Darktrace’s security researchers have reported that cyber actors have shifted from targeting the financial and insurance sector in 2020, to the information technology (IT) and communications industry sectors in 2021.
Darktrace’s data is developed by "early indicator analysis" that looks at the breadcrumbs of potential cyber attacks at several stages before these are attributed to any particular actor, prior to escalating into a full-blown crisis. The findings show that its artificial intelligence autonomously interrupted an average of 150,000 threats per week against the sector in 2021.
The IT and communications sector includes telecommunications providers, software developers and managed security service providers, among others.
Darktrace has defended against the growing trend of hackers making a beeline for backup servers in an attempt to deliberately disable or corrupt backup files by deleting a single index file that would render all backups inaccessible. Threat actors are aiming to launch ransomware attacks against the clients of the backup vendor, preventing recovery and forcing payment.
In 2020, the most attacked industry across Darktrace’s global customer base was the financial and insurance sector, showing that cyber criminals have shifted their focus over the last 12 months.
According to Justin Fier, Darktrace director for cyber intelligence and analysis, cyber threat actors are aiming to break into the database of trusted suppliers.
"Quite simply, it is a better return on investment than, for example, going after one company in the financial services sector."
"SolarWinds and Kaseya are just two well-known and recent examples of this."
"Over the last 12 months, it is clear that attackers are relentlessly trying to access the networks of trusted suppliers in the IT and communications sector," Fier said.
The Darktrace research findings mark one year since the compromise of US software company SolarWinds rattled the security industry. This landmark supply-chain attack made thousands of organisations vulnerable to infiltration by inserting malicious code into the Orion system.
Over the last 12 months, there has been a continued spate of attacks against the IT and communications sector, including the high-profile attacks on Kaseya and GitLab.
Threat actors often use software and developer platforms as entry points into other high-value targets, including governments and authorities, large corporations and critical infrastructure.
Darktrace found that the most common attempted break-in method was through email, with organisations in the sector receiving an average of 600 unique phishing campaigns a month in 2021.
Contrary to popular belief, the emails sent to these organisations did not contain a malicious payload hidden in a link or attachment. Instead, cyber criminals used subtle and sophisticated techniques sending "clean emails" containing only text attempting to coax recipients into replying and revealing sensitive information. This method is effective because, by compromising these email accounts, hackers can then exploit the trusted relationship between the software supplier and the intended targets.
These methods easily bypass legacy security tools that rely on checking links and attachments against blocklists and signatures. AI can stop these emails from reaching employees’ inboxes by identifying the full range of anomalies, including even the most subtle indicators.
Fier explained that cyber threat actors are patient and creative, predicting that attacks will continue in the near term.
"They will usually go right through the front door by compromising trusted suppliers in the IT and communications industry."
"To downstream customers, it appears as business as usual and is just another application or piece of hardware from a trusted supplier,” Fier continued.
“There is no magic solution to finding attacks embedded in your software suppliers, so the real challenge for organisations will be to operate while accepting this risk."
AI is suited for the job and spotting the subtle changes presented by a piece of software that has been compromised will be key to fighting this problem in the future, according to Fier.
"Getting a sense of what is normal for the software you are trusting will be paramount," Fier concluded.