IBM X-Force Security Predictions for the 2019 Cybercrime Threat Landscape

Taking a look back at 2018, it amazes me that the cybercrime threat landscape continues to top itself year after year. Over the past year, we’ve seen historic breaches, the discovery of large-scale vulnerabilities, the emergence of the trust economy and regulators trying to help make sense of it all.

The looming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) deadline finally came in May after businesses spent years preparing. Now we’re in the GDPR era, and we’re still seeing organizations struggle to interpret and tackle the regulation. Businesses are asking themselves, should we disclose every possible incident to be covered or spend more time investigating incidents to confirm them?

We also saw many unintended consequences from the GDPR, including the removal of WHOIS data that threat intelligence experts rely on to identify malicious domains used by fraudsters. We learned that in Europe, organizations will need to go through work councils to receive approval to deploy endpoint protection tools in the wake of an incident due to the privacy regulation. This gives attackers a significant advantage to harvest data for an extensive amount of time — upwards of 30 to 90 days.

One of my security predictions for 2018 was that organizations will start to get response right. We’ve seen some progress on this, but there’s still a lot of work to be done here. Since we opened our Cyber Range in Cambridge, Massachusetts two years ago, we’ve had more than 2,000 people experience what it’s like to respond to an attack.

We’ve seen many industry groups come together in the Cyber Range and collaborate to help their entire industries. We also launched our Cyber Tactical Operations Center (C-TOC), an 18-wheeler that will be touring Europe in 2019 to address the increased demand for preparedness training. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, but our industry is making progress, and for that, I’m proud.

Security Predictions for the New Year

So what lies ahead in 2019? How will the cybercrime threat landscape change and evolve?

Top experts from IBM X-Force have been analyzing emerging trends and clues this year, which they believe are indicators of potential major cybercriminal activity in 2019. Below, these experts reveal their top security predictions for 2019 based on insights from their research and work with clients. The predictions span a range of potential attack schemes and consequences, from industry-specific prognostications to a rapid expansion of emerging criminal schemes.

First, a couple of my own predictions:

Social Insecurity Numbers Dropped for Access

With most Americans’ Social Security numbers a shared secret after 2017, corporations will start to move away from using the numbers as a form of access. In particular, corporate benefits programs often still use Social Security numbers as an identifier. Expect corporations and benefits programs to evolve their authentication methods ahead of regulators.

What organizations can do: Stop using Social Security numbers for identification. Instead, use one-time PIN to establish accounts tied to two-factor authentication. Also, further use of biometrics for authentication.

Unforeseen Consequences of the GDPR

2018 was all about implementation of GDPR and getting organizations prepared. In 2019, new, unforeseen impacts of GDPR on threat intelligence will be identified and have broader consequences in cybersecurity. With the elimination of WHOIS data, identification of malicious domains connected to bad actors becomes an enormous challenge, and we’ll likely see malicious domains ramp up. Organizations in Europe will struggle to remove attackers from networks and devices due to a 30- to 90-day waiting period to deploy endpoint protection after an incident. My hope is that regulators, work councils and security industry leaders can work together in 2019 to identify some exceptions in which security takes precedent.

Possible solution: Greater collaboration between regulators, work councils and security industry leaders to identify exceptions to regulations when security inadvertently could suffer due to the regulation.

Now, some predictions from my fellow X-Force team members:

Automated Customer Service Systems in Attackers’ Sights

Kiosk and other self-service systems have become more and more a part of our world. Retailers, airlines, hotels and public buildings are using these systems to speed up check-ins and reduce labor costs. In 2018, we saw a resurgence in ATM hacking, and we expect in 2019 to see public-facing self-service systems targeted as a way to harvest valuable customer data.

– Charles Henderson, X-Force Red

What organizations can do: Test hardware and software before criminals have a chance to. Harden physical interfaces and disable unused ports at the hardware level. When using third-party components, ensure that they are still supported by the manufacturer.

Listen to the podcast: Spotlight on ATM Testing

A Cyber Insurance Market Reality Check

The growth of cybersecurity insurance has risen alongside the epic growth of cybercrime. While a valuable tool to manage costs of a security incident or data breach, businesses have become too reliant on insurance, avoiding investment in other preventative technologies and response services. In 2019, we’ll see closer teaming between cyber insurance providers and security vendors to fill the emerging gap created by the market.

– Christopher Scott, X-Force Incident Response and Intelligence Services (IRIS)

Possible solution: Providers of managed security services and cyber insurance team up together to offer consulting services, assess risk and implement defensive strategies.

Have Data, Will Travel

Cybercriminals will shift their sights to the lucrative databases of personal data maintained by travel and hospitality companies. In 2018, we saw the tip of the iceberg with high-profile breaches at airlines and hotel chains. Expect more mega breaches in this area in 2019 as cybercriminals look to monetize rewards points and gather new credentials, such as passport numbers and driver licenses, to establish identities for online crime. This data could also lead to targeted, travel-related phishing, tapping a person’s interests, motivations and connections.

– Wendi Whitmore, X-Force IRIS

What organizations can do: Deploy data obfuscation technologies, encryption and regular database activity monitoring. Conduct regular security testing and have an incident response plan in place. Frequently audit the storage requirements for personally identifiable information (PII) and set expirations for how long sensitive data is stored.

Evidence of Cybercriminal Stock Manipulation

There’s growing speculation that some shorting of stocks can be tied to cyberattacks. Are criminals collaborating to time their attacks for financial gain? In 2019, we expect these schemes will be further exposed and possibly prosecuted as government regulators take notice of this activity.

– Dustin Heywood, X-Force Red

Possible solution: A breach of a public company is now both a technical crisis as well as a financial crisis. Rapid manipulation of stock prices can occur as a result of bad guys looking to profit or hedge funds reacting to breaking news. Your speed of response and precision of communications will matter. Organizations need to build and test their runbooks ahead of time.

Crypto-Mining Powered by PowerShell

PowerShell use for malicious activities has continued to grow in 2018. IBM X-Force IRIS saw the tool used by malicious actors to inject malware directly into memory, enhance obfuscation and evade antivirus detection software. In 2019, X-Force IRIS anticipates that crypto-mining tools will use PowerShell to load fileless malware onto compromised systems — similar to reported activity by the crypto-miner GhostMiner earlier this year.

– Dave McMillen, X-Force IRIS

What organizations can do: Enterprises will want to ensure that they are logging, tracking and auditing PowerShell use in their networks. This can be achieved by leveraging the latest version of PowerShell and enabling logging through Group Policy Settings. These logs should be forwarded to a central location where they can be analyzed.

In addition to logging, companies using Windows 10 should be sure to implement an antivirus solution that is compatible with the Anti Malware Scanning Interface (AMSI). This interface provides antivirus products the ability to inspect PowerShell code before it is executed, allowing the product to stop malicious PowerShell before it can run.

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Caleb Barlow

Vice President - IBM Security

Caleb Barlow is an accomplished security professional and Vice President at IBM Security, where he leads IBM's Threat...