Cybersecurity in Plain English: Why and how to keep applications updated

A reader recently asked if just running Operating Systems (OC) updates and anti-virus updates was enough to keep their home devices safe. While that’s a good start, it may not be enough to really stay safe out there, so let’s dive a little deeper into this topic:

OS updating is critical to making sure your home/personal devices stay safe. This also applies to work devices, but your organization may have tools that make that happen automatically, so check with your IT team to find out if you also need to do this on those laptops/desktops/etc. Anti-virus/anti-malware tools also need regular updating, but nearly all of them do that by themselves. The few that require you to manually update them are generally the free AV tools, but they’re also pretty simple to keep up-to-date. Open the app, go to the settings page, and check for updates. By making sure to keep these two things (the OS and your anti-malware tool) updated, you help to ensure that the majority of threat activity which isn’t coming in via social engineering techniques like phishing will get blocked. Don’t forget to do this for your phones, tablets, smart TVs, and other devices around your home. If it has an OS and connects to the Internet, you’ve got to make sure the device is checking for updates, or that you’re doing it yourself. 

Generally, you should be updating once per week. That’s a good trade-off between time spent doing updates and security for your devices. Set aside 30 minutes once per week to run through the process, and you’ll keep everything running smoothly. At the absolute least, you should be updating once per month, but a weekly cadence is a better choice as different vendors release updates on different schedules. 

That being said, your OS is not the only software running on your home systems. Windows, MacOS, and Linux devices – along with phones, TVs, and other smart devices – all run applications, and those applications can also get out of date. As these apps age, security researchers and threat actors alike find vulnerabilities in the software that can be used to make the app misbehave, gain access to things outside of the app itself, or cause damage to your data and/or steal it. Because of this, you’ll need to make sure you’re updating those apps regularly, but it doesn’t have to be a big time-sink. If an app is no longer supported by its vendor, then it is definitely time to start seeking out an alternative that is actively being updated. Legacy applications (apps that are no longer in active development) are a massive problem in the cybersecurity world, and while updating to a new app or a new version of the old app isn’t easy, it is absolutely necessary. Get that process started as soon as possible to give yourself time to make the change before a security vulnerability is discovered in that legacy application that forces you to migrate with no warning. 

Let’s look at how to do these kinds of updates on the major operating systems and for lots of applications:

 

To update your OS…

 

On Windows 7 and higher:

Go to Settings from the Start menu, then look for Windows Update. Check for Updates, then install anything it finds. You may need to reboot, and if so be sure to check Windows Update again after your reboot to make sure there aren’t any further updates to apply.  

On MacOS 12 and higher:

Go to the Apple Menu in the upper-left of the screen and choose System Settings. Then go to General, then Software Update. Let the system check for updates, and if it finds any go ahead and install them. In nearly every case this will require a reboot, but it needs to happen so give your Mac the time it needs.

On Linux:

Open a Terminal window and use your preferred package manager (like APT or yum) to look for updates. If any are found, install them. The good news is that, while you do this via the terminal, package managers also update any other software that was installed via the package manager in question, so you update nearly everything all at once. Reboots are rarely required, but if one is needed then you should let it go ahead and restart.

 

For applications, things are a bit different for Windows versus MacOS and Linux. Let’s step through the three major OS types and how you can keep up to date.

Windows: The elephant in the room. By default, you can get Microsoft application updates for apps like Office via Windows update (you may have to tell Windows Update to do that in its own settings page), but any other apps are not included in that check. This means you have to either use an app updater or go app-by-app to check for updates manually. You can typically find the update check in the Settings or Help sections of the application. There are some app managers like PatchMyPC ( https://patchmypc.com/home-updater ) that can help with many apps, and they’re worth checking out. Keep in mind that you should not use a patch manager unless you have reviews from trusted sources that they’re legitimate and safe. It’s unfortunate, but there are several “app manager” tools for Windows that are actually malware/spyware themselves. Microsoft themselves has tried to help here, with the Microsoft Store app allowing you to keep any apps you buy through that tool updated, but only a small portion of the available Windows apps are currently in the Store just yet. 

MacOS: Apps from the App Store can be updated by just going to the Store, then clicking Updates on the left-hand menu. For other apps, you’ll need to either check the apps manually (usually it’s in the applications main menu or the Help menu) or use an app manager for any apps you have that didn’t come from the App Store. MacUpdater (note the spelling, with an “r” at the end) is a great app manager for MacOS, and is reasonably priced ( https://www.corecode.io/macupdater/ ). It tracks tons of apps, and let’s you update with a simple click when it finds one that’s outdated. I’m not being compensated by them, I just use the tool myself and know it works really well. The Standard version will get the job done for most, but there are lots of options to choose from. Between the App Store covering a huge number of apps, and tools like MacUpdater taking care of the rest, you will be covered.

Linux: As mentioned in the OS section, package managers for Linux also update any applications installed from packages – which is the vast majority of apps you’d run on Linux. There are exceptions here and there, and you’ll need to manually check those periodically to stay up to date. 

Don’t forget to also have your phone, smartTV, smart home devices, and other things connected to the Internet also check for updates. This includes both OS and app updates! For example, you can ask Alexa to “Check for software updates,” and it will look for any new software it needs. iPhones and iPads can be updated by going to Settings: General: Software Update for the OS, and the Updates page of the App Store for apps. Android is a bit different, but Google has instructions for OS updates here: https://support.google.com/android/answer/7680439?hl=en and the Play store can help keep your apps up to date. 

Keeping both your Operating Systems and applications updated is critical to staying safe. Even with a great anti-malware system, outdated applications can let threat actors perform attacks that can succeed. Taking half an hour once per week to keep things up to date is an easy – and effective – way to make sure you’re not giving an attacker any low-hanging fruit to take advantage of. 

Cybersecurity in Plain English: What Happened With LockBit?

Earlier today, a reader asked “What happened with LockBit today? They’re all over the news.” Probably a question that a lot of people have, so let’s dive in and spell it out!

First things first, who or what is LockBit? Starting life as a ransomware gang some time ago, LockBit has been responsible for attacking the infrastructure and data systems of everything from small sole-proprietorships to multinational organizations. Tactics varied, but their primary operations revolved around double-extortion ransomware: where a copy of victim data is first removed from the environment and sent to LockBit servers in the cloud, then the original data is encrypted and rendered unusable to the victim organization. This allowed LockBit to demand payment for decryption of the data, but also to threaten to make all the stolen data public if the victim org decided they didn’t want to pay for the decryption itself. In this way, LockBit had multiple avenues of extortion to bring to bear in order to get paid by the victim. More recently, LockBit branched out into Ransomware as a Service, where they would create tool-kits and host infrastructure for other criminals to use when performing ransomware attacks against victims, with LockBit getting a cut of the criminally-acquired funds.

Now on to what happened: Early in the morning of Feb 20 here in the US, a coalition of law enforcement groups led by the National Crime Agency (NCA) in the United Kingdom and the FBI in the USA struck hard at the LockBit web infrastructure. In addition to many other operations – including multiple arrests of high-ranking LockBit members in multiple countries – law enforcement took down the dark-web back-end systems and the website that drove the Ransomware as a Service platform, effectively rendering the system useless for hundreds of affiliates of LockBit. The website itself was replaced with new information: First was a fairly standard notification that law enforcement agencies had seized the website and affiliated domains. As this site is where LockBit and their affiliates posted victim information if they didn’t pay up, this was a massive blow to the organization as a whole. Shortly after, however, this placeholder notification was itself replaced with a website that looked very similar to the original LockBit leaks site, but now showing information about the group itself, its members, its operations, and links for victims to get help and assistance from law enforcement. In short, the site returned to doing what it did prior to the seizure, but now hosting the information on LockBit; instead of on their victims. 

The operation – code-named “Cronos” – was carried out quickly and efficiently; with the entire process taking just a couple of hours from start to finish. The coordinated takedown of both the web infrastructure and arrest of LockBit leaders in multiple countries crippled the ransomware gang and their affiliates effectively – and even humorously – as LockBit’s own infrastructure was suddenly converted into a weapon against them and their affiliate network. 

It should be noted that this crippling of the gang could be temporary. Not all suspected LockBit leaders were arrested, and dark-web infrastructure has a very nasty habit of being resurrected quickly somewhere else. That being said, for now, I think we can call this a total win for law enforcement and a complete loss for LockBit and their Ransomware as a Service affiliate groups. 

One only wonders, will LockBit now be offering one year of complimentary identity protection services for their affiliates like many of organizations they attacked had to do for their customers after suffering a LockBit-affiliated attack?

Cybersecurity in Plain English: What is MFA?

Multi-Factor Authentication can be confusing for those who haven’t used it regularly before, and that leads to lots of questions like “What the heck is MFA, and why should I use it?” Let’s dig into that topic and demystify something that is becoming part of our daily lives more and more often.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is primarily exactly what it says on the tin: in order to log in, a user must be able to satisfy challenges that revolve around more than one piece of data, information, hardware, or some other combination of factors. If you’ve ever had your bank tell you that you must put in the code they just emailed you when you go to log in, then you’ve experienced an MFA challenge – but not all such challenges are quite as visible. Simply stated, an MFA challenge requires a user to present more than one security factor before they’re allowed to access something. Keep in mind that your username and password – while being two bits of data – are actually just one factor for authentication, so it’s best to see them as a single item to keep things simple as we explore.

Primarily, factors in authentication (the process by which a system confirms you are who you say you are) are broken down into several types:

Something you know: This includes things like your username and password combo. While they are preferably unique to you, it’s entirely possible that two people have the same username/password either by accident or because your data was leaked or stolen. Security questions (“What is your mother’s maiden name,” etc.) are also considered something you know in most security contexts. 

Something you are: Biometric data is a factor used to prove who you are because it is – at least theoretically – entirely unique to you. This factor can include things like your fingerprint, specific topographical maps of your face, the pattern of blood vessels in your retina, etc. While biometric data is difficult to steal or fake, storing it brings with it privacy issues, and accurately collecting and reading it can be challenging for a lot of devices. 

Something you have: Tokens that you have physical and/or digital control of can be used to prove who you are by having you show information on or in those devices and/or present the device itself. While tokens can be stolen, when combined with other factors they can be a great way to show a system you are really you. Some tokens generate one-time passcodes using a physical key-fob or an app on your phone. Others work by generating and sending a unique code through near field communication (NFC) – like holding your phone or a smart-card near a reader. In some cases, your laptop/desktop/phone itself can be this factor – by looking at things like geo-location, software installed, networks connected to, etc. authentication systems can confirm that the machine you are using is known to be used by you alone. 

MFA is simply the use of at least two of these factor types in each login/access event. So, for example, when you log into a website; the site may ask for a username and password, and then send a one-time passcode to your phone via text-message. You type the code from the phone (something you have) into the site after you put in your password (something you know) to gain access to the website as a user. Apple devices like iPhones/iPads have been using biometrics as a second factor for some time (TouchID and FaceID), and Windows has begun to use it for laptops and desktops (Windows Hello).

Why are you seeing MFA being used more and more often? MFA offers much better security than a username/password alone. Since the user must also provide some other proof they are who they say they are, it becomes significantly harder for a threat actor to gain access to things they shouldn’t be able to touch. As usernames are typically easy to figure out – most systems use your email address, which is already public information – and passwords tend to either be weak and easy to guess, re-used on multiple sites, get stolen quite often, or any combination of the three; a username and password alone just isn’t proof you are who you say you are anymore. MFA therefore becomes necessary to allow a system to know you are who you say you are without relying solely on information that could be in the hands of anyone. 

Not all MFA is created equally, of course. Email and SMS text message one-time-passcodes can be problematic if a threat actor gains access to your email inbox and/or tricks your phone service provider into re-routing text messages to them instead (a technique called “SIM Swapping”). While events like this are rare, they do happen, so email and text validation for MFA are better than nothing, but not the best. Authenticator apps like Microsoft Authenticator, Google Authenticator, and others make things more secure and harder for a threat actor to overcome easily. Biometric factors are even better, but can be difficult to use effectively. Not for the user, who just taps a finger or looks into a camera, but for the technology itself. Fingerprints can be subtly altered based on pressure against the reader. Facial recognition can be impacted by lighting, glasses, and a host of other factors. Retinal scanning requires the user to hold still and stare into a camera. Researchers and vendors have been making these things better and better over time, but they can still be tricky to deal with. 

In the end, MFA is here to stay. Since usernames/passwords alone are considered nearly the same as not authenticating at all these days, more and more organizations are adopting some form of MFA to allow you to gain access to company resources safely. It doesn’t need to be difficult, however. Having an MFA challenge that just asks you to type to two numbers on your screen into your phone is easy, fast, and effective – with Microsoft and others adopting this methodology to make life easier for users while making it much harder for threat actors. Leveraging hardware “fingerprints” like the apps you have installed and the location the device appears to be sitting at can reduce the total number of MFA challenges a user has to deal with each day. The combination of known successful defenses with evolving technologies allows for MFA to better protect the organization without putting a burden on the users, allowing for better security while keeping users happy and productive. 

Cybersecurity in Plain English: How Do Threat Actors Get In?

I’ve written a blog series like this for many companies I’ve worked for, now I’m doing it on my own blog for everyone to read. Please drop me questions you’d like answered to me via Twitter/X/whatever it’s called this week @miketalonnyc – I’d love to get you answers explained without the jargon! 

A very common question I get from the field is, “How do threat actors actually get into the network in the first place?” It’s a good question, with some possibly surprising answers, so let’s talk about initial access and how threat actors take that first step.

Initial access is the term used for how a threat actor gains their first entry into a protected environment. This could be your home PC, or a corporate network – whatever they’re eventually attempting to get access to within the target environment itself. Generally, the point of initial access is not the end goal of the threat actor; since it’s highly unlikely they land on the machine or system they actually want to get hold of. More often, initial access happens on a user’s laptop, or a web server, or an application platform instead; and the threat actor then must jump from system to system to get where they want to be. This means that by minimizing initial access points, you also minimize the ability of the threat actor to do what they want to do.  

So, how do they accomplish that first step? There are quite a few different ways this can be done, but four of them stand out as being (by far) the most commonly encountered techniques. First, compromise of credentials – the threat actor gains control of legitimate usernames and passwords. Second, compromise of a vulnerable application – where a threat actor is able to exploit a vulnerability. Third is coercion or trickery used to get a user to run a malicious application. Finally, there are initial access brokers that use all of the above to amass initial access that they can sell to the highest bidder.

Credential compromise is the most common technique used. Threat actors use phishing, smsishing (phishing by text message) and a host of other social engineering techniques to get hold of legitimate credentials that they can use to access systems in your organization. Alternately, they could guess or discover credentials without having to phish or otherwise grab them from users directly. Methods such as exploiting weak and/or default passwords, credential stuffing, or even brute-force attacks can get them what they need if other security controls aren’t in place. Weak passwords that are too short (less than 8 characters), too simple (no punctuation/special characters), and/or extremely common (password123) all allow a threat actor to successfully guess in just a few tries. Credential stuffing is trying a list of passwords from one breach to attack a totally different organization that shares users who may have re-used passwords. Brute-force is exactly what it sounds like – threat actors simply try password after password until they find one that works. 

In all of these cases of credential compromise, layered defenses can be a huge help in defending the organization. The use of (and enforcement of the use of) multi-factor authentication (MFA) will help to block a threat actor with otherwise valid credentials from actually using them. Enforcing passwords which meet basic complexity rules such as including special characters (?, /, $, !, etc.) and requiring 12 or more characters makes it much more difficult for a threat actor to successfully guess a valid password. Blocking the most common passwords used online outright is also a great method to bring to bear. Troy Hunt (curator of HaveIBeenPwned.com [https://haveibeenpwned.com/ ] has worked with many government and private entities to keep lists of the most common passwords. For example, the National Cyber Security Center of the UK has worked with Troy to produce a list of the top 100 [[https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/blog-post/passwords-passwords-everywhere ]]. Enforcing restrictions on the number of incorrect entries a user can try before they’re locked out helps derail brute-force attacks. Encouraging users to not re-use passwords by utilizing password managers helps curtail credential stuffing success.

 

 Remember that most usernames are known these days. Users utilize their email address, or some combination of first/last name/initials, so the username is no longer a big secret. Passwords – when well-managed – are still secret, but additional controls are required to ensure that a threat actor can’t walk in the front door. Utilizing complex passwords and MFA, limiting re-use, and blocking commonly known passwords all help to keep the password itself from becoming known and/or useful to a threat actor.  

 

Exploitation of a vulnerability is common in the quest to gain initial access. If a system or platform has a known vulnerability that can be exploited, then a threat actor will not have to gain credentials – they can just take control of the system or platform itself. Defenses here are two-fold, first it is important to patch/upgrade systems with known vulnerabilities; but that’s not always a possibility. If budget doesn’t exist for upgrades, or if the patch or upgrade would significantly impact a business process, it’s unlikely that closing the vulnerability directly will be allowed. Here again, compensating controls can save the organization. If a threat actor gains control of one application, then blocking their ability to move through the network or gain control of additional applications becomes a vital step in limiting damage. Endpoint controls (on servers as well as user systems), restricting network access, and the ability to be alerted on anomalous activity all aid in catching a threat actor attempting to move from an exploited system to others in the environment. Of course, patching or upgrading is the optimal strategy and should be done whenever possible; but additional controls may be required when that patch or upgrade just cannot be applied.

Coercion and trickery are incredibly common in the threat landscape today. While forms of social engineering, they typically do not follow the same path as a phishing or smshing attack. Instead, a user may be tricked into installing malicious software that masquerades as legitimate software the business would regularly use. A common example is a threat actor taking over a mis-spelled domain for a popular software tool, and any user who accidentally goes to the mis-spelled site (which might even be performing search engine optimization to trick the user) downloads and installs the malware instead of the real software. Supply-side compromise – where a threat actor replaces the real software with malware on the vendor’s systems – is also a serious threat. Another common technique is the invocation of authority to coerce a user into installing malware. A threat actor may call or email pretending to be a software vendor, a bank, a government agency, or even your own IT department and pressure a user to download an install malware, spyware, or more. Of course, a user who has been doing things they should not be doing online could also be blackmailed into installing malware on company systems; but while fake attempts at this technique are common (such as “clean up software” emails that try to get a user to install something because they were “caught” on a site they shouldn’t have been on), confirmed real use of this tactic is thankfully rare. Proper security awareness training and periodic testing is the key to derailing this form of initial access attack. When users know what to look for, who to ask for help, and where to go to legitimately get software and updates will keep them from accidentally downloading malware or doing so under duress. Combining these methods with strong endpoint controls (like anti-malware tools) can help to ensure that the fake software is blocked from running. Last, but not least, running software updates in a lab to ensure that they are legitimate before deploying them across the organization – combined with ensuring vendors are following security best-practices – limits damage from supply-side attacks. 

Finally, there are entire categories of threat actor groups who perform just initial access attacks, using all of the above methods to accomplish their goals. They curate massive lists of legitimate and validated credentials, previously exploited systems that they still have active access to, automation to perform coercion and trickery on a massive scale, host and deploy malware as valid updates, etc. – but they don’t actually perform other attacks. What they do is sell that information to other threat actors who then use it to perform more extensive attacks like major data theft, ransomware, or disruptive actions. These initial access brokers make good money re-selling the access they gain to the highest bidder, allowing them to gain financial success without having to worry about extorting an actual payoff from a company. Careful monitoring of user activity and network operations to determine if there are anomalies going on can allow you to detect if credentials or systems have become compromised before that access gets sold to another threat actor. Many managed security service providers (MSSPs) can assist with that effort for those organizations who cannot do that kind of monitoring in-house.

Initial access is the first step in a sequence of events that leads to data loss, ransomware payouts, downtime and business loss, and a host of other problems for any organization. Defending against the most common forms of initial access can derail attacks before they get farther than that first step, and help keep your organization safer over time. 

Cybersecurity in Plain English: What is a SIEM?

I’ve written a blog series like this for many companies I’ve worked for, now I’m doing it on my own blog for everyone to read. Please drop me questions you’d like answered to me via Twitter/X/whatever it’s called this week @miketalonnyc – I’d love to get you answers explained without the jargon! 

As more organizations beef up their cybersecurity resilience, many new tools and platforms become part of organizational operations. This has led to several contacts of mine asking, “What is a SIEM, and what does it do for cybersecurity, and how the heck do you pronounce it?” Let’s dive in and find out.

A Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) platform is a tool-set used to bring together information from applications, systems, services, hardware, and other operational components into one place so that all of that information can be used to try to find cybersecurity incidents taking place. Think of it as a gigantic database that pulls in data from hundreds or thousands of sources within the organization and from threat intelligence feeds. Coupled with that database, a SIEM includes systems to remove redundant information and process all the information to look for points of correlation – sequences of events that, when viewed together, indicate something is going on. As for pronunciation, there is a difference of opinion on that. The two top pronunciations are sim (as in simulation or simple) and seem (as in seemingly or seams). Either is generally accepted by the technology community. 

The first step in SIEM operations is ingestion – pulling in data from multiple sources and de-duplicating it. SIEM solutions integrate with thousands of different tools and platforms to ingest data. These can include things like Active Directory and other Identity and Access Management (IAM) systems, hardware platforms, cybersecurity tools like firewalls, anti-malware, and others, Operating System and application logging systems, and quite a large number of other sources. All this information is brought into a de-duplication system that removes redundant data-points to reduce the amount of information being sent into the database for correlation. Because of the sheer number of logs and events being ingested and de-duplicated, SIEM solutions must be highly robust and capable of dealing with massive amounts of data at once, and therefore are typically cloud-based solutions where they can be elastic – able to expand to use more resources as needed, but contract and reduce the amount of resources they use when the extra capacity isn’t needed to reduce costs. 

Once data is being ingested efficiently and de-duplicated, the second phase of SIEM operations – correlation – takes place. Correlation is a real-time operation which looks at the sum total of ingested information to attempt to define patterns within that data which indicate threat activity. For example, odd network behavior alone could be indicative of a threat, but could also be indicative of a user doing something unusual without malicious intent. A SIEM would attempt to correlate that network behavior with other indicators of threat activity; such as an anti-malware tool discovering software attempting to access privileged information, or an IAM system recognizing multiple attempts at privilege elevation (a user or process attempting to gain administrator access to something). Taken individually, these actions may not be malicious or even suspicious – the escalation could be a misconfigured application, and the malware could be a one-off download of something that isn’t recurring or able to impact the organization. But, when correlated together, they indicate that something is going on which is indeed suspicious at the very least.  

SIEM platforms also tie into ticketing and email systems to alert IT and cybersecurity staff when correlated events indicate threat activity is going on. These staffers can then block access, undo changes, prepare incident reports, etc. Many SIEM solutions can also work with Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) platforms to take direct action, but these platforms currently have limitations whenever there is more than one valid action to take, making human staffers a necessary part of the process for many types of incidents. 

Overall, SIEM solutions are an invaluable resource. Through de-duplication of data, correlation of potential or actual threat activity, and the ability to alert staff and SOAR platforms in real time, SIEM solutions act as a massive force-multiplier for organizations. They allow for accurate and timely detection and response to security incidents that would not be possible via manual operations, and keep organizations safer and more resilient without creating massive amounts of staff burnout along the way.