Ransomware Shuts Down Municipalities; How To Protect Our Cities

On June 9, 2024, the city of Cleveland, Ohio uncovered a “cyber incident” which was later determined to be a ransomware attack. Since the attack, city hall has been closed to the public for over a week.  Citizen facing services have been offline as well. To contain the damage of the ransomware, the city shut down the affected systems until they could restore them safely.  On a positive note, emergency services, works, utilities and healthcare were not impacted. 

Details about the attack have been kept close-hold as the investigation continues.   Some employees were allowed back to work on the 12th, but many issues remained.  They could not process building permits and birth/death certificates.  After over a week, the mayor’s office still has not disclosed what information was exposed.  The city did say that they were not negotiating with the hackers and will not pay the ransom.

This is not the first major city in the U.S. to get hit with ransomware.  In 2019, the city of Baltimore, MD was hit with a devastating attack that crippled their municipal services for weeks.  The cleanup cost the city over $18M.  In May of 2023, Dallas, TX was hit with ransomware that disrupted the city’s 911 emergency services. New Orleans, Knoxville, and Las Vegas also have joined the Ransomware Victim Club. 

Don’t think that this only happens in faraway places in different states.  The city of Kingman, AZ experienced a significant cyberattack where the city’s computer system was compromised.  The breach included social security and driver’s license numbers mostly affecting employees. 

There are several reasons why hackers target city governments.  For one, cities have valuable data.  This includes sensitive information such as personal records and financial data.  Secondly, hackers assume that municipalities are a soft target.  Municipalities often lack the necessary funding and skilled personnel to address technology challenges.  Often the IT infrastructure is outdated, making them vulnerable to attack.  Lastly, municipalities provide critical services.  Hackers think that if they take down critical services, the city will gladly pay the ransom.  

Many of these municipalities had cybersecurity services which monitored their systems.  So, how did the hacker install the ransomware?  The problem with this method is that the hacker must be actively inside the network before the threat can be identified, and sometimes that is too late. New malware (zero-day attack) is not in the antivirus databases and is not automatically stopped.  

The solution to this problem is “application whitelisting” or “application allow listing.” With this method only applications which have been validated previously can run on the computer.  Even if an employee clicked a malicious link, when the software tried to run on the local system, it would fail. It is not on the allow list.  There is upfront friction with this implementation where users cannot load anything they want whenever they want.  They submit a request for their new software to be put on the allow list.  The cybersecurity personnel validate the software in their testing environment looking for unusual behavior.  If it checks out, the software is approved for use.  

Another cybersecurity aspect which is often neglected by municipalities is continuous cybersecurity training.  The one-time annual cyber classes are not effective. However, if the training is kept short, about three minutes per week every week, delivered to user’s email box, the results are exponentially better. Cybersecurity is top of mind. 

The lesson to be learned is that every government municipality is a target, not just big cities.  The data is valuable to hackers.  If they can take down emergency services, the hackers expect a fast payment.  Does your local government have the proper cybersecurity measures in place, such as application whitelisting and continuous training, to avoid the disaster that Cleveland is experiencing?

The original article was published in the Sierra Vista Herald and can be found here.

The Rising Importance of Cybersecurity in Our Digital Age

Tom and Dan were camping deep in the woods one night when Dan runs into the tent and says “There’s a bear attacking our site, we have to go!” Tom is confused when Dan stops to put his shoes on. Tom says, “What are you doing that for, you can’t outrun a bear?” Dan says, “I don’t have to outrun a bear, just you.” That’s how it is in the cyber world. In general, hackers are lazy. If it’s too hard, they move along to an easier target. 

Cybersecurity is crucial to our very survival. As technology continues to advance, so too do the threats that lurk in the deep recesses of the World Wide Web. From individuals to businesses and governments, everyone is a potential target for cybercriminals who seek to exploit vulnerabilities for their gain. 

Cybersecurity is the practice of protecting systems, networks, and programs from digital attacks. These cyberattacks are aimed at accessing, changing, or destroying sensitive information, extorting money from users, or interrupting normal business processes. The internet is ubiquitous. The proliferation of connected devices means the scope and scale of these attacks have grown exponentially. Cybersecurity is no longer a concern solely for large corporations or government agencies. It is a critical issue for individuals and small businesses as well.

One of the most common types of cyberattacks is phishing. Phishing attacks involve sending fraudulent emails that appear to come from reputable sources, tricking recipients into revealing sensitive information like passwords or credit card numbers. Another prevalent threat is ransomware. It is a type of malware that encrypts a victim’s files and demands a ransom payment to restore access. Ransomware can have devastating consequences, leading to financial losses, reputational damage, and operational disruptions.

The increasing frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks highlight the need for robust cybersecurity measures. You must be vigilant about protecting your personal information online. Simple steps such as using strong, unique passwords for different accounts, enabling two-factor authentication, using an adblocker on all your browsers, and being cautious about clicking on links or downloading attachments from unknown sources can go a long way in preventing cyberattacks.

For businesses, cybersecurity must be a top priority. It is no longer a cost center. It is a revenue guarantee. Businesses need to implement comprehensive security policies, conduct regular security assessments, and provide continuous cyber education for employees. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable. They often lack the resources and expertise to defend against cyber threats. They can take advantage of various tools and services designed to enhance their cybersecurity posture. For instance, investing in a zero-trust provider can help protect sensitive data and prevent unauthorized access.

Businesses should develop and practice an incident response (IR) plan to quickly address and mitigate the impact of a cyberattack. The IR plan outlines steps taken in the event of a security incident, including notifying affected parties, containing the threat, and restoring normal operations. By being proactive and prepared, businesses can minimize the damage caused by cyber incidents and recover more swiftly.

Cybersecurity is an essential component of our digital world. As cyber threats continue to evolve, it is imperative for individuals and businesses to take proactive measures to protect themselves. By staying informed and implementing robust security practices, we can collectively enhance our resilience against cyberattacks and safeguard our digital future. The key to success is to make yourself a hard target so that the bear goes after the easy prey instead of you. 

The original article was published in the Sierra Vista Herald and can be found here.

Cyberwarfare: How foreign wars can affect us at home

On April 13, 2024, for the first time from their own country, Iran launched a huge missile and drone attack against Israel. This is all over the news, but did you know there was a cyber-attack prior to the strike against the Israeli radar systems? The pro-Iranian cyber gang known as Handala claimed to have breached radar systems and sent 500,000 text messages to Israeli citizens. The attack was meant to soften up the Israeli defense system and intimidate citizens, although it appears not to have had the desired effect.

More and more, cyberwarfare is part of the multi-pronged attack in kinetic warfare. So far, it has not been something that wins wars directly, but it contributes to the effects of other strategies. Cyberwarfare encompasses a range of activities, from espionage and sabotage to propaganda and disinformation campaigns. It is characterized by its low visibility and high impact, making it an attractive tool for state and non-state actors seeking to achieve strategic objectives without resorting to conventional military force. Additionally, the cyber domain offers a level of deniability and the ability to strike at the heart of critical infrastructure and societal functions.

There are three types of cyberwarfare commonly used today: wipers, distributed denial of service (DDoS), and defacement. The objective of wipers is to delete information from a network. This denies users access to their own data. Wiper attacks may include ransomware. A DDoS attack aims to take down a website or online resource by overwhelming it with malicious traffic. This is usually done with botnets (remotely controlled malware infected computers). Both types of attacks deny the end user access to their information or network. The third type of attack goes about their objective slightly different. Defacement deletes or modifies information on a website. The objective is to mislead the public into thinking the malign planted news is reliable with the hopes of that news going viral. This can be part of a wider psychological operation in the campaign.

There are estimates that the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) carried out more than 2,000 attacks each in the first week of April. Together, they operate more than 10 different attack groups. A cybertracker from CyberKnow reveals that 65 groups were involved in the campaign against Israel from the 1st to the 8th of April 2024, carrying out DDoS, defacement, and other types of attacks.

The targets of these attacks are not always digital. During the April 13th missile attack, Iranian-backed hacktivist group, the “CyberAv3ngers,” caused power outages in several Israeli cities. The CyberAv3ngers became famous in the U.S. in November and December 2023 for targeting U.S water facilities. Water utilities in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida were compromised. Although the consequences of the compromises were not dire, the group was sending a message that it could compromise high value targets and do damage if it wanted. The group targeted U.S. utilities for the U.S. support of Israel.

Although Iran’s cyber-attacks are noted above, it is not specific to that country. Cyberwarfare is being employed by all major powers across the globe. Israel, the U.S.A, China, Russia, North Korea, the UK, and European Union countries use these activities as part of their wider strategy to affect their influence.

Even though a kinetic war is being waged over 6000 miles away, cyber-attacks can affect us at home. Public utilities should especially be cyber prepared for anything in this environment.

You can find the original article here from the Sierra Vista Herald.

The Cyber Guys: Swatting customers, cyber hackers’ new extortion method

What you are about to read is fiction, but the scenario is feasible and, in a few months, may be likely.

Bob was sitting on the couch watching the Chiefs play the Bills. The Bills had just made a touchdown, bringing the score to Bills 17, Chiefs 10. Suddenly the front door burst open and a heavily armed group of people flowed into his home. In moments Bob was on the floor face down, arms behind him zip tied. Bob was under arrest.

Bob wasn’t guilty of a crime. He was the victim of a horrible extreme prank called “swatting.” Someone had accused Bob of posting extreme anti-government threats on social media. Bob’s social media account had been compromised, then filled with anti-government rants. Enough evidence to justify the temporary chaos you just witnessed.

Why was Bob targeted? Unfortunately, he was the client of a medical center that recently had fallen victim to a cyber-extortion group. The patient information was stolen (including Bob’s) and the threat group promised that if the ransom wasn’t paid, the threat group would make life a literal hell for the patients.

Because Bob had the bad habit of reusing his passwords it was trivial for the threat group to take over Bob’s social media account using his stolen credentials and make those false posts. Bob became the first of many to endure such humiliation.

The story is fictitious. But the threat is real. Swatting as a service is the latest tactic threat actors are using to coerce businesses into paying cyber ransom. You are truly just a pawn. Because cyberattack reports are so common today, we’ve become overwhelmed and desensitized to the implications of the threat. But now the implications are physical. Visits from actual police to your home. So far, the police visits have resulted in only momentary inconvenience for the victim and a waste of police resources. But it is conceivable this will escalate.

You are probably thinking, “There’s no way this could happen. Who would ever go to such an extent just to get money?”

The reason you think this is because you are not evil. But there are truly evil people who absolutely don’t care about the pain this causes innocent people. The effort it would take to conduct such a campaign as described above is very little on the part of the threat actor, especially in the age of artificial intelligence.

An AI bot can easily craft the content for social media posts at scale. The level of effort on the part of the human is then as little as copying and pasting the content into a compromised social media account.

But you can do something to make sure it isn’t you who suffers. First, if you don’t absolutely need social media, you can cancel your accounts. One principle of cybersecurity is “if you don’t need it, remove it.” If you do use your social media accounts, make sure you use a password manager like Bitwarden to create and securely store your passwords.

Lastly, you do have a right to ensure your data is secure. The tactic described above has been used against medical centers. Your protected health information is governed by the Health Information Portability Accountability Act. You have the right to ensure your medical provider is protecting you. Ask it to provide you with evidence it is doing more than the bare minimum. If it refuses to show you, then you may consider changing doctors.

I know this sounds extreme, but so is “swatting.”

Original article was featured in the Sierra Vista Herald and can be found here.

The $100 Million Phone Call – Tale of the MGM Hack

In 2008, an Australian man received a $147,000 phone bill while traveling in Europe. It appeared his 12-year-old son was playing a game of “Tap, Tap, Revenge” on his iPhone the whole time. That was quite a bill, but it is peanuts compared to the 10-minute phone call to technical support that cost MGM Resorts close to $100 Million.  

In September of 2023, a group of cyber hackers from the US and UK, ranging in age from 19-22 called Scattered Spider, used social engineering to take down many of the operations of the almost $34 Billion gambling giant. Cyber criminals went to the Linked-In social media page to find an employee that works in IT for MGM Resorts. A member of the State sponsored group named Scattered Spider called the MGM tech support team impersonating a hard-working IT employee that needed a password reset. After 10 minutes on the phone, the hackers owned that account. This was the cornerstone of the operation. If tech support verified who they were talking to prior to resetting the password, this attack may have been less damaging. The helpful tech support worker had an amygdala hijacking. The urgency to help took over the logical part of the brain that would have verified the caller.  

Once in the network, they escalated their privileges (gained admin rights) and found their way into the most valuable computers. The computers were responsible for the hospitality applications used to run the hotels and casinos. The hacking group loaded ransomware on over 100 servers. One by one the ransomware encrypted the systems and the applications crashed. Hotel keys no longer worked. Slot machines were unavailable. Point-of-Sales systems (credit cards) were unable to take payments. Guests were not able to reserve rooms and check in or out. MGM saw operations in eight states affected by the intrusion.  

Because MGM did not immediately pay the ransom, their systems were in a state of upheaval for 10 days. The losses from the disabled slot machines alone cost MGM an estimate of $5 Million a day. Some estimate a total loss of $8.4 Million per day. MGM Resorts International claimed the disruption in service caused a $100 Million loss in the third quarter results. Additionally, they spent another $10 Million on legal fees and technical consulting. As a result of the attack, their stock dropped $850 Million in market value. They have since recovered that loss. However, their biggest loss might be the damage to their reputation.  

Just a week before, another casino giant, Caesars Entertainment, suffered a ransomware attack. In contrast they immediately negotiated the ransom from $30 to $15 Million and saw only minimal disruption. The bright side (if there was one) for both corporations was that they both carried excellent cybersecurity insurance policies which covered the cost.  

There may be legitimate business reasons to pay the ransom, but it comes with an additional ethical price. The ransom you pay funds other elicit criminal activities like drug smuggling and human trafficking. We will save that discussion for another day.  

Don’t think this only happens to huge corporations, it happens to small and medium sized companies every day in America. Employees need cybersecurity training, so they don’t fall for the kind of trick played on MGM. You need to have company policies in place to protect against impersonation. You need business plans such as Incident Response Plans and Contingency of Operation plans developed and ready in case of an attack or disaster.

Keep all that in mind for your business the next time you receive an unexpected call. What will this phone call really cost? 

Original article in the Sierra Vista Herald found here:

In the year 1209 the Cathars were besieged at Carcassonne in southern France. The Cathars were a religious group branded heretical by the Pope. Within the heavily fortified city the Cathars were protected but vulnerable to a supply chain attack.

The Castle Comtal within the fortified city in France’s Aude department, stands as a monumental testament to medieval military architecture and strategy. One of the most distinctive features of this castle is its portcullis with two independently controlled gates. This engineering marvel serves as an apt metaphor for the need to separate your Information Technology (IT) and Cybersecurity teams.

The Portcullis at Carcassonne

The fortified city of Carcassonne has a complex defensive system that has stood the test of time. One of its remarkable features is the portcullis, a heavy grilled door that could be dropped or raised to secure the castle’s entrance. But what sets Carcassonne’s portcullis apart is its two independently controlled gates. This means that even if one gate were compromised, the other could remain secure, providing an additional layer of defense.

Separating IT and Cybersecurity Teams: A Modern-Day Portcullis

In modern organizations, the IT and Cybersecurity teams often have different mandates but overlapping responsibilities. The IT team is generally responsible for managing the hardware, software, and networks that keep the company running. In security terms this is called “Availability”. The Cybersecurity team, on the other hand, focuses mainly on protecting the “Confidentiality” (controlling who can see what), and the “Integrity” (who can change what).

Much like the dual gates of Carcassonne’s portcullis, these teams should operate independently but in tandem. A Change Board approves software installations and updates; The Cybersecurity team updates the allow policies and the IT team implements the changes.

Advantages of Separation

1. **Focused Expertise**: Specializing allows each team to become experts in their area, leading to better performance and problem-solving.

2. **Risk Mitigation**: Separating the approval and installation of software makes it almost impossible for a disgruntled employee to wreak havoc.

3. **Checks and Balances**: Independent operations allow for internal checks, reducing the likelihood of systemic failures and oversights.

The Harmony of Independence and Interdependence

While it’s crucial for these teams to operate independently, they should not work in silos. Much like the independent but harmoniously functioning gates of Carcassonne, IT and Cybersecurity teams should have protocols for secure communication and collaboration. For instance, while the IT team may be responsible for implementing a new software platform, the Cybersecurity team should be involved in assessing its security features and updating the allow policies.

Conclusion

The dual-gate portcullis at the Castle at Carcassonne serves as a timeless symbol of defense in depth. In a world where cyber threats are increasingly sophisticated, the need for separate but coordinated IT and Cybersecurity teams has never been greater. By learning from the past and applying its lessons to the present, your company can fortify your castle against the ever-evolving challenges facing you.

Put On Your Cyber Armor Before Your First Cup

Knights Prepare: In the early Middle Ages, knights spent hours getting ready for battle putting on their armor with the help of a squire.  There were hooded coats, trousers, gloves and shoes made of chain mail. Add the helmet, shield, and sword, and they were ready for war.

Cyber Protection: In order to be safe in the cyber world, computer users need to be prepared for the cyber battle that we did not request. We need protection.   Here are two examples of attacks and how to defend your home or business.

Ransomware Attacks: To avoid having to pay the ransom for your data held hostage, your organization should be backing up data nightly or more often if operations require.  In that case, you will only lose one day’s worth of data plus the time and resources it takes to restore your infected system.    

Suncrypt: This happened to Haywood County School District in North Carolina.  Their computers were attacked by Suncrypt ransomware.  They did not pay the ransom because they had backups, however, they had to delay school for a week to restore everything.  Suncrypt uses a Windows admin utility called “PowerShell” to send a file to execute on other computers in order to rename and encrypt every folder on the infected computer. The hackers now have your data hostage.

Could It Have Been Avoided?: What could the school district have done to avoid the infection altogether? 

Admin Privileges: First, the person who clicked on the phishing email had “administrative” privileges.  Cybersecurity has a concept called “least privilege” where a user has a least amount of privilege to do her work.  All internet browsing and email reading should be done as a non-admin user.  It is critical to only use admin privileges when performing admin functions (configuration and installation).

Outbound Powershell: Second, the computer security policy allowed the use of outbound PowerShell.  The system policy should have disabled outbound PowerShell capability. Powershell is the new favorite of hackers.  According to https://news.softpedia.com/news/malware-created-with-microsoft-powershell-is-on-the-rise-503103.shtml   eighty-seven percent (87%) of common malware uses PowerShell. This one change to your system can block much of the current malware.

Controlled Folder Access: Finally, for this particular attack, and those like it, the entire attack would have been thwarted if the systems had a simple setting enabled called “Controlled Folder Access.”  This feature allows only authorized applications and users to modify folders.  This would have completely blocked Suncrypt.

Phishing Attacks:  Phishing is getting very complex.  There are new targeted phishing campaigns where emails are sent to company users claiming to be from the IT Department.  The emails explain that certain sent emails were quarantined and provides a link for the user to login and review the files.  The link takes you to a screen that looks exactly like the company login.  The hackers grab the user’s credentials when they attempt to login and fix the problem.

Don’t Click It: The lesson here is to always hover over any link.  Do NOT click the link without checking it.  When you hover over the link, the details of the link show in the bottom left-hand corner of your browser or pops out on your email application.  Verify the entire link carefully. Hackers can be creative with their domain names making them similar to the real domain names. So look closely.   When it comes to links, hover, hover, and hover again. 

Put Your Cyber Armor On: So, along with that first cup of coffee or tea in the morning, remember to put on your cyber armor before you check your emails.

Riddled by Ransomware

Ransomware. The word sends chills up your spine; or it should. Ransomware is essentially a cyber-criminal holding hostage your digital life in a binary bag. Cyber-criminals do this by zipping all your important, irreplaceable files and setting a password on them. The crooks “generously” offer to sell you the password for a “minor” fee. Truth is, the fee is not so minor, nor convenient.

How It’s Delivered: Most ransomware comes as either an email attachment, or it comes by infecting you when you visit a compromised website. For example, a few weeks ago, the actual website for the World Health Organization was compromised and serving up malware to every visitor to the site!

Protection: You used to protect yourself from this type of attack by creating a daily backup of your critical files. Files like Quickbooks, family photos, and the digital scan of your high school diploma. I said keeping backups used to work. The crooks have changed their tactics. As more and more of us got better at backing up our files, fewer and fewer of us paid the ransom; therefore, we cut into their profits. That’s bad for business.

Lockout or Stealing: Before, they just stole your access to the files by encrypting them. Now they actually steal copies of the files. If you don’t pay up, they will dump your files on the dark web–not to the highest bidder–but for free. Maybe you’re not concerned if your pictures of Fluffy end up in the darkest corners of the Internet, but how about your Quickbooks, or the scans of your birth certificate, social security card and driver’s license? It is not uncommon (nor is it recommended), for people to keep spreadsheets of all their bank and investment account numbers and the associated usernames and passwords. These are certainly not the files you want to become public!

Anti-Virus Enough? I know what you’re thinking. “I have anti-virus so I don’t have to worry, right?” Wrong. Your antivirus won’t stop it. If it could, you’d rarely hear about these attacks in the news. Don’t delete it though; it will stop some malware.

Two Keys: It is imperative for every user to do two things. First, ensure you don’t surf the web with an account that has administrator privileges. Second, become suspicious of EVERY email you receive; if your gut tells you an email looks “fishy”, then it is probably “phishy”. Additionally, if you receive an email, and the tone is one intended to terrify you with dire consequences for inaction, be on your guard. That is a favorite tactic of cyber-crooks.

Helpful Hint: One last suggestion, if you do store critical files like those I mentioned, then you should zip them and password-protect them yourself with an annoyingly long password. Finally write the password in a book and lock it in your desk drawer. If you follow this recommendation, it won’t matter if those files get dumped onto the dark web, because you have protected them.  You turned the tables on crooks. They will be unaware that the bag they hold is filled with digital dust.