Despite the efforts made to improve cybersecurity at many organizations, there are too many systems with aging infrastructure and vulnerabilities that leave companies at risk, with ransomware one of the most sinister threats, according to a new Cisco report.

Ransomware is a top concern because it’s become an area of intense focus for cybercriminals due to its effectiveness at generating revenue. Once a cybercriminal hacks into a company’s files and encrypts them, victims have little option but to pay the asking price for the code to decrypt their files. Ransomware is becoming more ominous as new versions are continually being developed.

“The landscape is simple. Attackers can move at will. They’re shifting their tactics all the time. Defenders have a number of processes they have to go through,” said Jason Brvenik, principal engineer with Cisco’s security business group, discussing the Cisco 2016 Midyear Cybersecurity Report.

Cisco used data from its customers to create the report, since there are more than 16 billion web requests that go through the Cisco system daily, with nearly 20 billion threats blocked daily, and with more than 1.5 million unique malware samples daily, which works out to 17 new pieces of malware every second, Brvenik said.

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Brvenik has the following recommendations for companies wanting to improve security:

  • Improve network hygiene – Improve aging infrastructure to limit vulnerabilities.
  • Integrate defenses – Use machine learning techniques combined with novel data views.
  • Measure time to detection – Find out how long an attacker can live in your network before they are found.
  • Protect your users everywhere they are – Protect users whether they’re on a laptop, a smartphone, or another device. Don’t just protect networks but protect users. They are the target.

The next step in the evolution of malware will be ransomware 2.0, which Brvenik said “will start replicating on its own and demand higher ransoms. You’ll come in Monday morning and 30% of your machines and 50% of your servers will be encrypted. That’s really a nightmare scenario.”

Ransomware campaigns started out primarily through email and malicious advertising, but now some attackers are using network and server-side vulnerabilities as well. Self-propagating ransomware will be the next step to create ransomware 2.0, and companies need to take steps to prepare and protect their company’s network, Brvenik said.

New modular strains of ransomware will be able to quickly switch tactics to maximize efficiency. For example, future ransomware attacks will evade detection by being able to limit CPU usage and refrain from command-and-control actions. These new ransomware strains will spread faster and self-replicate within organizations before coordinating ransom activities, according to the report.

The report detailed one widespread campaign that appeared to target the healthcare industry earlier this year. It used the Samas/Samsam/MSIL.B/C (“SamSam”) ransomware variant, which was distributed through compromised servers. The attackers used the servers to move laterally through the network and compromise additional machines, which were then held for ransom, according to the report.

JexBoxx, an open source tool for testing and exploiting JBoss application services, had been used to allow the attackers to gain access to networks in the targeted companies. Once the attackers had access to the network, they encrypted multiple Windows systems using SamSam.

Overall, in all aspects of cybersecurity, there are too many companies with vulnerabilities that haven’t been addressed. Out of 103,121 Cisco devices connected to the internet that were studied for the report, each device on average was running 28 known vulnerabilities. The devices were actively running known vulnerabilities for an average of 5.64 years, and more than 9 percent had known vulnerabilities older than 10 years, according to the report.

“In April, Cisco estimated that 10% of all JBoss servers worldwide were compromised. And they were compromised using readily available tools and old vulnerabilities. Adobe Flash is still a favorite. It gives a viable attack surface for them. And we see Microsoft Silverlight vulnerabilities. This means to us that people are opportunizing those that work for them,” Brvenik said.

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Brevik noted that the nature of the attack is also likely to change, focusing on service-oriented technologies and systems, with teams ready to attack and try to compromise systems. Advertising is a viable model for attack.

“We saw a 300% increase in the use of HTTPS with malware over the past four months. Ad injection is the biggest contributor. Adversaries are using HTTPS traffic to expand time to operate. That’s the attacker opportunity as it exists today,” he said.

It’s no longer reasonable to expect to block 100% of threats, but being able to detect the threat fast, and limit the time the attacker is in your system is key to minimizing the damage. In December 2014, the median time before an attack was detected was 50 hours. In April 2016, it dipped to a median of 13 hours for the previous six months, Brvenik said.

“It is a living number as defenses improve and attackers change. This is good. It says that for the customers that have these systems, when they are compromised, they’re now down to 13 hours as a median time to detect it. I wouldn’t leave the door to my house open for 13 hours; and that’s what you’re doing when you leave your door open to attackers for 13 hours.”

Industries that previously thought they were immune because their business was of little interest to attackers are wrong.

“No industry is safe,” Brvenik said. “Assuming that what you do is of no interest to attackers is not a good way to think of it.”

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Of more than 100,000 Cisco connected devices studied for the report, an average of 28 vulnerabilities were running on each one.
  2. Self-propagating ransomware is around the corner and companies need to protect themselves from the threat.
  3. Ransomware is giving massive profits to attackers, encouraging them to create even more sinister ways to attack. The average time of attack lasts 13 hours, down from 50 hours in 2014.

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