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Encrypted Cyber Attacks: Real Data Unveils Hidden Danger within SSL, TLS Traffic

Since the shocking announcement of serious Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities in early 2018, we have yet to hear of a mega-breach that would signal the start of another vicious hacking year.

Has it been luck? Are our network security defenses stronger? Or are current hacks hiding their efforts? Whatever the situation, the expectations from lessons learned in historical security events are that hacking tools will evolve and new threat vectors will emerge — year after year.

To help organizations gain confidence to make informed decisions and take calculated security actions against the latest cyber attacks, SonicWall shares its threat findings in the recently published 2018 Cyber Threat Report.

The report focuses on the ongoing battle of innovations and advancements between cybercriminals and security industries. The detailed threat information was gathered, recorded, researched and analyzed by the SonicWall Capture Labs research team so you can easily follow what’s happening in the threat landscape.

Today, we’ll underscore our observations on the good and bad of SSL/TLS-encrypted web traffic and respective encrypted threats.

The cyber battle inside encrypted traffic

For five straight years of monitoring and reporting on encrypted traffic trends, SonicWall continues to record strong growth in SSL/TLS-encrypted web connections, with a 24 percent increase over 2016. This increase accounted for 68 percent of overall web connections in 2017.

We believe the rise was attributed to the growing use of secured cloud applications and websites. Again, use of SSL/TLS encryption continues to be trending in the right direction. Companies securing websites and cloud services, to create safer web interactions, is a win for internet users and security teams.

SSL/TLS Use Increased

Despite the security advantages provided by SSL/TLS encryption, SonicWall collected real-world empirical evidence on cyber attacks executed inside of SSL/TLS-encrypted web sessions.

Using full-year data samples from a subset of SonicWall firewalls with active Deep Packet Inspection of SSL (DPI-SSL) service in 2017, we observed that an average of nearly 5 percent of all file-based malware propagation attempts used SSL/TLS encryption to avoid detection.

SonicWall Capture Labs also found, on average, 60 file-based malware propagation attempts per SonicWall firewall each day. Without the ability to inspect encrypted traffic, the typical organization would have missed over 900 file-based attacks per year hidden by SSL/TLS encryption. Remember, it takes only a single miss to create severe damage to an organization.

How to stop encrypted cyber attacks

Organizations can easily block attacks within SSL/TLS web connections. However, many have not activated existing security features — like DPI-SSL — to do so.

If you choose not to inspect encrypted traffic — or if your firewall is limited in its ability to do so — you are truly missing a critical value of your firewall.

It is possible for organizations to enjoy the security benefits of SSL/TLS encryption without providing a hidden tunnel for attackers. Here are some helpful guidelines:

  1. Understand what’s at risk. If you haven’t conducted a security audit recently, complete a comprehensive analysis to identify your risks and needs.
  2. Build a defense. Upgrade to a capable, extensible next-generation firewall (NGFW) with integrated IPS security services and DPI-SSL design that can scale performance to support future growth.
  3. Evaluate and improve. Update your security policies to defend against a broader array of threat vectors and establish multiple security defense methods to respond to both HTTP and HTTPS attacks.
  4. Create awareness. Train your staff continually to be aware of the dangers of social media, social engineering and suspicious websites and downloads, as well as various spam and phishing scams in personal and business email accounts. Start with this Phishing IQ test.
  5. Inspect digital certificates. Inform users never to accept a self-signed, non-valid certificate from unknown applications.
  6. Keep it current. Make sure all your software is up to date. This will help protect your organization from older SSL exploits that have already been neutralized.

The growth of SSL/TLS encryption can and will be a positive security trend for the global community, but it will remain a channel for malicious activity until companies recognize and address the risks.

By investing in updated solutions, and enabling SSL/TLS inspection capabilities, organizations can have the best of security and performance at the same time.

Download the 2018 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report

The cyber arms race is a challenge we face together. And it’s the core reason we’re committed to passing our findings, intelligence, analysis and research to the global public via the SonicWall 2018 Cyber Threat Report.

Are You Seeing This? Uncovering Encrypted Threats

Night vision goggles. Airport x-ray machines. Secret decoder rings. What do they all have in common? Each helps you find something that is hidden, whether it’s an object or code that someone may not want you to discover. Your organization’s security solution needs to perform in a similar manner by inspecting encrypted traffic. Here’s why.

Over time, HTTPS has replaced HTTP as the means to secure web traffic. Along the way there have been some inflection points that have spurred on this transition such as when Google announced it would enable HTTPS search for all logged-in users who visit google.com. More recently, Google began using HTTPS as a ranking signal. Other vendors including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have also made the switch. If you read articles on the use of Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) encryption the latest numbers typically indicate that a little over 50% of all web traffic is now encrypted and that percentage is expected to continue growing. At SonicWall, data gathered by our Global Response Intelligence Defense (GRID) Threat Network shows the percentage to be a little higher, around 62%. We found that as web traffic grew throughout 2016, so did SSL/TLS encryption, from 5.3 trillion web connections in 2015 to 7.3 trillion in 2016. Like others, we also expect the use of HTTPS to increase.

On one hand, this is good news for everyone. Securing web sessions, whether the user is making a financial transaction, sending/receiving email or simply surfing the Internet, is a good thing. It’s also good business for organizations such as online retailers who receive sensitive personal and financial information from their customers and need to secure it from hackers. On the other hand, cyber criminals are now hiding their attacks in encrypted web traffic. Threats such as malware, intrusions, and ransomware are able to pass through the network undetected if they’re hidden using encryption. Cyber criminals are also using encryption to receive communications back from infected systems.

Given organizations’ growing trend toward HTTPS and its use by hackers to steal information, it makes sense to have a security solution in place that can decrypt and scan SSL/TLS-encrypted traffic for threats. Not everyone does, however, especially smaller organizations. According to Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Unified Threat Management (UTM) from August 2016, the research and advisory company estimates that “Less than 10% of SMB organizations decrypt HTTPS on their UTM firewall. This means that 90% of the SMB organizations relying on UTM for web security are blind to the more advanced threats that use HTTPS for transport.”

Let’s add a little more fuel to this. By now most people have heard of the “Internet of Things.” The idea is that we have all manner of devices available that can connect to the Internet and send/receive data. No longer is it just our PC, laptop, smartphone and tablet. It’s our TV, car, refrigerator, watch, security camera. Essentially anything that’s Internet-enabled. The number of connected devices is growing rapidly. Gartner forecasts there will be 8.4 billion connected “things” in use in 2017 and by 2020 that number will grow to 20.4 billion. That’s a lot of things that can be potentially taken over by malware delivered through encrypted traffic.

Here’s the big question every organization needs to ask. “Does our security solution (typically a firewall) have the ability to decrypt SSL/TLS-encrypted web traffic, scan it for threats, use deep packet inspection technology to stop malware, and do it all with little or no performance hit?” If your firewall is three years old or more, the answer is likely no. Legacy firewalls may decrypt the traffic and do some threat detection, but not prevention. Or, it may do everything that’s required, just very slowly which isn’t good either. The firewall shouldn’t be a bottleneck.

In his blog titled, “DPI-SSL: What Keeps You Up at Night?” my colleague Paul Leets states, “We must look into encrypted packets to mitigate those threats.” And he’s right. We need to be able to “see” into encrypted traffic in order to identify threats and eliminate them before they get into the network. And it needs to be done in real time. We call this automated breach prevention and it’s what our lineup of next-generation firewalls delivers. To learn more about automated breach prevention and how SonicWall next-generation firewalls decrypt SSL/TLS-encrypted traffic and scan for and eliminate threats without latency, visit the “Encrypted Threats” page on our website. Secret decoder ring not required.

SonicWall Annual Threat Report Reveals the State of the Cybersecurity Arms Race

In the war against cyber crime, no one gets to avoid battle. That’s why it’s crucial that each of us is proactive in understanding the innovation and advancements being made on both sides of the cybersecurity arms race. To that end, today we introduced the 2017 SonicWall Annual Threat Report, offering clients, businesses, cybersecurity peers and industry media and analysts a detailed overview of the state of the cybersecurity landscape.

To map out the cybersecurity battlefield, we studied data gathered by the SonicWall Global Response Intelligence Defense (GRID) Threat Network throughout the year. Our findings supported what we already knew to be true – that 2016 was a highly innovative and successful year for both security teams and cyber criminals.

Security Industry Advances

Security teams claimed a solid share of victories in 2016. For the first time in years, our SonicWall GRID Threat Network detected a decline in the volume of unique malware samples and the number of malware attack attempts.  Unique samples collected in 2016 fell to 60 million compared with 64 million in 2015, whereas total attack attempts dropped to 7.87 billion from 8.19 billion in 2015. This is a strong indication that many security industry initiatives are helping protect companies from malicious breaches.  Below are some of the other areas where progress is clearly being made.

Decline of POS Malware Variants

Cybersecurity teams leveraged new technology and procedural improvements to gain important ground throughout the year. If you were one of the unlucky victims of the point-of-sale (POS) system attack crisis that shook the retail industry in 2014, you’ll be happy to learn that POS malware has waned enormously as a result of heightened security measures. The SonicWall GRID Threat Network saw the number of new POS malware variants decrease by 88 percent since 2015 and 93 percent since 2014. The primary difference between today’s security procedures and those that were common in 2014 is the addition of chip-and-PIN and chip-and-signature technology particularly in the United States, which undoubtedly played a big role in the positive shift.

Growth of SSL/TLS-Encrypted Traffic

The SonicWall GRID Threat Network observed that 62 percent of web traffic was Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) encrypted in 2016, making consumers and businesses safer in terms of data privacy and integrity while on the web. This is a trend we expect to continue in 2017, based on Google’s announcement that it has a long-term plan to begin marking HTTP traffic in its Chrome browser as “not secure.” NSS Labs estimates that 75 percent of web interactions will be HTTPS by 2019.

Decline of Dominant Exploit Kits

We also saw the disappearance of major exploit kits Angler, Nuclear and Neutrino after cybersecurity investigations exposed the likely authors, leading to a series of arrests by local and international law enforcement agencies. The SonicWall GRID Threat Network observed some smaller exploit kits trying to rise to fill the void. By the third quarter of 2016, runner-up Rig had evolved into three versions employing a variety of obfuscation techniques. The blow that dominant exploit kit families experienced earlier in 2016 is a significant win for the security industry.

Cyber Criminal Advances

As with any arms race, advances made by the good guys are often offset by advances made by the bad guys. This is why it’s critical for companies to not become complacent and remain alert to new threats and learn how to counterattack. Below are some of the areas where cyber criminals showed their ability to innovate and exploit new ways to launch attacks.

Explosive Growth in Ransomware

Perhaps the area where cyber criminals advanced the most was in the deployment of ransomware. According the SonicWall GRID Threat Network, ransomware attacks grew 167 times since 2015, from 3.8 million in 2015 to 638 million in 2016. The reason for this increase was likely a perfect storm of factors, including the rise of ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) and mainstream access to Bitcoin. Another reason might simply be that as cybersecurity teams made it difficult for cyber criminals to make money in other ways, they had to look for a new paycheck.

Exploited Vulnerabilities in SSL/TLS Encryption

While the growth of SSL/TLS encryption is overall a positive trend, we can’t forget that it also offers criminals a prime way to sneak malware through company firewalls, a vulnerability that was exploited 72 percent more often in 2016 than in 2015, according to NSS Labs. The reason this security measure can become an attack vector is that most companies still do not have the right infrastructure in place to perform deep packet inspection (DPI) in order to detect malware hidden inside of SSL/TLS-encrypted web sessions. Companies must protect their networks against this hidden threat by upgrading to next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) that can inspect SSL/TLS traffic without creating performance issues.

IoT Became a New Threat Network

Many people who enjoy using Reddit, Netflix, Twitter or Spotify experienced another of our top threat trends firsthand. In October 2016, cyber criminals turned a massive number of compromised IoT devices into a botnet called Mirai that they then leveraged to mount multiple record-setting distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. The SonicWall GRID Threat Network found that at the height of the Mirai botnet usage in November 2016, the United States was by far the most targeted, with 70 percent of DDoS attacks aimed at the region, followed by Brazil (14 percent) and India (10 percent). The root cause leading to the Mirai attacks was unquestionably the lax security standards rampant in IoT device manufacturing today. Specifically, these devices do not prompt their owners to change their passwords, which makes them uncommonly vulnerable.

Combatting the New Cyber Threats

It’s worth noting that the technology already exists today to solve many of the new challenges cyber criminals threw at victims in 2016.  SSL/TLS traffic can be inspected for encrypted malware by NGFWs with high-performance SSL/TLS DPI capabilities.  For any type of new advanced threat like ransomware, it’s important to understand that traditional sandboxing solutions will only detect potential threats, but not prevent them. In order to prevent potential breaches, any network sandbox should block traffic until it reaches a verdict before it passes potential malware through to its intended target.  SonicWall’s family of NGFWs with SSL/DPI inspection coupled with the SonicWall Capture multi-engine cloud sandbox service is one approach to provide real-time breach prevention for new threats that emerge in the cybersecurity arms race.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re already taking an important first step toward prevention, as knowledge has always been one of the greatest weapons in the cybersecurity arms race. Take that knowledge and share it by training every team member in your organization on security best practices for email and online usage. Implement the technology you need to protect your network. And most importantly, stay up-to-date on the latest threats and cybersecurity innovations shaping the landscape. If you know where your enemy has been, you have a much better shot of guessing where he’s going.