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Declining economic conditions could make insiders more susceptible to recruitment offers from threat actors looking for allies to assist them in carrying out various attacks.

Enterprise security teams need to be aware of the heightened risk and strengthen measures for protecting against, detecting, and responding to insider threats, researchers from Palo Alto Network’s Unit 42 threat intelligence team recommended in a report this week.

The security vendor’s report highlighted several other important takeaways for security operations teams, including the fact that ransomware and business email compromise attacks continue to dominate incident response cases and vulnerability exploits — accounting for nearly one-third of all breaches.

Vulnerable Insiders

Unit 42 researchers analyzed data from a sampling of over 600 incident response engagements between April 2021 and May 2022 and determined that difficult economic times could lure more actors to cybercrime. This could include both people with technical skills looking to make a fast buck, as well as financially stressed insiders with legitimate access to valuable enterprise data and IT assets. The prevalence of remote and hybrid work models has created an environment where it’s easier for workers to steal intellectual property or carry out other malicious activity, the researchers found.

Palo Alto Networks’ report points to how some threat actors — such as the highly destructive LAPSUS$ group — have attempted to recruit insiders by offering money for access credentials or for helping them carry out their attack in other ways. “When some people are struggling to make ends meet, [such] offers could be more tempting to some,” the report said.

This trend has been flagged before: A report from Flashpoint in May noted the growing popularity of insider recruitment efforts among threat actors. Flashpoint counted as many as 3,988 unique insider-related chat discussions — primarily on Telegram — between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, 2021, with a particularly sharp spike happening after August. Many of those attempting to recruit were ransomware operators or other extortion groups. Commonly employed tactics included using a known insider or running public recruitment advertisements and direct solicitation.

Another survey that Pulse and Hitachi ID conducted of 100 IT and security professionals showed 65% saying that threat actors had approached them or their employees for assistance with a ransomware attack over the past year.

Phishing, Software Vulns Remain Major Initial Access Vectors

Unit 42’s research also confirmed what security teams fighting on the front lines to keep their organizations safe already know: Ransomware and BEC attacks continue to dominate the need for incident response. A startling 70% of intrusions were tied to one of these two causes. In BEC attacks, the data showed that threat actors typically spent between 7 and 48 days in the breached environment before the victim contained the threat, with a median dwell time of 38 days. The median dwell time for ransomware attacks was slightly lower, at 28 days, likely because of how noisy these attacks are.

Phishing continues to be the top vector for initial access so far in 2022, and was the suspected cause in 37% of the incident response cases that Unit 42 completed between April 2021 and May 2022.

“Unfortunately, most organizations learn about one of these attacks the hard way — upon receiving an extortion demand or after wire fraud is committed,” says Dan O’Day, consulting director, Unit 42 at Palo Alto Networks. “Increasingly, threat actors quickly gain access, identify and exfiltrate sensitive data, and deploy extortion tactics — sometimes in a matter of hours or in just a few days.”

Notably, 31% — or nearly one-in-three intrusions — resulted from attackers gaining an initial foothold via a software vulnerability. Some 87% of the vulnerabilities that Unit 42 researchers were able to positively identity fell into one of six categories: ProxyLogon
flaws in Exchange Server; the Apache Log4j flaw; and vulnerabilities in technologies from Zoho, SonicWall and Fortinet. In 55% of incidents where Unit 42 was able to positively identify the vulnerability that an attacker used to gain initial access, the vulnerability was ProxyShell, and in 14% of the cases it was Log4j.

“Because one-third of attacks target software vulnerabilities, security teams should continue to patch vulnerabilities early and often,” says O’Day. While some threat actors continue to rely on older, unpatched vulnerabilities, others are looking to exploit new vulnerabilities increasingly quickly. “In fact, it can practically coincide with the reveal if the vulnerabilities themselves and the access that can be achieved by exploiting them are significant enough,” he says.

As one example, he points to a threat prevention signature that Palo Alto Networks released for an authentication bypass vulnerability in F5 Big IP technology (CVE-2022-1388). “Within just 10 hours, the signature triggered 2,552 times due to vulnerability scanning and active exploitation attempts,” he says. “More and more, we’re seeing attackers scanning as soon as details of a critical vulnerability are published.”

Poor patch management practices exacerbated the issue for many organizations — it contributed to 28% of the breaches that Unit 42 responded to. One example of poor patch management is simply waiting too long to implement a patch for a known vulnerability, O’Day notes. “Further, around 30% of organizations were running end-of-life software versions that were affected by CVEs that had known active exploits in the wild and were featured in cybersecurity advisories from the US government.”