Black Hat 2020: Highlights from the Virtual Conference; Calls to Action for the Industry

August 11th, 2020

Black Hat looked different this year as the security community gathered on the virtual stage, due to COVID-19 concerns. “Different” doesn’t necessarily carry a negative connotation: the shift not only addressed public safety concerns, but also enabled the security community to critically think about the way we do work in our digital-centric world, particularly at a time where we are increasingly reliant on technology to stay connected.

When scrolling through the countless briefings available, it was clear that politics and COVID-19 remain top-of-mind. So, let’s start with the biggest topic of the week: election security.

Takeaway #1: Securing the Vote Relies on Collaboration… and Testing

Matt Blaze, a Georgetown University security researcher, kicked off the conference with a keynote titled, Stress-Testing Democracy: Election Integrity During a Global Pandemic. In the past, the industry has had conversations about securing voting machines themselves, but this year, the discussions were centered on online and mail-in voting mechanisms and the hacking of the process. Matt shared, “our confidence in the [election] outcome increasingly depends on the mechanisms that we use to vote.” And this year, we are tasked with scaling up mail-in voting mechanisms.

Blaze looked at software as the core of the election security framework, noting that “software is generally hard to secure, even under the best circumstances.” Though we expect a majority of votes to be made via paper ballot, software will still be used in every facet of the election system, from pre-election (ballot definition, machine provisioning) to post-election (tallying results, reporting, audits, and recounts). So, what is the industry to do?

He suggested that election committees prepare for a wide range of scenarios and threats and work towards software independence, though most don’t have the appropriate budgets to do so – a problem all too familiar to the security industry. Because of this, he encouraged the IT community to volunteer their time and become more involved with their local election efforts, specifically, testing the software and machines for vulnerabilities. In a way, he opened the door for ethical hackers, like our team at NetSPI, to get involved. An encouraging call to action that proved realistic during Black Hat occurred when voting machine maker ES&S and cybersecurity firm Synack announced a program to vet ES&S’ electronic poll book and new technologies – a call for “election technology vendors to work with researchers in a more open fashion and recognize that security researchers at large can add a lot of value to the process of finding vulnerabilities that could be exploited by our adversaries,” according to WIRED.

Continuing the narrative of election security, the day two keynote from Renee DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory informed Black Hat attendees of how to use information security to prevent disinformation in mass media (social media, broadcast, online publications). She explained how influence campaigns can skew not only voting results, but also perceptions of companies and, larger-scale, entire countries and governments. She reiterated that disinformation is indeed a cybersecurity problem that CISOs can’t ignore. In another humbling call to action for the security testing community, DiResta suggested, “we need to do more red teaming around social [media] and think of it as a system and [understand] how attacks can impact operations.” Read more about the keynote on ThreatPost.

Takeaway #2: The Importance of Application Security Has Heightened in 2020

Let’s start with healthcare. Amid the current public health pandemic, healthcare systems continue to be a top target for adversaries due to the sensitive and confidential patient records they hold. During Black Hat, the security industry shined a light on some of the various areas of weakness that can be exploited by an attacker. A big one? Healthcare application security.

One conversation that stuck out to me was from the Dark Reading news desk: HealthScare: Prioritizing Medical AppSec Research. In the interview, Seth Fogie, information security director at Penn Medicine, explains why healthcare application vulnerabilities matter in the day-to-day business of providing patient care. He recommends that the security and healthcare communities should have a better line of communication around AppSec research and testing efforts. He would like to see more security professionals asking healthcare administrators which other applications, including third-party vendors, they can assess for vulnerabilities. I agree with his recommendation to raise awareness for application testing in healthcare security as it would add value to the assessments already in effect and ultimately the overall security posture for the organization.

Then, there are web applications, such as virtual meeting and event platforms, that have seen a surge in popularity. Released at Black Hat, researchers found critical flaws in Meetup.com that showcased common gaps in AppSec. Researchers explained how common AppSec flaws cross site scripting and request forgery (both tied to the platform’s API) could have resulted in threat actors redirecting payments and other malicious actions. This is just one example showcased at Black Hat that showed the heightened AppSec risks amid COVID-19, as we continue to shift in-person activities to online platforms.

With NetSPI a Black Hat sponsor, myself and my colleague Jake Reynolds hosted a 20-minute session on revamping application security (AppSec) programs: Extreme Makeover: AppSec Edition. During the session, we explored the various options for testing [SAST, IAST, SCA, manual] and the challenges that exist in current AppSec testing programs and how to “renovate” an AppSec program to ultimately increase time to remediation. Watch the session to learn, through one centralized platform, how to remodel your AppSec program to achieve faster remediation, add context to each vulnerability, enable trends data and reporting functions to track and predict vulnerabilities over time, and reduce false positives.

Takeaway #3: Our Connected Infrastructure Is Vulnerable

As in years past, the Internet of Things (IoT) again took over Black Hat conversations. This year, the research around IoT vulnerabilities proved fascinating. Showcasing the potential impact of IoT infiltration was at the core of the research. Here are some examples:

  • Security researchers at the Sky-Go Team, found more than a dozen vulnerabilities in a Mercedes-Benz E-Class car that allowed them to remotely open its doors and start the engine.
  • Researchers with the Georgia Institute of Technology described how certain high-wattage Internet-connected devices such as smart air-conditioners and electric-vehicle (EV) chargers could be used to manipulate energy markets.
  • And perhaps the most interesting, and alarming: James Pavur, an academic researcher and doctoral candidate at Oxford University, used $300 worth of off-the-shelf equipment to hack satellite internet communications to eavesdrop and intercept signals across the globe.

All these examples highlight how much complexity goes into building systems today. As we continue to increase complexity and inter-connectivity, it becomes more challenging to properly protect these systems from being compromised. At NetSPI, we are constantly working with our clients to help them build well-rounded cyber security initiatives. It’s well understood today that just performing penetration testing near the end of a product’s lifecycle before going to production isn’t adequate from the perspective of security. It’s important to understand various business objectives and implement proper security touchpoints throughout a product’s lifecycle. Vulnerability detection tools have come a long way in the past decade or so. With significant advances in products like SAST, DAST, RASP, IAST, SCA, etc., integrating these tools into the SDLC in earlier phases have been a common approach for many organizations. The true challenge however is determining how to make security as frictionless as possible with the overall product development lifecycle. NetSPI works continually with clients to help them build and implement strategy around their security program based on their business objectives and risk thresholds.

Takeaway #4: We’re Learning More About Securing the Remote Workforce

Lastly, many cloud, container, and remote connection-related sessions were held during the conference. Many of them highlighted the need to reinforce security practices pertaining to remote work, or telecommuting – not surprising, given the state of today’s workforce amid the pandemic.

Black Hat research from Orange Cyber Defense demonstrated that VPN technologies ordinarily used by businesses to facilitate remote access to their networks are “poorly understood, improperly configured and don’t provide the full level of protection typically expected of them.” The researchers attribute the vulnerabilities to a common scenario where the remote worker is connected to Wi-Fi that is untrusted, insecure or compromised. Watch this video interview with the researchers via Security Weekly.

It’s an ever-evolving issue that has warranted additional focus this year and the industry is continuing to learn best practices to achieve a secure remote connection. I would consider this topic a silver lining to the pandemic. It has forced the security industry to learn, better understand, and serve as counsel to organizational leaders on the security considerations that come with scaling up remote workers. A great starting place for remote connection security? Read my recent blog post: Keeping Your Organization Secure While Sending Your Employees to Work from Home.

While we certainly missed the face-to-face connections and networking opportunities, the virtual conference was an invaluable opportunity to hold urgent security conversations around election mechanisms, healthcare systems during the pandemic, application security, the growing remote workforce, and connected devices and infrastructures.

While these were my key takeaways, there were many more discussions that took place – and DefCon continues today with prerecorded presentations and live streamed Q&As and panels on Twitch. Want to explore more Black Hat 2020 news? Check out this Black Hat webpage. We hope to see you next year, hopefully in-person!

Nabil Hannan

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