This year has forced organisations to adapt quickly to enabling employees to work from home. That’s creating ‘chaos with no control’ – which cyber criminals are exploiting.

The unique conditions of 2020 mean businesses are more reliant on being digitally connected than ever before. Cyber criminals know this, which is why ransomware attacks have become even more pervasive – and effective during the course of this year.

Hackers are breaking into networks of organisations ranging from tech companies to local governments and almost every other sector; encrypting servers, services and files with ransomware before demanding a bitcoin ransom that can be measured in hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Part of the reason for the upswing in successful ransomware attacks is the huge growth of remote working as a result of the pandemic.

SEE: A winning strategy for cybersecurity (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

While employees and their PCs were once safely behind the office firewall, now they’re trying perched at a makeshift workstation in their kitchen or bedrooms, using all manner of cobbled-together technologies to get the job done.

“You have a much bigger attack surface; not necessarily because you have more employees, but because they’re all in different locations, operating from different networks, not working with the organisation’s perimeter network on multiple types of devices. The complexity of the attack surface grows dramatically,” says Shimon Oren, VP of research and deep learning at security company Deep Instinct.

For many employees, the pandemic could have been the first time that they’ve ever worked remotely. And being isolated from the corporate environment – a place where they might see or hear warnings over cybersecurity and staying safe online on a daily basis, as well as being able to directly ask for advice in person, makes it harder to make good decisions about security.

“That background noise of security is kind of gone and that makes it a lot harder and security teams have to do a lot more on messaging now. People working at home are more insular, they can’t lean over and ask ‘did you get a weird link?’ – you don’t have anyone do to that with, and you’re making choices yourself,” says Sherrod DeGrippo, senior director of threat research at Proofpoint.

“And the threat actors know it and love it. We’ve created a better environment for them,” she adds.

Remote working means a lot more of our daily workplace activity is being done over email and that’s providing hackers with a smoother pathway for infiltrating networks in the first place via phishing attacks.

It’s not hard for crooks to customise a phishing email to target employees of a particular organisation and direct them towards a link that requires their Microsoft Office 365 username and password, providing the attackers with initial entry into the network.

“We’re now working from behind residential internet infrastructure whereas before we were behind enterprise-grade infrastructure. Now we’re behind a cable modem that’s not only intended for residential use, but also you’ve got your kids on the same network, people streaming TV,” DeGrippo explains. “It’s a change and a mix from better secured and controlled environments to chaos with no control.”

Another WFH security issue; for some people, their work laptop might be their only computer, which means they’re using these devices for personal activities too like shopping, social media or watching shows. That means that that cyber criminals can launch phishing attacks against personal email addresses, which if opened on the right device, can provide access to a corporate network.

“In the past, if a threat actor wanted to compromise a corporate asset, they’d typically have to email people on their corporate email accounts. But now they can either target corporate emails or personal accounts – and there are going to be less controls on personal accounts,” says Charles CarmakalSVP and CTO at security company FireEye Mandiant.

He said he had seen a number of attacks that started because somebody opened up an email from their personal account on their corporate computer. “The frequency seeing the personal email address as an attack target feels a little bit higher than it has been,” he says.

“If an attacker is able to phish you and get a backdoor installed on your computer, it may not be connected to your company all day everyday but you will connect at some point,” Carmakal explained.

Once an attacker has successfully compromised a home user, they’ll wait for the user to be connected to the corporate VPN and take it from there like they would if they’d connected to a machine inside the walls of an office.

The attacker will attempt to move laterally around the network, gain access to additional credentials and escalate privileges – preferably by gaining administrator level rights – to be able to deploy ransomware as far and wide across the network as possible.

And with employees spread out by remote working – and in many cases, working irregular hours to fit work around home responsibilities – it can be harder for information security teams to identify unusual or suspicious activity by intruders on the network. That’s especially the case if the information security team didn’t have previous experience of defending remote workers prior to this year.

“They can go undetected because it’s not a situation that organisations have prepared for in terms of their security posture,” says Oren. “So it becomes harder for the defenders and on the other hand there’s much more opportunity and more touch points for the attackers.”


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