In large metropolitan areas, tourists are often easy to spot because they’re far more inclined than locals to gaze upward at the surrounding skyscrapers. Security experts say this same tourist dynamic is a dead giveaway in virtually all computer intrusions that lead to devastating attacks like data theft and ransomware, and that more organizations should set simple virtual tripwires that sound the alarm when authorized users and devices are spotted exhibiting this behavior.
In a blog post published last month, Cisco Talos said it was seeing a worrisome “increase in the rate of high-sophistication attacks on network infrastructure.” Cisco’s warning comes amid a flurry of successful data ransom and state-sponsored cyber espionage attacks targeting some of the most well-defended networks on the planet.
But despite their increasing complexity, a great many initial intrusions that lead to data theft could be nipped in the bud if more organizations started looking for the telltale signs of newly-arrived cybercriminals behaving like network tourists, Cisco says.
“One of the most important things to talk about here is that in each of the cases we’ve seen, the threat actors are taking the type of ‘first steps’ that someone who wants to understand (and control) your environment would take,” Cisco’s Hazel Burton wrote. “Examples we have observed include threat actors performing a ‘show config,’ ‘show interface,’ ‘show route,’ ‘show arp table’ and a ‘show CDP neighbor.’ All these actions give the attackers a picture of a router’s perspective of the network, and an understanding of what foothold they have.”
Cisco’s alert concerned espionage attacks from China and Russia that abused vulnerabilities in aging, end-of-life network routers. But at a very important level, it doesn’t matter how or why the attackers got that initial foothold on your network.
It might be zero-day vulnerabilities in your network firewall or file-transfer appliance. Your more immediate and primary concern has to be: How quickly can you detect and detach that initial foothold?
The same tourist behavior that Cisco described attackers exhibiting vis-a-vis older routers is also incredibly common early on in ransomware and data ransom attacks — which often unfurl in secret over days or weeks as attackers methodically identify and compromise a victim’s key network assets.
These virtual hostage situations usually begin with the intruders purchasing access to the target’s network from dark web brokers who resell access to stolen credentials and compromised computers. As a result, when those stolen resources first get used by would-be data thieves, almost invariably the attackers will run a series of basic commands asking the local system to confirm exactly who and where they are on the victim’s network.
This fundamental reality about modern cyberattacks — that cybercriminals almost always orient themselves by “looking up” who and where they are upon entering a foreign network for the first time — forms the business model of an innovative security company called Thinkst, which gives away easy-to-use tripwires or “canaries” that can fire off an alert whenever all sorts of suspicious activity is witnessed.
“Many people have pointed out that there are a handful of commands that are overwhelmingly run by attackers on compromised hosts (and seldom ever by regular users/usage),” the Thinkst website explains. “Reliably alerting when a user on your code-sign server runs whoami.exe can mean the difference between catching a compromise in week-1 (before the attackers dig in) and learning about the attack on CNN.”