South Africans are too lax about internet security, a top management training company has warned, as Google, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other global organizations heighten alerts about well-organized internet attacks on countries, companies, and individuals.
Liza van Wyk, CEO of AstroTech Training in Johannesburg, one of South Africa's largest management training companies said: "In its 2012 Norton Cybercrime report, Symantec said cybercrime is soaring with 556-million victims this year. And the latest South Africa Cyber Threat Barometer report, ISG Africa found that denial of service, economic fraud, and the theft of confidential information were high concerns especially with internet banking, e-commerce, and social media sites. The most common attack methods are still phishing, the abuse of system privileges and malicious code infections."
Van Wyk said, "South Africans, and their banks, are used to old-style Nigerian phishing scams. Those were followed, or accompanied, by criminal syndicates especially from Central European countries like Romania, targeting financial information, mostly from big organizations." "The last two years at least saw highly sophisticated cyber-attacks coming from China that disabled, or stole information from governments, business organizations, and key individuals in developed world countries like the United States and major European nations, as well as large commercial firms in the developing world including South Africa." In September, the U.S. Congress House Intelligence Committee warned in a report that American companies should avoid doing business with Huawei Technologies Ltd. and ZTE Corp because of cyber-attacks.
Van Wyk said: "It is said that there is probably not a United States arm of government that has not come under attack at some stage and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security and Central Intelligence Agency have massive tracking and investigative units."
But now the cyber world is on high alert with Google sending out an escalating series of warnings since October 2 to tens of thousands of users warning that their accounts may be targets of state-sponsored cyber-attacks, citing a growth in the number of threats coming from the Middle East. Cabinet has approved a national cyber security policy framework for South Africa, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane said on Thursday.
In mid-March government launched cyber security policy, but Van Wyk said it was not sufficiently comprehensive enough, and at this stage protected government and did not issue alerts to business or the public.
Cyber intelligence expert Paul Wallis writing in the Digital Journal this week warned that, "It is theoretically quite possible to totally obliterate the entire communications network of a country" Attacks with tens of thousands (or preferably millions) of new viruses, worms and Trojans [are not] hard to achieve. The amount of damage which could be done could annihilate financial systems, infrastructure and anything else."
Eric Grosse, vice president of security engineering from Google, told users, "You should take immediate steps to secure your account. "You might ask how we know this activity is state-sponsored. We can't go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors, but our detailed analysis - as well as victim reports - strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored."
The New York Times says those who have received Google's warning message, include journalists and security researchers. Boston's biotech industry has been plagued by attacks over the last year. One biotech CEO who declined to be named said, "We hired a bright Chinese graduate from Harvard who worked hard then didn't come into work one day. The next day our computers were attacked. She'd got on a plane back to China taking our information with her. Over this past year it has costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to protect our information from multiple attacks."
A computer expert who works with the F.B.I. in Washington, D.C. and has South African links said, "it's a war, and what astonishes me is how blasé South Africans are about this threat."
Security analysts have warned of an uptick in attacks from some Middle East countries - including Iran, Qatar, the United Emirates and Bahrain - which have used spyware to track citizens both within their borders and overseas.
Van Wyk said, "We run a number of course on information technology and every one includes security information, but IT is so pervasive nowdays that it is an essential part of all management and risk assessments. She said AstroTech was advising course delegates to create a new unique password on all accounts with a mix of lower-case and capital letters, punctuation and numbers. "And don't rely on the same password for multiple accounts, have three or four interchangeable passwords. Today is a good day to change all of them."
She also said that, "Users should use two-step verification, and update their browsers, operating systems, plug-ins and document editors."
Google's Grosse says that: "Attackers often send links to fake sign-in pages to try to steal your password, so be careful about where you sign in."