Hack­ers try new tar­gets, search­ing easy data

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY BRAN­DON BAI­LEY

The health care sec­tor has be­come the hot tar­get for hack­ers in re­cent months, ac­cord­ing to re­searchers at Sy­man­tec, a lead­ing cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pany that says it’s also see­ing big in­creases in “spear-phish­ing,” “ran­somware” and ef­forts to ex­ploit newly dis­cov­ered vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in soft­ware used by a wide range of in­dus­tries.

Af­ter a wave of high-pro­file at­tacks on banks and re­tail­ers over the last two years, al­most 80 per­cent of the calls to Sy­man­tec’s global “in­ci­dent re­sponse” ser­vice since De­cem­ber have come from health or­ga­ni­za­tions, said Robert Shaker, a Sy­man­tec of­fi­cial who over­sees the com­mer­cial ser­vice.

While usu­ally seek­ing valu­able pa­tient and em­ployee data, hack­ers who tar­get health or­ga­ni­za­tions may in­ad­ver­tently dis­rupt com­puter sys­tems that over­see med­i­ca­tion and other life-sav­ing treat­ments, Shaker said dur­ing a press event Mon­day.

The health sec­tor’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to hack­ers was un­der­scored ear­lier this year when An­them, the gi­ant in­sur­ance firm, re­ported a data breach af­fect­ing up to 80 mil­lion cus­tomers. But as each sec­tor strength­ens its de­fenses, Shaker said, hack­ers move on to new in­dus­tries that may be vul­ner­a­ble. He pre­dicted schools and uni­ver­si­ties may be the next big tar­gets.

Higher ed­u­ca­tion is “an­other area very sim­i­lar to health care,” where ad­min­is­tra­tors have his­tor­i­cally been less fo­cused on com­puter se­cu­rity, said Shaker. He noted that uni­ver­sity com­puter net­works hold a va­ri­ety of valu­able data, in­clud­ing fi­nan­cial records for stu­dents and em­ploy­ees, as well as sci­en­tific and med­i­cal re­search.

Sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties have al­ready re­ported large data breaches in re­cent months, ac­cord­ing to re­ports com­piled by the non­profit Pri­vacy Rights Clear­ing­house, which says the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land, North Dakota Uni­ver­sity and But­ler Uni­ver­sity in In­di­anapo­lis have dis­closed that hack­ers ob­tained per­sonal iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion for hun­dreds of thou­sands of stu­dents.

Sy­man­tec Corp. is one of the big­gest com­pa­nies in a grow­ing in­dus­try that sells soft­ware and ex­per­tise for de­fend­ing against cy­ber­at­tacks — so it has a vested in­ter­est in high­light­ing se­cu­rity threats. But find­ings in its an­nual In­ter­net Se­cu­rity Threat Re­port, re­leased this week, gen­er­ally echo ob­ser­va­tions of other in­dus­try ex­perts.

Along with an over­all jump in the vol­ume of ma­li­cious soft­ware, Sy­man­tec said it’s see­ing an in­crease in soft­ware de­signed specif­i­cally to siphon in­for­ma­tion from smartphones and other mo­bile gad­gets. It also counted a surge in cer­tain kinds of “spear-phish­ing” at­tacks, in which hack­ers send de­cep­tive email or text mes­sages to con­sumers or com­pany em­ploy­ees, hop­ing they will click on a link that in­fects their com­put­ers with mal­ware.

In a par­tic­u­larly dra­matic trend, Sy­man­tec re­ported al­most 9 mil­lion in­ci­dents of “ran­som- ware” at­tacks last year, more than dou­ble the to­tal from 2013. “Ran­somware” pro­grams aim to ex­tort money from com­puter users through var­i­ous threats. One typ­i­cal pro­gram dis­plays a mes­sage that says child pornog­ra­phy or other il­le­gal ma­te­rial has been found on the user’s com­puter, and de­mands the user pay a fine to avoid pros­e­cu­tion. But in a trend that has boomed over the last year, Sy­man­tec says, hack­ers also use soft­ware that en­crypts files on the tar­get com­puter —- mak­ing them un­us­able — and de­mand pay­ment to de-en­crypt them.

Some hack­ers have added ex­tra code to “ran­somware” that re­mains on a com­puter and even adapts it­self to carry out other tasks, such as si­phon­ing valu­able in­for­ma­tion, said Kevin Ha­ley, Sy­man­tec se­cu­rity re­sponse direc­tor.

Hack­ers are also in­creas­ingly us­ing au­to­mated soft­ware that spams com­pa­nies or re­peat­edly probes their net­works for vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, which means they can launch mul­ti­ple at­tacks with less ef­fort, said au­thor and se­cu­rity ex­pert Marc Good­man, who spoke at the Sy­man­tec event.

And even as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is urg­ing in­dus­try of­fi­cials to share in­for­ma­tion about de­fend­ing against at­tacks, hack­ers are shar­ing knowl­edge among them­selves. Would- be hack­ers can eas­ily buy mal­ware on­line and even find in­struc­tional videos on public sites that ex­plain how to carry out at­tacks, said Lillian Ablon, a re­searcher at the Rand Corp.

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