Cybercriminals turn opportunistic with cryptocurrency mining; continue to exploit vulnerabilities; steal data and resources to disrupt businesses and individuals in Asia Pacific

 |   Singapore News Center

Asia Pacific Cyber Threat Landscape
  • Profit-oriented cybercriminals are turning their attention to stealthier tricks such as cryptocurrency mining;
  • While ransomware encounters declined globally, the region was hit by 40 percent more ransomware attacks as compared to the rest of the world;
  • Poor cyber hygiene and low security awareness led to 22 percent more Drive-by download attacks and 37 percent more malware encounters than the global average.
Click here to download an infographic summarizing key findings of this study

ASIA PACIFIC & SINGAPORE, 21 March 2019 – Even as businesses capitalise on the latest security intelligence and protections to stay ahead in the evolving cybersecurity landscape, Asia Pacific continues to be an attractive region for cybercriminals. Microsoft today unveiled the Asia Pacific findings from the 24th edition of its Security Intelligence Report (SIR), an annual study aimed to improve cyber resilience in the region.

The SIRv24 comprises of core insights and key trends derived by sifting through data between January to December 2018 from multiple, diverse sources, including 6.5 trillion threat signals that go through the Microsoft cloud every day. The Asia Pacific insights were derived from analysing data from 15 markets, including Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The report includes an overview on the lessons learned from the field and recommended best practices.

“Undoubtedly, cybersecurity is one of the most pressing issues for organisations today. As cyberattacks continue to increase in frequency and sophistication, understanding prevalent cyberthreats and how to limit their impact has become an imperative,” said Eric Lam, Director, Cybersecurity Solutions Group, Microsoft Asia. “The SIRv24 aims to keep pace with the ever evolving cyberthreat landscape by highlighting the techniques and tradecraft of cybercriminals and offering insights to improve cyber resilience and overall cybersecurity health of an organisation.”

Cryptocurrency Mining Malware Becomes Increasingly Prevalent in Asia Pacific

With the rise in value of cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, cybercriminals seeking illicit profits have turned to malware that lets them use victims’ computers to mine cryptocurrency coins. This approach allows them to leverage the processing power of hundreds of thousands of computers. Even when a minor infection is discovered, the anonymous nature of cryptocurrency complicates efforts to track down the responsible parties.

The SIRv24 found that between January to December 2018, the cryptocurrency mining malware encounter rate[1] in Asia Pacific was nearly 1.2 times (17 percent) higher than the global average, and India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia recorded the highest encounter rate in the region. The report also found that the encounter rate increased or decreased with the rise or fall in the value of cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency mining malware encounter rate in Asia Pacific, Jan – Dec 2018
The report found that the fluctuation in encounter rate corresponds with the value of cryptocurrency.

Many factors have contributed to the increased popularity of mining as a payload for malware. Unlike ransomware, cryptocurrency mining does not require user input: it works in the background, while the user is performing other tasks or is away from the computer and may not be noticed at all unless it degrades the computer’s performance sufficiently. As a result, users are less likely to take any action to remove the threat, and it might continue mining for the benefit of the attacker for an extended period of time.

Another driver of the trend is the availability of “off the shelf” products for covert mining of many cryptocurrencies. The barrier to entry is low because of the wide availability of coin mining software, which cybercriminals repackage as malware to deliver to unsuspecting users’ computers. The weaponised miners are then distributed to victims using many of the same techniques that attackers use to deliver other threats, such as social engineering, exploits, and drive-by downloads.

Ransomware Still a Threat in Asia Pacific Despite a Decline in the Number of Attacks

According to the SIR v24, ransomware encounters have decreased by 73 percent worldwide. However, despite the decline, ransomware is still a viable threat in Asia Pacific as the region’s encounter rate was 40 percent more than the global average. Indonesia, Vietnam and India have the highest ransomware encounter rate in Asia Pacific.

One of the key reasons contributing to the fall of ransomware attacks is the organisations and individuals becoming more aware of and dealing more intelligently with ransomware threats, including exerting greater caution and backing up important files so they can be restored if encrypted by ransomware. While organisations and consumers are encountering ransomware at lower volumes compared to the previous year, it does not mean the severity of attacks has declined. It is still capable of making real-world impact by affecting corporate networks and crippling critical services such as hospitals, transportation, and traffic systems.

Ransomware encounter rate in Asia Pacific, Jan – Dec 2018
While ransomware encounters in Asia Pacific have dropped steadily over the last 12 months, it continues to be a threat in some markets. This is primarily due to a lack of security hygiene and it led to occasional spikes in encounter rates.

Cybercriminals Continue to Deliver Malicious Code through Drive-by Download Pages

Although drive-by download encounters globally has decreased by 22 percent, Asia Pacific region experienced approximately 22 percent more drive-by download attacks than the rest of the world. The highest concentration of drive-by download pages were in Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

A drive-by download is an unintentional download of malicious code to an unsuspecting user’s computer when they visit a web site. The malicious code could be used to exploit vulnerabilities in web browsers, browser add-ons, applications, and the operating system. Users can be infected with malware simply by visiting a website, even without attempting to download anything. More advanced drive-by download campaigns can also install ransomware or even cryptocurrency mining software on a victim machine.

Developing Markets in Asia Pacific Among the Most Vulnerable to Malware

Heat map indicating the rate of malware encounters.
Heat map indicating the rate of malware encounters.

Malware poses risks to organisations and individuals in the form of impaired usability, data loss, intellectual property theft, monetary loss, emotional distress, and can even put human life at risk. While the global malware encounter rate has decreased by 34 percent, the malware encounter in Asia Pacific was 37 percent more than the global average. Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam had the highest malware encounter rates in the region, highlighting the correlation of infection rates with human development factors and technology readiness within a society.

Poor cybersecurity hygiene and low user security awareness can lead to risky IT behaviours, including using unpatched software and visiting potentially dangerous websites such as file-sharing sites, which expose devices to malware. Using pirated software can also be a source of infection.

The report also found that the Asia Pacific markets with the lowest malware encounter rates are Japan, Australia and New Zealand. These locations tend to have mature cybersecurity infrastructures and well-established programs for protecting critical infrastructure and communicating with their citizens about basic cybersecurity best practices.

“To strengthen individuals’ trust in technology and prevent cyberattacks from derailing companies’ digital transformation initiatives, cybersecurity professionals need to devise a holistic strategy that includes prevention and detection and response. Measures such as preventive controls as well as the adoption of cloud and artificial intelligence to augment security operations will play a vital role in building organisational resilience and facilitating meaningful risk reduction within their organisation,” Lam concluded.

To learn more about the latest cyberthreat trends as well as the best practices that organisations can adopt, you can download the full report here

About Microsoft Security Intelligence Report

The 24th edition of the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report (SIR) is a reflection on last year’s security events and includes an overview of the security landscape, lessons learned from the field, and recommended best practices.

 The data analysed in this report includes the 6.5 trillion threat signals that go through the Microsoft cloud every day and the research and real-world experiences from our thousands of security researchers and responders around the world.

[1] Encounter rate is the percentage of computers running Microsoft real-time security products that report a malware encounter. Encountering a threat does not mean the computer has been infected. Only computers whose users have opted in to provide data to Microsoft are considered when calculating encounter rates.

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