Expert Opinion


Prevention in times of proliferating low cost, sophisticated cyberattacks

On the sidelines of the Singapore International Cyber Week (SICW) in September 2017, OpenGov had a chat with Mr. Sean Duca, Regional Chief Security Officer, Asia Pacific, Palo Alto Networks, on prevailing cyber threats and challenges and how public and private sector organisations might deal with them. Mr. Duca talked about how organisations can still prevent cyberattacks, crowdsourcing threat information and the obstacles in doing so. 

Palo Alto Networks is a network and enterprise security company which provides platforms helping organisations reduce cybersecurity risk to a manageable degree, allowing them to compartmentalise their most serious threats and focus on business operations. 

Current cybersecurity landscape

In terms of threats, Mr. Duca listed three different types of groups that are targeting public and private sector organisations in APAC: cybercriminals, people or groups that would be focused on cyber espionage and cyber hackers. Cybercrime for profits is the primary risk from the private sector perspective, while cyber espionage is key for the public sector.If we look at challenges, businesses are trying to secure their environment, while trying to be more innovative and leveraging on the meg trends like cloud and the Internet-of-things (IoT).  

For instance, today if a company wants to procure a thousand servers, it would probably take them about 9-10 months. Whereas they could go to Amazon Web Services and get that in 5 minutes.

Governments can also place the front-end of web applications that provide services to citizens in the cloud to benefit from on-demand resource availability, while still keeping sensitive data in their core data centres. 

“When you think about that from a security context, I need to be working at the speed of cloud. You think about the world where people are creating applications using DevOps/Agile methodology, they can be making changes very frequently. So, we need to be able to secure that at that same pace,” Mr. Duca said.  

Considering Singapore as an example for the public sector’s standpoint, the city-state is striving to become Smart Nation. 

A lot of citizen data will be analysed under the Smart Nation initiatives to improve lives. The security has to be incorporated from the start, it cannot be bolted on later. Because, if trust is eroded or lost, then citizens might want to go off the grid and not share any information.  Effectively, the citizen or the consumer is becoming the regulator - “If I don’t like it, I’m not going to use it.” 

So, governments need to work closely with the private sector and their citizens to try and understand how much information people are willing to share in exchange for certain benefits and value. 

“We will consume more services, we will become more dependent on these connected devices that are out there. So, we can’t afford security to be compromised. We need to think about how to prevent successful cyberattacks from taking place – we can’t prevent everything, but how do we ensure we’re automating our defences to try and mitigate threats. We really need to try and unshackle ourselves from a legacy way of thinking when it comes to security and really do something different,” Mr. Duca said. 

Is prevention still possible? 

Many people say that prevention is not possible any longer and that we should focus on detection and response. 

But an organisation would not want its sensitive information compromised and merely prepare a report after the fact. For instance, in a case of intellectual property theft, the attackers might have taken copies of every single piece of information. How does the organisation know what has been taken and what is the value of that information? 

Hence, prevention is still important, though putting up a firewall is no longer enough. It can still be done by reducing the attack surface, gaining full visibility of what’s out there, applying whitelisting policies consistently across endpoints and networks, maintaining good cyber hygiene and patching regularly. 

But then again there are issues like the breach of devices in say hospitals. It might not be feasible to patch a Windows XP device in a MRI machine.

“But I could stay to work out how to retrofit these devices. When I say prevention, it’s all about preventing, stopping anything I know to be bad,” said Mr. Duca. 

That could cover 80% of the threats, which are the known threats. Then the skilled professionals, who are short in supply, can focus on the remaining 20% which are the unknown threats. Here, automation and machine learning tools can be used to detect the unknown threats and convert them into known ones. 

Sharing security information

Crowdsourcing threat information or information-sharing on threats and attacks between companies in an industry and with authorities can go a long way in supporting prevention. Because, today a novice hacker can go to an underground forum, and procure cybercrime as a service capability from a marketplace, starting from a very cheap entry point. But this kind of sharing is still limited on the good guys’ side. 

Mr. Duca said that it really comes down to trust. “In the world that we live in, we’re scared to actually share information with others because we fear some sort of retribution, we fear reputational damage, we fear that people are going to think, oh my god, they got breached.” 

If the organisations shared how the attack took place, the techniques, tactics and procedures used, it would force the adversaries to revisit their playbook and work out a different way of attacking the next organisation. 

This is more difficult to get than low-value information such as IP addresses, domains, hashes of files but it could make a real difference.

Mr. Duca shared an example of how such information-sharing could take place. Palo Alto Networks entered into a data exchange agreement with the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation. The agreement aims to combat criminal trends in cyberspace, cyberthreats and cybercrime globally through sharing threat information generated by Palo Alto Networks and Unit 42, its threat intelligence team.  

“We’re not sharing personal identifiable information, we’re sharing threat information around distribution services that could be used to distribute malware. Interpol in turn could provide the information to 192 member countries as part of their operational briefings,” Mr. Duca explained.

That way Palo Alto Networks is playing a role in helping Interpol disrupt large scale campaigns. 

Earlier this year, Palo Alto Networks was one of seven private sector companies that provided support to an INTERPOL-led operation targeting cybercrime across the ASEAN region, resulting in the identification of nearly 9,000 command-and-control (C2) servers as well as hundreds of compromised websites, including government portals. If we consider government information being shared with the private sector, there is a major obstacle. Everything that goes into government is typically classified. So how do you unclassify that?

People are scared of sharing because they fear there are going to be some sort of privacy implications if personal identifiable information was accidentally leaked out. 

“I think the challenge in part that a lot of people have is, they feel that they have to put all their chips into the game. And it’s not that,” he added. 

Therefore, making it mandatory to share all the information might not be the best way to go. It will also result in massive volumes of data which will be difficult to make sense of. The parameters of what needs to be shared, how the high-value information can be shared, stored, analysed without compromising privacy, have to be worked out. 

Mr. Duca said, “I think we need to work better, so that we can start to develop a secure way to share, I think we need to ensure that there’s trust amongst the members. Ultimately, we’re in it together because a hit on one of us is a hit on all of us. So, we need to find means to try to get to a point where we’re committed to working together as much as the underground hackers.”

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