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Exclusive interview: Akamai on Australia's biggest cyber security threats

By Julia Gabel
Wed 26 Jul 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

This is part 2 of an interview with Michael Smith, Akamai's security chief technology officer, Asia Pacific & Japan.

Following on from part 1, Smith discusses the current cyber security landscape in Australia and explains how businesses, governments and individuals can better protect themselves going forward. 

What is the nature of the current cyber security landscape in Australia?

Our recent data from attacks against our Australian customers has revealed a sharp increase in local botnet members.

By taking over a large number of unsecured IoT devices, IoT botnets are able to launch large scale attacks on Australian sites, with far greater force than previous malware. 

Last year, local attack traffic was typically less than 1% of all attack traffic against our Australia customers. However, our data show that locally-sourced attack traffic has increased as much as four times in the last quarter of 2016.

This was accompanied by a near tripling of malicious IP addresses participating in attacks against Australian web sites since December 2016. The localised attacks are only a fraction of the threat posed by credential abuse. Our experts this year found a staggering 30% of all login attempts are malicious, with hostile devices launching some 20 login attempts per day against the average website.

Where should Australian organisations be focusing their efforts when it comes to cyber security? 

The dominance of overseas sources for DDoS attacks used to mean that such attacks could mostly be blocked by ignoring overseas data requests. 

However, the growing percentage of DDoS attacks from within Australian today means that businesses and public agencies must reconsider their local defence strategies.

Australian businesses can no longer rely on the ‘Island Australia’ approach and need to strengthen their upstream defence against large localised attacks. This requires a substantial upgrade in site protection, rather than relying on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block malicious offshore traffic.

ISPs provide the front line of much of Australia’s cyber defences, but the challenge is that ISP’s only have a very limited attack mitigation capacity, and are no longer able to mitigate IoT attacks from within Australia by “blackholing” customers.

We’ve definitely seen a shift in how Australian businesses manage their IT and security services, but many still lack resources and the skills capable of creating and defending networks.

An investment in a third-party that has specialist skills in solving these types of attacks can be the best way to address this issue.

How can businesses, governments and individuals better protect themselves? How can these users leverage technologies such as operational technology and IoT to better protect themselves?

In the case of IoT/OT, most of what businesses are doing is a repeat of what they’ve done for other disruptive technologies including: Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), where they looked at putting devices on their own segregated network segment and then eventually managing them with agents; Linux server hardening, changing OS password and disable unnecessary services; or cloud services, looking at the risks of outsourced IT management and portal access.

Most businesses go through steps of maturity in what they’re doing with their online presence. The first websites were brochures with minimal functionality which mean little-exposed attack surface.

Then gradually over time we’ve added more interactivity, API access, and moved the majority of our business functions online. But at the same time, this has increased both the attack surface and our dependency on online channels. 

In Australia, we’re playing a bit of catch-up with this technical debt that we created, which is why we’ve seen some big news lately.

Australian government agencies are investing strongly in new cloud based digital infrastructure to offer simpler and faster services, so building security and performances into the foundation of these services are critical.

In the long term, reassessing their exposure and shaping attack-remediation plans will be critical to survival in the IoT era.

Future contracts may also force vendors to demonstrate mature IoT security capabilities such as compliance with eventual standards and the ability to remotely patch and update devices to close security vulnerabilities as they’re identified.

There’s also a definite onus on the individual and end-user to practice basic hygiene - like changing passwords on devices- to limit the ability of that device to participate in attacks.

How do the needs and trends of customers change across APAC? And which market is your largest?

As you would expect, it varies throughout the region from country to country.

Some of the more developed nations like Singapore and Japan have similar profiles to Australia, where the majority of organisations are doing some of their operations online and they’re looking at ways to do more of their business online, even though this expanded functionality means expanded attack surface. It’s hard to bootstrap a business online without a certain level of security knowledge.

A trend we’re seeing in some countries is of national conflicts that have gone online. Over the last five years, India and Pakistan have been defacing and breaching each other’s website and there isn’t a week that goes by without a handful of defacements.

We’re also seeing similar patterns - although not as intense or long lived - inside the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and Korea. Even Australia had their own micro-cyber tiff with Indonesia back in 2014!

We’re also seeing a Hacktivism trend against government organisations. Thailand announced their plans to build an Internet single gateway that includes censorship and as a result, they’ve had a 2-year hacktivist campaign against their government sites, resulting in numerous defacements and data breaches for government agencies.

Japan has also had an ongoing hacktivist over the last 5-years, which escalated in 2015 and 2016 when hacktivists expanded their target scope to all government agencies, critical infrastructure and any recognisable Japanese brand.

In Australia, and the rest of Asia-Pacific, scrapers and bots are the biggest nuisance. Some of our customers have over 60% of their web traffic from scrapers and this ranges from competitors doing pricing comparisons, information aggregators like some FinTech start-ups, poorly-programmed search engines, and much more. 

We’ve been fighting scrapers for at least the seven years I’ve been working at Akamai. The number and capabilities of bots on the Internet has grown vastly over the last couple of years so we’ve released new solutions that can identify and manage bots- like serving older data or slowing down the request rate- instead of just blocking them.

We’re seeing a similar trend in Asia-Pacific in terms of addressing the skills shortage in security, with many countries looking at how they can create an ecosystem of skilled employees and combining them with natively grown security companies, and building threat information sharing platforms.

Countries are also reconsidering the role of government in cyber-security and how much responsibility it should have for protecting critical infrastructure, private companies and its citizens.

When you do security testing, what are the main weak points you find in organisations? Are there any common areas where organisations need to do better?

As a vendor and incident responder for websites, I worry about this quite a lot. 

If you don’t see any attacks against your website, does it mean that you’re not being targeted or does it mean that you’re not seeing the attacks because you don’t have the correct controls in place?

This is even more difficult if you look at web application attacks, where when a Web Application Firewall (WAF) does its job correctly, you see maybe 20 requests that are blocked and the attackers go elsewhere.

In the case of DDoS attacks, you might not get an attack for nine months which means that you need to test your protection to make sure that it is effective for when an attack does happen.

We’ve been working with our customers on this in a couple of different ways. We encourage vulnerability scanning both through WAF and its security policy and directly against the web application to find vulnerabilities that WAF blocks from the public.

We have methods to test DDoS protection on both WAF and our Prolexic scrubbing centre. We have a tabletop exercise as part of our managed WAF offering.

In most cases, businesses focus on control efficacy when they do testing, on whether the technology does what it’s supposed to do.

That’s good, but Akamai is also interested in things like manageability, operator knowledge, alert and response processes.

There is huge value in watching the conduct of the test and seeing how the test gets logged and viewed by operators.

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