NCSC "achieving its aims" with reduced criminal infrastructures attacking UK

News by Mia Simpson

Criminal cyber-infrastructures used to attack the UK have fallen with two thirds fewer IP addresses used by attackers in 2018 says the NCSC's latest Active Cyber Defence (ADC) report published earlier this week.

Criminal cyber-infrastructures used to attack the UK have fallen by two thirds, from 72,975 unique IP addresses in 2017 to just 24,320 IP addresses used by attackers in 2018 whose sites were taken down by the NCSC, according to its latest Active Cyber Defence (ADC) report published earlier this week. However the total number of takedowns, at 192,256, was just marginally down on the 2017 figure of 209,992, a fall of 13 percent.

Report author Ian Levy suggests that this means criminals are using less infrastructure and hosting more individual attacks on each instance as part of a campaign. He also says that it could be that it is becoming harder to host attacks that the NCSC is  interested in. Levy does not suggest that there are now fewer attackers, but acknowlegdes, "There could be other explanations due to causes hidden from us, but we are unaware of any other systemic work that could obviously cause that sort of effect," hence concludes it is likely that the NCSC is, "achieving our overall goal or making the UK (and UK-related brands) unattractive for cyber crime."

The Takedown Service is just one of the NCSCs activities reported on, with others including, Mail Check and Protective DNS. Mail Check, monitors public sector organisations and helps them take control of their emails making phishing attacks much more difficult.

Last year, the NCSC stopped 140,000 separate phishing attacks including the bogus emails from an unnamed UK airport. The NCSC tackles large opportunistic threats, but says it needs to prioritise the bigger risks. This can mean that smaller hazards can slip through. In an email to SC Media UK,Matt Walmsley, EMEA director at Vectra, said, " It is great to see the results of the programmes 2nd year of operations but each UK individual, and every UK organisation, needs to foster an attitude of being primarily responsible for their own cyber-security". 

David Mount, director, Europe at Cofense, agreed, commenting: "Unfortunately, while the NCSC may have the ability to help some, it does not have the resources to help everyone in the fight against cybercrime." He then went on to saythat people should learn from the examples provided in the report to reduce or prevent harm.

The programme has raised awareness amongst UK organisations and businesses, nonetheless email attacks have cost businesses and governments £10 billion so far. The report brought up many threats, including Domain Fraud actors that create domains to imitate trusted brands. Adenike Cosgrove, cyber-security strategist at Proofpoint, told SC Media UK that, "Although progress is being made, email fraud from domain spoofing is still an issue and both businesses and consumers aren’t safe from this increasing threat. In fact, recent Proofpoint research shows that fraudulent domains grew by 11 percent globally over the past year, with more than 90 percent of these domains currently live and active." She added that the NCSC had made a good start looking at government owned domains. 

There was some suggestion that although the NCSC report shows great progress and improvements in cyber-security, it has forced hackers to become more advanced in its attacks so cyber-security crime is becoming harder to solve. It is reported that there are an estimated 1.5 million phishing sites created every month, generating more problems for the NCSC to deal with. Corin Imai, senior security advisor at DomainTools, suggested that, "Organisations and educational institutions need to make a base level of phishing training available for everyone who has Internet access". This would mean that more people would be protected from phishing and the NCSC would have more time to focus on bigger problems. Imai went on to say that, "Taking the profitability out of phishing scams is ultimately how we can continue to build on the good work of the NCSC and move towards making phishing a thing of the past." 

Whilst HMRC remains the top phished brand, the Student Loans Company and universities also figure in the top ten. In it’s report, the NCSC suggested that access to the relevant university mail account is needed to help the criminal gain access to passwords or more. Tim Sadler, CEO at cyber-security firm, Tessian, commented that, "Attackers are successfully engineering new ways of deceiving their targets to share data or transfer money. And what better way to convince someone to share information or click a link than to impersonate a position of trust and authority?" To help stop this, Sadler suggested that users should, "Check the sender’s email address and look out for spelling mistakes. And if you're still not sure, then do not respond and verify the sender by calling the company or University in question."

In NCSC’s report (on pg. 46 of PDF in the connected website), it advises that businesses adopt DMARC "as it is only through widespread adoption of better email security that we will have a sustained impact on criminal return on investment and their intent to attack citizens." Sadler claims that "The problem with DMARC is that it only protects against a small fraction of the threats on email. Businesses and government agencies should be aware that a high percentage of emails employees receive are still not DMARC authenticated. This means that while their own domain may be protected from direct impersonation, their employees remain vulnerable to direct impersonation of their external contacts."

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