As war escalates in Europe, it’s ‘shields up’ for the cybersecurity industry


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Image Credits: Rosley Majid / EyeEm / Getty Images

Yaron Tal


CTO and founder of Reposify, Yaron Tal is a tech entrepreneur and cybersecurity expert with nearly two decades of experience developing cybersecurity software solutions.

In unprecedented times, even government bureaucracy moves quickly. As a result of the heightened likelihood of cyberthreat from Russian malactor groups, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) — part of the Department of Homeland Security — issued an unprecedented warning recommending that “all organizations — regardless of size — adopt a heightened posture when it comes to cybersecurity and protecting their most critical assets.”

The blanket warning is for all industries to take notice. Indeed, it’s a juxtaposition of sorts to think the cybersecurity industry is vulnerable to cyberattack, but for many nation state groups, this is their first port of call.

Inspired by the spike in attacks on cybersecurity agencies globally, a report from Reposify assessed the state of the cybersecurity industry’s external attack surface (EAS). It coincides with CISA’s warning, and highlights critical areas of concern for the sector and how they mirror trends amongst pharmaceutical and financial companies, providing vital insight into where organizations can focus their efforts, and reinforce the digital perimeter.

The report examined 35 cybersecurity companies and their 350+ subsidiaries with shocking results: during only a two-week period in January 2022, more than 200,000 exposed assets were uncovered at top firms, 42% of which were identified as high-severity issues.

As CISA outlines in its “Shields Up” guidance, the first step to resiliency is to reduce the likelihood of a damaging cyber intrusion in the first place. Recognizing the problem is only the first in a series of actionable moves organizations can make to minimize their external weaknesses to bad actors.

If addressing digital perimeter exposures is the foundation, zoning-in on problem areas is the framing. A deep dive into these deficiencies points to clear solutions all industries – cybersecurity or otherwise – can embrace to protect themselves.

What do companies need to do?

Many factors, including the transition to remote work environments, increased reliance on third-party vendors, digital transformation and offloading services onto the cloud, have significantly increased companies’ external attack surface.

According to the report, the rise of remote access sites saw 89% of identified assets classified as part of the unofficial perimeter. Similarly, 87% of databases were unaccounted for, along with 67% of development tools and 62% of all network assets.

Databases were found to be among the most vulnerable to cybersecurity threat, with over half (51%) of cybersecurity companies hosting an exposed database. Nearly all (97.14%) of security agencies have exposed assets on their Amazon Web Services (AWS), and 86% of those analyzed have at least one sensitive remote access service exposed to the internet.

Now that the problem areas have been identified – remote access servers, open network computing remote procedure call (ONC RPCs), service message block services, and databases among them — the best tool in any CISOs arsenal is anticipation and mitigation.

Leveraging cybersecurity best practices across infrastructure, applications and user management should be the first port of call before deploying tools to support in minimizing an organization’s EAS.

Best practice for OpenSSH and remote access servers like RDP and Telnet is to ensure access only via VPN. This provides critical protection through proxy walls and will properly shield internal data. Furthermore, ONC RPCs like Portmapper should only service data on internal networks (intranet). If it holds any two-way connection to the internet, it should be bound only to non-confidential data.

Unmaintained web servers (e.g., Apache, NGINX and IIS) also represent a major risk to any organization, potentially exposing networks to exploitations that could result in a data leak or remote code execution (RCE).

Similarly, databases are today’s treasure chests. Without adequate protection via MFA, SSO, VPN or proxy, valuable corporate information, intellectual property and privacy data could all be lost to the work of malactors. Exposed storage and backup sites like FTP, rsync, S3 and Azure Blob should be stored off public IP to prevent a doorway for cyber-attack, as opportunists could use this as a means to compromise or tamper with corporate data, potentially leveraging ransomware to generate profit.

DevOps tools where companies may store software and information-critical documents should, at the very least, leverage two-factor authentication for employee use. Ensuring these tools, and web servers, are patched with the latest software is another example of simple-fix companies can use to protect themselves and minimize their EAS.

In the same vein, the reliance on cloud computing can potentially put company assets at risk. Contrary to popular belief, the onus to protect cloud data falls on the customer, not the service provider.

There are a number of ways corporations can become vulnerable through cloud service providers: Incomplete control over who can access sensitive data, cloud misconfiguration, cloud applications provisioned outside IT visibility, lack of staff with skills to manage security for cloud applications, among others.

We’ve anticipated and mitigated. Now what?

Even with these critical steps, the EAS still exists and is therefore not immune to threat. EASM tools can help. Before, online assets had to be cleared and itemized by a central IT team. Now, product, marketing and technology teams have the ability to create and own online assets – everything from test pages to entire databases – often without informing IT departments.

In addition to rendering central control of asset inventory near useless, decentralization of asset management has brought about significant changes in the types of threats that organizations can expect, and highlighted an issue for every industry: human error.

For maximum effectiveness, assets must be continuously monitored in real time. Often, subsidiaries and partner companies are overlooked when mapping the external attack surface. Critical asset identification must extend to all associated companies.

This is particularly important in the case of mergers and acquisitions, where a parent company may overlook critical exposed assets at a subsidiary. If the chosen EASM tool can’t recognize the link between the two companies, an unknown asset becomes far more likely to be exploited and could become a significant cybersecurity threat.

The cybersecurity industry is no exception to human error

At the end of the day, security company CISOs are no different from those in any other industry. They, too, are subject to budgeting issues that may not allow for adequate infosec resources, leaving small teams to manage a growing number of assets.

Automated cybersecurity tools are thrown at problems as a half-hearted fix, potentially creating new attack vectors in the process. It’s a lot to keep track of for anyone, and so, human error kicks in and systems are unintentionally missed or overlooked.

As reinforced by CISA’s “Shields Up” warning, we live in a world where cybercrime is a weapon to be yielded. Battles are being fought online in retaliation to sanctions, or other penalties, often alongside ground or fiscal war.

Cybersecurity companies house valuable assets of U.S. businesses, and we must do everything in our power to protect them. We can begin with our digital perimeter by being watchful, ultimately leading to a safer world for all.

To read “The State of External Attack Surface 2022” report, click here (registration required).

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