Cisco Report: They're Coming for Your Servers

Cisco has released its annual Cybersecurity Report and the picture it paints isn't rosy. According to the report, organizations are feeling real pain from cyber attacks, even if those attacks aren't large enough to make the evening news. Among the findings of the 2017 Security Capabilities Benchmark Study (on which the report is partially based), 23% of organizations reported that they lost business opportunities because of attacks, while 22% said they lost customers and 29% reported losing revenue.

In a telephone interview, Steve Martino, VP and CISO for Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), said that the impact of cybercrime is not limited to the largest companies -- companies of all sizes are feeling the impact. The reason is that the cybercriminals are getting better at their jobs. "Hacking has become a real industry," Martino said. "They're replicating supply chain processes and career specialties to duplicate IT discipline on the dark side."

This more professional criminal contingent is exploiting a landscape that is growing richer in targets. The report estimates that global internet traffic will triple between now and 2020 to a total of 2.3 zettabytes. Of this, 66% will spend at least part of its journey in radio form, going to or from a mobile or WiFi device. Speaking of devices, Cisco estimates that, by 2020, 82% of all consumer traffic on the Internet will be from connected devices, rather than connected people.

The reduced footprint of humans on the Internet might be just as well because 2016 saw a rise in human-facing attacks, especially SPAM email, as part of the criminals' arsenal. Franc Artes, an architect in Cisco's Security Business Group, said that cyber attacks go through cycles similar to those followed by fashion or business management. "Spam went down for several years but now it's back to near what it was in 2010," said Artes, explaining that, "65% of email coming into organizations is spam. 8% of that is malicious."

Once inside the perimeter (an increasingly fuzzy concept, according to the report, because of mobility and cloud services), 2016's malware tended to make a beeline for the server. While vulnerabilities exploited in networks and on end points each went down in 2016 (by 20% and 8%, respectively), vulnerabilities exploited on servers were up by 34% in the year. The reason, said Martino, is simple.

"If I attack an endpoint, I can get a certain amount of money, I can get more from a server attack," he said. "From a cost/benefit perspective, ransomware on a server is more valuable." Exploiting the vulnerabilities on multiple servers isn't really any more difficult than exploiting those on a single server, Martino explained, because, "IT teams aren't managing their infrastructure. We saw Apache servers that were running software that was, on average, 5.2 years old."

It seems obvious that IT teams should update their software on a regular basis, and that's one of the recommendations that Cisco makes in its report as part of a key point -- make security a priority. Many teams feel that they're already acting on this advice because 58% of IT professionals responding to the survey said that they were highly confident in the effectiveness and security of their infrastructure. At the same time, more than four out of every ten security alerts goes un-investigated. Why? The single most frequent reason given is lack of budget.

The un-investigated alerts are concerning, Martino said, because malware time-to-evolve is dropping rapidly. Fortunately, time-to-discover malware also dropped in 2016, from 15.19 hours in May of last year to 6.05 hours in October.

Aside from making security a priority, what does Cisco recommend in the action section of the report? There are four broad recommendations:

  • Measure Operational Discipline -- Security isn't just "set it and forget it." Review practices and make necessary changes
  • Test Security Effectiveness -- Don't be afraid to find your weak spots
  • Adopt Integrated Defense Approach -- From architecture to policy, technology to practice, build security in to everything you do.

— Curtis Franklin, Security Editor, Light Reading

mendyk 2/2/2017 | 11:02:53 AM
Re: Age of fear Agree -- and in some ways, the fact that "security" has been siloed as a function rather than baked into all functions across the board is a problem. We've definitely seen that over the years at Heavy Reading. Regarding "acceptable level of loss," it comes down to basic cost. In the past, operators tolerated revenue leakage of 5% and some cases more because the cost of bringing that number down was greater than the leakage. Sometimes, though, security experts overestimate the extent of the $$ damage, which doesn't help things.
Curtis Franklin 2/2/2017 | 10:42:42 AM
Re: Age of fear I think that many security professionals are like doctors: They're used to people only listening to about half of what they say (and acting on less than that), so they deliver a message that hits about 75% harder than absolutely necessary in the hopes that some of it will seep through.

You bring up another interesting point, though: Many companies decided on an "acceptable level of loss" and they only protect up to that point. For security pros who want to make things as safe as possible, it can be tough negotiating with executive leadership on precisely where to draw that line.
mendyk 2/1/2017 | 12:13:26 PM
Re: Age of fear In the CSP sector, security gets a lot of lip service, and I do think it's taken seriously. But there's also a certain level of tolerance based on the reality that nothing can be completely secure or protected. For instance, CSPs have complained about revenue leakage for years, knowing that most of the damage comes from fraudulent use of services. They take some steps to limit the damage, but it's a best-effort sort of thing. Security experts -- who function as a kind of law enforcement group -- do tend to dwell on worst-case scenarios as part of a call to action.
Curtis Franklin 2/1/2017 | 11:59:21 AM
Re: Age of fear I don't think that fear is the right response: Taking the current environment seriously, though, is a requirement. And too many organizations still don't -- you can tell because they're not updating software, not training their users, and (most important) not monitoring their internal networks and systems so that they know when someone has breached the perimeter.
mendyk 2/1/2017 | 10:34:27 AM
Age of fear Be afraid. Be very afraid. It's good for business, and for controlling interests.
Sign In