2020 Vision: How to Prepare for the Future of Information Security Threats

Friday, April 06, 2018

Steve Durbin

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Every day, the news is full of stories describing the weighty and often overwhelming effects new technology has on the way people live and work. Terms such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are fast becoming everyday jargon and plans for their deployment will land high on the agenda of business leaders over the next few years – whether they like it or not.

Headlines warning of cyber-attacks and data breaches are just as frequent. Assailants are everywhere: on the outside are hackers, organized criminal groups and nation states, whose capabilities and ruthlessness grow by the day; on the inside are employees and contractors, causing incidents either maliciously or by accident.

Business leaders are left feeling uncertain about the way forward. The dilemma is often stark: should they rush to adopt new technology and risk major fallout if things go wrong, or wait and potentially lose ground to competitors?

New attacks will impact both business reputation and shareholder value, and cyber risk exists in every aspect of the enterprise. At the Information Security Forum, we recently released Threat Horizon 2020, the latest in an annual series of reports that provide businesses a forward-looking view of emerging threats in today’s always-on, interconnected world. In Threat Horizon 2020, we drew from our research to highlight the top nine threats to information security over the next two years.

Let’s take a quick look at these threats and what they mean for your organization:

Cyber and Physical Attacks Combine to Shatter Business Resilience

Physical and cyber-attacks will be deployed simultaneously, creating unprecedented damage. Many nation states and terrorist groups (or both, working together) will have the capability to bring together the full force of their armaments – both traditional and digital – to perform a clustered ‘hybrid’ attack. The outcome, if successful, would be damage on a vast scale.

Telecommunication services and internet connections will be obvious first targets, leaving individuals and organizations cut off from the outside world. Assistance from emergency response services, as well as local and central governments, will be slow or non-existent as essential physical and digital infrastructure will have broken down.

These attacks will be designed to spread maximum chaos, fear and confusion. The stricken city, or cities, will be brought to a standstill, with both lives and businesses placed in jeopardy. Those at home will be unable and unwilling to go to work, or – without power or communications – unable to work from home. Those already in the office will be trapped with nowhere to escape to, as attacks hit them from every angle. Existing business continuity plans will be useless; they will not have been prepared to cater for an eventuality when every system is down while individuals are in physical danger. People will panic. Work will be off the agenda.

Satellites Cause Chaos on the Ground

Compromised satellite signals, whether spoofed by malicious adversaries or knocked out by collisions with other satellites or space debris, will cause widespread chaos down on Earth. As satellites become cheaper and easier for national space agencies and individual businesses to launch and maintain, they will become increasingly integral to modern life. Disabled or spoofed signals will interfere with critical transport, communications systems and even financial services.

Lives will be put at risk and supply chains hampered as spoofed GPS signals are sent to aircraft, ships and road vehicles. International financial systems – from stock exchanges to ATMs – that rely on exact timestamps on digital payments will be unable to record transactions accurately. Trading algorithms that rely on data from satellites on weather or location of specific assets (e.g. to instruct which crops to buy or sell) will be misled, potentially manipulating financial markets.

In the next few years, satellites will play an increasingly crucial role in connecting Earth-based infrastructure and systems. However, organizations will need to realise what the military has known for years – that no one will be spared if attacks against satellites succeed. The potential for crippling disruption is immense.

Weaponized Appliances Leave Organizations Powerless

Attackers will find ways to access a huge proportion of the millions of connected appliances – such as heating systems and ovens – and turn them into weapons. This mass of appliances could be commandeered and misused for a number of disruptive ends, similarly to the way botnets of poorly protected home computers have been used to initiate and sustain large scale DDoS attacks. However, one threat merits specific attention – the damage they can wreak collectively on power grids.

These appliances, forming part of the IoT – many in homes but also found in offices and factories – are always powered-on and always connected to the internet. Manipulated by attackers to switch on to full power simultaneously, appliances will create a demand for power so unexpectedly high that it overloads and brings down regional electricity grids. With the grid offline or severely degraded, organizations will be weakened and struggle to function.

The underlying foundations of many business continuity plans, such as instructing employees to work from home, will be rendered useless as they will have neither power nor a means to communicate. Dependent critical services such as water supplies, food production systems and health care will be unavailable. Power rationing will affect other utilities and services, such as heating, lighting and transport. To cap it all, organizations will lose out to competitors in non-affected areas who will be quick to take advantage of the increased demand for their services.

Quantum Arms Race Undermines the Digital Economy

The next generation of computer technology – quantum computing – will be able to crack encryption that would have taken traditional computers millions of years in mere hours or minutes. As a consequence, a security mechanism that forms the bedrock of today’s digital economy will require a complete overhaul, potentially exposing organizations to millions in transformation costs and lost trade. However, the practical problems start now. In particular, various parties will pre-empt this new technology by starting to harvest gigantic pools of encrypted information, using it later when the technology is available.

National intelligence organizations will lead the charge to be the first to get their hands on this technology.  The sensitive information, communications, services, transactions and critical infrastructure of adversaries will all become an open book. The desire to be first across the line is certain to drive a digital arms race.  Who will be the quantum winner? That remains unclear.

Some nation states will want to expand their horizons and use quantum computing as an offensive weapon to undermine the digital economies of their perceived enemies – as will others who can get early access to the technology. Organizations in both the public and private sectors will then be prime targets for a range of attackers. None will be safe, even those that believe their information is secure now.

Artificially Intelligent Malware Amplifies Attackers’ Capabilities

According to many futurists, AI will bring huge benefits to society, especially in areas such as research and healthcare. However, it will also be deployed in more damaging ways, one of which will be to build computer malware that can change both its form and purpose. Attackers will use this artificially intelligent malware to find new ways to access an organization’s network and disrupt its operations. Mission-critical information assets such as trade secrets, R&D plans and business strategies will be targets for compromise – all without detection.

As it is AI-based, this new form of malware will learn from its environment, analysing applications and systems to discover and exploit new vulnerabilities in real time. It will be hard to distinguish what is safe from unauthorised access and what isn’t. Even information previously believed to be well protected will be open to compromise.

Conventional techniques used to identify and remove malware will quickly become ineffective. Instead, AI-based solutions will be needed to fight this new malware – leading to a race for supremacy between offensive and defensive AI. The eventual winners will be hard to spot for some considerable time.

Attacks on Connected Vehicles Put the Brakes on Operations

Attackers will look to remotely hack a range of connected vehicles – cars, lorries, vessels and trains – taking advantage of vulnerabilities within on-board systems to take control of them, steal them, or disable vital safety features. All forms of vehicles will be exposed. The sheer scale of targets will be dramatic: for example, the number of connected cars manufactured globally is predicted by Gartner to grow from 12.4 million in 2016 to 61 million by 2020.

The effects will be felt by various people and organizations. Individuals who travel in connected vehicles, or are in the vicinity, will have their lives put at risk. Organizations with supply chains that rely on connected vehicles to transport goods or materials will face operational disruption. Vehicle manufacturers and their subcontractors will face reputational damage, and maintenance providers will come under pressure to perform immediate software and hardware updates.

Liability for incidents – including deliberate attacks – will be a particularly hot topic. Insurance companies will be forced to rethink their strategies to take into consideration claims over incidents involving connected vehicles; organizations will wish to consider themselves blameless but may be held liable; while vehicle manufacturers are likely to face complex class action legal battles should incidents begin to fall into recognisable patterns.

Biometrics Offer a False Sense of Security

Demands for convenience and usability will drive organizations to move to using biometric authentication methods as the default for all forms of computing and communication devices, replacing today’s multi-factor approach. However, any misplaced trust in the efficacy of one or more biometrics will leave sensitive information exposed. Attacks on biometrics will affect finances and damage reputations.

The problem will be compounded by the wide and confusing array of proprietary technologies produced by different vendors. As there are no common global security standards for biometrics, it is inevitable that some technologies will be vastly inferior to others. The question then becomes: which are secure today? And will that continue to hold true tomorrow… and the day after?

Existing security policies will fall well short of addressing the issues as new devices infiltrate organizations, from the boardroom down. Failure to plan and prepare for this major change will leave some organizations sleepwalking into a situation where critical or sensitive information is protected by a single biometric factor which proves vulnerable.

New Regulations Increase The Risk And Compliance Burden

By 2020, the number and complexity of new international and regional regulations to which organizations must adhere, combined with those already in place, will stretch compliance resources and mechanisms to breaking point. These new compliance demands will also result in an ever swelling ‘attack surface’ which must be protected fully while attackers continually scan, probe and seek to penetrate it.

For some organizations, the new compliance requirements will increase the amount of sensitive information – including customer details and business plans – that must be stockpiled and protected. Other organizations will see regulatory demands for data transparency resulting in information being made available to third parties who will transmit, process and store it in multiple locations. Most organizations will see penalties for non-compliance reach material levels.

Balancing potentially conflicting demands, while coping with the sheer volume of regulatory obligations, may either divert essential staff away from critical risk mitigation activities or raise the impact of compliance failure to new levels. Business leaders will be faced with tough decisions. Those that make a wrong call may leave their organization facing extremely heavy fines and damaged reputations.

Trusted Professionals Divulge Organizational Weak Point

The relentless hunt for profits and never-ending change in the workforce will create a constant atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity that has the effect of reducing loyalty to an organization. This lack of loyalty will be exploited: the temptations and significant rewards from ‘cashing-in’ corporate secrets will be amplified by the growing market worth of those secrets, which include organizational weak points such as security vulnerabilities. Even trusted professionals will face temptation.

Most organizations recognise that passwords or keys to their mission-critical information assets are handed out sparingly and only to those that have both a need for them and are considered trustworthy. However, employees who pass initial vetting and background checks may now – or in the future – face any number of circumstances that entice them to break that trust: duress through coercion; being passed over for promotion; extortion or blackmail; offers of large amounts of money; or simply a change in personal circumstances.

While the insider threat has always been important, it is not only the organizational crown jewels that are under threat. The establishment of bug bounty and ethical disclosure programmes, together with a demand from cybercrime or hackers, puts a very high value on the most secret of secrets – the penetration test results and vulnerability reports that comprise the ‘keys to the kingdom’. Organizations reliant on existing mechanisms to ensure the trustworthiness of employees and contracted parties with access to sensitive information will find those mechanisms inadequate.

Be Prepared

As dangers accelerate, organizations must fully commit to disciplined and practical approaches to managing the major changes ahead. Employees at every level of the organization will need to be involved, including board members and managers in non-technical roles.

The nine threats listed above expose the dangers that should be considered most prominent. They have the capacity to transmit their impact through cyberspace at alarming speeds, particularly as the use of the Internet spreads. Many organizations will struggle to cope as the pace of change intensifies. These threats should stay on the radar of every organization, both small and large.

About the author: Steve Durbin is Managing Director of the Information Security Forum (ISF). His main areas of focus include strategy, information technology, cyber security and the emerging security threat landscape across both the corporate and personal environments. Previously, he was senior vice president at Gartner.

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