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Threat actors are targeting cloud security gaps caused by misconfigurations, lack of authentication and malicious open-source packages.
Long lauded for its security, cloud is increasingly susceptible to threat actors who have become proficient at exploiting the technology, a new report finds.
“With many organizations now having multiple cloud deployments, the gaps in security are getting more attention from threat actors,” according to “Unit 42 Cloud Threat Report, Volume 7,” published April 18 by Palo Alto Networks. Unit 42 is a team of threat researchers, incident responders and security consultants at the company.
What’s striking is that those security gaps aren’t sophisticated, the report adds, but rather common issues such as misconfigurations, weak credentials, lack of authentication, unpatched vulnerabilities and malicious open source software packages.
User errors are still the primary source of trouble, but ready-to-use templates and default configurations from cloud service providers are increasingly concerning. “These settings and features are convenient, making the adoption of new technologies frictionless, but they don’t position users in the most secure initial state,” the report says.
For instance, Unit 42 studied large-scale data collected in 2022, including the workloads in 210,000 cloud accounts across 1,300 organizations, and found that more than three-quarters of organizations don’t enforce multifactor authentication for console users, and 58% don’t enforce it for root/admin users. Additionally, researchers found sensitive data in 63% of publicly exposed storage buckets.
Another area that needs attention, according to the report, is the use of open-source software in the cloud because it increases the likelihood of depreciated or abandoned software, malicious content and slower patching cycles. Plus, it makes end users responsible for checking the software’s security before integrating it into applications. “This task is particularly challenging when organizations need to manage scores of projects that are all dependent on potentially thousands of OSS,” the report notes.
Also on the rise are data theft and harassment as extortion tactics. As of late 2022, 70% of Unit 42 ransomware cases involved data theft, compared with 40% in mid-2021. Harassment, such as threats or unwanted communications often sent to executives, appeared in about 20% of ransomware cases in late 2022, compared to less than 1% in mid-2021.
Other findings that the report calls out are:
- At least 75% of ransomware attacks and breaches fielded by Unit 42’s Incident Response team result from a common culprit: attack surface exposures.
- 80% of alerts are triggered by 5% of security rules in most organizations’ cloud environments.
- It takes security teams 145 hours—six days—on average to resolve a security alert, with 60% of organizations taking more than four days.
The good news in the report is that state and local governments rank low in terms of the most cyber-impacted sectors. A little more than 100 victims showed up on dark web data leak lists, compared to three times as many in the manufacturing industry.
To mitigate cyber threats, the report makes several recommendations. “One of the greatest ways to protect your organization is to increase visibility of activity in your environments,” it states.
Additionally, organizations should develop and implement a threat intelligence program that lets them learn threat actors’ tactics, techniques and procedures for conducting attacks in order to thwart them.
Another recommendation: Use a zero-trust architecture. It can reduce the risk of threat actors’ lateral movement, a key indicator before many attacks, the report states. “Implementing Zero Trust Network Architecture (or ZTNA) is not an overnight journey, but is one of the more effective frameworks—specifically ZTNA 2.0, which is a refined version of ZTNA,” according to the report.
But nothing is foolproof so, “from a mitigation perspective, having a comprehensive incident response plan with corresponding crisis communication protocols will greatly reduce uncertainty,” the report notes.
That’s particularly important, considering that a large cloud ransomware compromise is predicted for 2023, the report says. Other expectations for this year include threat actors finding new ways to gain initial access and greater use of extortion without encryption. Government involvement—specifically not paying ransoms—will be key to lessening actions by extortion groups, according to the report.
“It is integral that a comprehensive cloud security program (from a governance perspective) and a cloud security platform (from a technical controls perspective) are both in place,” the report states. “The cloud security platform should be able to detect and prevent attacks to cloud workloads, network security, code (including infrastructure as code and source code), containers, identities and keys, and data.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.