evolving approaches to management, automation, auditability, resiliency, and integration," he says.

"By approaching Zero Trust in this way, organisations can mitigate the security risks endemic in our new normal, and better protect their business from threats of all kinds."

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