New Year to Bring New Data Security Threats, Cyber Investor Warns

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Bob Ackerman is one of the venture capitalists whose funding has long fed the growth of the burgeoning cybersecurity industry. So, you might imagine that his outlook on data protection for 2019 would be more optimistic than in past years, because businesses now take advantage of a broad choice of security services to protect themselves.

Ackerman (pictured) is founder and managing director of San Francisco-based VC firm AllegisCyber, and co-founder of Fulton, MD-based DataTribe, which helps launch startups grounded in the expertise of former federal cybersecurity experts at the National Security Agency and other government units. His portfolio companies mount defenses against hackers and criminals who deploy a range of different tactics, from phishing attacks (Area 1 Security) to e-commerce fraud (Signifyd) to impersonating authentic users and accounts (Shape Security.)

But, if anything, Ackerman foresees that cyber invaders will exploit new vulnerabilities in 2019, while doubling down on strategies that have proven effective in the past. Among the worrisome factors, he says, are the business practices of social media companies such as Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), which has exposed private details about individual users who then become more defenseless against online manipulation.

Here are Ackerman’s predictions for the information security trends we’ll see in 2019, which he shared with Xconomy in an e-mail:

The emergence of A.I.-driven chatbots. In the new year, cyber criminals and black hat hackers will create malicious chatbots that try to socially engineer victims into clicking links, downloading files, or sharing private information. A hijacked chatbot could easily misdirect victims to nefarious links rather than legitimate ones. Attackers are also likely to leverage Web application flaws in legitimate websites to insert a malicious chatbot into a site that doesn’t have one.

Attacks on cities with crimeware-as-a-service, a new component of the underground economy. Adversaries will leverage new tools that, among other things, attack data integrity—disabling computers to the point of requiring mandatory hardware replacements. Terrorist-related groups will be the likely culprits.

A significant increase in nation-state attacks. Russia has (reportedly) been a leader in using targeted cyber actions as part of larger objectives. Earlier this year, for example, the FBI disclosed that Sofacy group, a Russian persistent threat actor, infected more than 500,000 home office routers and networks attached to storage devices worldwide to remote-control them. Look for other nation-states to follow the same sort of playbook, helped by billions of poorly secured IoT (Internet of Things) devices. China is the number one emerging nemesis and is becoming overt, as well as covert.

The growing weaponization of data. Already a huge problem, it is certain to worsen, notwithstanding efforts among some technology giants to enhance user security and privacy. Balancing the negatives with the positives, tens of millions of compromised Web users have begun to seriously question how much they really benefit from the Internet.

Consider, for example, Facebook, which has made no secret of using personal data and “private” correspondence to annually generate billions of dollars in profits. Users willingly “like” interests and brands, volunteering personal information. This enables Facebook to provide a more complete image of its user base—a gold mine for advertisers.

Much worse, Facebook in 2014 tried to manipulate user moods through an “emotional contagion” experiment. This pitted users against their peers to influence their emotions—i.e., the weaponization of data.

A resurgence in ransomware. Ransomware exploded onto the scene in 2017 following the WannaCry outbreak and a series of successful follow-up ransomware attacks targeting high-profile victims. According to the FBI, total ransomware payments in the U.S. have in some years exceeded $1 billion. There were scant high-profile ransomware victims in recent months, but the problem is highly likely to bounce back strongly in 2019. Ransomware attacks come in waves, and the next one is due.

More cyber attacks on satellites. In June, Symantec (NASDAQ: SYMC) reported that an unnamed group had successfully targeted the satellite communications of Southeast Asia telecom companies involved in geospatial mapping and imaging. Symantec also reported attacks originating in China last year on a defense contractor’s satellite.

Increased subversion of software development processes and attacks on software update supply chains. Regarding software development, malware has already been detected in select open-source software libraries. Meanwhile, software update supply chain attacks violate software vendor update packages. When customers download and install updates, they unwittingly introduce malware into their systems. In 2017, there was an average of one attack every month, compared to virtually none in 2016, according to Symantec. The trend continued in 2018 and will become worse next year.

[Editor’s note: This is part of a series of posts sharing thoughts from industry and technology leaders about 2018 trends and forecasts for 2019.]

Photo of Bob Ackerman courtesy of AllegisCyber.