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ReliaQuest’s Experts Weigh In: 2021 Cybersecurity Predictions

This past year has certainly thrown some curveballs at security professionals.  With new threats tied to current events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the United States presidential election, organizations have had to re-evaluate their security strategies and shift priorities, and this new focus will undoubtedly carry into the new year.  Perhaps the greatest reveal that 2020’s challenges have uncovered for us, though, is the need to get back to basics.

While we could focus on trends like artificial intelligence and machine-learning, the reality is many organizations aren’t ready to tackle that on their own.  As a whole, security teams are struggling to defend against the same threats every year.  Meanwhile, organizations are adding the latest and greatest technologies to their stack, but still not receiving the unified telemetry needed to effectively detect and respond to threats.

So without further ado, here’s the ReliaQuest experts’ ‘buzz-word’ free cybersecurity predictions for the year of 2021.

The threats we’ve seen year-over-year aren’t going away, but they are evolving

As we look into the new year, it’s important to acknowledge that many of the same threats resurface every year, contributing to a significant percentages of incidents and breaches felt across industries. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these threats:

Advanced phishing and ransomware attacks

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Despite a wider-spread adoption of email security over the past year, humans will continue to be a weak link when it comes to security.  Many email controls today shoot down the basic attack techniques actors have been using for years, which means that phishing attacks will only grow in complexity. Our team predicts that just as organizations look to use automation to increase efficiency, so will bad actors.

Additionally, attackers are becoming more business-savvy.  In 2021, we predict an uptick in ‘low and slow’ ransomware attacks in environments that allow bad actors to conduct research and understand what’s most impactful to encrypt that will ultimately deliver the highest pay-out.

To compound this, the Treasury Department recently warned that firms that negotiate with ransomware extortionists could face steep fines from the U.S. federal government if the crooks who profit from the attack are already under economic sanctions. Joe Partlow, ReliaQuest CTO, predicts that we will see ransomware payments go underground in 2021 and beyond in order to combat this. Companies will take whatever measures necessary to regain access to critical systems and data to keep the business running, regardless of government regulations.

The attack surface will expand, further complicating the visibility challenge

The impact of COVID-19 is felt widespread in the security industry.  Many organizations were forced to transition quickly to remote work, expanding the need for endpoint detection and response (EDR) technologies and cloud platforms.  Visibility across disparate tools has been a problem for years, and the expanded attack surface will only further exacerbate this problem.

An increase in cloud adoption

John Duryee, ReliaQuest Corporate Security Engineer, predicts that the use of cloud-based technology will grow in 2021.  “One of the fastest growing threats is attacks against cloud-based resources, particularly exploiting misconfigurations and not just vulnerabilities,” explains Duryee. “Essentially, this means there are more entry points for attackers.”

Endpoint visibility as a must, not a ‘nice to have’

With the increase in remote work, organizations will have to focus efforts on protecting endpoints, many of which typically aren’t connected to corporate network and therefore lack the same network security protection. ReliaQuest Red Team Operator Zachary Stein predicts that EDR solutions will become necessary for visibility and staying secure.  He explains that, “antivirus (AV) is no longer enough with the rise in new techniques and programming languages.  There’s too many things you can’t see with AV that you can only see with an EDR. If there’s no EDR on the host, it’s pretty much easy mode for attackers at this point.”

With limited resources, organizations will have to find ways to ‘do more with less’

In addition to the impact that COVID-19 has had on the threat landscape, it has also negatively impacted many organizations’ revenue generation.

Casey Martin, ReliaQuest VP of Detection and Automation, predicts that the effects of COVID-19 will have a greater impact on security programs in 2021 than teams felt this past year.  “Many businesses had finalized their 2020 budgets before COVID-19 hit this past year, so the effects might not have been felt as significantly,” Martin explains. “Now that a lot of businesses aren’t bringing in the revenue they were expecting, specifically in retail, hospitality, and manufacturing, many of these companies will likely have a lower budget for 2021 – that means less tools, less people, and increases the need to find ways to optimize what’s already in place.”

The talent conundrum

Across the security experts we interviewed, it was unanimous that the ‘skills gap’ in cybersecurity we hear so much of will likely only continue to grow.  As the attack surface expands, teams will need to find or train individuals to specialize in certain technologies such as automation, EDR, or cloud.

In order to find and retain talent, it will be critical for companies to prioritize mental health. “Cybersecurity is a tough industry to work in. The need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario at all times can cause stress, fatigue and burnout,” explains Marcus Carey, ReliaQuest Enterprise Architect. “To help prevent burnout and better support employees, companies will start investing in and providing mental health services for staff. Small steps that create holistic mental and physical wellness will go a long way in 2021.”

Universities will also play an important role in prepping students for careers in the cybersecurity industry. “The education sector experienced a 30% increase in weekly attacks during the month of August in the run up to the start of new semesters. In 2021, strategic university security teams will prioritize cyber education and empower their students to help monitor breaches and support admins,” Partlow predicts.  Most students are already willing to do this in order to gain hands-on learning experience, and these security teams need all the help they can get as budgets are cut.”

A need for efficient automation

Automation is key to offsetting budget loss and limited team bandwidth.  The growing attack surface and limited budgets will make it even more important for security professionals to accelerate investigations and incident response workflows.

Mike Rogers, ReliaQuest Threat Hunter, predicts that it will become increasingly important for CISOs to look for ‘easy wins’ with automation. “There’s a lot of things that can be automated that team’s aren’t realizing – in 2021, it will be key for teams to identify what tasks are repetitive and time-consuming and automate these – things like pulling data from a ticketing system, performing lookups, or enriching data,” Rogers elaborates. “Teams will realize there are loads of opportunities to automate, beyond response actions.”

For Jason Pfeiffer, ReliaQuest Senior VP of Product Innovation, looking at automation beyond response will become necessary for security organizations to take a proactive stance in defending against threats. “Not simply automations for quick responses to repeated threats, but larger scale workflows that enable threat hunting and cyber assurance,” Pfeiffer explains. “Integrated workflows that give organizations confidence that they are looking for the right things at the right time, ensuring they have peered behind the curtain far enough to have a high degree of confidence they are protected.”

Integration will be key to increasing visibility and reducing risk

2020 has served up the perfect storm of increased risk – an expanded attack surface, complex threats, and limited resources and budgets.  Above all else, it will be critical for CISOs and teams to move strategically in 2021 – instead of focusing on the shiny new tool, focus on identifying your greatest gaps, and how you can optimize and integrate the technologies you already own to fill those gaps.

“Before jumping into new solutions or tools to improve your program, you should find out exactly what you need to improve,” said Chris Martinez, ReliaQuest Threat Intelligence Engineer. “Identify your visibility coverage gaps with frameworks and exercises like attack simulation, threat hunting, and purple teaming. This will help you prioritize your budget and team’s time.”

Focus on stitching together existing investments

The way security teams have been working is not sustainable – pivoting between multiple tools to piecemeal together data for investigations. This coming year, security teams will need to take a different approach to detect and respond at the speed needed to stay secure. “Many organizations are feeling the adverse effects of too many tools. In 2021, companies will look for ways to integrate and optimize what they already own, through solutions like Open XDR,” explained Chris Newhart, ReliaQuest Threat Hunter.  “Solutions like this significantly accelerate response and ultimately reduce risk because all the data needed to investigate and respond is in one spot.”

Stay secure in the new year: learn how ReliaQuest delivers an Open XDR approach to increase visibility, maximize existing investments, and reduce risk.

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