How COVID-19 has impacted the security threat landscape

A WatchGuard report reveals how COVID-19 has impacted the security threat landscape, with evidence that attackers continue to target corporate networks despite the shift to remote work, and a rise in pandemic-related malicious domains and phishing campaigns.

COVID-19 threat landscape

“As the impact of COVID-19 continues to unfold, our threat intelligence provides key insight into how attackers are adjusting their tactics,” said Corey Nachreiner, CTO at WatchGuard.

“While there’s no such thing as ‘the new normal’ when it comes to security, businesses can be sure that increasing protection for both the endpoint and the network will be a priority in 2021 and beyond. It will also be important to establish a layered approach to information security, with services that can mitigate evasive and encrypted attacks, sophisticated phishing campaigns and more.”

Network attacks and unique detections both hit two-year highs

Network attacks swelled to more than 3.3 million in Q3, representing a 90% increase over the previous quarter and the highest level in two years. Unique network attack signatures also continued on an upward trajectory, reaching a two-year high in Q3 as well.

These findings highlight the fact that businesses must prioritize maintaining and strengthening protections for network-based assets and services, even as workforces become increasingly remote.

COVID-19 threat landscape

In Q3, a COVID-19 adware campaign running on websites used for legitimate pandemic support purposes made the list of the top 10 compromised websites.

A phishing attack that leverages Microsoft SharePoint to host a pseudo-login page impersonating the United Nations was uncovered, and the email hook contained messaging around small business relief from the UN due to the pandemic.

These findings further emphasize that attackers will continue to leverage the fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding the global health crisis to entice and fool their victims.

Businesses click on hundreds of phishing attacks and bad links

In Q3, a combined 2,764,736 malicious domain connections were blocked, which translates to 499 blocked connections per organization in total. Breaking it down further, each organization would have reached 262 malware domains, 71 compromised websites, and 52 phishing campaigns.

Combined with the aforementioned rise in convincing COVID-19 scams, these findings illustrate the importance of deploying DNS filtering services and user security awareness training.

Attackers probe for vulnerable SCADA systems in the U.S.

The one new addition to the most-widespread network attacks list in Q3 exploits a previously-patched authentication bypass vulnerability in a popular SCADA control system.

While this class of vulnerability isn’t as serious as a remote code execution flaw, it could still allow an attacker to take control of the SCADA software running on the server. Attackers targeted nearly 50% of U.S. networks with this threat in Q3, highlighting that industrial control systems could be a major focus area for bad actors in the coming year.

LokiBot look-a-like debuts as a top widespread malware variant

Farelt, a password stealer that resembles LokiBot, made its way into the top five most-widespread malware detections list in Q3. Though it is unclear if the Farelt botnet uses the same command and control structure as LokiBot, there’s a high probability the same group, SilverTerrier, created both malware variants.

This botnet takes many steps to bypass antivirus controls and fool users into installing the malware. While researching the threat, strong evidence was found that indicates the malware has likely targeted many more victims than the data suggests.

Emotet persists

Emotet, a prolific banking trojan and known password stealer, made its debut on the top ten malware list for the first time in Q3 and narrowly missed the top ten list of domains distributing malware (by only a few connections).

Despite coming in at #11 for the latter list, this appearance is particularly notable, as research teams have seen current Emotet infections dropping additional payloads like Trickbot and even the Ryuk ransomware with no signs of slowing down.

Automation to shape cybersecurity activities in 2021

Automation will play a major role in shaping cybersecurity attack and defence activities in 2021, WatchGuard predicts.

automation 2021

Traditionally a high-investment, high-return targeted attack, in 2021 automation tools will replace manual techniques to help cybercriminals launch spear phishing campaigns at record volumes, by harvesting victim-specific data from social media sites and company web pages.

Automated spear phishing attacks to prey on fears

And as society continues to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, it is likely that these automated spear phishing attacks will prey on fears around the pandemic, politics and the economy.

Conversely, the research team believes that automation will also help cloud-hosting providers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google to crack down on cybercriminal groups abusing their reputation and services to launch malicious attacks.

Threat actors commonly host website HTML files designed to mimic a legitimate website like Microsoft 365 or Google Drive to steal credentials submitted by unsuspecting victims. But in 2021, these companies will deploy automated tools and file validation technologies that will spot spoofed authentication portals.

In its annual look ahead to the next 12 months, the tumultuous events of 2020 will impact the threat landscape next year and for years to come. Other predictions include:

Attackers swarm VPNs and RDPs as the remote workforce grows

As more companies adopt VPNs and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) solutions to provide secure connections to employees working from home, attacks against them will double in 2021. If an attacker can compromise VPN, RDP or remote connection servers, they have an unobstructed path into the corporate network.

Security gaps in legacy endpoints targeted

Endpoints have become a high priority target for attackers during the global pandemic and many personal computers are still running legacy software that is difficult to patch or update.

With Microsoft just ending its extended support program for Windows 7, organizations are warned to expect at least one major new Windows 7 vulnerability to make headlines in 2021.

Services without MFA will suffer a breach

Authentication is the cornerstone of strong security; but with billions of usernames and passwords available on the dark web and the prevalence of automated authentication attacks, no Internet-exposed service is safe from cyber intrusion if it isn’t using multi-factor authentication (MFA). In fact, any service without MFA enabled is highly likely to be compromised in 2021.

“As we have learnt in 2020, it is very difficult to predict what is going to happen in the future,” says Corey Nachreiner, CTO at WatchGuard.

“But our Threat Lab team along with other researchers around the world have an increasing level of analytics and insight to make well-informed guesses. Cybercriminals always look for the weak links, so the growing ranks of home workers are an obvious target and when it comes to new technologies such as automation and AI, what can work for good, can also be exploited for malicious activity. It’s just a case of trying to stay one step ahead.”

As malware and network attacks increase in 2019, zero day malware accounts for 50% of detections

Amid significant increases in both malware and network attacks, multiple Apache Struts vulnerabilities – including one used in the devastating Equifax data breach – appeared for the first time on WatchGuard’s list of most popular network attacks in Q3 2019.

network attacks 2019

Massive fallout from the Equifax breach

The report also highlights a major rise in zero day malware detections and, increasing use of Microsoft Office exploits and legitimate penetration testing tools.

Apache Struts 2 Remote Code Execution enables attackers to install Python or make a custom HTTP request to exploit the vulnerability with just a few lines of code and obtain shell access to an exposed system. This threat was accompanied by two additional Apache Struts vulnerabilities on the top ten network attacks list in Q3 2019, as overall network attacks increased in volume by 8%.

The massive fallout from the Equifax breach put the severity of this vulnerability on full display and should serve as a reminder of how important it is for web admins to patch known flaws as soon as possible.

“Our latest threat intelligence showcases the variability and sophistication of cybercriminals’ growing playbook. Not only are they leveraging notorious attacks, but they’re launching evasive malware campaigns and hijacking products, tools and domains we use every day,” said Corey Nachreiner, CTO, WatchGuard Technologies.

“As threat actors continue to modify their tactics, organizations of every size must protect themselves, their customers and their partners with a set of layered security services that cover everything from the core network to endpoints, to the users themselves.”

Attackers continue to favor Microsoft Office exploits

Two malware variants affecting Microsoft Office products made WatchGuard’s top ten list of malware by volume, as well as the top ten most-widespread malware list last quarter. This indicates that threat actors are doubling down on both the frequency with which they leverage Office-based attacks, as well as the number of victims they’re targeting.

Both attacks were primarily delivered via email, which highlights why organizations should increasingly focus on user training and education to help them identify phishing attempts and other attacks leveraging malicious attachments.

Zero day malware instances spike to 50%, as overall malware detections rise

After stabilizing at around 38% of all malware detections over the past several quarters, zero day malware accounted for half of all detections in Q3. The overall volume of malware detected increased by 4% compared to Q2 2019, with a massive 60% increase over Q3 2018.

The fact that half of malware attacks in Q3 were capable of bypassing traditional signature-based solutions illustrates the need for layered security services that can protect against advanced, ever-evolving threats.

Cybercriminals may be leveraging legitimate pentesting tools for attacks

Two new malware variants involving Kali Linux penetration testing tools debuted on WatchGuard’s top ten list of malware by volume in Q3. The first was Boxter, a PowerShell trojan used to download and install potentially unwanted programs onto a victim’s device without consent.

The second was Hacktool.JQ, which represents the only other authentication attack tool besides Mimikatz (which dropped in prevalence by 48% compared to Q2, and 16% compared to Q3 2018) to make the list.

It’s unclear whether the rise in these detections comes from legitimate pentesting activities or malicious attackers leveraging readily available open source tools. Organizations must continue to leverage anti-malware services to prevent data theft.

Malware attacks targeting the Americas increase drastically

More than 42% of all malware attacks in Q3 2019 were aimed at North, Central and South America; up from just 27% in Q2. This represents a significant geographic shift in focus for attackers compared to last quarter, as EMEA and APAC (which were tied for the top regional malware target in Q2) accounted for 30% and 28% of all malware attacks in Q3, respectively.

Although the specific motivations are unclear, this trend indicates attackers are bringing new malware campaigns online that specifically target users in the Americas region.