Cyber Mercenaries in Demand as Organizations Hire Their Services

BlackBerry Limited has released its 2021 Threat Report, detailing a sharp rise in cyberthreats facing organizations since the onset of COVID-19. The research shows a cybercrime industry which not only adapted to new digital habits, but also became increasingly successful in finding and targeting vulnerable organizations. The research also highlights a dangerous new shift in the cybercrime world, one where mercenaries and crimeware-as-a-service models have become increasingly accessible.

At the outset of the pandemic, countless organizations suddenly had to support a large proportion of their workforce remotely, with many forced to digitize various parts of their infrastructure overnight. This evolution and adoption of digital offerings exposed companies to inadequate protections for employees and customers amongst an ever-growing and under-secured attack surface. There was also a greater merging of cyber and physical threats, with cybercriminals increasingly targeting healthcare organizations or using the pandemic to trick already vulnerable populations.

“The cybersecurity industry becomes more complex each passing year as new technologies, devices and innovations emerge – and at no time was that truer than in 2020, which witnessed everything from a global pandemic to the U.S. election,” said Eric Milam, Vice President of Research and Intelligence, BlackBerry. “As the world becomes more interconnected and as new dimensions to cybercrime continue to rise, preparation will become a key factor in successful threat prevention in 2021.”

The report highlights a burgeoning crimeware-as-a-service business model as well as the increasing sophistication and collaboration of these hacker-for-hire groups. Not only was the ransomware-as-a-service model highly successful – especially as more non-digital natives transacted online – but the additional research into threat actors such as BAHAMUT and CostaRicto shows that these groups possess the tools once thought to be solely the domain of nation-state attackers. This presents a new danger for companies, one where attacks can be more frequent, skillful and targeted. 

Key findings in the report include:

  • Ransomware attacks shifted from performing indiscriminate targeting to conducting highly focused campaigns deployed via compromised MSSPs
  • Elections remained vulnerable to cyber attacks through unsecured mobile technology, insufficient DMARC email protection, and over-exposure of personal information on social media
  • Global automakers faced new regulations to protect connected vehicles from cyber attacks and data theft
  • Numerous phishing campaigns targeted critical infrastructure systems across manufacturing, healthcare, energy services and food supply sectors
  • Mercenary threat groups experienced a year of growth as unscrupulous actors and organizations outsourced their cyber attacks
  • Ransomware-as-a-service offerings grew in popularity, replacing traditional off-the-shelf ransomware with ready-made exploit kits, malspam campaigns and threat emulation software
  • Newer APT groups like CostaRicto targeted disparate victims worldwide with their customized backdoors and tooling
  • Emotet, the banking trojan turned attack platform, received new upgrades and capabilities, including a flaw that allowed BlackBerry researchers to easily identify and prevent it from installing on systems

“As both public and private organizations work to meet cyber espionage groups at ground zero, the foundation for robust security practices remains unchanged. From round-the-clock monitoring to AI-driven security tools and insider threat detection, the same time-tested security fundamentals – and an understanding of how current events impact an organization’s attack surface – can make the difference between a data breach and a successful cyber defense,” Milam said.

Download the report at BlackBerry 

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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