How to talk cyber at the holiday table

Cyber holiday tree 

Religion and politics -- the two things you're never supposed to discuss at the dinner table.  Safe to say, most people don't follow that rule, and there will be plenty of political conversations over the holidays this year.

But there's another hot topic likely to get a lot of talking time between the goose and pecan pie: "the cyber."

Cybersecurity, cyberattacks and "the cyber" in general have been in the news on seemingly a daily basis this year. But, for all the reporting about Russia's hacking of political targets, Yahoo breaches and botnets, there is still a tremendous lack of public education, awareness and understanding of all things cyber.

That's no surprise. It's a complicated and ever-evolving field with a steep learning curve, and the more you learn, the more you realize how many misconceptions and misperceptions persist.

So as a public service, FCW has put together this primer on how to talk to grandma about “the cyber” at your holiday gatherings. We reached out to Theresa Payton, president of Fortalice Solutions  and former White House CIO -- who knows a thing or two about the cyber.

We asked her about a number of topics and how to communicate them to friends and family who don't spend every waking moment jailbreaking iPhones or whose passwords are still "password."

Russia's hacking and interference in the 2016 presidential election

The FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence have all reached the same conclusion: Russian President Vladimir Putin directed a sophisticated hacking operation designed to influence the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump.

The intelligence community determined with a high level of confidence that Russian hackers accessed Democratic Party systems and the email of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta in order to steal emails and documents that were then channeled through WikiLeaks in the months and weeks before the election. The goal was to leak damaging information that would undermine support for Clinton.

Since the election, momentum has been gaining in Congress to conduct special investigations into exactly what Russia did, how it did it and how to prevent future events like this.

So, how does the intelligence community know that Russia was behind the DNC hacks?

"Overall, attribution in the digital world is hard, Payton said.  "We don't have surveillance cameras or eyewitnesses. We do, however, have past cases where hunches, observations and digital fingerprints are left behind.  In the case of the hack of the DNC, various digital fingerprints look similar to other cases attributed to cybercriminal syndicates that appear to have ties to Russia.”

Those syndicates, mainly "Cozy Bear" and "Fancy Bear" have been active for years and have left their cyber DNA in enough places for government and private-sector experts to be able to tie hacks to them.

Despite the fact that private firms said in the summer of 2016 that Russian groups had hacked into the DNC and Clinton campaign, it took several months before intelligence agencies gathered enough evidence to be able to say Russia, and specifically Putin, directed the hacking. 

But, technically speaking, Russia did not "hack the election" and change the results. Theresa Payton explained.

"Hacking has become the most innovative and creative way hostile countries seek to undermine us. Hackers hack not just for the profit (which is considerable) but also for bragging rights," Payton said.

"The election is the top prize. It upholds and sustains the very fabric of our country. Many headlines focused on this leading up to the election as there were more attempts to hack the election but we saw them coming. The Department of Homeland Security reached out to election officials in all of the states offering scanning systems for vulnerabilities and recommendations for improving cybersecurity on election and voter registration systems. Each state operates its own voting system -- it is not a centralized system -- so, in order to change the outcome of the election, you would need to have a specific cyberattack for each state, and that is a very high bar. However, we must continue to be vigilant!"  

Other experts have pointed out that most voting machines are not connected to any network, so while small-scale manipulation of machines and results is possible, the effort needed to have a significant impact is considerable.

Hence, rather than hack the results, Russia engaged in an information operation and used hacking to obtain data in an attempt to influence voters before they entered polling places.

Going phishing

Russian hackers went after political targets using a technique called 'phishing,' a method popular with workaday cyber criminals who use malicious emails to get inside the systems of their victims.

"Phishing has nothing to do with what's for dinner, and you will not need a lemon for it," Payton said. "This has everything to do with stealing information on your computer that is valuable to you including emails, files and financial information. If you click on an email that contains a link and you do not recognize the sender, you are opening yourself up to cyber criminals who are attempting to install malicious software on your computer to steal personal information off of it."

Such attacks have been growing more complex and sinister. For example, cyber criminals now forge emails from CEOs to accounting staff asking for sensitive information. They also replicate emails from banks or other institutions telling you to reset passwords or confirm personal data that can then be used to steal your identity.

Phishing emails also are used to initiate crippling "ransomware" attacks.

Rather than stealing your data, criminals install code on your computer that locks it until you pay a 'ransom' for the unlock code. Hospitals in particular have been a major target of ransomware attacks. Bottom line? The more aggressively an email is tempting you to click on a link, the greater the chance it's a scam. When in doubt, tell grandma to call her bank or credit card company before clicking the link.

Phishing attacks can also lead to victim’s computers being added to botnets -- networks of remote controlled computers that do the (mostly nefarious) bidding of their masters. Bots have been credited with some of the most damaging attacks.

"Some botnets consist of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of computers," Payton said. "This cyber army can then attack computer systems of any website and be used to mount  a distributed denial of service attack and shut down the website. Essentially, it attacks the target's server with such intense malicious traffic, the server shuts down. A DDoS attack to the computer systems of armed services, financial services industry or airline industry could wreak havoc and jeopardize our safety, which is why it is on the radar of our national security forces."

In October, cyber criminals launched a massive DDoS attack on the domain name service provider Dyn using the Mirai botnet. The attack brought large portions of the internet to its knees for hours. Officials warned at the time that similar attacks could become more common. To avoid becoming an unwitting host of a bot, be wary of phishing scams and keep your software and devices updated.

Attacks from under the tree

This year, a lot of connected devices will be given as gifts. Increasingly, high-tech functions are being added to ordinary household appliances. Connected fitness trackers like Fitbit are also growing more popular. But anything that is connected to the internet poses a potential risk, Payton said.

"All technology is hackable and if there's a data breach, these devices could open up your whereabouts, your workout patterns, your weight, height, friends' contact information, really everything about you," Payton said. "A past study by the Federal Trade Commission found 18 out of 76 health and fitness apps collected the unique device ID, that ID can be used to track you."  

A good plan for users is to confine Internet of Things devices to their own network, Payton said, and register them with an email address that they don't use for social media and financial services sites.

"Always keep a watchful eye of your bank accounts, credit card activity and any financial information that could jeopardize your identity if hacked. Even receiving a lot of credit card applications or refinancing loan applications in the mail may be a sign someone has tried to use your identity to profit off of you. As technology creates more convenience for us, it also creates more opportunities for hackers. You always have to remain vigilant," Payton said. 

Christmas isn't what it used to be -- assembling bicycles, dollhouses and leg lamps. Those things might break or even burn down the house, but they won’t lead to having your bank account drained or your identity stolen.

Because of these risks, it's a good idea for FCW's readership of networking and IT experts to take a few minutes when home for the holidays and play home help desk. Be patient but persistent when explaining cyber risks and take the time to properly configure your relatives' new drones and coffee makers so they are as secure as can be. And maybe take a break from the "Christmas Story" marathon to spend some quality time updating the software on grandma's computer and the firmware on her router. While you're at it, maybe change her admin password from "password" to something a little more secure than her birthday.


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