Written by Manoj Reddy, Rhonda Leopold & Max Kersten, researchers at Trellix Advanced Research Center
When protecting digital estate, companies search high and low for the right talent. In recent years, as cybersecurity has increased in importance in the Gulf region, we have often discussed the scarcity of that talent. Now we fear that our digital adversaries may be recruiting it for the same reason that regional SOCs have: to enhance a skills base and become more innovative.
More and more teen cybercriminals are getting involved with what can now only be described as professional criminal enterprises. As a result, cyber gangs are now firms with reputations and products. They are part of a wider ecosystem that is innovating much as legitimate enterprises do. Frontline operators use soft skills, backed by predesigned malware kits that are often offered in aaS-style subscriptions. Remember that Lapsu$, a group that made trouble for some big names, appeared to do so without ever dropping any malware. Attackers are changing and we must allow for this. Here are some major developments that CISOs should note.
Hacktivism moves to the center stage
For many years the headlines have been dominated by state-sponsored and financially motivated cyber threats. Hacktivism — politically or socially motivated hacking by activists — has remained in the background in recent years. Given current global tensions, we are already seeing the re-emergence of Hacktivism and expect this to play a larger part in 2023. As groups of loosely organized individuals, fueled by propaganda align for a common cause, they may continue to ramp up their use of cyber tools to voice their anger and cause disruption.
Patriotic hacktivism has increased in 2022 as war and other conflicts continue, and it breaks down into broad streams of actions like DDoS attacks, defacements, doxxing, intrusions, and leaking of personally identifiable information (PII). Hacktivists are targeting a wide range of industries and sectors that don’t align with their ideological and political views, including the telecommunication, energy, aviation, technology, media, and government sectors.
As tensions in 2023 are expected to rise, we expect hacktivism to continue to scale as it suits the political agenda of opposing parties and offers perfect plausible deniability for actions since they are initiated and undertaken by activists.
Increasing activity by teen cybercriminals at every scale
We are seeing technically talented young people being recruited by bad actors and organizations. Beginning in late 2021 a 16-year-old allegedly led successful hacks of international organizations like Microsoft, NVIDIA, Okta, and Samsung under the guise of the Lapsus$ gang. These cybercriminal organizations are today the talent competition of Fortune 500 companies and security companies who all work to protect society online.
In 2023, we expect to see increased activity from teens and young adults — everything from large-scale attacks on leading organizations to low-level crime targeting family, friends, peers, and strangers to make a quick buck, cause embarrassment, test new skills, and gain social capital. This problem may grow, budget increases will follow, and costs will continue to be handed back down to us as consumers. Teaching children what a crime is on the keyboard is essential.
There are some global initiatives to help prevent our youngsters from sliding off into a world of cybercrime. To educate the young on the dangers of cybercrime, there are some new initiatives like Hackshield that teach kids about the dangers of gaming. But the generational gap needs to be addressed and parents need to be educated to ensure they are leading their children away from petty cybercrime or even more nefarious crimes.
Declining accuracy of code-based attribution
With regard to cybersecurity, attribution is often heavily based upon dissected malware samples. It has been proven time and again that coding styles can be linked to actors, much like someone’s handwriting.
Attribution purely based on code alone can, however, pose a problem. Whereas advanced espionage groups are often known to create their own tooling for their campaigns to preserve their secrecy, some other malware types do not require such secrecy per se. Prime examples of such malware are wipers.
Once a wiper is used, it isn’t novel anymore, and the detection and prevention of malware are bound to be implemented. The creation of malware is often thought to be done by coders, who then sell the malware-as-a-service, or work with affiliates. Creation can also be outsourced to legitimate contractors, thus obscuring the code base attribution immensely, as the contracted authors have different coding styles.
The decrease in accuracy of code-based attribution, albeit seemingly insignificant on its own, is likely to become more problematic in the future, especially when taking the re-use of (leaked) malware source code and the collaboration between actors in the segmented underground into account. We, therefore, urge analysts to include their confidence level when making claims that aren’t (fully) supported by facts. This provides a clear indication to the reader with regards to the way the report should be perceived, allowing the appropriate actions to be taken from the get-go.
Skill up or get out-skilled
The cybercrime industry is fishing for talent just as the cybersecurity industry is. Facing competition, one must compete. We must look to the employee experience when attracting security talent, being mindful of the allure of shadowy worlds. We must make the SOC more attractive than the digital back alleys that beckon our young talent. We must equip them with tools that allow them to innovate and add value.
Meanwhile, we must look inward. For those employees that show interest and skill in cybersecurity, we must find the budget and invest in them. This is a war. We will not win it by conscription. We must equal the bad actors for their capacity to incentivise innovation. If we do not, they will outmatch us at every turn.