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Hackers Turn HTTPS to Their Advantage

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.

See also: 6 Tricks and Tools for Securing Your Data  

“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.

The Problems With Encryption

Newly released findings from the Ponemon Institute and A10 Networks reveal that nearly half of cyber attacks in the past 12 months used encryption to evade detection and distribute malicious software. These findings challenge how we think about the powerful technology we use to protect privacy, security and authenticity. They also demonstrate very effectively how this security technology has been subverted into a powerful weapon for cyber criminals.

This research is another damning piece of evidence that a significant chunk of enterprise security spending is not effective. Possibly half, or even more, of our security technology is doing little to effectively identify bad guys hiding within encrypted traffic. And because the increasing regulations around encryption will continue to drive a dramatic increase in the volume of encrypted traffic, the number of opportunities for bad guys to hide in plain sight is increasing exponentially. We’re fixing one illness but creating a new disease.

See also: The Costs of Inaction on Encryption

Transport Layer Security (TLS) and its predecessor, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), encrypt traffic. TLS and SSL turn on the padlock in our web browsers—they are the most widely relied upon indicators for consumers that a transaction is “secure.” This technology is used to hide data traffic from would-be hackers, but it also hides data from the latest, hot-selling security tools.

Because businesses now are being required to turn on encryption by default, encryption keys and certificates are growing at least 20% year over year—with an average of 23,000 TLS/SSL keys and certificates now used in the typical Global 2,000 company.

Volume overwhelms security efforts

As enterprises add more keys and certificates and encrypt more traffic, they are increasingly vulnerable to malicious encrypted traffic. Administrators simply do not have the tools to keep up with the growing number of keys and certificates. Venafi customers reported finding nearly 16,500 unknown TLS/SSL keys and certificates. This discovery represents a huge volume of encrypted traffic on their own networks that organizations don’t even know about.

Sadly, enterprise spending on next-generation firewalls, sandboxing technologies, behavior analytics and other sexy security systems is completely ineffective to detect this kind of malicious activity.

What does a next-generation firewall or sandbox system do with encrypted traffic? It passes the traffic straight through. If a cyber criminal gains access to encrypted traffic, then he is given a free pass by a wide range of sophisticated, state-of-the-art security controls.

Inspection a formidable task

The hard work of SSL/TLS inspection is at the core of today’s cybersecurity dynamics, but it remains largely overlooked in most enterprises. The challenge of gaining a comprehensive picture of how encryption is being used across enterprises and then gathering the keys and certificates that turn on HTTPS is daunting for even the most sophisticated organizations.

See also: How Safe Is Your Data?  

Throw in the challenge of keeping keys and certificates updated as they are renewed and replaced, and most enterprises can’t keep up. Even if multiple full-time employees are applied to the problem, they won’t be able to move at a pace that will enable them to identify bad guys hiding in encrypted traffic.

Unfortunately, as an industry we continue to ignore this gaping blind spot. For example, when the federal government’s chief information officer issued requirements for protecting all government websites with HTTPS by Dec. 31, 2016, no guidance was provided on how to defend against cyber crime that uses encryption as an attack vector.

As an industry, we’ve got to acknowledge and eliminate this blind spot. We need to be able to inspect traffic and automate the secure issuance and distribution of keys and certificates. The technology is available to solve these problems so we can use encryption safely.

But before we can solve any problem we first need to admit that we have one.

This article was written by Kevin Bocek and originally appeared on ThirdCertainty.