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SOC Modernisation: A Digital Labrador for Next-Level Cybersecurity



Written by Ammar Enaya, Regional Director – METNA, Vectra AI

The Arab Gulf region has a well-deserved reputation for being a frontrunner in technology adoption — a reputation that its governments have retained throughout the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In the digital transformation era, managed services wormed their way onto the agenda of most, if not every, regional organisations, but until recently — cybersecurity remained an afterthought.

However, governments in this region have a way of inspiring others by example. By adopting economic visions with technology pillars that put cybersecurity front and center, GCC leaders pushed digital risk management to a top-priority position in the private sector. And those efforts have paid dividends. Saudi Arabia is second and the UAE fifth, on the International Telecommunication Union’s Global Cybersecurity Index for 2020.

But there’s still work to be done. Security professionals are overworked and under-resourced. This starts in the security operations center (SOC), which all too often is holding on to a legacy that has had its day. Modern complexities of rogue devices, remote employees, and multi-cloud environments have brought previously unseen levels of unpredictability to the SOC. These transformative changes coupled with advanced attack methods used in today’s ransomware and supply chain attacks equal a disaster waiting to happen for any organisation that isn’t thinking about modernizing the traditional approach.

The Old Way Opens Doors for New Attacks
Traditionally, the legacy SOC is centered around prevention (think SIEM and IDS), which for the most part is obsolete against modern threats and attack methods. The tools typically deployed in this scenario equal a high cost of ownership and fail when it comes to the detection and response of in-progress attacks. This is because the technologies used today have grown past the SOC as we’ve come to know it. The perimeter no longer exists, and cloud deployments are outpacing security. Analysts are having to work harder to trawl manually through limited data sources only to arrive at inaccurate conclusions. Ultimately what you’re left with is a lack of visibility and a security team scrambling through inefficient workflows at a high price.

The time for change is now. We’ve seen again and again how prevention techniques fail to detect ransomware attacks. These are human driven attacks — where malware isn’t deployed until the final step — meaning the only chance to stop it, is by detecting and stopping attacker motions inside an environment. Nowadays, attackers are finding all types of clever ways to bypass MFA. And while endpoint detection is important, it’s no match for a crafty attacker with stolen credentials.

But the good news is that defending against today’s attacks doesn’t have to be as impossible as the headlines might lead you to believe.

Moving Towards a Modernized SOC
Before we look at the alternative, it is also worth considering the life of today’s security professionals. Who without, the SOC would be the equivalent of falling trees in an empty forest. While the customer experience was all the rage before the pandemic, organisations must now prioritize the employee experience. The now-established efficacy of remote work means the region’s cyber-talent can work anywhere they want. So, as the region builds SOCs, it needs to design ecosystems that relieve burdens on technologists, or it risks losing the most qualified candidates to foreign employers.

This is all the more reason to modernize and take a futureproof approach that prioritizes visibility and workflow, acting as a kind of digital Labrador retriever — capable of sniffing out and fetching the most evasive targets and dropping them at the feet of threat hunters. It still uses event logs and SIEM tactics but supplements them with richer endpoint and network data. It mixes the disciplines of endpoint detection and response (EDR), AI-driven network detection and response (NDR) and user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA). The new SOC drapes a net across on-prem, cloud and cloud-native apps, allowing it to detect previously unknown suspect processes and lateral-movement attacks.

And if you’re looking for a place to start, meaningful AI can lend an immediate hand in the SOC. Everything from improving alert accuracy, optimizing investigations, threat hunting and adding extra horsepower so analysts know which threats to prioritize, can be achieved with the right AI platform. AI can also help SOCs play to the strengths of its players. For example, AI is incredibly proficient at dealing with large sets of data efficiency and at speeds unmatched by humans. On the other hand, humans are exceptional at dealing with ambiguity and contextualizing information — things they’ll be able to do with AI on their team. An analyst can’t see an attack evolving in the middle of the night, but the right AI can catch and stop it so they can get some rest once in a while.

A Breath of Fresh Air in the SOC
Modernization is the future for any organisation intent on delivering an efficient, sustainable SOC. And while this is becoming an increasingly urgent matter for many organisations in order to defend against today’s attacks, it can also be approached in phases by setting achievable goals. For example, if you lack the visibility necessary to accurately detect and respond to an adversary, you may want to prioritize implementing a solution that can help spot early attack signals like recon, privilege escalation, and lateral movement. Or if your organisation has traditionally been focused on prevention, it could be time to evaluate where security investments need to be made in order to gain coverage throughout the entire environment.

In a region where regulatory compliance keeps a lot of stakeholders up at night, a modernized SOC can greatly enhance governance and instill confidence in regulators, investors, and customers. The ability to detect, score and prioritize threats in real-time ensures swift and effective resolution of issues and prevents costly and embarrassing breaches.

Fewer manhours, better outcomes, lower costs, faster resolution, tighter compliance, and the ability to go up against unknown and stealthy attacks? Now that’s a Labrador that deserves a treat.

Cyber Security

Telecom Sector: Cyber Attack Target Number One for Nation-State Actors



Written by Roland Daccache, Systems Engineer Manager MEA, CrowdStrike

Telecommunications providers play a unique and crucial role in modern societies. Businesses, governments, and individuals rely on the smooth functioning of communications. However, it is precisely this centrality and ubiquitous presence of telecommunications systems that also make them valuable targets for governments and criminals worldwide.

Targeting the telecommunications sector is becoming more and more popular
The latest Overwatch Report from CrowdStrike shows that attacks on the telecommunications industry have more than doubled in the last 12 months. Overall, 40 percent of all targeted attack attempts detected by OverWatch experts were directed at this industry. Especially for nation-state actors, this target industry is very attractive, because targeted attacks can be used to realise their own surveillance, intelligence, and counterintelligence missions. It comes as no surprise that the telecommunications industry tops the list of the top 5 industry targets among nation-state actors.

Most attacks on telecom companies come from groups close to China. However, actors with an Iranian background have also been spotted attacking the telecom sector. The operations against telecommunication providers illustrate that the protection of sensitive data and critical infrastructure is becoming increasingly important. One more reason to take a close look at the constantly changing threat landscape and its actors is to find effective methods against their tools, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

Attacks on the telecommunications industry – The typical TTPs
To gain initial access to their victim networks, communications sector attackers use a variety of techniques. Among the most common is spear phishing, exploiting vulnerabilities, compromising the supply chain, and misusing legitimate credentials.

Once the first step is taken, the attackers use native tools such as Windows Management Instrumentation or even various command and script interpreters such as Powershell to carry out their mission. To avoid detection and be able to carry out the attack without interference, the perpetrators keep looking for new hosts that offer the possibility to collect credentials to continue moving laterally through the target environment unnoticed.

To grab the desired credentials in Microsoft environments, attackers often use Mimikatz, read LSASS memory (often via comsvcs.dll or using ProcDump), or modify the WDigest registry key to store passwords in plain text.

In Linux environments, attackers often look at the contents of sensitive files, such as .bash_history, passwd, shadow, and other configuration files and administrative scripts when trying to discover credentials. OverWatch has also observed attackers using newer techniques. For example, in one case, an attacker deployed SSH daemons via a backdoor that was capable of logging credentials.

Cyber attackers also often use web-based login pages. They are modified in such a way that the login information can also be stored for later retrieval. Thus, hackers are no longer under time pressure for their initial access. So-called web shells also make it possible to manage multiple victim networks via a single interface. This leads to the very real danger of multiple attacks being launched simultaneously by one hacker group.

This is because the effort required to carry out operations is thus considerably reduced for the attackers. In addition, web shells can be used because of their simplicity and cross-platform compatibility or in different web server environments. With all these tools, actors manage to know when, how, and where call details and SMS messages are forwarded and recorded in order to strike.

Collateral damage from hacker attacks
To disguise their true goals and intentions, attackers often carry out very large-scale data exfiltrations. In reality, however, they are often only interested in specific information from very few people. The damage caused is therefore often immense. It is therefore all the more important to identify and stop the attackers. However, this undertaking is often more difficult than expected, because criminals often have extensive knowledge of a target network and are therefore difficult to distinguish from legitimate administrators.

A comprehensive cyber defence that also detects and successfully defends against these activities is therefore indispensable, especially for critical infrastructures. To successfully counter the tactics and techniques of modern attackers, it is advisable to rely not only on the latest technologies but also on human know-how and active threat hunting.  These specialists tirelessly search for novel and anomalous tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of attackers that remain undetected by technical detection measures and stop them as soon as they are identified.

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Expert Speak

Security Flaws in Smartphone Chip Could Have Led Hackers to Eavesdrop on Android Users



Check Point Research (CPR) identified security flaws in the smartphone chip made by Taiwanese manufacturer MediaTek. Found in 37% of the world’s smartphones, MediaTek’s chip serves as the main processor for nearly every notable Android device, including Xiaomi, Oppo, Realme, Vivo, and more. The security flaws were found inside the chip’s audio processer. Left unpatched, the vulnerabilities could have enabled a hacker to eavesdrop on an Android user and/or hide malicious code.

MediaTek chips contain a special AI processing unit (APU) and audio Digital signal processor (DSP) to improve media performance and reduce CPU usage. Both the APU and the audio DSP have custom microprocessor architectures, making MediaTek DSP a unique and challenging target for security research. CPR grew curious around the degree to which MediaTek DSP could be used as an attack vector for threat actors. For the first time, CPR was able to reverse engineer the MediaTek audio processor, revealing several security flaws.

Attack Methodology
To exploit the security vulnerabilities, a threat actor’s order of operations, in theory, would be:

  • A user installs a malicious app from the Play Store and launches it
  • The app uses the MediaTek API to attack a library that has permissions to talk with the audio driver
  • The app with system privilege sends crafted messages to the audio driver to execute code in the firmware of the audio processor
  • The app steals the audio flow

Responsible Disclosure
CPR responsibly disclosed its findings to MediaTek, creating the following: CVE-2021-0661, CVE-2021-0662, CVE-2021-0663. These three vulnerabilities were subsequently fixed and published in the October 2021 MediaTek Security Bulletin. The security issue in the MediaTek audio HAL (CVE-2021-0673) was fixed in October and will be published in the December 2021 MediaTek Security Bulletin. CPR also informed Xiaomi of its findings.

Slava Makkaveev, Security Researcher at Check Point Software, said, “MediaTek is known to be the most popular chip for mobile devices. Given its ubiquity in the world, we began to suspect that it could be used as an attack vector by potential hackers. We embarked on research into the technology, which led to the discovery of a chain of vulnerabilities that potentially could be used to reach and attack the audio processor of the chip from an Android application. Left unpatched, a hacker potentially could have exploited the vulnerabilities to listen in on conversations of Android users. Furthermore, the security flaws could have been misused by the device manufacturers themselves to create a massive eavesdrop campaign. Although we do not see any specific evidence of such misuse, we moved quickly to disclose our findings to MediaTek and Xiaomi. In summary, we proved out a completely new attack vector that could have abused the Android API. Our message to the Android community is to update their devices to the latest security patch in order to be protected. MediaTek worked diligently with us to ensure these security issues were fixed in a timely manner, and we are grateful for their cooperation and spirit for a more secure world.”

Tiger Hsu, Product Security Officer at MediaTek said “Device security is a critical component and priority of all MediaTek platforms. Regarding the Audio DSP vulnerability disclosed by Check Point Software, we worked diligently to validate the issue and make appropriate mitigations available to all OEMs. We have no evidence it is currently being exploited. We encourage end-users to update their devices as patches become available and to only install applications from trusted locations such as the Google Play Store. We appreciate the collaboration with the Check Point research team to make the MediaTek product ecosystem more secure.”

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Cyber Security

Mandiant Shares Cybersecurity Predictions for 2022



Mandiant has released its predictions report – 14 Cyber Security Predictions for 2022 and Beyond.
“The only constant in our industry is the uncertainty in the cyber realm. Attackers keep evolving – getting more sophisticated and changing their tactics, techniques and procedures to try get one up on the defenders,” said Gordon Love, VP MEA at Mandiant. “This report provides security leaders with an overview of what to expect in 2022 and beyond, based on the trends we see now. Organisations have a lot to keep in mind for next year, but remaining vigilant will enable them to defend against upcoming threats—and respond to those that inevitably get through.”

The top cyber security threats identified in the report include:

No end in sight for Ransomware
The ransomware threat has grown significantly throughout the past decade, and it will continue its upward trend. The business of ransomware is simply too lucrative unless international governments and technology innovations can fundamentally alter the attacker cost-benefit calculation.

Threat actors engaged in multifaceted extortion will continue to find more ways to extort payments from their victims. In 2022 Mandiant expects to see actors ramp up new tactics, such as trying to recruit insiders within their victims or targets. More cybercriminals are expected to evolve as threat actors become more business savvy and learn what kind of situations their victims most want to avoid.

Focus on Operation Technology (OT)
Throughout 2021, Mandiant observed low sophistication threat actors learn that they could create big impacts in the OT space—perhaps even bigger than intended. Actors will continue to explore the OT space in 2022 and increasingly use ransomware in their attacks.

Attacks against critical OT environments can cause severe disruption and even threaten human lives, thereby increasing the pressure for organizations to pay a ransom. To compound the issue, many of these OT devices are not built with security at the forefront of the design, and there is a massive uptick in the number of vulnerabilities being identified in OT environments.

Iran to continue their aggressive stance
Iran will use its cyber tools in a much more aggressive manner to promote regional interests. Iran will also continue to target Israel and others in the Middle East. They’ve shown their capability and willingness to use destructive malware, so they are expected to take advantage of any presented opportunities. Ultimately, Iran will try to create more of a power balance shifted to its own interests. Mandiant has seen them targeting abroad, but their targeting will most likely be regional throughout 2022.

Afghanistan events may trigger espionage
With the assertion of Taliban control and departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, one can expect further cyber espionage and information operations. The usual information operations actors—Iran, China, Russia—are expected to push narratives to support their interests through the end of 2021 and into 2022. They’ll also play up negative perceptions around the events, notably the perception that the U.S. failed to live up to its commitments to organizations and countries.

Cloud and third parties introduce new chokepoints
Organizations will continue to increasingly rely on the cloud and cloud-hosted third-party providers for primary business tasks, putting more pressure on those third parties to maintain both availability and security. The proportion of Mandiant incident response investigations involving cloud resources has grown over the past several years, and they anticipate that cloud compromise and abuse will continue to grow in tandem with enterprise cloud adoption throughout 2022.

More internet of things (IoT) devices, more vulnerabilities, more attack surface
As the number of IoT devices grow, so will the number of vulnerabilities for bug hunters to track. These devices are connected, and the general attack surface expands with the potential for profound impact. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on security in fundamental IoT device design to fix these issues, so the situation will only get worse in the years to come.

As we move into 2022, CISOs have a lot on their mind and remaining vigilant will enable them to defend against upcoming threats—and respond to those that inevitably get through.

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