6 Tips for Protecting Against Ransomware

The Internet Society has been closely monitoring the ransomware cyber-attacks that have been occurring over the last couple of days. The malware, which has gone by multiple names, including WannaCry, WannaDecryptor, and WannaCrypt, exploits a flaw in Microsoft Windows that was first reportedly discovered by the National Security Agency (NSA). A group of hackers leaked the code for exploiting this vulnerability earlier this year, and a fix or patch was available as far back as March 2017. Since Friday, 200,000 computers in 150 countries have been compromised using this exploit. The numbers are expected to grow exponentially as people settle back into their work routines and regular use of computer systems this week. As part of our continuing work in online trust and security, there are some key takeaways from this incident that we want to leave with our community.

Firstly, we want to highlight the extremely negative effects which government stockpiling of vulnerabilities and zero day attacks has on the overall security of the Internet. With over 60 countries known to be developing growing arsenals of cyber weapons, and with many of these exploits leaking into the public domain, the potential for widespread damage is a massive cause for concern. The impact is not only economic in terms of financial loss, but social in terms of how it impacts end user trust, and most importantly human in terms of loss of life (especially given that ransomware attacks have been focusing on hospitals). And with critical infrastructure like power plants, dams, and transportation systems being targeted in nation state cyber offensives, the threat to human life increases exponentially.

Secondly, it would appear that some hospitals are easy targets for ransomware attackers. Their systems house data that is critical to patient care and management, and many of these institutions don’t have the IT resources to support critical process areas like vulnerability management, patch management, business continuity management, etc. In general, hospitals are also now adapting to digital realities and a number of them are playing catchup with regards to cyber readiness. However, the aforementioned challenges are not unique to hospitals, and are faced by many small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and in several instances, large corporations. Individual users are also targeted based on their generally poor Internet hygiene or lack of security awareness.

We want to take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of good online security practices when accessing the Internet. So here are 6 basic tips for protecting against ransomware:

1. Employ strong, multi-layered endpoint security – Using endpoint security that can protect web browsing, control outbound traffic, protect system settings, proactively stop phishing attacks and continuously monitor for anomalous system behavior will allow for better protection of servers, laptops, tablets, and mobile devices.

2. Maintain regular backups of your critical data – Backups can help you to protect your data from more than just ransomware. Other risk events such as malware, theft, fire, flood or accidental deletion can all render your data unavailable. Be certain to encrypt your backed-up data so it can be effectively restored. Backups should also be stored at an offsite location isolated from the local network.

3. Do not open unsolicited emails or messages from unknown senders – Many ransomware variants are distributed through phishing attacks or email attachments. Increased mindfulness when handling ‘suspect’ emails can be effective in combating ransomware.

4. Patch your systems regularly – Patching your systems for vulnerabilities reduces the opportunities for hackers to infect you with ransomware. The fact that a patch was available for the WannaCrypt vulnerability since March highlights the somewhat lax attitude by organizations and individuals to keeping their system patches up to date. That being said, patch management is a complex activity and can impact the availability of key systems. Hence, thorough testing must be conducted to avoid unplanned downtime.

5. Disable macros if possible – Many forms of ransomware are distributed in Microsoft Office documents that attempt to trick users into enabling macros. There are a number of tools available that can limit to functionality of macros my preventing them from being enabled on files downloaded from the Internet.

6. Be aware and vigilant – For individuals, don’t assume that only techies need to know about all the recent malware and trends in online attacks. Subscribe to mailing lists that provide information on common vulnerabilities and exposures. In the case of organizations, developing an information security awareness program is an integral part of improving overall security posture.

Finally, we want to touch on the important work being done by the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), the Internet Society’s newest initiative. The OTA’s mission is to enhance online trust, user empowerment and innovation through convening multi-stakeholder initiatives, developing and promoting best practices, ethical privacy practices and data stewardship. With regards to preventing ransomware attacks, OTA has developed a number of industry best practices that address key threat areas such as email authentication and incident response. These are as follows:

Email Authentication: https://otalliance.org/resources/email-security

Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance (DMARC):https://otalliance.org/dmarc

Cyber Incident & Breach Response: https://otalliance.org/resources/cyber-incident-breach-response

Additional OTA best practices, resources and guidance to help enhance online safety, data security, privacy and brand protection can be found here.

The Spam Toolkit developed by the Internet Society also provides some guidance on addressing online threats.

The Internet Society is committed to the enhancement of online trust, and our work along this vein spans multiple areas. Our goal is to continue to provide our individual members, organizational members, chapters, partners, and other constituents with timely and relevant information and resources that equip and empower them to act.

My original blog article was published on the Internet Society website at: http://bit.ly/2qMuQ4U

How Secure is Barbados’ New Centralized Healthcare Information System?

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Think about the following scenario for a minute:

A Caribbean government deploys a health information system (HIS) with the goal of improving the quality and coordination of patient care in the public service. For all intents and purposes, expert consultants from Europe and the USA are brought down to implement the system and to ensure that best practices for securing and protecting sensitive clinical data are used. The project is successfully completed, the consultants leave, and hand off day-to-day management of the system to the government’s IT staff.

The government has no overall IT security policies, procedures and guidelines to ensure that the system and the data housed in it continue to be secure and protected from malicious threats. There are no trained or experienced IT security experts on the government’s payroll. There are no data security standards enforced by the government. There is no data protection legislation in place to provide a control framework for protecting highly confidential healthcare data from being stolen by hackers or to prevent data from being accidentally lost or leaked.

Eventually, all these weaknesses together result in persistent compromises of the system by hackers, and all the private clinical data of the citizens of the country are posted on the Internet or otherwise made available for the world to see.

Does the above scenario make you shudder? I know it scares me to death.

The rest of this article will demonstrate how close to reality this is in the Caribbean region.

In the past week or so, the Government of Barbados informed the public of the launch of their Med Data healthcare information system (HIS) and electronic medical records (EMR) scheme. Let me first commend the government on this much-needed initiative to drive efficiency and improved standards of care in public healthcare. However, I have a number of grave concerns about the manner in which this project has been undertaken.

Data Protection Legislation

First of all, no data protection legislation has been discussed, ratified, and implemented through Parliament. Simply put, healthcare data must be processed fairly and with the consent of individuals, especially as it pertains to whom data is shared with and in what context. Legislation should address key areas such as mandatory data breach notifications, heightened enforcement, heavy penalties for breaches, and expanded patient rights. Moreover, any data protection legislation should have a broader scope and include the management and protection of data in areas outside of healthcare, namely banking, insurance and law enforcement.

In essence, data protection legislation would hold both private and public institutions accountable and liable for damages in the event of a security breach. It would also make it mandatory that all breaches are reported to the public so that data owners can take steps to protect their identities. And finally, it allows for heavy fines to be levied on any institution that fails to maintain strong security controls for data.

Data Security Standards

Secondly, there has been no development of data security standards to accompany the legislation and to provide best practice guidance for accessing, exchanging, transmitting, and storing healthcare data in a secure manner. On a broader scale, the Government has no risk management framework, no IT governance processes, and from an operational perspective, no procedures for responding to IT security incidents. There has been an initiative in play for some time now to create a Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT), but it has stalled due to lack of resources (human and financial).

Given the number of security incidents that have occurred in the public sector over the last couple of years, one would think that government officials would be taking data privacy and security more seriously. Key systems at the Royal Barbados Police Force, Inland Revenue, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been hacked in the last couple of years (and these are only the ones that have been made public or that the government are aware of).

But enough criticism of the government; let’s talk about solutions. There is no doubt that IT governance, risk and control (GRC) is an area that requires major attention from the Government of Barbados. The question is: How do we address these deficiencies?

Recommendations

For one, I would suggest that public officials engage local groups such as the Caribbean Cyber Security Center, Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) Barbados Chapter, Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) Barbados Chapter, and the Barbados IT Professionals Association (BIPA) to assist them in building the necessary competences to improve the control framework and information security posture of the public sector.

Additionally, an online register of consultants should be established to allow the government to create a repository of world-class professionals — not only in IT, but across disciplines — who can assist them in delivering critical initiatives such as the Med Data project. All the expertise does not reside in Europe or North America. We have talent pools (of awesome individuals) across the Caribbean region that remain untapped.

Another area for improvement is around developing policy and legislation. There needs to be greater engagement of the general public and other interested parties in such processes — effective dialogue is constructive. Mechanisms such as e-participation or crowdsourcing can provide the government with a better understanding of the inherent risks, latent issues or knowledge gaps that may exist in program management and project delivery.

Finally, organizational management and intellectual capital development should be foremost on the minds of public officials. The leaders that we have elected need to think more strategic and create organizational structures that are agile and can respond expediently to the needs and demands of the people and address the key risks that the country is faced with. Centralized strategic planning and oversight of the tactical and operational aspects of IT are needed. Key positions such as the Chief Information Officer and Chief Information Security Officer must be defined and filled appropriately. Government employees have to be trained in disciplines such as project management, risk management, IT service management, business continuity, and cybersecurity.

The aforementioned recommendations are not meant to be a panacea. They are basic parts of a maturity model; one that will permit the government’s risk response mechanisms to evolve to better defend against the threats that exist and emerge. But more importantly, they are of critical importance to building trust in the e-government systems that the public are expected to use. They hopefully should also foster a risk-oriented philosophy that pervades throughout the public sector.

Navigating the cloud: SMEs and cloud services

Cloud-Computing-cap
More and more small businesses are migrating to the cloud and reaping significant benefits like never before. With cloud services, small businesses no longer need to install physical infrastructure like e-mail servers and storage systems, or purchase software applications with exorbitant annual license fees. The “on-demand” availability of cloud solutions means seamless and simple collaboration with customers, business partners, and staff members using nothing more than a web browser. Cloud services also provide entrepreneurs and home-based businesses with access to advanced technology without the requirement to hire a full-time IT specialist.

But what exactly is this “cloud”?

Cloud computing is an overarching term which encompasses a number of different categories. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is where a particular application or service is provided to a business or individual as a subscription. Google Drive, QuickBooks Online Plus, and BaseCamp are all popular examples of SaaS.

Using Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), businesses are provided with a platform on which they can build, install, and maintain customized apps, databases and integrated business unit services. Widely used PaaS include Windows Azure, SharePoint Online, and Google App Engine.

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) allows businesses to outsource infrastructure in the form of virtual resources. Components include servers, storage, networking and more. IaaS providers include Rackspace, HP Converged Infrastructure, and Amazon Web Services.

Most small businesses generally don’t need much more than SaaS to meet their operational needs. SaaS provides them with the capabilities to deliver a myriad of IT services that would otherwise be expensive and resource intensive to administer as localized, on-site solutions.

It must however be emphasized that cloud services bring with them a number of security, stability, and data control issues. That is why it is critically important that small businesses stay informed and strictly require that cloud providers furnish them with detailed business continuity plans and security controls to remediate outages and protect sensitive data.

What to do when your cloud brings the rain?

There are a plethora of reasons why cloud computing is popular. It gives small businesses the technology that enables them to be lean, agile, and competitive. But as is quite evident, trusting your information assets to a single entity whose equipment is stored in a centralized location, means that you’re extremely vulnerable to whatever outages, security compromises, or natural disasters that they are exposed to.

So what are small business owners to do? Here are some recommendations that can allow you to better manage the risks associated with cloud providers.

Fine Tune Your SLA: Service level agreements (SLA) should codify the exact parameters and minimum levels of service required by the business, as well as compensation when those service levels are not met. It should assert the ownership of the business’ data stored on the cloud platform, and outline all rights to retaining ownership. It should include the infrastructure and security standards to be adhered to, along with a right to audit for compliance. It should also specify the cost and rights around continuing/discontinuing use of the cloud service.

Keep Critical Data Local: Decide which business processes require maximum uptime, and keep them on-site. Avoiding the cloud totally for specific mission-critical applications, small businesses can minimize data unavailability as well as security and privacy issues. Most definitely some businesses have regulatory requirements to meet, and this ought to be a key consideration when deciding not to ship your data offshore.

Two-Factor Authentication: More and more providers are offering two-factor authentication (2FA) as a means of securing access to cloud services. Two-factor authentication adds a second layer of authentication to user logon credentials. When you have to enter only your username and one password, that’s considered as single-factor authentication. 2FA mandates that users have 2 out of 3 types of credentials before access to cloud resources are granted.

Deploy A Hybrid Configuration: Maintaining a hybrid implementation of cloud and local services is a best practice approach for protecting company data. Replication or archiving solutions often deliver a service with both a local appliance at the customer’s premises and cloud storage too. This type of on-premise-to-cloud replication strategy ensures that you have local copies of the data you transmit to the cloud. Actively seek out cloud providers that can configure this kind of scenario.

Availability, integrity and confidentiality issues will always exist when using IT systems. And when a business employs cloud-based computing, these challenges are even more pronounced. Be extremely meticulous when searching for cloud providers, and question them about their security controls and disaster recovery options. Even though you outsource the processing of your business data; there’s no reason why you should lose control.

Cyber Threats and Security in the Caribbean 2014 Update

Lock background

[Exert from a recent interview I did with ICT Pulse on the state of cybersecurity in the Caribbean]

ICT Pulse: Niel, give us a quick recap of what were the most prevalent incidents in Barbados and/or in the region in 2013?
Niel Harper: In 2013, Barbados was subjected to attacks from a number of different threat vectors. Several government agencies, financial institutions and private businesses were the focus of targeted website compromises. Some of the techniques used were distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), cross-site scripting (XSS), and SQL injection attacks. There was also a sophisticated ATM skimming campaign that was perpetrated by Eastern Europeans whereby several commercial banks were targeted. I would like to emphasize that these are the known issues. I am pretty certain that the occurrences and complexity of the attacks were much higher, but as there is no legal requirement to report breaches, we will simply never know.

ICTP: Although we are still early in 2014, how is the threat landscape changing? Are there any particular areas of concerns that you have for Caribbean organisations this year?
NH: The Caribbean will be facing the same evolving threat landscape as the rest of the world. For one, as more companies and individuals in the region move their information to the cloud, we should expect to see more focused attacks on corporate and personal data stored on cloud services. Secondly, we will witness greater adoption of advanced persistent threat (APT) techniques to be used in the distribution of traditional malware. There will be growth in the amount of Android and iOS malware, and the burgeoning use of mobile apps for enterprise applications coupled with increased social media usage will broaden the overall attack surface. Given that Windows XP is still widely deployed across enterprises and on personal computers, the platform will become a huge target for attackers as Microsoft ends support activities. And finally, spam is evolving to a point where it is being employed more and more for malware payloads.

ICTP: At the CARICOM level, there appears to be a growing awareness of cybercrime and calls by leaders that something be done. In your opinion, have there been any improvements in the cyber security-associated resources or support structures in Barbados, and/or perhaps regionally? What might still be missing?
NH: The Government of Barbados has signed a MOU with the ITU to setup a Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT) within the framework of the ITU-IMPACT initiative on strengthening cybersecurity. I believe that this step is a signal of intent by government to improve cyber response capabilities in the country. However, my concern is that the accompanying cybersecurity legislation and the necessary capacity building for personnel is not being addressed in as robust a manner as it needs to be. Jamaica has expanded the capabilities of the Communication Forensic and Cybercrime Unit (CFCU) of the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and has also taken steps to establish a national computer security incident response team (CSIRT). A National Cybersecurity Task Force was also established in 2012. However, what have been missing in Jamaica are large-scale cybersecurity awareness programs to educate key at-risk groups. The Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) has also been doing its part to combat cybercrime region-wide, but there are still a plethora of challenges in numerous countries in terms of adequate resources and funding for cyber security response. Moreover, there is little to no coordination among the cybersecurity entities in place across the CARICOM footprint. This prevents the region as a whole from jointly benefitting from crucial activities such as threat information sharing, critical infrastructure protection, active defense and incident preparedness.

ICTP: Are you observing any real evidence of a greater willingness among organisations to take cyber/network security more seriously? How is that awareness (or lack thereof) being manifested?
NH: I think there are generally two types of organizations across the CARICOM region: 1) Organizations that by the very nature of their business and the operational and regulatory requirements they are subject to, are compelled to take cybersecurity serious and invest heavily in a strong control framework to effectively mitigate the risks they are confronted with; and 2) Firms or institutions whose management simply does not recognise or understand the high risks which they are faced with as it pertains to cyber attacks and online crime. So what you now have is a situation where there are a handful of companies with very strong cybersecurity capabilities (mostly financial institutions), and a large amount with weak controls as it relates to cyber resilience. All in all, many Caribbean organizations are still facing serious financial constraints, and budgetary planning cycles regularly do not include large expenditures on things like IT security. Monies are spent on more seemingly important corporate interests, although this will likely change as cyber-risks increasingly pose threats to human, social and economic well being and stability.

ICTP: Are there any key areas businesses should be investing their network security/IT dollars this year?
NH: Businesses need to invest their money in personnel with specialized knowledge and expertise in implementing technical solutions, enhancing operational practices and developing effective cybersecurity-related policies. Governments as well as corporations also need to invest in awareness-raising programs around cybersecurity. And more dollars also have to be spent on research, monitoring, reporting, and coordination of responses to cybersecurity incidents.

The full article and interview can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/mlssfll

Should We Fear the Era of Ubiquitous Computing?

Eye Looking Over Person On Computer

More and more, technology is becoming an integral part of our lives. In a not so distant future, there will be a major convergence of entire industries in the fields of media, consumer electronics, telecommunications, and information technology. But the approaching wave of the technological revolution will affect us more directly, in all aspects of our lives – it is becoming apparent that our future will be characterized by the appearance of computing devices everywhere and anywhere. This concept is known as ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing encompasses a wide range of existing technological platforms and emerging research topics, including distributed systems, ad hoc sensor networks, mobile computing, location-based services, context-aware computing, wireless networks, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction.

Case in point, the functionality in smart mobile devices is constantly expanding into previously unthinkable dimensions. Wi-Fi positioning systems (WPS) and GPS can deliver location services as exact as 10 meters in an outdoor setting. Short-range radio interfaces (Bluetooth, ZigBee, Z-Wave, IrDA, etc.) are creating personal area networks (PANs) that better facilitate intrapersonal communication. Mobile phones can now be employed as personal base stations or “access points” that connect a universe of “smart devices”. As it relates to the unbanked or under-banked, technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC) and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) are allowing more individuals and entrepreneurs to participate in the ever-burgeoning mobile economy. From the perspective of e-health and remote patient monitoring, mobile watches (essentially wearable computers) are able to capture a user’s health data and, if necessary, transmit vital statistics back to a medical center via telemetry. In this regard, new qualities and functions are developing due to the proximity to the body that a normal mobile phone could not previously achieve.

Former IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner conceptualized a “post-PC era” where he foresaw, “…a billion people interacting with a million e-businesses through a trillion interconnected intelligent devices.” Smartphones with high-speed data connections, geo-location positioning, and voice recognition capabilities that contextually interact with their environment are the first indicators of this type of ubiquitous virtual network of technical devices and day-to-day objects. Such developments are only now being realized due to rapid advances in technology. For example, semiconductor technology has progressed to a point where complex functions have been miniaturized; so as to obtain drastically reduced form factors — weight, size and energy consumption. The field of “Body Area Networks” has broken new ground whereby the human body can be employed as a transmission channel for low voltage electromagnetic signals. Touch, gesture and other tactile interfaces can initiate individualized communications, and be deployed for user authentication, personalized device configuration, or billing of products and services.

While determining concrete applications for such technologies is a difficult task, the potential for objects to communicate with each other, use available Internet services, and access large online data stores, is simply mind-blowing. The field of ubiquitous computing, and its array of technologies, is creating linkages between the mundane world and everyday objects, between products and services and capital assets, and between e-commerce platforms and supply chain management systems. They are effectually removing human beings as intermediaries between the real and the virtual world. As a result, new business models are emerging that are providing incremental benefits to manufacturers, suppliers, and customers. More importantly, we are seeing the ultimate creation of a plethora of new services such as the persistent personalization or customization of products throughout their entire life cycle.

Despite the obvious social and economic value of ubiquitous computing, particular attention needs to be focused on the issues of security and privacy. The promise of ubiquitous computers is accompanied by a broadening of the traditional Internet problem of “online history” (i.e. the collection of online user activity into big data sets) to include an even more extensive “offline history”. As such, whereas the online surveillance of individuals has been restricted to Internet usage, there will now be no clear delineation between “online” and “offline” data collection in a world of pervasive smart objects. Without a doubt, this will make the resulting data much more valuable. But who will be deriving value from this data (or more so profiting)? Whereas previously a limited profile of an individual could be “built” through data analytics, a much more comprehensive view of this person and his/her daily activities can be obtained in the ubiquitous reality. The question is: Do we really want others to have this much insight into our lives?

In his lecture, “The Ethicist’s and the Lawyer’s New Clothes: The Law and Ethics of Smart Clothes,” Glenn Cohen asserts that the ubiquity of computers threatens to “disrupt the place of refuge.” He warned that even when we switch off our mobile phones, given the prevalence of smart devices, “we squeeze out the space for living a life.” He concludes, “Lots of people have things they want to do and try but wouldn’t if everything was archived.” Should we expect the government and the rule of law to protect us in the ubiquitous world? In the post-Snowden era, we would be foolish to harbor such false expectations. Taking into consideration that most online surveillance activities are undetectable, the odds of anyone securing a legal claim against corporations or governments are slim to none.

In an ideal world, having business responsible for baking robust privacy controls into their products seems to be an optimal solution. But this means that we have to be able to trust the companies (a tall order in my estimation). Most recently, the technical community, in the form of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), has renewed its commitment to building greater security into Internet protocols such as HTTPS and through the use of Transport Layer Sockets (TLS) and Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS). However, there are significant limitations in the use of technology-only fixes to enhance privacy and security on the Internet (and ubiquitous computing will be no exception). Operational practices, laws, and other similar factors also matter to a large extent. And at the end of the day, no degree of communication security helps you if you do not trust the party you are communicating with or the infrastructure and devices you are using. With all that has happened over the last 24 months in terms of pervasive online surveillance, should we be fearful of what the ubiquitous era holds for us? I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m afraid, but neither am I brimming with unbridled confidence.

Mind you, I am not by any means a pessimist. There is no doubt that ubiquitous computing will provide vast opportunities for improvement in the realms of our political, commercial, and personal existence. However, the multitude of concerns around governance, standards, integration, interoperability, security, and privacy will necessitate an effective multi-stakeholder approach. The demand will be for unprecedented collaboration among the technical community, academia, business, and government. My fear is that the concerns of the end user will be largely ignored amidst the jostling for position by the others players.