Every year Proofpoint researchers look ahead at the trends and events likely to shape the threat landscape in the year to come. In 2019, a shakeout in the cryptocurrency market will change the way threat actors move -- and steal -- money, while email fraud moves from spoofing identities to using stolen identities, making it more effective and harder to detect. At the same time, attackers will double down on abuse of legitimate infrastructure and state-sponsored actors will increasingly act with impunity as laws and defenses attempt to keep up with new capabilities and targets. Social media threats will overlap with increased compliance concerns while threat actors will continue to refine filtering and targeting capabilities, keeping their attacks under the radar and improving returns on investment.
Attackers will focus on quality over volume
2016 and 2017 were marked by massive malicious email campaigns, the largest of which originated with a small number of influential threat actors. In contrast, 2018 has seen the highly prolific actor behind the largest Locky ransomware campaigns begin distributing remote access Trojans (RATs) at moderate volumes while ransomware has given way to a diverse collection of downloaders, banking Trojans, and information stealers. The volume game is largely over, as threat actors focus on high-quality infections that can be monetized over longer periods.
Achieving high-quality infections -- those that are unlikely to tip off vendors or researchers and are in the appropriate geography for given malware configurations -- requires improved filtering and evasion techniques. We expect to see more effective and pervasive filtering on URL attacks and via intermediate malware throughout 2019, continuing the trend we have observed in 2018 with sophisticated malware such as sLoad and infection chains like SocGholish, filtering on geography, evidence of sandboxing and researcher software, language, time zone, and other attributes.
Social engineering and credential phishing will surpass malware attacks
While smart filtering and clever social engineering will combine to improve infection quality and effectiveness in malware attacks in 2019, we also expect to see continued increases in social engineering and credential phishing attacks that surpass malware attack volumes. Successful credential phishing will continue to feed increases in the exploitation of compromised accounts, a trend we are already observing in 2018.
At the same time, attackers will double down on the abuse of legitimate infrastructure such as Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive. Not only do links featuring legitimate domains improve the believability of social engineering, but leveraging legitimate services makes attacks harder to detect with automated systems.
Finding loopholes in Windows security mechanisms and experimenting with new file formats like .wiz and .pub in malicious document attachment campaigns has also paid off this year for threat actors looking to fly below the radar of antivirus software. We expect this trend to continue, given its ongoing effectiveness as an evasion technique.
Effects of regulation will ripple across industries.
2019 will also see an uptick in domain abuse as an unintended consequence of increasingly scarce WHOIS data in a post-GDPR world. The absence of such data means that malicious patterns of conduct and behavior around domains and systematic cybersquatting will become harder to identify. As a result, brand owners will look for new tools and techniques to enforce their trademark rights and counter cybersquatting. Combined with the ongoing increase in supply and availability of unrestricted top-level domains (TLDs), we expect that brand impersonation at a domain level will become more commonplace as technology and defensive protocols play catch up with regulation and evolving business needs.
However, as social media continues to mature as a tool for business communication and marketing, new regulations, especially in the financial industry, will drive increased investments in monitoring and compliance solutions. Companies are increasingly concerned, for example, about FINRA violations in social media and adopt both policy and technology in 2019 to limit regulatory issues.
Email fraud will diversify, adopt more sophisticated tools, and divert even more money to BEC actors
Throughout 2018, email fraud, which includes business email compromise (BEC), has grown in scale while actors experimented and refined techniques. 2019 will bear the fruit of these refinements as email fraud actors expand their targeting and improve their effectiveness.
In particular, email fraud actors will move from spoofing identities to leveraging stolen identities. When BEC attacks can originate from legitimate internal accounts, they evade defenses such as external tagging and DMARC. Actors will increasingly turn to compromised accounts to launch their attacks, obtaining credentials from data breaches, brute force attacks, credential stealing malware, and more.
At the same time, Nigerian BEC actors, not generally known for the sophistication of their attacks, have amassed stolen funds totalling nearly $500 million. We will likely see at least a portion of these funds reinvested in more sophisticated tools and the development of more sophisticated approaches, increasing the risk associated with a large group of well-funded actors. Threat actors both in Nigeria and internationally will follow the money and enter the email fraud market in 2019, further increasing the scale of the problem and diversity of approaches to BEC.
Moreover, while we have historically seen industries with more complex supply chains targeted more often by BEC-style attacks, exploitation of supply-chain vulnerabilities will become more commonplace in 2019. As more companies are breached and cybercriminals become more sophisticated, achieving systematic identification of companies’ trusted partners and key external stakeholders at scale. Once threat actors understand an organization’s circle of trust, they will be able to leverage the vulnerabilities in trusted external identities to send more BEC and malware over these channels.
Unapologetic state-sponsored activity will displace clandestine operations
State-sponsored actors and APT groups are acting with increasing disregard for attribution in higher profile attacks. In 2019, attacks by these groups will continue to escalate and state-sponsored actors will operate with impunity in uncertain political climates worldwide. Shifting geopolitical dynamics in Europe, Asia, and North America will be accompanied by more brazen attacks on infrastructure, computer systems, data stores, and more, in both the private and public sectors, depending upon the aims of the actors and the nations bankrolling their activities.
2019 will be the year of “user risk modeling”
IT organizations have employed risk modeling for years to ensure that critical systems and data are protected. We now have the data and analysis capability to apply similar but more sophisticated approaches to people. In 2019, organizations will shift their focus to an attacker's view of their users in order to identify the most at-risk employees based on targeting frequency and degree, role, access, and exposure. This people-centric view will enable organizations to deploy the appropriate level of protections and mitigations for those users, devoting resources to where they are most needed.
Cryptocurrency shakeout will bring back miners and ransomware
While 2018 has been a bearish year for cryptocurrencies, many analysts believe that this is just the beginning of a major shakeout that will ultimately bring stability and durability to cryptocurrency markets. Even as Bitcoin values have continued to drop, new signs point towards the long-term viability of cryptocurrency, while we continue to observe network activity associated with malicious coin mining. In 2019, maturation of these currencies, stabilization of related markets, introduction of regulatory frameworks, and the exit of unstable currencies from the market will result in the return of standalone coin miners and ransomware.
Many banking Trojans and information stealers have built-in coin mining modules and wallet-stealing capabilities. CoinHive and other web-based coin miners continue to net “free money” for their operators. However, in 2019, cryptocurrency-related activity will increase dramatically. This includes the reintroduction of ransomware at scale as the economics of malware generally designed to steal from victims in Bitcoin becomes more favorable. It is unlikely, though, that we will witness a return to the dominance of a single malware family like we saw with ransomware in 2016-2017. Rather, banking Trojans will likely remain on top, with more strains and families adding capabilities related to cryptocurrencies.
While 2018 saw rapid changes in the threat landscape, affecting malware distribution, email fraud techniques, social media defenses, and more, 2019 is poised for even more significant shakeups. GDPR, cryptocurrency fluctuations, and global politics will all play a role in the ways in which threat actors target people and organizations and shape defensive strategies across industries.