Question of the Day: How do I become a security specialist (ethical hacker, malware researcher, digital forensics, etc.)

First things, do you like solving puzzles, do you like a challenge, can you stare at a screen for many hours, poring through code, logs, etc?

Were you the sort of child that liked to take things apart to understand how they worked, and more importantly could you put them back together again, without having left over pieces, and did the thing still work at least as well as it did before?

Do you look at things and think, well that should work as expected if I follow the logic, but, if I do this instead, it will bypass that logic and let me access another part of the site/code or infrastructure?

Or, maybe when hearing about a new threat, you quickly see how it works and how you can either slow it down, or stop it dead in its tracks using simple techniques or processes, or by using an existing security control in a different way?

If you answered yes to several or more of the above, then you might have the right mindset for a career in cyber security as an ethical hacker, social engineer, malware analyst or in digital forensics and incident response. If you didn’t answer yes to one or more of the above, don’t worry, you can still work very successfully in other areas of cyber security, just probably not as an ethical hacker or in incident response or malware research.

“If you have the right mindset, you can be taught the skills,
but it is very hard to teach a mindset…”

So, if you do have the right mindset, how should you develop the required skills to get into cyber security?

First, decide, do you like technology or the human side of the problem. That will be your first step. If you are lucky you might be able to do both…

The next step is dependant on the answer to the first question. If technology, then you need to become very familiar with as many operating system, applications, programming languages as you can (you don’t have to be proficient in all of them to start off, just pick one or two for starters).

If the human side is more your bag, then learn about cons, social engineering, and psychology in as much depth as you can. Then try some of the techniques on friends and family (without breaking the law).

After that, find a mentor, someone that is skilled in the discipline you want to learn, soak up as much knowledge from them as you can.

Read everything you can on the subjects, if available, go on courses, go to events, conferences, local meets to meet likeminded people, be they newbies like you, or security professionals with a decade or more of real world experience to mine for tips and tricks, etc.

If you are looking at doing malware research, ethical hacking or forensics, you will find lots of CTF and analysis challenges that are freely available, do as many as you can; when you fail (and you will) learn from the failure, it won’t be the last time. Even the best fail often, but they always learn as much (if not more)  from the setbacks ass the successes. Often doing security work is hard and even boring, but when you solve a problem (reverse a malware and understand how it works and how to stop it, or gain access to a system or network, or identify how a bad guy or girl got in, the rush is amazing).

Expect to have to start in a junior role, maybe even working on an IT Helpdesk, doing patching, hardening, server/system builds, etc. We all have to start somewhere.

I started by building and configuring PC’s (building them and installing the OS and applications, configuring them, etc.) Then I moved on to reviewing hardware and software for the same company (doing research, etc.), then I got involved with security (malware at first), worked on the IT Helpdesk, did AIX support (a Unix flavour), and finally I built and ran the Internet Security team (defence, as well as ethical hacking). It takes 5-10 years to become proficient enough with a wide range of operating systems, applications, hardware, networking, security tooling, attack methods, malware analysis, and so on. Be patient, don’t take shortcuts, as it will not help you in the long run.

You don’t need degrees or certificates to do well in this area, you do need the right mindset, be willing to learn and experiment, and work long and odd hours, as the job will not be your usual 9-5 one. I left school at 16 and have no degrees or diplomas and have only been on two cyber security courses in over 31 years of working in this field. (One on advanced hacking and the other on advanced digital forensics, both of which I attended to confirm that what I had learnt and been doing for over 20 years (at that time), being mainly self-taught, was right after all, it was! In fact I taught the course instructors a few things that they didn’t know)

Be very wary of the problem of stress; this is a major risk when working in cyber security, especially in Incident Response. Burn out is quite common, if you don’t manage stress correctly.

One thing I will strongly recommend is to look back in history, see what has happened in the past, both from breaches, attack methods, malware types and tricks, etc. There is very little that is “new”, most of the things you will encounter will build on old (tried and trusted) tricks and methodology; usually just updated to the latest OS versions, applications, etc. or re-used to take advantage of the new victim pool (ones that were not around or didn’t take notice the first, second or third time that technique was used).

If you want to learn about web application testing, then there a several training VMs out there, such as SecurityShepherd that will test your skills in a safe and secure environment quite legally.

On the subject of legality, whatever you do, do not be tempted to step over the line and do something illegal with your skills, as you will constantly be looking over your shoulder waiting for law enforcement to apprehend you. It will also make you less employable in the cyber security world.

You don’t have to be a black hat to be a skilled hacker or to understand how an attack is done or how malware works. As I said earlier in this episode, good ethical hackers may be able to think like a bad guy or girl, they just don’t act like one, in other words you don’t need to break the law to be very skilled in any security field.

After that, expect a lifetime of learning, building on and refining you existing skills, and as things are right now, you will have a long and productive, well paid career helping to counter the bad guys and girls, rather than being one of them…

Anyone that states that you “need to be a thief to catch a thief” or that you “need to be a poacher to be a gamekeeper” or any of the other examples, I say to them, rubbish! There are very few real world cases where being an ex-criminal has made a difference that hasn’t or couldn’t have been made, more effectively by a good researcher that can think like a bad guy or girl, but hasn’t gone over to the dark side to prove their skills.. In fact many of those that were caught, even though the press made them out to be some form of Uber hacker or malware writer, the vast majority had very poor skills, they often used other criminals code/techniques to carry out the attack… what most of us in cyber security would call “script kiddies”…

You can make a difference, be on the right side, help defend and protect those in society that are often the victims of the many cyber crimes that happen each and every minute of every hour or every day…

To quote Del Boy Trotter, from Only Fools and Horses, You know it makes sense, don’t be a plonker

If you think I have missed anything important, or I should add something to this article, please let me know.

What Cyber Threats and Trends Might We See in 2019?

‘Tis the season to get out the crystal ball and play at being the cyber equivalent of “Mystic Meg” (no that’s not me in the picture).

For 2018 I predicted a number of things that were spot on, these included the following:

  • The change from mass ransomware campaigns to more targeted ones asking for higher ransom payments.
  • The move from ransomware to cryptomining/cryptojacking as the primary monetisation payload/method.
  • GDPR being used for extortion/blackmail attempts.
  • Organisations still not focussing on the basics and best practice for their industry/vertical and wondering why they suffered security breaches/incidents.

So what will 2019 bring, according to OMG?

  • More targeted extortion attempts; Ransomware, GDPR, DDoS, etc. All with higher ransom being demanded.
  • Organisations will still be mainly focussed on the latest, must have “shiny toys/technologies” rather than dealing with the basics and best practice for their industry/vertical.
  • A mainstream move towards two or multi-factor authentication, as password theft is increasingly seen as the main way that bad guys and girls get in; other than social engineering (phishing) or via the supply-chain/business-partner. This move will be required due to massive Credential Stuffing attacks in 2018 fuelled by the many data breaches where user ids and passwords were stolen.
  • More supply-chain breaches as a method to gain access to the intended victim organisation.
  • Cloud service breaches and/or take-downs and mis-use by the Bad Guys n Girls.
  • The skills-gap and staff shortage will increase, again. And those of us in the industry will be in demand and frequently head-hunted or just pestered by desperate recruiters that don’t read your LinkedIn profile and still approach you with roles that you are not interested in or have the skills/background for.
  • More Business Email Compromise attacks (aka Fake CEO/CFO, etc.); these will rake in far more money in 2019
  • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will continue be touted as “The” solution to deal with cyber threats and breaches; they are useful but generally too prone to false positives (detect things that are not an issue) and more worryingly false negatives (don’t detect what they should do).
  • The Internet of Things will start to “grow-up” as manufactures start to bake in security and offer it as a differentiator to competing products/services.
  • However, despite this we will continue to see IoT devices/infrastructure used as an attack platform and I suspect that we will start to see volumetric DDoS attacks exceed 2Tbps (largest so far was 1.35Tbps against Github in 2018). 
  • We may well see some critical infrastructure attacks (outside of Ukraine) that are successful, and that cause major outages and/or physical damage/loss of life.
  • Too many organisation thinking that using a single Cloud provider will give them a fully resilient infrastructure; it won’t. Just like having multiple data-centers, you need multiple Cloud providers (this should be part of your Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Plan), no single-points of failure!
  • GDPR will finally start to bite (hard) and organisations that should have already been following industry best practice for data/privacy will finally do something about it (well, most of them)!
  • Blockchain will be finally recognised as not being the solution to everything!
  • Increase in use of Sextortion, Bomb and other extortion/blackmail emails/calls, despite the fact that most Sextortion campaigns did not net piles of bitcoin as those behind them expected.
  • More social-media scams mainly focussed around crypto-currency giveaways; like the many Elon Musk themed ones we saw in 2018.
  • People will still mainly fail to learn from history; we will see yet more old techniques/technologies dusted off and re-used by the Bad Guys n Girls, for victims that weren’t around (or paying attention) the last time it was successfully used…

Don’t have nightmares, remember that 80-90% of all security breaches/incident I have dealt with could have been avoided by just following best practice and doing the basics… This includes taking (and testing) backups, educating (and testing) your staff, patching your systems, applications and writing secure code, good Identity and Access Management, and so on…

IoT Malware Detections Soar 273% Since 2017

A new report shows that the risks from IoT  (Internet of Things) devices are increasing, with the bad guys and girls using bots, worms and other malware (including scripts) to trawl the Internet looking for IoT devices that are insecure; un-patched and therefore vulnerable, use weak, known and often hard-coded passwords that can’t be changed, weak crypto implementations, etc. and are therefore, easy to compromise and re-purpose for their nefarious purposes.

This doesn’t surprise me, and in fact I expect it to accelerate until suitable standards backed up by legislation comes in to force….

IoT vendors need to take responsibility for the (mainly) poor security (or complete lack of security) in their products….

There are a few vendors out there that have baked good security in at the design phase and continue to secure/patch/harden their products and back-end infrastructure; the rest need to catch up, fast!

More details can be found here: https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/news/iot-malware-detections-soar-273/