Microsoft Outs Reports of Cyber Insecurity in the Middle East

In 2015 oil prices fell to levels not seen since the 2008 financial crisis. In May this year oil prices surged to their highest level in more than three years, astounding economists and forecasters. Prices are now stabilising again.

The Middle East has invested billions of dollars in efforts to develop more diversified and knowledge-based economies. As such, the region is emerging from the ongoing oil-price challenges unscathed.

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Yet the Middle East’s resilience is hardly surprising. A deep desire to embrace the latest trends and changes, and rapid digital transformation, is driving the region to greater heights as countries relentlessly pursue new avenues of growth.

Over the past decade, the cross-border data flow connecting the Middle East to the rest of the world has increased more than 150-fold. According to a report by PwC, digital transformation will generate an extra $16.9 billion in revenue each year for companies in the Middle East, between now and 2021.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), the largest economy in the Middle East, is leading the digital transformation charge with the nation-wide implementation of large-scale digital transformation projects. But the acceleration of digitalisation and insecure consumer habits, as well as inadequate cybersecurity measures in key sectors, is turning the UAE and other countries in the region into a lucrative target for cybercriminals.

While increased awareness and investment saw attacks in the UAE decline during the first half 2018, cybercriminals still managed to steal close to Dh4 billion from victims in 2017, and Symantec estimates that the average amount of time consumers in the UAE lose dealing with the impact of online crime is rising.

It’s important that organisations and their employees across the region are aware of the latest threats and how best to protect against them. Here are three of the biggest cyber threats currently facing the region:

Battling botnets
The word “botnet” is a combination of the words “robot” and “network“. Botnets can be infected with malware that allows hackers to remotely take control of several devices at a time, usually without the knowledge of the device owner.

According to the latest Microsoft Security Intelligence Report, botnets continue to impact millions of computers globally, infecting them with old and new forms of malware. Cybercriminals use botnets to conduct a variety of online attacks, such as sending spam, conduct denial-of-service attacks on websites, spread malware, facilitate click fraud in online advertising and much more.

New research also reveals that the GCC made up nearly 11.4 percent of the Middle East’s total bot population. Riyadh in Saudi Arabia had the highest rate of bot infections in the GCC with 43.1 percent of bots in the region. Dubai was ranked as the second most bot-infected city in the GCC with 24.7 percent of bots.

Defending against botnet activity is not an easy undertaking and requires a massive and coordinated effort by both private and public organisations. The first step in protecting organisations against botnets is to look for a solution that harnesses advanced machine learning. For example, Windows Defender ATP uses the power of the cloud, machine learning and behaviour analytics to detect, protect and respond against botnets and other cyber threats.

Hackers turning to easy marks
As the cost of circumventing security measures increases, hackers are progressively taking advantage of “low-hanging fruit” to circumvent increasingly sophisticated security measures. There are three types of low-hanging fruit routes frequently employed by cyber attackers in the region.

  1. Social Engineering: It’s becoming more expensive for hackers to penetrate software. By contrast, it’s easier and less costly to trick a user into clicking a malicious link or opening a phishing email. The best defense against phishing is employee education and training.
  2. Poorly secured cloud apps: Recent Microsoft research suggests that 79 percent of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) storage apps and 86 percent of collaboration apps do not encrypt data both at rest and in transit. When adopting cloud apps, you should make sure that only apps with web session protection and encryption are allowed. Organisations should also have a solution in place to have visibility into and control over all cloud apps usage.
  3. Taking advantage of legitimate platform features: Cybercriminals are increasingly taking advantage of legitimate software platform features to infect computers. For example, during the last quarter of 2017, the Windows Defender Security Intelligence team detected incidents where hackers used legitimate business software to stay “under the radar” as they phished users and infected computers.

Wrestling ransomware
Last year the infamous ransomware attack WannaCrypt hit the British National Health Service and other systems around the world, bringing down critical services. It impacted over 230,000 computers and to this day constitutes one of the largest ever cyber-attacks. According to Microsoft’s latest Security Intelligence Report, ransomware continues to be a popular method used by cybercriminals to solicit money from victims.

To protect yourself from falling victim to a ransomware attack you can take the following measures:

  1. Back up data: Be sure to create destruction-resistant backups of critical systems and data. Also, be sure to regularly test that the backups are working.
  2. Apply multi-layered security defences: Use an email security solution that scans suspicious email attachments and ideally protects at the time a user clicks on an attachment. Antivirus software should help detect and block the download and installation of some ransomware but to mitigate against the impact of sophisticated ransomware, additional protection is required. Advanced threat protection that applies machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies can help.
  3. Keep software up-to-date: To minimise entry points for ransomware, be sure to keep all software updated, including operating systems, web browsers, plug-ins and security software. Also prioritise patching new releases to enable stronger protection against vulnerabilities.

Prevention is better than cure
“The past year has shown us the significant impact of botnet infections on computers worldwide. We’ve seen cybercriminals leveraging less sophisticated methods to infect machines and extort ransoms from victims; and we’ve continued to encounter ransomware in a wide range of cybercrime activity,” said the company.

Organisations in the Middle East that act quickly to adopt security solutions, implement incident response plans and employ the right mix of people will minimise damage and impact from cyber-attacks now and in the future.

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Chris Fernando

Chris N. Fernando is an experienced media professional with over two decades of journalistic experience. He is the Editor of Arabian Reseller magazine, the authoritative guide to the regional IT industry. Follow him on Twitter (@chris508) and Instagram (@chris2508).

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