Encryption is a two-edged sword. Over the past few years, the tech sector—led by Google, Facebook and Twitter—has implemented a form of encryption to help secure virtually all of our online searches, social media banter and mobile apps.
When you search for something or use social media online, a robust form of encryption protects your data from being intercepted. It is called HTTPS, for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, with an “S” added to indicate security.
HTTPS has been used since 1994, primarily to protect online financial transactions. But now the tech giants are highly motivated to keep consumers’ trust level high in the murky internet. So they are leading the charge to spread HTTPS usage far and wide. And, generally speaking, that’s a very good thing.
Many government, healthcare and media websites have now jumped on the HTTPS bandwagon, in no small part due to the post-Edward Snowden-era demand for privacy. There’s still a long way to go. But even wider business use of HTTPS to protect sensitive data is inevitable.
But here is where the sword cuts the other way: Hackers have discovered that HTTPS is a perfect mechanism for helping them dodge detection.
See also: When Hackers Take the Wheel
A recent report from A10 Networks and the Ponemon Institute shows that perhaps as many as half of the cyber attacks aimed at businesses in the past 12 months used malware hidden in encrypted traffic.
Backdoor for criminals
Because firewalls, antimalware suites and intrusion detection systems have not been tuned to this trick, the effect is that criminals are using HTTPS to subvert powerful technology that has taken decades for the good guys to disperse widely.
Most advanced sandboxing technologies and behavior analytics tools are not currently configured to detect and neutralize HTTPS-cloaked malicious traffic. Thus, technology that companies have spent billions to install is being subverted by cyber criminals’ use of HTTPS.
“Sadly, enterprise spending on sexy security systems is completely ineffective to detect this kind of malicious activity,” says Kevin Bocek, security strategist at Venafi, a supplier of encryption-related technologies. “A cyber criminal using encrypted traffic is given a free pass by a wide range of sophisticated, state-of-the-art security controls.”
The A10/Ponemon report outlines how criminals are using HTTPS to go undetected as they carry out phishing and ransomware campaigns, take control of network servers and exfiltrate data. Of the more than 1,000 IT and IT security practitioners surveyed, some 80 percent acknowledged that their organizations had sustained a cyber attack in the past year, and nearly half said their attackers had used encryption to evade detection.
Reading the contents of web traffic
The good news is that there is technology already on the market that can look one level deeper into network traffic to spot malicious, or suspicious, HTTPS content. The technique is called HTTPS deep-packet inspection.
“This is relatively new technology that has been out for about four or five years now,” says Corey Nachreiner, chief technology officer at WatchGuard Technologies. “There are many organizations that don’t have this HTTPS inspection capability yet, so they’re missing around half the attacks out there.”
This is just one more example of why businesses of all sizes need to stay abreast of how cyber criminals innovate to stay one step ahead.
Businesses must set up defense
Small and midsize businesses should begin looking into adding HTTPS protection. This can be done directly on premises or via a managed security services provider. For SMBs, there are many credible security vendors out there worthy of review. But you have to commit to doing the due diligence.
Large enterprises face a bigger challenge. HTTPS uses Transport Layer Security (TLS) and its predecessor Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to encrypt traffic. This revolves around the issuing and managing of encryption keys and digital certificates at a scale that can stir confusion in big companies.
“The challenge of gaining a comprehensive picture of how encryption is being used across the enterprise and then gathering the keys and certificates that turn on HTTPS is daunting for even the most sophisticated organizations,” Venafi’s Bocek says. “Insufficient resources and automated controls are creating a nearly insane situation.”
Again, the good news is that technology to efficiently address this emerging exposure is available. First comes awareness of the problem, followed by continual due diligence by company decision-makers to defend their organization’s digital assets.