For Cybersecurity, It’s That Time of the Year Again

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Assaf Harel

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Autumn is the “hacking season,” when hackers work to exploit newly-disclosed vulnerabilities before customers can install patches. This cycle gives hackers a clear advantage and it’s time for a paradigm shift.

Each year, when the leaves start changing color you know the world of cybersecurity is starting to heat up.

This is because the cyber industry holds its two flagship events — DEFCON and BlackHat —over the same week in Las Vegas in late Summer. Something akin to having the Winter and Summer Olympics back-to-back in the same week, these events and other similar ones present priceless opportunities for the world’s most talented hackers to show their chops and reveal new vulnerabilities they’ve uncovered.

It also means that each Fall there’s a mad race against time as customers need to patch these newly revealed vulnerabilities before hackers can pull off major attacks — with mixed results.

A good example began in August, after researchers from Devcore revealed vulnerabilities in enterprise VPN products during a briefing they held at BlackHat entitled “Infiltrating Corporate Intranet Like NSA: Pre-auth RCE on Leading SSL VPNs.”

The researchers also published technical details and proof-of-concept code of the vulnerabilities in a blog post two days after the briefing. Weaponized code for exploits is also widely available online, including on GitHub.

News of the vulnerability rang out like a starter pistol, sending hackers sprinting to attack two enterprise VPN products in use by hundreds of thousands of customers — Pulse Secure VPN and Fortinet FortiGate VPN.

In both cases, White Hat hackers discovered the flaws months earlier and disclosed them confidentiality to the manufacturer, giving them the time and details needed to issue the necessary patches. Both Pulse Secure and Fortinet instructed customers to install the patches, but months later there were still more than 14,500 that had not been patched, according to a report in Bad Packets — and the number could be even higher.

Being that these are enterprise products, they are in use in some of the most sensitive systems, including military networks, state and local government agencies, health care institutions, and major financial bodies. And while these organizations tend to have trained security personnel in place to apply patches and mitigate threats, they tend to be far less nimble than hackers, who can seize a single device and use it to access devices across an entire network, with devastating consequences.

The potential for these attacks is vast, considering the sheer volume of targets. This was again demonstrated in the case of the “URGENT/11” zero-day vulnerabilities exposed by Armis in late July. The vulnerabilities affect the VxWorks OS used by more than 2 billion devices worldwide and include six critical vulnerabilities that can enable remote code execution attacks. Chances are that attackers are already on the move looking for lucrative targets to hit.

This is how it plays out — talented White Hat hackers sniff out security flaws and confidentially inform manufacturers, who then scramble to issue patches and inform users before hackers can pounce. And while manufacturers face the impossible odds of hoping that tens of thousands of customers — and often far more — install new security patches in time, the hackers looking to take advantage of these flaws only need to get lucky once.

It’s time for a paradigm shift. Manufacturers need to provide built-in security which doesn’t rely upon customer updates after the product is already in use. This “embedded security” creates self-protected systems that don’t wait for a vulnerability to be discovered before mounting a response.

This approach was outlined in a report from the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”) published in July. Entitled “Considerations for Managing Internet of Things (IoT) Cybersecurity and Privacy Risks,” the report detailed the unique challenges of IoT security, and stated that these devices must be able to verify their own software and firmware integrity.

There are already built-in security measures that can stack the deck against hackers, including secure boot, application whitelisting, ASLR, and control flow integrity to name a few. These solutions are readily available and it is imperative that leading manufacturers provide runtime protection during the build process, to safeguard their customers’ data and assets.

It’s a race against time and a reactive security approach that waits for a vulnerability to be discovered and then issues patches is lacking, to put it lightly. There will always be users who don’t install the patches in time and hackers who manage to bypass the security solutions before manufacturers can get their feet on the ground. And with White Hat hackers constantly looking for the next vulnerability to highlight, it’s a vicious cycle and one that gives hackers every advantage against large corporations.

And as Fortinet and Pulse Secure lick their wounds from the recent exploits, the onus is upon other manufacturers to realize that the current security paradigm simply isn’t enough.

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