Evolving Cyber Threatscape: What’s Ahead and How to Defend

The digital world is a dangerous place. And by all accounts, it’s not getting a whole lot better.

Damages from cybercrime will top a staggering $8 trillion this year, up from an already troubling $1 trillion just five years ago and rocketing toward $14 trillion by 2028. Supply chains are becoming juicier targets, vulnerabilities are proliferating, and criminals with nation-state support are growing more active and more sophisticated. Ransomware, cryptojacking, cloud compromises, and AI-powered shenanigans are all on a hockey-stick growth trajectory.

Looking ahead, there are few sure things in infosec other than the stone-cold, lead-pipe lock that systems will be hacked, data will be compromised, money will be purloined, and bad actors will keep acting badly.

Your organization needn’t be a victim, however. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

Here’s what to expect in the evolving cyber threatscape over the next 12 to 18 months along with some steps every security team can take to stay secure in this increasingly hostile world.

The Weaponization of AI

The Threat: The coming year promises to be a big one for exploiting the ability of AI (artificial intelligence) and Large Language Models (LLMs) to spew misinformation, overwhelm authentication controls, automate malicious coding, and spawn intelligent malware that proactively targets vulnerabilities and evades detection. Generative AI promises to empower any attacker — even those with limited experience or modest resources — with malicious abilities previously limited to experienced users of frameworks like Cobalt Strike or Metasploit.

Expect to see at least some of these new, nefarious generative AI tools offered as a service through underground criminal syndicates, broadening the global cabal of troublesome threat actors while expanding both the population and the richness of available targets. The steady increase in Ransomware-as-a-Service is the clearest indicator to date that such criminal collaboratives are already on the rise.

Particularly ripe for AI-enabled abuse are social engineering-based operations like phishing, business email compromise, and so-called “pig butchering” investment, confidence and romance scams. Generative AI is eerily adept at turning out convincing, persuasive text, audio, and video content with none of the spelling, grammar, or cultural errors that traditionally made such hack attempts easy to spot. Add the LLMs ability to ingest legitimate business communications content for repurposing and translation and it’s easy to see how AI will soon be helping criminals craft super-effective global attacks on an unprecedented scale.

The Response: On a positive note, AI, as it turns out, can play well on both sides of the ball: offense and defense.

AI is already proving its worth, bolstering intelligent detection, response, and mitigation tools. AI-powered security platforms can analyze, model, learn, adapt, and act with greater speed and capacity than any human corps of security analysts ever could. Security professionals need to skill-up now on the techniques used to develop AI-powered attacks with the goal of creating equally innovative and effective mitigations and controls.

And because this new generation of smart malware will make the targeting of unmitigated vulnerabilities far more efficient, the basic infosec blocking and tackling — diligent asset inventory, configuration management, patching — will be more critical than ever.

Clouds Spawn Emerging Threats

The Threat: Business adoption of cloud computing technology has been on a steady rise for more than a decade. The current macroeconomic climate, with all of its challenges and uncertainty, promises to accelerate that trend for at least the next few years. Today, more than four in ten enterprises say they are increasing their use of cloud-based products and services and about one-third plan to continue migrating from legacy software to cloud-based tools this year. A similar share is moving on-premises workloads in the same direction.

Good for business. However, the cloud transformation revolution is not without its security pitfalls.

The cloud’s key benefits — reduced up-front costs, operational vs. capital expenditure, improved scalability and efficiency, faster deployment, and streamlined management — are counterbalanced by cloud-centric security concerns. The threatscape in the era of cloud is dotted with speed bumps like misconfigurations, poor coding practices, loose identity and access controls, and a pronounced lack of detailed environmental visibility. All of this is compounded by a general dearth of cloud-specific security expertise on most security teams.

One area to watch going forward: Better than half of enterprise IT decision-makers now describe their cloud strategy as primarily hybrid cloud or primarily multi-cloud. Three-quarters use multiple cloud vendors. Criminals are taking note. Attacks targeting complex hybrid and multi-cloud environments — with their generous attack surface and multiple points of entry — are poised to spike.

The recent example of a zero-day exploited by Chinese hackers that allowed rogue code execution on guest virtual machines (VMs) shows that attacks in this realm are getting more mature and potentially more damaging. Threat actors are targeting hybrid and multi-cloud infrastructure, looking for ways to capitalize on misconfigurations and lapses in controls in order to move laterally across different cloud systems.

Another area of concern is the increased prevalence of serverless infrastructure in the cloud. The same characteristics that make serverless systems attractive to developers — flexibility, scalability, automated deployment — also make them irresistible to attackers. Already there’s been an uptick in instances of crypto miners surreptitiously deployed on serverless infrastructure. Though serverless generally presents a smaller attack surface than hybrid and multi-cloud infrastructure, giving up visibility and turning over control of the constituent parts of the infrastructure to the cloud service provider (CSP) raises its own set of security problems. Looking ahead, nation-state backed threat actors will almost certainly ramp up their targeting of serverless environments, looking to take advantage of insecure code, broken authentication, misconfigured assets, over-privileged functions, abusable API gateways, and improperly secured endpoints.

The Response: The best advice on securing modern cloud environments in an evolving threatscape begins with diligent adherence to a proven framework like the Center for Internet Studies’ Critical Security Controls (CIS Controls V8) and the CIS’s companion Cloud Security Guide. These prioritized safeguards, regularly updated by an engaged cadre of security community members, offer clear guidance on mitigating the most prevalent cyber-attacks against cloud-based systems and cloud-resident data. As a bonus, the CIS Controls are judiciously mapped to several other important legal, regulatory, and policy frameworks.

Beyond that fundamental approach, some steps cloud defenders can take to safeguard the emerging iterations of cloud infrastructure include:

  • Embracing the chaos: The big challenge for security teams today is less about current configurations and more about unwinding the sins of the past. Run a network visualization and get arms around the existing mess of poorly managed connections and policy violations. It’s a critical first step toward addressing critical vulnerabilities that put the company and its digital assets at risk.
  • Skilling Up: Most organizations rely on their existing networking and security teams to manage their expanding multi-cloud and hybrid IT environments. It’s a tall order to expect experts in more traditional IT to adapt to the arcana of multi-cloud without specific instruction and ongoing training. The Cloud Security Alliance offers a wealth of vendor-agnostic training sessions in areas ranging from cloud fundamentals, to architecture, auditing and compliance.
  • Taking Your Share of Shared Responsibility: The hierarchy of jurisdiction for security controls in a cloud environment can be ambiguous at best and confusing at worst. Add more clouds to the mix, and the lines of responsibility blur even further. While all major cloud providers deliver some basic default configurations aimed at hardening the environment, that’s pretty much where their burden ends. The client is on the hook for securing their share of the system and its data assets. This is especially true in multi-cloud and hybrid environments where the client organization alone must protect all of the points where platforms from various providers intersect. Most experts agree the best answer is a third-party security platform that offers centralized, consolidated visibility into configurations and performance.
  • Rethinking networking connections: Refactoring can move the needle on security while conserving the performance and capabilities benefits of the cloud. Consider the “minimum viable network” approach, a nod to how cloud can, in practice, turn a packet-switched network into a circuit-switched one. The cloud network only moves packets where users say they can move. Everything else gets dropped. Leveraging this eliminates many security issues like sniffing, ARP cache poisoning, etc. This application-aware schema calls for simply plugging one asset into another, mapping only the communications required for that particular stack, obviating the need for host-based firewalls or network zones.

    Once defenders get comfortable with the minimum viable network concept, they can achieve adequate security in even the most challenging hybrid environments. The trick is to start simple and focus on reducing network connections down to the absolute minimum of virtual wires.

Supply Chains in the Crosshairs

The Threat: Because they’re such a central component in a wide variety of business operations — and because they feature complex layers of vendor, supplier, and service provider relationships — supply chains remain a tempting target for attackers. And those attackers are poised to grow more prolific and more sophisticated, adding to their prominence in the overall threatscape.

As global businesses become more dependent on interconnected digital supply chains, the compromise of a single, trusted software component in that ecosystem can quickly cascade into mayhem. Credential theft, malicious code injection, and firmware tampering are all part of the evolving supply-chain threat model. Once a trusted third party is compromised, the result is most often data theft, data wiping, or loss of systems availability via ransomware or denial of service attack. Or all of the above.

Prime examples include the 2020 SolarWinds hack, in which government-backed Russian attackers inserted malicious code into a software update for SolarWinds popular Orion IT monitoring and management platform. The compromise went undetected for more than a year, even as SolarWinds and its partners continued serving up malicious code to some 30,000 private companies and government agencies. Many of those victims saw their data, systems and networks compromised by the backdoor buried in the bad update before the incident was finally detected and mitigated.

More recently, in the summer of 2023, attackers leveraged a flaw in Progress Software’s widely used MOVEit file transfer client, exposing the data of thousands of organizations and nearly 80 million users. In arguably the largest supply-chain hack ever recorded, a Russian ransomware crew known as Clop leveraged a zero-day vulnerability in MOVEit to steal data from business and government organizations worldwide. Victims ranged from New York City’s public school system, the state of Maine, and a UK-based HR firm serving major clients such as British Airways and the BBC.

The Response: Given the trajectory, it’s reasonable to assume that supply chain and third-party attacks like the MOVEit hack will grow in both frequency and intensity as part of the threatscape’s inexorable evolution. This puts the integrity and resilience of the entire interconnected digital ecosystem at grave and continuing risk.

To fight back, vendor due diligence (especially in the form of formal vendor risk profiles) is key. Defenders will need to take a proactive stance that combines judicious and ongoing assessment of the security posture of all the suppliers and third-party service providers they deal with. Couple that with strong security controls — compensating ones, if necessary — and proven incident detection and response plans focused on parts of the environment most susceptible to third-party compromise.

These types of attacks will happen again. As the examples above illustrate, leveraging relevant threat intelligence on attack vectors, attacker techniques, and emerging threats should feature prominently in any scalable, adaptable supply chain security strategy.

Dishonorable Mentions

The cybersecurity threatscape isn’t limited to a handful of hot-button topics. Watching the threat environment grow and change over time means keeping abreast of many dozens of evolving risk factors, attack vectors, hacker techniques and general digital entropy. Some of the other issues defenders should stay on top of in this dynamic threat environment include:

  • Shifting DDos targets: Distributed denial-of-service attacks are as old as the internet itself. What’s new is the size and complexity of emerging attacks which are now more frequently targeting mobile networks, IoT systems and Operational Technology/Industrial Control Systems (OT/ICS) that lie at the heart of much critical infrastructure.
  • Disinfo, misinfo and “deep fakes”: A product of the proliferation of AI, bad-faith actors (and bots that model them) will churn out increasing volumes of disingenuous data aimed at everything from election interference to market manipulation.
  • Rising hacktivism: Conflicts in Ukraine and Israel illustrate how hacker collabs with a stated political purpose are ramping up their use of DDoS attacks, Web defacements and data leaks. The more hacktivism cyber attacks proliferate — and the more effective they appear — the more likely nation-states will jump in the fray to wreak havoc on targets both civilian and military.
  • Modernizing malware code: C/C++ has long been the lingua franca of malware. But that is changing. Looking to harness big libraries, easier integration, and a more streamlined programming experience, the new breed of malware developers is turning to languages like Rust and Go. Not only are hackers able to churn their malicious code faster to evade detection and outpace signatures, but the malware they create can be much more difficult for researchers to reverse engineer as well.
  • Emerging quantum risk: As the quantum computing revolution inches ever closer, defenders can look forward to some significant improvements to their security toolkit. Like AI, quantum computing promises to deliver unprecedented new capabilities for threat intelligence gathering, vulnerability management, and DFIR. But also like AI, quantum has a dark side. Quantum computers can brute force their way through most known cryptographic algorithms. Present-day encryption and password-based protections are likely to prove woefully ineffective in the face of a quantum-powered attack.

Taking Stock of a Changing Threatscape

Yes, the digital world is a dangerous place, and the risks on the horizon of the threatscape can seem daunting. Navigating this challenging terrain forces security leaders to prioritize strong, scalable defenses, the kind that can adapt to emerging technology threats and evolving attack techniques all at once. It’s a multi-pronged approach.

What does it take? Adherence to solid security frameworks, judicious use of threat intelligence, updated response plans, and even tactical efforts like mock drills, penetration tests, and red team exercises can play a role in firming up security posture for an uncertain future.

Perhaps most importantly, fostering a culture of security awareness and training within the organization can be vital for preventing common compromises, from phishing and malware attacks to insider threats, inadvertent data leaks, and more.

Surviving in the evolving cyber threatscape comes down to vigilance, adaptability, and a commitment to constant learning. It’s a daunting task, but with a comprehensive, forward-thinking strategy, it’s possible to stay ahead of the curve.