National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Issues Bulletin on Potential Terrorism Threat to the U.S. Homeland From Iranian Cyberattacks

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National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Issues Bulletin on Potential Terrorism Threat to the U.S. Homeland From Iranian Cyberattacks

On January 4, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletin describing current developments and general trends regarding the terrorist threat posed by Iran’s cyber warfare programme. According to the NTAS, the catalyst for the bulletin’s issuance is the United States’ “lethal strike in Iraq killing Iranian IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani” and publicly stated intentions of “Iranian leadership and several affiliated violent extremist organisations … to retaliate against the United States.”

It is important to note that while the bulletin specifically states that the NTAS has no information indicating a specific, credible threat at this time, it acknowledges that “an attack in the homeland may come with little or no warning.” The NTAS also acknowledges that Iran has been implicated in previous U.S. based plots and has the capabilities within its cyber programme to carry out attacks against critical U.S. infrastructure. Accordingly, vigilance is the order of the day.

The Focus on Iran Is Not New

If Iran were to attack U.S. companies, it would not be the first time it has done so. And the present threat is real. Following are examples:

  • On February 26, 2015, then Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that February 2014 was the first time destructive cyberattacks were carried out on U.S. soil by nation-state entities, marked first by the Iranian attack against the Las Vegas Sands Casino Corporation.
  • On June 22, 2019, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a Statement on Cybersecurity Threats citing the recent rise in malicious cyber activity directed at U.S. industries and government agencies by Iranian regime actors and proxies. They further noted the use of “wiper” attacks with the potential to take down entire networks.
  • In November 2019, a Microsoft security researcher presented findings at CyberwarCon from their threat intelligence group that Iranian hacking organisation APT33 had attempted to gain access to the networks of Industrial Control System (ICS) suppliers, which is a possible first step in a supply chain attack that could be used for acts of sabotage.

What Should Companies Do?

Protiviti recommends organisations take the following key actions to deter, identify and respond to a cyberattack. Given the source and nature of the threat, those business services that are defined as critical infrastructure sectors, or which otherwise have the potential to broadly impact many customers, should be prioritised when considering these actions.[1]

  1. Enhance security awareness. One of the easiest ways to increase security is through employee awareness. Organisations should continue ongoing efforts to keep employees engaged and motivated, and, in view of the present environment, turn up the volume in their communications on this issue. In addition, they should:​
    • Increase awareness through testing for sophisticated phishing attacks. Sophisticated phishing and spear-phishing techniques continue to defeat some of the best defenses. The technical perimeter is only as good as the human perimeter.​
    • Ensure the organisation has updated information on indicators of compromise (IoCs) for recent attacks. Such IoCs may include strange inbound/outbound network patterns, unexplained configuration changes, anomalous spikes in read volumes in certain files, log in red flags, unusual privileged user account activity and the presence of unknown files, applications and processes in the system.
  2. Identify the most critical systems, applications, infrastructure and third party needs to support important business services. Organisations cannot maintain and build resilience in the face of significant cyberthreats unless they have a clear understanding of their environment and the most important elements that enable the business to function.
  3. Implement mitigating controls to protect those critical technologies that cannot be patched. These technologies may include medical devices, industrial control systems and legacy applications, such as network segmentation and other solutions.
  4. Evaluate all access into systems and networks to ensure only authorised users can use or administer company assets. To that end, it is vital to ensure that default credentials are updated.
  5. Increase the sophistication of protection and detection strategies. One key step in the protection of systems and data is to increase monitoring of security events on systems with access to the internet. In addition, deploying more sophisticated defenses such as multifactor authentication (MFA) and active defense technologies (e.g., endpoint detection and response [EDR] and intrusion prevention systems [IPS]) can help mitigate risk to the environment.
  6. Seek and share the latest cyberthreat information. Sharing of cyberthreat information among businesses, as well as between government and business, could help mitigate attacks from nation-states. There are numerous Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) that can assist with the sharing process. Companies should connect with an ISAC to ensure they have the latest information. Those who are in possession of U.S. government data may prefer to access the Defense Industrial Base, or DIB, which aims to protect sensitive, unclassified Defense Department programme and technology information residing on, or transiting among, Department of Defense and defense contractor computers. It makes sense to be informed.
  7. Refresh the risk assessment process as it relates to cyberthreats more than once a year. Because threats are evolving so quickly, the risk assessment should be performed quarterly to ascertain the emergence of new threats and risks. In addition, the risk assessment process should consider risks beyond the loss of sensitive data. Other risks, such as operational impacts and disruption, could be realised through cyberattacks. Accordingly, it behooves companies to focus on designing appropriate cyber defenses to mitigate these risks as they emerge. The Iranian threat is yet another reminder of the dangers lurking from sophisticated threats perpetrated by nation-states playing for keeps.
  8. Ensure the organisation has a sound, up-to-date incident response plan that addresses new threats. Conduct training and rehearsals of this plan through simulations (e.g. tabletop exercises). Revisit the plan more than once a year ideally, quarterly depending on the risks to the organisation. Review organisational business continuity and disaster recovery plans and ensure they are up to date and include recovery procedures for business disruption from a cyber attack, particularly for systems that are critical to the execution of the business model.
  9. Ensure cyber defenses are adequately funded and staffed to manage the evolving risks and threats. An effective and comprehensive understanding of the threat landscape facilitates the allocation of defense spend to its highest and best use.

Concluding Thoughts

In issuing the NTAS bulletin, DHS indicated that it will provide protective measures when and if the understanding of the risk landscape changes. That said, it is up to each organisation to take the necessary steps to protect its critical systems, assets and intellectual property and sustain its business model. The nine key actions we outline above offer a framework for assessing next steps near term.

How Can Protiviti Help?

Protiviti can assist companies in a variety of ways: Our professionals can:

  • Evaluate your cybersecurity programme with a rapid assessment. This one- or two-week project will examine your company’s protection capabilities, abilities to detect cyber-related events, and incident response capabilities. The assessment also includes a tabletop exercise with executives, and the results will highlight areas of strength and weakness within your organisation’s cybersecurity programme.
  • Implement and manage new cyber capabilities and technologies. Cyberattacks are inevitable, and cyber technologies are transforming in parallel. With a growing need to automate, orchestrate and mature your organisation’s cyber capabilities, Protiviti can help you leverage technology (such as artificial intelligence and machine learning) to realise your efficiency in cybersecurity and grow securely.
  • Assess your risks and build your operational resilience programme. We use quantitative data-driven and evidence-based methods to define, scope, size and prioritise your cyber risks, to help you make informed business decisions and design a programme that drives continuous improvement.
  • Find and train the right resources and skills to complement your team. In partnership with Protiviti’s parent company, Robert Half International, we will bring in the right people with the right skill set at the right time, based on your company’s customised needs.

[1] For more about these sectors, click here.