Mitigation Strategies for Common Attacks According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security  Agency (CISA)

Beginning in 2019, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) began releasing their Risk and Vulnerability Assessment report. This report compiled several months of testing, audits and remediation efforts carried out on behalf of federal entities. Their assessments of these stakeholders helped them identify common attack vectors, the effectiveness of these attack vectors and how IT systems were responding to these attacks. 

Recently, CISA released their report for FY 2020. While some of the information in the report is insightful and informative, much of it is also becoming unfortunate common knowledge.  


What Is CISA Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (RVA)

The FY 2020 Risk and Vulnerability Assessment was released by CISA on July 8, 2021, to address some of the most common hacking techniques seen to threaten federal agencies in the previous year. 

The basis for this assessment is the MITRE ATT&CK framework. This framework serves as both a knowledge base of cyber-attack techniques and adversary attack lifecycles. Essentially, the MITRE framework provides organizations with a reference base for the different approaches that adversarial hacks might take to undermine their systems.

More importantly, MITRE ATT&CK can help security firms take a proactive approach to security planning and threat tracking. By understanding the combinations of technologies, tactics and strategies employed by hackers, specialists can better thwart them. 

Along those lines, ATT&CK comes in three arrangements:

  1. Enterprise ATT&CK: Defines the reasons or goals for cyber-attacks… that is, not the motivations of the attack per se, but the initial goals of the attack. These include accessing credentials, privileged access and exfiltration.
  2. PRE-ATT&CK: Covers techniques used by hackers to compromise a system from the outside, including social engineering, phishing, compromising user accounts and gathering organizational information through websites to internal documents.
  3. Mobile ATT&CK: Defines several tactics to access systems without direct device access, including through techniques like geofencing, fraud or mobile network exploits. 

The RVA is therefore aligned with the ATT&CK framework to better explain the attacks that are threatening government agencies. 


What Did the RVA Find?

By and large, the CISA RVA uses the ATT&CK framework to device tests around specific tactics in an “attack path”, comprised of 6 different tactical categories:

  1. Initial Access: The first step on an attack path, where the attacker attempts to get access to the system (usually through a remote position to the system). This can be through several types of attacks available to the hacker. 
  2. Command and Control: After a breach, the attacker will take hold of the system, and this stage covers efforts to maintain system control over time. This can prove to be more or less difficult depending on the system and the type of attack. This tactic also includes any approaches to controlling the system externally (for example, remotely from a server or bot swarm). 
  3. Lateral Movement: This is the point where an attacker attempts to propagate through a  system without escalating privileges, usually to avoid detection. The spread of active control undercover. 
  4. Privilege Escalation: Attempts to increase the level of control the hacker has over the system to access elevated operations or data. This includes attempts to get administrator or Root control. 
  5. Collection: Any and all attempts to pull data from a system, usually through scraping resources or accessing critical communication channels (hard drives, file transfer servers, etc.)
  6. Exfiltration: The efforts used to send collected data from the system without notifying you or alerting security systems. This includes hiding data transmissions in existing communication channels. 

Significantly, the CISA RVA found a few key items during their testing and research:

  • Phishing is still a popular, widespread and effective method of initially attacking a system–up to 49% of the initial access attacks using phishing links were successful. While research in commercial and consumer technologies shows the same, phishing is also a major threat for defense and federal contractors as well.
  • Most successful attempts to set up communications in a compromised system hijacked common communication ports. 42% of attacks used ports that would be allowed through protections like a firewall by HTTPS or DNS.
  • These methods allowed testers to run about 16% of compromised systems through a basic Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).
  • 29.8% of attacks were able to move laterally through a system by supplying hashes of passwords for authorization. This means that the attack didn’t even have to compromise a user account, they could simply copy a hashed password stolen from a database.
  • RDP also allowed up to 25% of attacks to expand their footprint by remotely managing local workstations.
  • 37.5% of attacks were able to escalate privileges through valid accounts by stealing hard-coded passwords or brute-forcing identification credentials.
  • 32% of successful attempts to steal sensitive information were due to access to local, unprotected systems.
  • Much of this sensitive data would be considered a security risk, including the theft of blueprints and vulnerability information.
  • 68% of successful infiltrations were through previously mentioned channels (common ports).


Shoring Up Security and Compliance with Lazarus Alliance

The lessons learned from the CISA 2020 RVA aren’t surprising:

  1. Contractors and agencies need to ensure that they are properly training employees to handle unauthorized data requests through phishing attempts.
  2. Additional measures must be taken to protect against phishing, including email filters and automatic alerts for emails originating outside an organization. 
  3. All secure data must be stored in compliant and protected servers, not in readily available databases or servers (even though that might be more convenient for work purposes. 
  4. Users are often the weakest link, and continued education goes a long way towards mitigation. 
  5. Proactive security management and threat detection must include monitoring web traffic and observing unusual data transfers, with regular audits to determine irregular patterns. 

Lazarus Alliance is a veteran-owned cybersecurity firm that supports businesses and contractors working with our government and military to help defend our defensive capabilities. We help organizations prepare for security audits with fast, effective automated assessments and expert advice on how to remediate problems. 

If your organization is interested in proactive cybersecurity and compliance work in regulated industries or government contracting, call 1-888-896-7580 to discuss your organization’s compliance needs.

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