Cyber security in the real world
What is cyber security and why should we care about it?
Software is literally everywhere. Initially software resided on mainframes and only few people were in contact with it. Somewhat later the personal computer was invented and thanks to its popularity, software moved to our homes. (That said, in the home software was still restricted and an attacker would need physical access to the target.)
One day the Internet spawned and began globally connecting personal computers. The Internet is incredibly useful to non-attackers but it made things easier for attackers as they no longer needed to physically visit targets. The evolution of computers kept rolling on and one day we were introduced to cellular phones and eventually smart phones, which are basically small scale computers with wireless connectivity.
Currently we are on the brink of Internet of things, which promises to connect every device to the Internet. For example, we have smart TVs, smart locks, smart cars, and smart toasters. The software ranges from large, such as the operating system, to small, such as the USB driver.
There is an ongoing explosion in the number of devices needing software. Number of devices connected to the internet is in tens of billions, this is especially due to the internet of things where dedicated devices (instead of multipurpose computers) are connected directly to the internet. The number of such devices is still increasing. This poses a growing need for code and software developers, who will have great pressure to write both functional and secure code in a limited timeframe. Developers may face unrealistic time pressure to rush code to production.
In addition to the growing need for more code, the code base has gotten more complex. Every machine is connected and larger systems are now distributed. Different parts of the systems may be developed by different vendors, but need to interoperate. Moreover, most current systems are based on software frameworks which enlarge the code footprint of even small applications, and/or are extensible with/via plugins and addons.
Combining the connectivity, complexity, and extensibility of the software, we get a comfortably-sized attack surface for the attacker. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the number of vulnerabilities in software has steadily risen over the years. Vulnerabilities and their statistics can be queried from the National Vulnerability Database and from the Common Vulnerability and Exposure database (NVD and CVE).
For the attackers the attacking will stay easier than defending as long as the attacker can attack anywhere and the latter have to defend everywhere. With a successful security analysis, however, many of the obvious vulnerabilities — in other words, the low hanging fruit — can be found. This doesn't necessarily make a system totally secure, but rather that it makes the system able to withstand attack attempts by unskilled attackers, automated attacks.
The world is changing and cyber security is a rapidly-growing global issue. Adversaries come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from script kiddies to foreign governments to organized crime. Regardless of the adversary, all have easy access to very sophisticated and powerful technologies. Moreover, some attacks are so sneaky that they become evident only after the attack has happened.
Attacks can result in much mayhem and harm with significant monetary losses, but the business impact of a security breach can be difficult to tell. This is an area where it is hard to reach definitive and representative figures or findings. At least one study, however, from Oxford Economics (the PDF is obtainable via wayback machine), provides a set of findings based on surveys and case studies. Those findings show that cyber attacks do indeed result in major business impact on victims.
The job of a vulnerability researcher is to come up with recommendations for minimizing the risk to an organization. The tasks of protecting enterprise systems and data include establishing policies, practices and tools that lower the risk of illicit behaviour. The technical security assessments performed by vulnerability researchers include the identification of vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and weaknesses.
Media reports only the tip of the iceberg
Security-related news has become more and more common. Media reports about breaches are no longer minor items buried in miscellaneous news, but instead are prominent front-page material. Everything, from baby monitors to security cameras, from cars to luxury yachts, has been targeted and hacked. The threats news agencies talk about have become more complex and more professional. Stolen password lists have become sought-after merchandise and news about targeted ransomware attacks have been seen at an unprecedented rate. This reveals the grim truth that our lives online, and by extension our lives offline, have become an easy way for criminals to make money, and that this threat affects all industries, countries, and social spaces.
Although the media is beginning to take breach news seriously, and studies such as the Crime Survey of England and Wales from the Office of National Statistics show that the frequency of incidents is increasing, it is still commonly believed that cyber crime is an underreported area of illegality.
The above conveys a bleak picture of the current state of things. At the same time, however, governments, organizations, corporations and institutions are funnelling more and more money, research and effort into improving the situation.
Responsibilities and liabilities
This course will not delve deeply into the law, but note that companies and corporations have responsibilities and liabilities for the data they gather. Most have made a commitment, whether legally enforceable or not, to treat data gathered with the utmost care. In addition, laws and regulations govern the way these entities must secure their data and dictate the correct procedure to follow after a breach has occurred.
For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (Regulation (EU) 2016/679) unifies and simplifies the regulations for data protection within the European Union. The GDPR replaces the current directive in this area, and has as its main objective in giving people control over their personal data. Furthermore, the regulation covers matters such as the export of personal data outside of the EU, sanctions for non-compliant parties, the right to erasure, and data breach reporting procedure. This regulation is in force as of the 25th of May, 2018.
The GDPR provides the first economical grounds for data protection: just as environmental regulations have internalized the cost of environmental damage to production, we may see the same happening with data protection. Insurance companies have also noticed the impending GDPR and have introduced various types of cyber security insurance which would cover some costs caused by a breach (for example a loss of profit).
However, the law is for the law abiding; for a criminal it is just a deterrent. The Internet provides anonymity and distances the attacker from the victim, making it easier to step into the world of crime via the Internet. The commission of crimes via the Internet is commonly known as hacking. (When discussing hacking we do have to mention ethical hacking. An ethical hacker, like his criminal counterpart, is an expert who tries to penetrate a computer system, but the former does it with permission from the system owner in order to reveal security vulnerabilities that malicious actors could potentially exploit.)
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