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Ready or Not, Here A.I. Come!

Ep. 26

Remember the good ole days when we spent youthful hours playing hide and seek with our friends in the park? Well it turns out that game of hide and seek isn’t just for humans anymore. Researchers have begun putting A.I. to the test by having it play this favorite childhood game over and over and having the software optimize its strategies through automated reinforcement training.  

In today’s episode, hosts Nic Fillingham and Natalia Godyla speak with Christian Seifert and Joshua Neil about their blog post Gamifying machine learning for stronger security and AI modelsand how Microsoft is releasing this new open-sourced code to help it learn and grow.  


In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • What is Microsoft’s CyberBattleSim? 
  • What reinforcement learning is and how it is used in training A.I. 
  • How the OpenAI Gym allowed for AI to be trained and rewarded for learning  

Some Questions We Ask:

  • Is an A.I. threat actor science fiction or an incoming reality? 
  • What are the next steps in training the A.I.? 
  • Who was the CyberBattleSim created for? 


Resources:

OpenAI Hide and Seek: 

OpenAI Plays Hide and Seek…and Breaks The Game! 🤖 

Joshua and Christian’s blog post: 

Gamifying Machine Learning for Stronger Security and AI Models 

Christian Seifert’s LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/in/christian-seifert-phd-6080b51/ 

Joshua Neil’s LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/in/josh-neil/ 

Nic Fillingham’s LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/ 

Natalia Godyla’s LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/ 

Microsoft Security Blog:

https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/


Related:

Security Unlocked: CISO Series with Bret Arsenault

https://SecurityUnlockedCISOSeries.com


Transcript

[Full transcript at https://aka.ms/securityunlockedep26]


Nic Filingham:

Hello and welcome to Security Unlocked! A new podcast from Microsoft where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft Security Engineering and Operations Teams. I'm Nic Filingham.


Natalia Godyla:

And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft Security. Deep dive into the newest threat intel, research, and data science.


Nic Filingham:

And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft Security.


Natalia Godyla:

And now, let's unlock the pod.


Nic Filingham:

Hello, Natalia! Hello, listeners! Welcome to episode 26 of Security Unlocked. Natalia, how are you?


Natalia Godyla:

Thank you, Nic. And welcome to all our listeners for another episode of Security Unlocked. Today, we are chatting about gamifying machine learning, super cool, and we are joined by Christian Seifert and Joshua Neil who will share their research on building CyberBattleSim, which investigates how autonomous agents operate in a simulated enterprise environment by using high-level obstruction of computer networks and cyber-security concepts. I sounded very legit, but I did just read that directly from the blog.


Nic Filingham:

I was very impressed.


Natalia Godyla:

(laughs)


Nic Filingham:

If you had not said that you read that from the blog, I would've been like, "Wow". I would to like to subscribe to a newsletter.


Natalia Godyla:

(laughs)


Nic Filingham:

But this is a great conversation with, with Christian and Joshua. We talked about what is reinforcement learning. Sort of as a concept and how does that gonna apply to security. Josh and Christian also walked us through sort of why this project was created and it's really to try and get ahead of a future where, you know, malicious actors have access to some level of automated, autonomous tooling. Uh, and so, this is a new project to sort of see what a future might look like when there all these autonomous agents out there doing bad stuff in the cyber world.


Natalia Godyla:

And there are predecessors to this work, at least in other domains. So, they used a toolkit, a Python-based Open AI Gym interface to build this research project but there have been other applications in the past. OpenAI is, uh, well-known for a hide-and-seek. There is a video on YouTube that shows how the AI learned over time different ways to obstruct the agent and the simulated environment. Things like, blocking them off using some pieces of the wall or jumping over the wall.


Nic Filingham:

The only thing we should point out is that this CyberBattleSim is an open source project. It's up on GitHub and attained very much want researchers, and really anyone who's interested in this space to go and download it, go and run it, play around with it, and help make it better. And if you have feedback, let us know. There is contact information, uh, through the GitHub page but you can also contact us at Security Unlocked at Microsoft dot com and we can make sure you, uh, get in contact with the team. And with that, on with the pod?


Natalia Godyla:

On with the pod!


Nic Filingham:

Welcome to Security Unlocked, new guest, Christian Seifert. Thanks for joining us and welcome returning guest, Josh Neil, back to the podcast. Both of you, welcome. Thanks for being on Security Unlocked.


Christian Seifert:

Thanks for having us!


Joshua Neil:

And thanks, Nic.


Nic Filingham:

Christian, I think as a, as a new guest on the podcast, could we get a little introduction for our listeners? Tell us about, uh, what you do at Microsoft. Tell us about what a day to day look like for you.


Christian Seifert:

Sure, so I'm a, uh, research lead on the Security and Compliance team. So our overall research team supports a broad range of enterprising consumer products and services in the security space. My team in particular is focused on protecting users from a social engineering attack. So, uh, think of, like, fishing mails for instance. So we're supporting Microsoft Defender for Office and, um, Microsoft Edge browser.


Nic Filingham:

Got it, and Josh, folks are obviously familiar with you from previous episodes but a, a quick re-intro would be great.


Joshua Neil:

Thanks. I currently lead the Data Science team supporting Microsoft threat experts, which is our managed hunting service, as well as helping general res... cyber security research for the team.


Nic Filingham:

Fantastic, uh, again, thank you both for your time. So, today in the podcast, we're gonna talk about a blog post that came out earlier in this month, on April 8, called Gamifying Machine Learning for Stronger Security in AI Models, where you talk about a new project that has sort of just gone live called CyberBattleSim. First off, congratulations on maybe the coolest name? For, uh, sort of a security research project? So, like, I think, you know, just hats off there. I don't who came up with the name but, but great job on that. Second of all, you know, Christian if, if I could start with you, could you give us a sort of an introduction or an overview what is CyberBattleSim and what is discussed in this blog post?


Christian Seifert:

As I... before talking about the, the simulator, uh, the... let me, let me kind of take a step back and first talk about what we tried to accomplish here and, and why. So, if you think about the security space and, and machine learning in particular, a large portion of machine-learning systems utilized supervised, uh, classifiers. And here, essentially, what we have is, is kinda a labeled data set. So, uh, for example, a set of mails that we label as fish and good. And then, we extract, uh, threat-relevant features. Think of, like, maybe particular words in the body, or header values we believe that are well-suited to differentiate bad mails from good mails. And then our classifiers able to generalize and able to classify new mails that come in.


Christian Seifert:

There's a few, uh, aspects to consider here. So, first of all, the classifier generalizes based on the data that we present to it. So, it's not able to identify completely unknown mails.


Christian Seifert:

Second, is that usually a supervised classification approach is, is biased because we are programming, essentially, the, the classifier and what it, uh, should do. And we're utilizing domain expertise, red teaming to kind of figure out what our threat-relevant features, and so there's bias in that.


Christian Seifert:

And third, a classifier of who has needs to have the data in order to make an appropriate classification. So, if I have classifier that classifies fish mail based on the, the content of the mail but there is the threat-relevant features are in the header, then that classifier needs to have those values as well in order to make that classification. And so, my point is these classifiers are not well-suited to uncover the unknown unknowns. Anything that it has not seen, kinda new type of attack, it is really blind to it. It generalizes over data that, that we present to it.


Christian Seifert:

And so, what we try to do is to build a system that is able to uncover unknown attacks with the ultimate goal then to, of course, develop autonomous defensive component to defend against those attacks. So, that gives it a little bit of context on why we're pursuing this effort. And this was inspired by reinforcement learning research and the broader research community, mostly that is currently applied kinda in the gaming context.


Christian Seifert:

So OpenAI actually came out with a neat video a couple of years ago called Hide and Seek. Uh, that video is available on YouTube. I certainly encourage listeners to check it out, but basically it was a game of laser tag where you had a kinda, uh, a red team and a blue team, uh, play the game of laser tag against each other. And at first they, of course, randomly kind of shoot in the air and run around and there is really no order to the chaos. But eventually, that system learned that, “Hey, if a red team member shoots a blue team member, there's a reward.” and the blue team member also learned while running away from the red team member is, is probably a good thing to do.


Christian Seifert:

And so, OpenAI kinda, uh, established the system and had the blue team and the red team play against each other, and eventually what that led to is really neat strategies that you and I probably wouldn't have come up with. 'Cause what the AI system does, it explores the entire possible actions base and as result comes up with some unexpected strategies. So for instance, uh, there was a blue team member that kinda hid in a room and then a red team guy figured, “Hey, if I jump on a block then I can surf in that environment and get into the room and shoot the blue team member”. So that was a little bit an inspiration because we wanted to also uncover these unknown


Christian Seifert:

Unknownst in the security context.


Nic Filingham:

Got it. That's great context. Thank you Christian. I think I have seen that video, is that the one where one of the many unexpected outcomes was the, like, one of the, the, blue or red team players, like, managed to sort of, like, pick up walls and used them as shields and then create ramps to get into, like, hidden parts of the map? Uh, uh, am I thinking about the right video?


Christian Seifert:

Yes, that's the right video.


Nic Filingham:

Got it. So the whole idea was that that was an experiment in, in understanding how finding the unknown unknowns, using this game, sort of, this lazar tag, sort of, gaming space. Is, is that accurate?


Christian Seifert:

That's right, and so, they utilized reinforcement learning in order to train those agent. Another example is, uh, DeepMind's AlphaGo Zero, playing the game of Go, and, and here, again, kind of, two players, two AI systems that play against each other, and, over time, really develop new strategies on how to play the game of Go that, you know, humans players have, have not come up with.


Christian Seifert:

And it, eventually, lead to a system that achieved superhuman performance and able to beat the champion, Lisa Dole, and I think that was back in 2017. So, really inspiring work, both by OpenAI and DeepMind.


Nic Filingham:

Got it. I wonder, Josh, is there anything you'd like to- before we, sort of, jump into the content of the blog and, and CyberBattleSim, is there anything you'd like to add from your perspective to, to the context that Christian set us up on?


Joshua Neil:

Yeah. Thanks, Nic. I, I mean, I think we were really excited about this because... I think we all think this is a natural evolution of, of our adversaries, so, so, currently, our adversaries, the more sophisticated ones, are primarily using humans to attack our enterprises and, that means they're slow and they can make mistakes and they don't learn from the large amount of data that's there in terms of how to do attacks better, because they're humans.


Joshua Neil:

But I think it's natural, and we just see this, uh, everywhere and, all of technology is that people are bringing in, you know, methods to learn from the data and make decisions automatically, and it's- so it's a natural evolution to say that attackers will be writing code to create autonomous attack capabilities that learn while they're in the enterprise, that piece of software that's launched against the enterprise as an attack, will observe its environment and make decisions on the fly, automatically, from code.


Joshua Neil:

As a result, that's a frightening proposition because, I think the speed at which these attacks will proceed will be a lot, you know, a lot more quick, but also, being able to use the data to learn effective techniques that get around defenses, you know, we just see data science and machine learning and artificial intelligence doing this all over the place and it's very effective that the ability to consume a large amount of data and make decisions on it, that's what machine learning is all about. And so, we at Microsoft are interested in exploring this ourselves because we feel like the threat is coming and, well, let's get ahead of it, right? Let's go experiment with automated learning methods for attacks and, and obviously, in the end, for defense that, by implementing attack methods that learn, we then can implement defensive methods that will, that will preempt what the real adversaries are doing, eventually, against our customers.


Joshua Neil:

So, I think that's, sort of, a philosophical thing. And then, uh, I love the OpenAI Hide-and-Seek example because, you know, the analogy is; Imagine that instead of, they're in a room with, um, walls and, and stuff, they're on a computer network, and the computer network has machines, it has applications, it has email accounts, it has users, it's got a cloud applications, but, in the end, you know, an attacker is moving through an environment, getting blocked in various ways by defenses, learning about those blockings and detections and things and finding gaps that they can move through in, in very similar ways. So, I just, sort of, drawing that analogy back, Hide-and-Seek, it is what we're trying to do in cyber defense, you know, is, is Hide-and-Seek. And so the, I think the analogy is very strong.


Nic Filingham:

Josh, I just wanna quickly clarify on something that, that you said there. So, it sounds like what you're saying is that, while, sort of, automated AI-based attacking, attackers or attacking agents maybe aren't quite prevalent yet, they're, they're coming, and so, a big part of this work is about prepping for that and getting ahead of it. Is, is, is that correct?


Joshua Neil:

That's correct. I, I'm not aware of sophisticated attack machinery that's being launched against our enter- our customers yet. I haven't seen it, maybe others have. I think it's a natural thing, it's coming, and we better be ready.


Christian Seifert:

I mean, we , we see some of it already, uh, in terms of adversarial machine learning, where, uh, our machine learning systems are getting attacked, where, maybe the input is manipulated in a way that leads to a misclassification. Most of that is, is currently more, being explored in the research community.


Natalia Godyla:

How did you apply reinforcement learning? How did you build BattleSim? In the blog you described mapping, some of the core concepts of reinforcement learning to CyberBattleSIm, such as the environment, that action space, the observation space and the reward. Can you talk us through how you translated that to security?


Christian Seifert:

Yeah. So, so first let, let me talk about reinforcement learning to make sure, uh, listeners understand, kinda, how that works. So, as I mentioned, uh, earlier in the supervised case, we feed a label data set to a learner, uh, and then it able to generalize, and we reinforcement learning works very differently where, you have an agent that sits within an environment, and the agent is, essentially, able to generate the data itself by exploring that environment.


Christian Seifert:

So, think of an agent in a computer network, that agent could, first of all, scan the network to, maybe, uncover notes and then they're, maybe, uh, actions around interacting with the notes that it uncovers. And based on those interactions, the agent will, uh, receive a reward. That reward actually may be delayed by, like, there could be many, many steps that the agent has to take before the reward, uh, manifests itself. And so, that's, kinda, how the agent learns, it's, e- able to interact in that environment and then able to receive a reward. And so that's, kinda, what, uh, stands, uh, within the core of the, the CyberBAttleSim, because William Bloom, who is the, the brains behind the simulation, has created an environment that is compatible with, uh, common, uh, reinforcement learning tool sets, namely, the OpenAI Gym, that allows you to train agents in that environment.


Christian Seifert:

And so, the CyberBattleSim represents a simple computer network. So, think of a set of computer nodes, uh, the, the nodes represent a computer, um... Windows, Mac OS, sequel server, and then every node exposes a set of vulnerabilities that the agent could potentially exploit. And so, then, as, kind of, the agent is dropped into that environment, the agent needs to, first, uncover those nodes, so there's a set of actions that allows to explore the state space. Overall, the environment has a, a limited observability, as the agent gets dropped into the environment, you're not necessarily, uh, giving that agent the entire network topology, uh, the agent first needs to uncover that by exploring the network, exploiting nodes, from those nodes, further explore the network and, essentially, laterally move across the network to achieve a goal that we give it to receive that final reward, that allows the agent to learn.


Natalia Godyla:

And, if I understand correctly, many of the variables were predetermined, such as, the network topology and the vulnerabilities, and, in addition, you tested different environments with different set variables, so how did you determine the different environments that you would test and, within that particular environment, what factors were predetermined, and what those predetermined factors would be.


Christian Seifert:

So we, we determined that based on the domaine expertise that exists


Christian Seifert:

... is within the team, so we have, uh, security researchers that are on a Red Team that kind of do that on a day-to-day basis to penetration tests environments. And so, those folks provided input on how to structure that environment, what nodes should be represented, what vulnerabilities should be exposed, what actions the agent is able to take in- in terms of interacting and exploring that, uh, network. So our Red Team experts provided that information.


Nic Filingham:

I wonder, Christian, if you could confirm for me. So there are elements here in CyberBattleSim that are fixed and predetermined. What elements are not? And so, I guess my question here is if I am someone interfacing with the CyberBattleSim, what changes every time? How would you sorta define the game component in terms of what am I gonna have to try and do differently every time?


Christian Seifert:

So the- the CyberBattleSim is this parametrized, where you can start it up in a way that the network essentially stays constant over time. So you're able to train an agent. And so, the network size is- is something that is dynamic, that you can, uh, specify upon startup. And then also kinda the node composition, as well as ... So whether ... how many Windows 10 machines you have versus [inaudible 00:19:15] servers, as well as the type of vulnerabilities that are associated with each of those nodes.


Nic Filingham:

Got it. So every time you- you establish the simulation, it creates those parameters and sort of locks them for the duration of the simulation. But you don't know ... The agent doesn't know in advance what they will d- they will be. The agent has to go through those processes of discovery and reinforcement learning.


Christian Seifert:

Absolutely. And- and one- one tricky part within reinforcement learning is- is generalizability, right? When you train an agent on Network A, it may be able to learn how to outperform a Red Team member. But if you then change the network topology, the agent may completely flail and not able to perform very well at all and needs to kind of re- retrain again. And that- that's a common problem within the- the re- reinforcement learning research community.


Natalia Godyla:

In the blog you also noted a few opportunities for improvement, such as building a more realistic model of the simulation. The simplistic model served its purpose, but as you're opening the project to the broader community, it seems l- that you're endeavoring to partner with the other researchers to create a more realistic environment. Have you given some early thought as to how to potentially make the simulation more real over time?


Christian Seifert:

Absolutely. There is a long list of- of things that we, uh, need to think about. I mean, uh, network size is- is one component. Being able to simulate a- a regular user in that network environment, dynamic aspects of the network environment, where a node essentially is added to the network and then disappears from the network. Uh, all those components are currently not captured in the simulation as it stands today. And the regular user component is an important one because what you can imagine is if we have an attacker that is able to exploit the network and then you have a defender agent within that network as well, if there is no user component, you can very easily secure that network by essentially turning off all the nodes.


Christian Seifert:

So in- a defender agent needs to also optimize, uh, to keep the productivity of the users that are existing on the network high, which is currently not- not incorporated in- in the simulation.


Nic Filingham:

Oh, that's w- that's amazing. So there could be, you know, sort of a future iteration, sort of a n- network or environment productivity, like, score or- or even a dial, and you have to sort of keep it above a particular threshold while you are also thwarting the advances of the- of the agent.


Christian Seifert:

Absolutely. And I mean, that is, I think, a common trade off in the security space, right? There are certain security m-, uh, measures that- that make a network much more secure. Think of like two-factor authentication. But it does u- add some user friction, right? And so, today we're- we're walking that balance, but I'm hoping that there may be new strategies, not just on the attacker's side, but also on the defender's side, that we can uncover that is able to provide higher level of security while keeping productivity high.


Nic Filingham:

I think you- you- you have covered this, but I- I'd like to ask it again, just to sort of be crystal clear for our audience. So who is the CyberBattleSim for? Is it for Red Teams? Is it for Blue Teams? Is it for students that are, you know, learning about this space? Could you walk us through some of the types of, you know, people and- and roles that are gonna use CyberBattleSim?


Christian Seifert:

I mean, I think that the CyberBattleSim today is- is quite simplistic. It is a simulated environment. It is not ... It'-s it's modeled after a real world network, but it is far from being a real world network. So it's, uh, simplistic. It's simulated, which gives us some advantages in terms of, uh, scalability and that learning environment. And so at this point in time, I would say, uh the simulation is really geared towards, uh, the research community. There's a lot of research being done in reinforcement learning. A lot of research is focused on games. Because if you think about a game, that is just another simulated environment. And what we're intending to do here with- with some of the open source releases is really put the spotlight on the security problem. And we're hoping that the- the reinforcement learning researchers and the research community at large will pay more attention to this problem in the security domain.


Nic Filingham:

It's currently sort of more targeted, as you say, as- as researchers, as sort of a research tool. For it to be something that Red Teams and Blue Teams might want to look at adopting, is that somewhere on a road map. For example, if- if you had the ability to move it out of the simulation and into sort of a- a- a VM space or virtual space or perhaps add the ability for users to recreate their own network topology, is that somewhere on your- your wishlist?


Christian Seifert:

Absolutely. I think there's certainly the goal to eventually have these, uh, autonomous defensive agent deployed in real world environments. And so in order to get to that, simulation needs to become more and more realistic in order to achieve that.


Joshua Neil:

There's a lot of work to be done there. 'Cause reinforcement learning on graphs, big networks, i- is computationally e- expensive. And just a lot of raw research, mathematics and computing that needs to be done to get to that real- real world setting. And security research. And in incorporating the knowledge of these constraints and goals and rewards and things that ... T- that takes a lot of domain research and getting- getting the- the security situation realistic. So it's hard.


Christian Seifert:

In the simulation today, it provides the environment and ability for us to train a Red Team agent. So an agent that attacks the environment. Today, the defender is very simplistic, modeled probabilistically around cleaning up machines that have been exploited. So as kinda the next point on the wishlist is really getting to a point where we have the Red Team agent play against a Blue Team agent and kinda play back and forth and see kinda how that influences the dynamic of the game.


Natalia Godyla:

So Christian, you noted one of the advantages of the abstraction was that it wasn't directly applicable to the real world. And because it wasn't approved as a safeguard against nefarious actors who might use CyberBattleSim for the wrong reason. As you're thinking about the future of the project, how do you plan to mitigate this challenge as you drive towards more realism in the simulation?


Christian Seifert:

That is certainly a- a- a risk of this sort of research. I think we are still at the early stages, so I think that risk is- is really nonexistent as it stands right now. But I think it can become a risk as the simulation becomes more sophisticated and realistic. Now, we at Microsoft have the responsible AI effort that is being led at the corporate level that looks at, you know, safety, reliability, transparency, accountability, e- et cetera, as kind of principles that we need to incorporate into our AI systems. And we, early on, engaged the proper committees to help us shape the- the solution in a responsible fashion. And so at this point in time, there weren't really any concerns, but, uh, as the simulation evolves and becomes more realistic, I very much expect that we,


Christian Seifert:

... be, uh, need to employ particular safeguards to prevent abuse.


Nic Filingham:

And so without giving away the battle plan here, wh- what are some other avenues that are being, uh, explored here as part of this trying to get ahead of this eventual point in the future, where there are automated agents out there in the wild?


Joshua Neil:

This is the- the core effort that we're making, and it's hard enough. I'll also say I think it's important for security folks like us, especially Microsoft, to try hard things and to try to break new ground and innovation to protect our customers and really the world. And if we only focus on short-term product enhancements, the adversaries will continue to take advantage of our customers' enterprises, and we really do need to be taking these kind of risks. May not work. It's too ... It's really, really hard. And t- and doing and in- in purposefully endeavoring to- to- to tackle really hard problems is- is necessary to get to the next level of innovation that we have to get to.


Christian Seifert:

And let me add to that. Like, we have a lot of capabilities and expertise at Microsoft. But in the security space, there are many, many challenges. And so I don't think we can do it alone. Um, and so we also need to kinda put a spotlight on the problem and encourage the broader community to help solve these problems with us. And so there's a variety of efforts that we have pursued over the last, uh, couple of years to do exactly that. So, about two years ago we published a [inaudible 00:28:52] data science competition, where we provided a dataset to the broader community, with a problem around, uh, malware classification and machine risk identification and basically asked the community, "Hey, solve this problem." And there was, you know, prize money associated with it. But I really liked that approach because we have ... Again, we have a lot of d- expertise on the team, but we're also a little bit biased, right, in- in terms of kinda the type of people that we have, uh, and the expertise that we have.


Christian Seifert:

If you present a problem to the broader research community, you'll get a very different approaches on how people solve the problems. Most likely from com- kind of domains that are not security-related. Other example is an RFP. So we funded, uh, several research projects last year. I think it was, uh, $450,000 worth of research projects where, again, we kind of laid out, "Here are some problems that are of interest that we wanna put the spotlight on, and then support the- the research community p- to pursue research in that area."


Nic Filingham:

So what kind of ... You know, you talk about it being, uh, an area that we all sort of collectively have to contribute to and sort of get b- behind. Folks listening to the podcast right now, going and reading the blog. Would you like everyone to go and- and- and spin up CyberBattleSim and- and give it a shot, and then once they have ... Tell us about the- the types of work or feedback you'd like to see. So it's up on GitHub. What kind of contributions or- or feedback here are you looking for from- from the community?


Christian Seifert:

I mean, I'd really love to have, uh, reinforcement learning researchers that have done research in this space work with the CyberBattleSim. Kinda going back to the problem that I mentioned earlier, where how can we build agents that are generalizable in a way that they're able to operate on different network topology, different network configuration, I think is an- an- an exciting area, uh, that I'd love to see, uh, the research community tackle. Second portion is- is really enhancing the simulation. I mentioned a whole slew of features that I think would be beneficial to make it more realistic, and then also kinda tackle the problem of- of negatively impacting potential productivities of- of users that operate on that network. So enhancing the- the simulation itself is another aspect.


Nic Filingham:

Josh, anything you wanted to add to that?


Joshua Neil:

Yeah, I mean, I- I think those were the- the major audiences we're hoping for feedback from. But a- al- also like Christian said, if a psychologist comes and looks at this and has an idea, send us an email or something. You know, that multidisciplinary advantage we get from putting this out in the open means we're anticipating surprises. And we want those. We want that diversity of thought and approach. A physicist, "You know, this looks like a black hole and here's the m- ..." Who knows? You know, but that's- that's the kind of-


Nic Filingham:

Everything's a black hole to a physicist-


Joshua Neil:

(laughs) Yeah.


Nic Filingham:

... so that's, uh ...


Joshua Neil:

So, you know, I think that diversity of thinking is what we really solicit. Just take a look, yeah. Anybody listening. Download it. Play with it. Send us an email. We're doing this so that we get your- your ideas and thinking, for us and for the whole community. Because I think we- we also believe that good security, uh, next generation security is developed by everybody, not just Microsoft. And that there is a- there is a good reason to uplift all of humanity's capability to protect themselves, for Microsoft but for everybody, you know?


Natalia Godyla:

So Christian, what are the baseline results? How long does it take an agent to get to the desired outcome?


Christian Seifert:

So the s- simulation is designed in a way that also allows humans to play the game. So we had one of our Red Teamers to actually play the game and it took that person about 50 operations to compromise the entire network. Now when we take a- a random agent that kinda uninformed takes random actions on the network, it takes about 500 steps. So that's kind of the- the lower baseline for an agent. And then we trained, uh, a Deep Q, uh, reinforcement learning agent, and it was able to accomplish, uh, the human baseline after about 50, uh, training iterations. Again, network is quite simple. I wouldn't expect that to hold, uh, as kinda the- the simulation scales and becomes more complex, but that was, uh, certainly an encouraging first result.


Joshua Neil:

And I think the- the significant thing there is, even if the computer is- takes more steps than the human, well, we can make computers run fast, right? We can do millions of iterations way faster than a- than a human and they're cheaper than humans, et cetera. It's automation.


Nic Filingham:

Is there a point at which the automated agent gets too good, or- or is there sort of a ... What would actually be the definition of almost a failure in this experiment, to some degree?


Joshua Neil:

I think one- one is to- to sort of interpret your question as it could be overfed. That is, if it's too good, it's too specific and not generalized. And as soon as you throw some different set of constraints or network at it, it fails. So I think that's a- that's a real metric of the performances. Okay, it- it learned on this situation, but how well does it do on the next one?


Nic Filingham:

Is there anything else, uh, either of you would like to add before we wrap up here? I feel like I've covered a lot of ground. I'm gonna go download CyberBattleSim and- and try and work out how to execute it. But a- anything you'd like to add, Christian?


Christian Seifert:

No, not from me. It was, uh, great talking to you.


Natalia Godyla:

Well, thank you Josh and Christian, for joining us on the show today. It was a pleasure.


Christian Seifert:

Oh, thanks so much.


Joshua Neil:

Yeah, thanks so much. Lots of fun.


Natalia Godyla:

Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security, from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.


Nic Filingham:

And don't forget to tweet us at MSFTSecurity, or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com, with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.


Natalia Godyla:

Stay secure. 

 

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I'm Nic Fillingham.Natalia Godyla:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft Security, deep dive into the newest threat intel, research and data science.Nic Fillingham:And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft Security.Natalia Godyla:And now, let's unlock the pod. (music)Natalia Godyla:Welcome everyone to another episode of Security Unlocked. Today we are joined by first time guest, Arjmand Samuel, who is joining us to discuss IoT Security, which is fitting as he is an Azure IoT Security leader a Microsoft. Now, everyone has heard the buzz around IoT. There's been constant talk of it over the past several years, and, but now we've all also already had some experience with IoT devices in our personal life. Would about you, Nic? What do you use in your everyday life? What types of IoT devices?Nic Fillingham:Yeah. 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Um, today, we'll be talking with Arjmand about enterprise grade IoT and OT, or Internet of Things and operational technology. Think the manufacturing floor of, uh, plants. And Arjmand will walk us through the basics of IoT and OT through to the best practices for securing these devices.Nic Fillingham:Yeah. And we spent a bit of time talking about zero trust and how to apply a zero trust approach to IoT. Zero trust, there's sort of three main pillars to zero trust. It's verify explicitly, which for many customers just means sort of MFA, multi factorial authentication. It's about utilizing least privilege access and ensuring that accounts, users, devices just have access to the data they need at the time they need it. And then the third is about always, sort of, assuming that you've been breached and, sort of, maintaining thing philosophy of, of let's just assume that we're breached right now and let's engage in practices that would, sort of, help root out a, uh, potential breach.Nic Fillingham:Anyway, so, Arjmand, sort of, walks us through what it IoT, how does it relate to IT, how does it relate to operational technology, and obviously, what that zero trust approach looks like. On with the pod.Natalia Godyla:On with the pod. (music) Today, we're joined by Arjmand Samuel, principle program manager for the Microsoft Azure Internet of Things Group. Welcome to the show, Arjmand.Arjmand Samuel:Thank you very much, Natalia, and it's a pleasure to be on the show.Natalia Godyla:We're really excited to have you. Why don't we kick it off with talking a little bit about what you do at Microsoft. So, what does your day to day look like as a principle program manager?Arjmand Samuel:So, I am part of the Azure IoT Engineering Team. I'm a program manager on the team. I work on security for IoT and, uh, me and my team, uh, we are responsible for making sure that, uh, IoT services and clients like the software and run times and so on are, are built securely. And when they're deployed, they have the security properties that we need them and our customers demand that. So, so, that's what I do all a long.Nic Fillingham:And, uh, we're going to talk about, uh, zero trust and the relationship between a zero trust approach and IoT. Um, but before we jump into that, Arjmand, uh, we, we had a bit of a look of your, your bio here. I've got a couple of questions I'd love to ask, if that's okay. I want to know about your, sort of, tenure here at Microsoft. Y- y- you've been here for 13 years. Sounds like you started in, in 2008 and you started in the w- what was called the Windows Live Team at the time, as the security lead. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your, your entry in to Microsoft and being in security in Microsoft for, for that amount of time. You must have seen some, sort of, pretty amazing changes, both from an industry perspective and then also inside Microsoft.Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah, definitely. So, uh, as you said, uh, 2008 was the time, was the year when I came in. I came in with a, a, a degree in, uh, security, in- information security. And then, of course, my thinking and my whole work there when I was hired at Microsoft was to be, hey, how do we actually make sure that our product, which was Windows Live at that time, is secure? It has all the right security properties that, that we need that product to have. So, I- I came in, started working on a bunch of different things, including identity and, and there was, these are early times, right? I mean, we were all putting together this infrastructure, reconciling all the identity on times that we had. And all of those were things that we were trying to bring to Windows Live as well.Arjmand Samuel:So, I was responsible for that as well as I was, uh, working on making sure that, uh, our product had all the right diligence and, and security diligence that is required for a product to be at scale. And so, a bunch of, you know, things like STL and tech modeling and those kind of things. I was leading those efforts as well at, uh, Windows Live.Natalia Godyla:So, if 2008 Arjmand was talking to 2021 Arjmand, what would he be most surprised about, about the evolution over the past 13 years, either within Microsoft or just in the security industry.Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. Yeah. (laughs) That's a great, great question, and I think in the industry itself, e- evolution has been about how all around us. We are now engulfed in technology, connected technology. We call it IoT, and it's all around us. That was not the landscape 10, 15 years back. And, uh, what really is amazing is how our customers and partners are taking on this and applying this in their businesses, right? This meaning the whole industry of IoT and, uh, Internet of Things, and taking that to a level where every data, every piece of data in the physical world can be captured or can be acted upon. That is a big change from the last, uh, 10, 15 to where we are today.Nic Fillingham:I thought you were going to say TikTok dance challenges.Arjmand Samuel:(laughs)Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... because that's, that's where I would have gone.Arjmand Samuel:(laughs) that, too. That, too, right? (laughs)Nic Fillingham:That's a (laughs) digression there. So, I'm pretty sure everyone knows what IoT is. I think we've already said it, but let's just, sort of, start there. So, IoT, Internet of Things. Is, I mean, that's correct, right? Is there, is there multiple definitions of IoT, or is it just Internet of Things? And then, what does the definition of an Internet of Things mean?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. It;s a... You know, while Internet of Things is a very recognized acronym these days, but I think talking to different people, different people would have a different idea about how Internet of Thing could be defined. And the way I would define it, and again, not, not, uh, necessarily the authority or the, the only definition. There are many definitions, but it's about having these devices around us. Us is not just people but also our, our manufacturing processes, our cars, our, uh, healthcare systems, having all these devices around, uh, these environments. They are, these devices, uh, could be big, could be small. Could be as small as a very small temperature sensor collecting data from an environment or it could be a Roboticom trying to move a full car up and down an assembly line.Arjmand Samuel:And first of all, collecting data from these devices, then bringing them, uh, uh, using the data to do something interesting and insightful, but also beyond that, being able to control these devices based on those insights. So, now there's a feedback loop where you're collecting data and you are acting on that, that data as well. And that is where, how IoT is manifesting itself today in, in, in the world. And especially for our customers who are, who tend to be more industrial enterprises and so on, it's a big change that is happening. It's, it's a huge change that, uh, they see and we call it the transformation, the business transformation happening today. And part of that business transformation is being led or is being driven through the technology which we call IoT, but it's really a business transformation.Arjmand Samuel:It's really with our customers are finding that in order to remain competitive and in order to remain in business really, at the end of the day, they need to invest. They need to bring in all these technologies to bear, and Internet of Things happens that technology.Nic Fillingham:So, Arjmand, a couple other acronyms. You know, I think, I think most of our audience are pretty familiar with IoT, but we'll just sort of cover it very quickly. So, IoT versus IT. IT is, obviously, you know, information technology, or I think that's the, that's the (laughs) globally accepted-Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah.Nic Fillingham:... definition. You know, do you we think of IoT as subset of IT? What is the relationship of, of those two? I mean, clearly, there are three letters versus two letters, (laughs) but there is relationship there. Wh- wh- what are your thoughts?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. There's a relationship as well as there's a difference, and, and it's important to bring those two out. Information technology is IT, as we know it now for many years, is all about enterprises running their applications, uh, business applications mostly. For that, they need the network support. They need databases. They need applications to be secured and so on. So, all these have to work together. The function of IT, information technology, is to make sure that the, there is availability of all these resources, applications, networks and databases as well as you have them secured and private and so on.Arjmand Samuel:So, all of that is good, but IoT takes it to the next level where now it's not only the enterprise applications, but it's also these devices, which are now deployed by the enterprise. I mentioned Roboticoms. Measured in a conference room you have all these equipment in there, projection and temperature sensors and occupancy sensors and so on. So, all of those beco- are now the, the add on to what we used to call IT and we are calling it the IoT.Arjmand Samuel:Now, the interesting part here is in the industrial IoT space. Th- this is also called OT, operation technology. So, you know, within an organization there'll be IT and OT. OT's operation technology and these are the people or the, uh, function within an organization who deal with the, with the physical machines, the physical plant. You know, the manufacturing line, the conveyor belts, the Roboticoms, and these are called OT functions.Arjmand Samuel:The interesting part here is the goal of IT is different from the goal of OT. OT is all about availability. OT's all about safety, safety so that it doesn't hurt anybody working on the manufacturing line. OT's all about environmental concerns. So, it should not leak bad chemicals and so on. A while, if you talk about security, and this is, like, a few years back when we would talk about security with an OT person, the, the person who's actually... You know, these are people who actually wear those, uh, hard hats, you know, on, uh, a manufacturing plant. And if you talk about security to an OT person, they will typically refer to that guard standing outside and, and, uh, the-Nic Fillingham:Physical security.Arjmand Samuel:The physical security and the, the walls and the cameras, which would make sure that, you know, and then a key card, and that's about all. This was OT security, but now when we started going in and saying that, okay, all these machines can be connected to, to each other and you can collect all this data and then you can actually start doing something interesting with this data. That is where the definition of security and the functions of OT evolved. And not evolving, I mean different companies are at different stages, but they're now evolving where they're thinking, okay, it's not only about the guard standing outside. It's also the fact that the Roboticom could be taken over remotely and somebody outside, around the world, around the globe could actually be controlling that Roboticom to do something bad. And that realization and the fact that now you actually have to control it in the cyber sense and not only in the physical sense is the evolution that happened between OT.Arjmand Samuel:Now, IT and OT work together as well because the same networks are shared typically. Some of the applications that use the data from these devices are common. So, IT and OT, this is the other, uh, thing that has changed and, and we are seeing that change, is starting to work and come closer. Work together more. IoT's really different, but at the same time requires a lot of stuff that IT has traditionally done.Natalia Godyla:Hmm. So, what we considered to be simple just isn't simple anymore.Arjmand Samuel:That's life, right? (laughs) Yeah.Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Arjmand Samuel:(laughs)Natalia Godyla:So, today we wanted to talk about IoT security. So, let's just start with, with framing the conversation a little bit. Why is IoT security important and what makes it more challenging, different than traditional security?Arjmand Samuel:As I just described, right, I mean, we are now infusing compute and in every environment around us. I mean, we talked a little bit about the conveyor belt. Imagine the conference rooms, the smart buildings and, and all the different technologies that are coming in. These are technologies, while they're good, they're serve a scenario. They, they make things more efficient and so on, but they're also now a point of, uh, of failure for that whole system as well as a way for malicious sectors to bring in code if possible. And to either, uh, imagine a scenario where or an attack where a malicious sector goes into the conveyor belt and knows exactly the product that is passing through. And imagine that's something either takes the data and sells it to somebody or, worse case, stops the conveyor belt. That is millions of dollars of loss very, uh, that data that the company might be incurring.Arjmand Samuel:So, now that there's infused computer all around us, we are now living in a target which in a environment which can be attacked, and which can be used for bad things much more than what it was when we were only applications, networks and databases. Easy to put a wall around. Easy to understand what's going on. They're easy to lock down. But with all these devices around us, it's becoming much and much harder to do the same.Nic Fillingham:And then what sort of, if, if we think about IoT and IoT security, one of the things that, sort of, makes it different, I- I th- think, and here I'd love you to explain this, sort of... I- I'm thinking of it as a, as a, as a spectrum of IoT devices that, I mean, they have a CPU. They have some memory. They have some storage. They're, they're running and operating system in some capacity all the way through to, I guess, m- much more, sort of, rudimentary devices but do have some connection, some network connection in order for instruction or data to, sort of, move backwards and forwards. What is it that makes this collection of stuff difficult to protect or, you know, is it difficult to protect? And if so, why? And then, how do we think about the, the, the potential vectors for attack that are different in this scenario versus, you know, protecting lap tops and servers?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. That's a good one. So, uh, what happens is you're right. Uh, IoT devices can be big and small, all right. They could be a small MCU class device with a real-time operating system on it. Very small, very, uh, single purpose device, which is imagine collecting temperature or humidity only. Then we have these very big, what we call the edge or heavy edge devices, which are like server class devices running a Roboticom or, or even a gateway class device, which is aggregating data from many devices, right, as a, a, and then take, taking the data and acting on it.Arjmand Samuel:So, now with all this infrastructure, one of the key things that we have seen is diversity and heterogeneity of these devices. Not just in terms of size, but also in terms of who manufactured them, when they were manufactured. So, many of the temperature sensors in environments could be very old. Like, 20 years old and people are trying to use the same equipment and not have to change anything there. And which they can. Technically they could, but then those devices were never designed in for a connected environment for these, this data to actually, uh, be aggregated and sent on the network, meaning they per- perhaps did not have encryption built into it. So, we have to do something, uh, additional there.Arjmand Samuel:And so now with the diversity of devices, when they came in, the, the feature set is so diverse. Some of them were, are more recent, built with the right security principles and the right security properties, but then some of them might not be. So, this could raise a, a challenge where how do you actually secure an infrastructure where you have this whole disparity and many different types of devices, many different manufacturers, many of ages different for these devices. Security properties are different and as we all know talking about security, the attack would always come from the weakest link. So, the attacker would always find, within that infrastructure, the device which has the least security as a entry point into that infrastructure. So, we can't just say, "Oh, I'll just protect my gateway and I'm fine." We have to have some mitigation for everything on that network. Everything. Even the older ones, older devices. We call them brownfield devices because they tend to be old devices, but they're also part of the infrastructure.Arjmand Samuel:So, how do we actually think about brownfield and the, the newer ones we call greenfield devices? Brownfield and greenfield, how do we think about those given they will come from different vendors, different designs, different security properties? So, that's a key challenge today that we have. So, they want to keep those devices as well as make sure that they are secure because the current threat vectors and threat, uh, the, and attacks are, are much more sophisticated.Natalia Godyla:So, you have a complex set of devices that the security team has to manage and understand. And then you have to determine at another level which of those devices have vulnerabilities or which one is the most vulnerable, and then, uh, assume that your most vulnerable, uh, will be the ones that are exploited. It, so, is that, that typically the attack factor? It's going to be the, the weakest link, like you said? And h- how does an attacker try to breach the IoT device?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. And, and this is where we, we started using the term zero trust IoT.Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Arjmand Samuel:So, IoT devices are deployed in an environment which can not be trusted, should not be trusted. You should assume that there is zero trust in that environment, and then all these devices, when they are in there, you will do the right things. You'll put in the right mitigations so that the devices themselves are robust. Now, another example I always give here is, and, uh, I, your question around the attack vectors and, and how attacks are happening, typically in the IT world, now that we, we have the term defined, in the IT world, you will always have, you know, physical security. You will always put servers in a room and lock it, and, and so on, right, but in an IoT environment, you have compute devices. Imagine these are powerful edge nodes doing video analytics, but they're mounted on a pole next to a camera outside on the road, right? So, which means the physical access to that device can not be controlled. It could be that edge node, again, a powerful computer device with lots of, you know, CPU and, and so on, is deployed in a mall looking at video streams and analyzing those video streams, again, deployed out there where any attacker physically can get a hold of the device and do bad things.Arjmand Samuel:So, again, the attack vectors are also different between IT and OT or IoT in the sense that the devices might not be physically contained in a, in an environment. So, that puts another layer of what do we do to protect such, uh, environments?Nic Fillingham:And then I want to just talk about the role of, sort of, if we think about traditional computing or traditional, sort of, PC based computing and PC devices, a lot of the attack vectors and a lot of the, sort of, weakest link is the user and the user account. And that's why, you know, phishing is such a massive issue that if we can socially engineer a way for the person to give us their user name and password or whatever, we, we, we can get access to a device through the user account. IoT devices and OT devices probably don't use that construct, right? They probably, their userless. Is that accurate?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. That's very accurate. So, again, all of the attack vectors which we know from IT are still relevant because, you know, if you, there's a phishing attack and the administrator password is taken over you can still go in and destroy the infrastructure, both IT and IoT. But at the same time, these devices, these IoT devices typically do not have a user interacting with them, typically in the compute sense. You do not log into an IoT device, right? Except in sensor with an MCU, it doesn't even have a user experience, uh, a screen on it. And so, there is typically no user associated with it, and that's another challenge. So you need to still have an identity off the device, not on the device, but off the device, but that identity has to be intrinsic off the device. It has to be part of the device and it has to be stable. It has to be protected, secure, and o- on the device, but it does not typically a user identity.Arjmand Samuel:And, and that's not only true for temperature sensors. You know, the smaller MCU class devices. That's true for edge nodes as well. Typically, an edge node, and by the way, when I say the edge node, edge node is a full blown, rich operating system. CPU, tons of memory, even perhaps a GPU, but does not typically have a user screen, a keyboard and a mouse. All it has is a video stream coming in through some protocol and it's analyzing that and then making some AI decisions, decisions based on AI. And, and, but that's a powerful machine. Again, there might never ever be a user interactively signing into it, but the device has an identity of its own. It has to authenticate itself and it workload through other devices or to the Cloud. And all of that has to be done in a way where there is no user attached to it.Natalia Godyla:So, with all of this complexity, how can we think about protecting against IoT attacks. You discussed briefly that we still apply the zero trust model here. So, you know, at a high level, what are best practices for protecting IoT?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Now that we, we just described the environment, we described the devices and, and the attacks, right? The bad things that can happen, how do we do that? So, the first thing we want to do, talk about is zero trust. So, do not trust the environment. Even if it is within a factory and you have a guard standing outside and you have all the, you know, the physical security, uh, do not trust it because there are still vectors which can allow malicious sectors to come into those devices. So, that's the first one, zero trust.Arjmand Samuel:Uh, do not trust anything that is on the device unless you explicitly trust it, you explicitly make sure that you can go in and you can, attest the workload, as an example. You can attest the identity of the device, as an example. And you can associate some access control polices and you have to do it explicitly and never assume that this is, because it's a, uh, environment in a factory you're good. So, you never assume that. So, again, that's a property or a principle within zero trust that we always exercise.Arjmand Samuel:Uh, the other one is you always assume breach. You always assume that bad things will happen. I- it's not if they'll happen or not. It's about when they're s- uh, going to happen. So, for the, that thinking, then you're putting in place mitigations. You are thinking, okay, if bad things are going to happen, how do I contain the bad things? How do I contain? How do I make sure that first of all, I can detect bad things happening. And we have, and we can talk about some of the offerings that we have, like Defender for IoT as an example, which you can deploy on to the environment. Even if it's brownfield, you can detect bad things happening based on the network characteristics. So, that's Defender for IoT.Arjmand Samuel:And, and once you can detect bad things happening then you can do something about it. You get an alert. You can, you can isolate that device or take that device off the network and refresh it and do those kind of things. So, the first thing that needs to happen is you assume that it's going breach. You always assume that whatever you are going to trust is explicitly trusted. You always make sure that there is a way to explicitly trust, uh, uh, uh, either the workload or the device or the network that is connected onto the device.Nic Fillingham:So, if we start with verify explicitly, in the traditional compute model where it's a user on a device, we can verify explicitly with, usually, multi factor authentication. So, I have my user name and password. I add an additional layer of authentication, whether it's an, you know, app on my phone, a key or something, some physical device, there's my second factor and I'm, I'm verified explicitly in that model. But again, no users or the user's not, sort of, interacting with the device in, sort of, that traditional sense, so what are those techniques to verify explicitly on an IoT device?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. I, exactly. So, we, in that white paper, which we are talking about, we actually put down a few things that you can actually do to, to, en- ensure that you have all the zero trust requirements together. Now, the first one, of course, is you need, uh, all devices to have strong identity, right? So, because identity is a code. If you can not identi- identify something you can not, uh, give it an access control policy. You can not trust the data that is coming out from that, uh, device. So, the first thing you do is you have a strong identity. By a strong identity we mean identity, which is rooted in hardware, and so, what we call the hardware based root of trust. It's technologies like TPM, which ensure that you have the private key, which is secured in our hardware, in the hardware and you can not get to it, so and so on. So, you, you ensure that you have a, a strong identity.Arjmand Samuel:You always have these privilege access so you do not... And these principles have been known to our IT operations forever, right? So, many years they have been refined and, uh, people know about those, but we're applying them to the IoT world. So, these privilege access, if our device is required to access another device or data or to push out data, it should only do that for the function it is designed for, nothing more than that. You should always have some level of, uh, device health check. Perhaps you should be able to do some kind of test station of the device. Again, there is no user to access the device health, but you should be able to do, and there are ways, there are services which allow you to measure something on the device and then say yes it's good or not.Arjmand Samuel:You should be able to do a continuous update. So, in case there is a device which, uh, has been compromised, you should be able to reclaim that device and update it with a fresh image so that now you can start trusting it. And then finally you should be able to securely monitor it. And not just the device itself, but now we have to technologies which can monitor the data which is passing through the network, and based on those characteristics can see if a device is attacked or being attacked or not. So, those are the kind of things that we would recommend for a zero trust environment to take into account and, and make those requirements a must for, for IoT deployments.Natalia Godyla:And what's Microsoft's role in protecting against these attacks?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. So, uh, a few products that we always recommend. If somebody is putting together a new IoT device right from the silicone and putting that device together, we have a great secure be design device, which is called Azure Sphere. Azure Sphere has a bunch of different things that it does, including identity, updates, cert management. All these are important functions that are required for that device to function. And so, a new device could use the design that we have for Azure Sphere.Arjmand Samuel:Then we have, a gateway software that you put on a gateway which allows you to secure the devices behind that gateway for on time deployments. We have Defender for IoT, again as I mentioned, but Defender for IoT is on-prem, so you can actually monitor all the tracks on the network and on the devices. You could also put a agent, a Micro Agent on these devices, but then it also connects to Azure Sentinel. Azure Sentinel is a enterprise class user experience for security administrators to know what bad things are happening on, on-prem. So, it, the whole end to end thing could works all the way from the network, brownfield devices to the Cloud.Arjmand Samuel:We also have things like, uh, IoT Hub Device Provisioning service. Device provisioning service is an interesting concept. I'll try to briefly describe that. So, what happens is when you have an identity on a device and you want to actually put that device, deploy that device in your environment, it has to be linked up with a service in the Cloud so that it can, it knows the device, there's an identity which is shared and so on. Now, you could do it manually. You could actually bring that device in, read a code, put it in the Cloud and your good to go because now the Cloud knows about that device, but then what do you do when you have to deploy a million devices? And we're talking about IoT scale, millions. A fleet of millions of devices. If you take that same approach of reading a key and putting it in the Cloud, one, you'd make mistakes. Second, you will probably need a lifetime to take all those keys and put them in the cloud.Arjmand Samuel:So, in order to solve that problem, we have the device provisioning service, which it's a service in the Cloud. It is, uh, linked up to the OEMs or manufacturing devices. And when you deploy our device in your field, you do not have to do any of that. Your credentials are passed between the service and the, and the device. So, so, that's another service. IoT Hub Device Provisioning Service.Arjmand Samuel:And then we have, uh, a work, the, uh, a piece of work that we have done, which is the Certification of IoT Devices. So, again, you need the devices to have certain security properties. And how do you do that? How do you ensure that they have the right security properties, like identity and cert management and update ability and so on, we have what we call the Edge Secured-core Certification as well as Azure Certified Device Program. So, any device which is in there has been tested by us and we certify that that device has the right security properties. So, we encourage our customers to actually pick from those devices so that they, they actually get the best security properties.Natalia Godyla:Wow. That's a lot, which is incredible. What's next for Microsoft's, uh, approach to IoT security?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. So, uh, one of the key things that we have heard our customers, anybody who's going into IoT ask the question, what is the risk I'm taking? Right? So, I'm deploying all these devices in my factories and Roboticom's connecting them, and so on, but there's a risk here. And how do I quantify that risk? How do I understand th- that risk and how do I do something about that risk?Arjmand Samuel:So, we, we got those questions many years back, like four, five years back. We started working with the industry and together with the Industrial Internet Consortium, IIC, which a consortium out there and there are many companies part of that consortium, we led something called The Security Maturity Model for IoT. So, so, we put down a set of principles and a set of processes you follow to evaluate the maturity of your security in IoT, right? So, it's a actionable thing. You take the document, you evaluate, and then once you have evaluated, it actually give you a score.It says you're level one, or two, or three, or four. Four, that's the authentication. All else is controlled management. And then based on th- that level, you know where you care, first of all. So, you know what your weaknesses are and what you need to do. So, that's a very actionable thing. But beyond that, if you're at level two and you want to be at level four, and by want to means your scenario dictates that you should be at level four, it is actionable. It gives you a list of things to do to go from level two to level four. And then you can reevaluate yourself and then you know that you're at level four. So, that's a maturityArjmand Samuel:Now, In order to operationalize that program with in partnership with IAC, we also have been, and IAC's help, uh, has been instrumental here, we have been working on a training program where we have been training auditors. These are IoT security auditors, third party, independent auditors who are not trained on SMMs Security Maturity Model. And we tell our customers, if you have a concern, get yourself audited using SMM, using the auditors and that will tell you where you are and where you need to go. So, it's evolving. Security for IoT's evolving, but I think we are at the forefront of that evolution.Nic Fillingham:Just to, sort of, finish up here, I'm thinking of some of the recent IoT security stories that were in the news. We won't mention any specifically, but there, there have been some recently. My take aways hearing those stories reading those stories in the news is that, oh, wow, there's probably a lot of organizations out here and maybe individuals at companies that are using IoT and OT devices that maybe don't see themselves as being security people or having to think about IoT security, you know T security. I just wonder if do you think there is a, a population of folks out here that don't think of themselves as IoT security people, but they really are? And then therefore, how do we sort of go find those people and help them go, get educated about securing IoT devices?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, that's, uh, that's exactly what we are trying to do here. So, uh, people who know security can obviously know the bad things that can happen and can do something about it, but the worst part is that in OT, people are not thinking about all the bad things that can happen in the cyber world. You mentioned that example with that treatment plant. It should never have been connected to the network, unless required. And if it was connected to the, uh, to the network, to the internet, you should have had a ton a mitigations in place in case somebody was trying to come in and should have been stopped. And in that particular case, y- there was a phishing attack and the administrative password was, was taken over. But even with that, with the, some of our products, like Defender for IoT, can actually detect the administrative behavior and can, can detect if an administrator is trying to do bath things. It can still tell other administrators there's bad things happening.Arjmand Samuel:So, there's a ton of things that one could do, and it all comes down, what we have realized is it all comes down to making sure that this word gets out, that people know that there is bad things that can happen with IoT and it's not only your data being stolen. It's very bad things as in that example. And so, the word out, uh, so that we can, uh, we can actually make IoT more secure.Nic Fillingham:Got it. Arjmand, again, thanks so much for your time. It sounds like we really need to get the word out. IoT security is a thing. You know, if you work in an organization that employs IoT or OT devices, or think you might, go and download this white paper. Um, we'll put the link in the, uh, in the show notes. You can just search for it also probably on the Microsoft Security Blog and learn more about cyber security for IoT, how to apply zero trust model. Share it with your, with your peers and, uh, let's get as much education as we can out there.Arjmand Samuel:Thank you very much for this, uh, opportunity.Nic Fillingham:Thanks, Arjmand, for joining us. I think we'll definitely touch on cyber security for IoT, uh, in future episodes. So, I'd love to talk to you again. (music)Arjmand Samuel:Looking forward to it. (music)Natalia Godyla:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.Nic Fillingham:And don't forget to Tweet us @MSFTSecurity or email us at securityunlocked@Microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. (music) Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla:Stay secure. (music)
7/7/2021

Looking a Gift Card Horse in the Mouth

Ep. 35
Is it just me, or do you also miss the goodoledays of fraudulent activity?You remember the kind I’m talking about, theemails from princes around the world asking for just a couple hundred dollars to help them unfreeze or retrieve their massive fortune which they would share with you. Attacks havegrownmore nuanced, complex, and invasive since then, but because of the unbelievable talent at Microsoft, we’re constantly getting better at defending against it.On this episode of Security Unlocked, hosts Nic Fillingham and NataliaGodylasit down with returning champion, Emily Hacker, to discuss Business Email Compromise (BEC), an attack that has perpetrators pretending to be someone from the victim’s place of work and instructs them to purchase gift cards and send them to thescammer.Maybe it’s good tolookagift cardhorse in the mouth?In This Episode You Will Learn:Why BEC is such an effective and pervasive attackWhat are the key things to look out for to protect yourself against oneWhy BEC emails are difficult to trackSome Questions We Ask:How do the attackers mimic a true-to-form email from a colleague?Why do we classify this type of email attack separately from others?Why are they asking for gift cards rather than cash?Resources:Emily Hacker’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/emilydhacker/FBI’s2020Internet Crime Reporthttps://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2020_IC3Report.pdfNicFillingham’sLinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/NataliaGodyla’sLinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/Microsoft Security Blog:https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/Related:Security Unlocked: CISO Series with Bret Arsenaulthttps://SecurityUnlockedCISOSeries.comTranscript:[Full transcript can be found athttps://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp35]Nic Fillingham:Hello, and welcome to Security Unlocked, a new podcast from Microsoft, where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft security engineering and operations teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.Natalia Godyla:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft security, deep dive into the newest thread intel, research and data science.Nic Fillingham:And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft security.Natalia Godyla:And now, let's unlock the pod.Nic Fillingham:Hello listeners, hello, Natalia, welcome to episode 35 of Security Unlocked. Natalia, how are you?Natalia Godyla:I'm doing well as always and welcome everyone to another show.Nic Fillingham:It's probably quite redundant, me asking you how you are and you asking me how you are, 'cause that's not really a question that you really answer honestly, is it? It's not like, "Oh, my right knee's packing at the end a bit," or "I'm very hot."Natalia Godyla:Yeah, I'm doing terrible right now, actually. I, I just, uh- Nic Fillingham:Everything is terrible.Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Well, uh, our guest today is, is a returning champ, Emily Hacker. This is her third, uh, appearance on Security Unlocked, and, and she's returning to talk to us about a, uh, new business email compromise campaign that she and her colleagues helped unearth focusing on some sort of gift card scam.Nic Fillingham:We've covered business email compromise before or BEC on the podcast. Uh, we had, uh, Donald Keating join us, uh, back in the early days of Security Unlocked on episode six. The campaign itself, not super sophisticated as, as Emily sort of explains, but so much more sort of prevalent than I think a lot of us sort of realize. BEC was actually the number one reported source of financial loss to the FBI in 2020. Like by an order of magnitude above sort of, you know, just places second place, third place, fourth place. You know, I think the losses were in the billions, this is what was reported to the FBI, so it's a big problem. And thankfully, we've got people like, uh, Emily on it.Nic Fillingham:Natalia, can you give us the TLDR on the, on the campaign that Emily helps describe?Natalia Godyla:Yeah, as you said, it's, uh, a BEC gift card campaign. So the attackers use typosquatted domains, and socially engineered executives to request from employees that they purchase gift cards. And the request is very vague. Like, "I need you to do a task for me, "or "Let me know if you're available." And they used that authority to convince the employees to purchase the gift cards for them. And they then co-converted the gift cards into crypto at, at scale to collect their payout.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, and we actually discuss with Emily that, that between the three of us, Natalia, myself and Emily, we actually didn't have a good answer for how the, uh- Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... these attackers are laundering these gift cards and, and converting them to crypto. So we're gonna, we're gonna go and do some research, and we're gonna hopefully follow up on a, on a future episode to better understand that process. Awesome. And so with that, on with the pod.Natalia Godyla:On with the pod.Nic Fillingham:Welcome back to the Security Unlocked podcast. Emily hacker, how are you?Emily Hacker:I'm doing well. Thank you for having me. How are you doing?Nic Fillingham:I'm doing well. I'm trying very hard not to melt here in Seattle. We're recording this at the tail end of the heat wave apocalypse of late June, 2021. Natalia, are you all in, I should have asked, have you melted or are you still in solid form?Natalia Godyla:I'm in solid form partially because I think Seattle stole our heat. I'm sitting in Los Angeles now.Nic Fillingham:Uh huh, got it. Emily, thank you for joining us again. I hope you're also beating the heat. You're here to talk about business email compromise. And you were one of the folks that co-authored a blog post from May 6th, talking about a new campaign that was discovered utilizing gift card scams. First of all, welcome back. Thanks for being a return guest. Second of all, do I get credit or do I get blame for the tweet that enabled you to, to- Emily Hacker:(laughs) It's been so long, I was hoping you would have forgotten.Nic Fillingham:(laughs) Emily and I were going backward forward on email, and I basically asked Emily, "Hey, Emily, who's like the expert at Microsoft on business email compromise?" And then Emily responded with, "I am."Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:As in, Emily is. And so I, I think I apologized profusely. If I didn't, let me do that now for not assuming that you are the subject matter expert, but that then birthed a very fun tweet that you put out into the Twitter sphere. Do you wanna share that with the listeners or is this uncomfortable and we need to cut it from the audio?Emily Hacker:No, it's fine. You can share with the listeners. I, uh- Nic Fillingham:(laughs)Emily Hacker:... I truly was not upset. I don't know if you apologized or not, because I didn't think it was the thing to apologize for. Because I didn't take your question as like a, "Hey," I'm like, "Can you like get out of the way I did not take it that way at all. It was just like, I've been in this industry for five years and I have gotten so many emails from people being like, "Hey, who's the subject matter in X?" And I'm always having to be like, "Oh, it's so and so," you know, or, "Oh yeah, I've talked to them, it's so-and-so." And for once I was like, "Oh my goodness, it me."Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Emily Hacker:Like I'm finally a subject matter in something. It took a long time. So the tweet was, was me being excited that I got to be the subject matter expert, not me being upset at you for asking who it was.Nic Fillingham:No, I, I took it in it's, I did assume that it was excitement and not crankiness at me for not assuming that it would be you. But I was also excited because I saw the tweet, 'cause I follow you on Twitter and I'm like, "Oh, that was me. That was me." And I got to use- Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... I got to use the meme that's the s- the, the weird side eye puppet, the side, side eye puppet. I don't know if that translates. There's this meme where it's like a we-weird sort of like H.R. Pufnstuf sort of reject puppet, and it's sort of like looking sideways to the, to the camera.Emily Hacker:Yes.Nic Fillingham:Uh, I've, and I've- Emily Hacker:Your response literally made me laugh a while though alone in my apartment.Nic Fillingham:(laughs_ I've never been able to use that meme in like its perfect context, and I was like, "This is it."Emily Hacker:(laughs) We just set that one up for a comedy home run basically.Nic Fillingham:Yes, yes, yes. And I think my dad liked the tweet too- Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... so I think I had that, so that was good.Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Um, he's like my only follower.Emily Hacker:Pure success.Nic Fillingham:Um, well, on that note, so yeah, we're here to talk about business email compromise, which we've covered on the, on the podcast before. You, as I said, uh, co-authored this post for May 6th. We'll have a, a broader conversation about BEC, but let's start with these post. Could you, give us a summary, what was discussed in this, uh, blog post back on, on May 6th?Emily Hacker:Yeah, so this blog post was about a specific type of business email compromise, where the attackers are using lookalike domains and lookalike email addresses to send emails that are trying, in this particular case, to get the user to send them a gift card. And so this is not the type of BEC where a lot of people might be thinking of in terms of conducting wire transfer fraud, or, you know, you read in the news like some company wired several million dollars to an attacker. That wasn't this, but this is still creating a financial impact and that the recipient is either gonna be using their own personal funds or in some cases, company funds to buy gift cards, especially if the thread actor is pretending to be a supervisor and is like, "Hey, you know, admin assistant, can you buy these gift cards for the team?" They're probably gonna use company funds at that point.Emily Hacker:So it's still something that we keep an eye out for. And it's actually, these gift card scams are far and away the most common, I would say, type of BEC that I am seeing when I look for BEC type emails. It's like, well over, I would say 70% of the BEC emails that I see are trying to do this gift card scam, 'cause it's a little easier, I would say for them to fly under the radar maybe, uh, in terms of just like, someone's less likely to report like, "Hey, why did you spend $30 on a gift card?" Than like, "Hey, where did those like six billion dollars go?" So like in that case, "This is probably a little easier for them to fly under the radar for the companies. But in terms of impact, if they send, you know, hundreds upon hundreds of these emails, the actors are still gonna be making a decent chunk of change at the end of the day.Emily Hacker:In this particular instance, the attackers had registered a couple hundred lookalike domains that aligned with real companies, but were just a couple of letters or digits off, or were using a different TLD, or use like a number or sort of a letter or something, something along the lines to where you can look at it and be like, "Oh, I can tell that the attacker is pretending to be this other real company, but they are actually creating their own."Emily Hacker:But what was interesting about this campaign that I found pretty silly honestly, was that normally when the attacker does that, one would expect them to impersonate the company that their domain is looking like, and they totally didn't in this case. So they registered all these domains that were lookalike domains, but then when they actually sent the emails, they were pretending to be different companies, and they would just change the display name of their email address to match whoever they were impersonating.Emily Hacker:So one of the examples in the blog. They're impersonating a guy named Steve, and Steve is a real executive at the company that they sent this email to. But the email address that they registered here was not Steve, and the domain was not for the company that Steve works at. So they got a little bit, I don't know if they like got their wires crossed, or if they just were using the same infrastructure that they were gonna use for a different attack, but these domains were registered the day before this attack. So it definitely doesn't seem like opportunistic, and which it doesn't seem like some actors were like, "Oh, hey look, free domains. We'll send some emails." Like they were brand new and just used for strange purposes.Natalia Godyla:Didn't they also fake data in the headers? Why would they be so careless about connecting the company to the language in the email body but go through the trouble of editing the headers?Emily Hacker:That's a good question. They did edit the headers in one instance that I was able to see, granted I didn't see every single email in this attack because I just don't have that kind of data. And what they did was they spoofed one of the headers, which is an in-reply-to a header, which makes it, which is the header that would let us know that it's a real reply. But I worked really closely with a lot of email teams and we were able to determine that it wasn't indeed a fake reply.Emily Hacker:My only guess, honestly, guess as to why that happened is one of two things. One, the domain thing was like a, a mess up, like if they had better intentions and the domain thing went awry. Or number two, it's possible that this is multiple attackers conducting. If one guy was responsible for the emails with the mess of domains, and a different person was responsible for the one that had the email header, like maybe the email header guy is just a little bit more savvy at whose job of crime than the first guy.Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Yeah, I li- I like the idea of, uh, sort of ragtag grubbing. I don't mean to make them an attractive image, but, you know, a ragtag group of people here. And like, you've got a very competent person who knows how to go and sort of spoof domain headers, and you have a less competent person who is- Emily Hacker:Yeah. It's like Pinky and the Brain.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, it is Pinky and the Brain. That's fantastic. I love the idea of Pinky and the Brain trying to conduct a multi-national, uh- Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... BEC campaign as their way to try and take over the world. Can we back up a little bit? We jumped straight into this, which is totally, you know, we asked you to do that. So, but let's go back to a little bit of basics. BEC stands for business email compromise. It is distinct from, I mean, do you say CEC for consumer email compromise? Like what's the opposite side of that coin? And then can you explain what BEC is for us and why we sort of think about it distinctly?Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative), so I don't know if there's a term for the non-business side of BEC other than just scam. At its basest form, what BEC is, is just a scam where the thread actors are just trying to trick people out of money or data. And so it doesn't involve any malware for the most part at the BEC stage of it. It doesn't involve any phishing for the most part at the BEC stage of it. Those things might exist earlier in the chain, if you will, for more sophisticated attacks. Like an attacker might use a phishing campaign to get access before conducting the BEC, or an attacker might use like a RAT on a machine to gain access to emails before the actual BEC. But the business email compromise email itself, for the most part is just a scam. And what it is, is when an attacker will pretend to be somebody at a company and ask for money data that can include, you know, like W-2's, in which case that was still kind of BEC.Emily Hacker:And when I say that they're pretending to be this company, there's a few different ways that that can happen. And so, the most, in my opinion, sophisticated version of this, but honestly the term sophisticated might be loaded and arguable there, is when the attacker actually uses a real account. So business email compromise, the term might imply that sometimes you're actually compromising an email. And those are the ones where I think are what people are thinking of when they're thinking of these million billion dollar losses, where the attacker gains access to an email account and basically replies as the real individual.Emily Hacker:Let's say that there was an email thread going on between accounts payable and a vendor, and the attacker has compromised the, the vendor's email account, well, in the course of the conversation, they can reply to the email and say, "Hey, we just set up a new bank account. Can you change the information and actually wire the million dollars for this particular project to this bank account instead?" And if the recipient of that email is not critical of that request, they might actually do that, and then the money is in the attacker's hands. And it's difficult to be critical of that request because it'll sometimes literally just be a reply to an ongoing email thread with someone you've probably been doing business with for a while, and nothing about that might stand out as strange, other than them changing the account. It can be possible, but difficult to get it back in those cases. But those are definitely the ones that are, I would say, the most tricky to spot.Emily Hacker:More common, I would say, what we see is the attacker is not actually compromising an email, not necessarily gaining access to it, but using some means of pretending or spoofing or impersonating an email account that they don't actually have access to. And that might include registering lookalike domains as in the case that we talked about in this blog. And that can be typosquatted domains or just lookalike domains, where, for example, I always use this example, even though I doubt this domain is available, but instead of doing microsoft.com, they might do Microsoft with a zero, or like Microsoft using R-N-I-C-R-O-S-O-F-t.com. So it looks like an M at first glance, but it's actually not. Or they might do something like microsoft-com.org or something, which that obviously would not be available, but you get the point. Where they're just getting these domains that kind of look like the right one so that somebody, at first glance, will just look up and be like, "Oh yeah, that looks like Microsoft. This is the right person."Emily Hacker:They might also, more commonly, just register emails using free email services and either do one of two things, make the email specific to the person they're targeting. So let's say that an attacker was pretending to be me. They might register emilyhacker@gmail.com, or more recently and maybe a little bit more targeted, they might register like emily.hacker.microsoft.com@gmail.com, and then they'll send an email as me. And then on the, I would say less sophisticated into the spectrum, is when they are just creating an email address that's like bob@gmail.com. And then they'll use that email address for like tons of different targets, like different victims. And they'll either just change the display name to match someone at the company that they're targeting, or they might just change it to be like executive or like CEO or something, which like the least believable of the bunch in my opinion is when they're just reusing the free emails.Emily Hacker:So that's kind of the different ways that they can impersonate or pretend to be these companies, but I see all of those being used in various ways. But for sure the most common is the free email service. And I mean, it makes sense, because if you're gonna register a domain name that cost money and it takes time and takes skill, same with compromising an email account, but it's quick and easy just to register a free email account. So, yeah.Nic Fillingham:So just to sort of summarize here. So business email compromise i-is obviously very complex. There's lots of facets to it.Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:It sounds like, first of all, it's targeted at businesses as opposed to targeted individuals. In targeted individuals is just more simple scams. We can talk about those, but business email compromise, targeted at businesses- Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... and the end goal is probably to get some form of compromise, and which could be in different ways, but some sort of compromise of a communication channel or a communication thread with that business to ultimately get some money out of them?Emily Hacker:Yep, so it's a social engineering scheme to get whatever their end goals are, usually money. Yeah.Nic Fillingham:Got it. Like if I buy a gift card for a friend or a family for their birthday, and I give that to them, the wording on the bottom says pretty clearly, like not redeemable for cash. Like it's- Emily Hacker:So- Nic Fillingham:... so what's the loophole they're taking advantage of here?Emily Hacker:Criminals kind of crime. Apparently- Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Emily Hacker:... there are sites, you know, on the internet specifically for cashing out gift cards for cryptocurrency.Nic Fillingham:Hmm.Emily Hacker:And so they get these gift cards specifically so that they can cash them out for cryptocurrency, which then is a lot, obviously, less traceable as opposed to just cash. So that is the appeal of gift cards, easier to switch for, I guess, cryptocurrency in a much less traceable manner for the criminals in this regard. And there are probably, you know, you can sell them. Also, you can sell someone a gift card and be like, "Hey, I got a $50 iTunes gift card. Give me $50 and you got an iTunes gift card." I don't know if iTunes is even still a thing. But like that is another means of, it's just, I think a way of like, especially the cryptocurrency one, it's just a way of distancing themselves one step from the actual payout that they end up with.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, I mean, it's clearly a, a laundering tactic.Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:It's just, I'm trying to think of like, someone's eventually trying to get cash out of this gift card-Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... and instead of going into Target with 10,000 gift cards, and spending them all, and then turning right back around and going to the returns desk and saying like, "I need to return these $10,000 that I just bought."Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:I guess I'm just puzzled as to how, at scale- Emily Hacker:Yeah.Nic Fillingham:... and I guess that's the key word here, at scale, at a criminal scale, how are they, what's the actual return? Are they getting, are they getting 50 cents on the dollar? Are they getting five cents on the dollar? Are they getting 95 cents on the dollar? Um, it sounds like, maybe I don't know how to ask that question, but I think it's a fascinating one, I'd love to learn more about.Emily Hacker:It is a good question. I would imagine that the, the sites where they exchange them for cryptocurrency are set up in a way where rather than one person ending up with all the gift cards to where that you have an issue, like what you're talking about with like, "Hey, uh, can I casually return these six million gift cards?" Like rather than that, they're, it's more distributed. But there probably is a surcharge in terms of they're not getting a one-to-one, but it's- Nic Fillingham:Yeah.Emily Hacker:... I would not imagine that it's very low. Or like I would not imagine that they're getting five cents on the dollar, I would imagine it's higher than that.Nic Fillingham:Got it.Emily Hacker:But I don't know. So, that's a good question.Natalia Godyla:And we're talking about leveraging this cryptocurrency model to cash them out. So has there been an increase in these scams because they now have this ability to cash them out for crypto? Like, was that a driver?Emily Hacker:I'm not sure. I don't know how long the crypto cash out method has been available.Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Emily Hacker:I've only recently learned about it, but that's just because I don't spend, I guess I don't spend a lot of time dealing with that end of the scam. For the most part, my job is looking at the emails themselves. So, the, learning what they're doing once they get the gift cards was relatively new to me, but I don't think it's new to the criminals. So it's hard for me to answer that question, not knowing how long the, the crypto cash out method has been available to them. But I will say that it does feel like, in the last couple of years, gift card scams have just been either increasing or coming into light more, but I think increasing.Nic Fillingham:Emily, what's new about this particular campaign that you discussed in the blog? I-it doesn't look like there's something very new in the approach here. This feels like it's a very minor tweak on techniques that have been employed for a while. Tell me what's, what's new about this campaign? (laughs)Emily Hacker:(laughs) Um, so I would agree that this is not a revolutionary campaign.Nic Fillingham:Okay.Emily Hacker:And I didn't, you know, choose to write this one into the blog necessarily because it's revolutionary, but rather because this is so pervasive that I felt like it was important for Microsoft customers to be aware that this type of scam is so, I don't know what word, now we're both struggling with words, I wanna say prolific, but suddenly the definition of that word seems like it doesn't fit in that sentence.Nic Fillingham:No, yeah, prolific, that makes sense. Emily Hacker:Okay.Nic Fillingham:Like, this is, it sounds like what you're saying is, this blog exists not because this campaign is very unique and some sort of cutting-edge new technique, it exists because it's incredibly pervasive.Emily Hacker:Yes.Nic Fillingham:And lots and lots of people and lots and lots of businesses are probably going to get targeted by it. Emily Hacker:Exactly.Nic Fillingham:And we wanna make sure everyone knows about it.Emily Hacker:And the difference, yes, and the, the only real thing that I would say set this one apart from some of the other ones, was the use of the lookalike domains. Like so many of the gift cards scams that I see, so many of the gift cards scams that I see are free email accounts, Gmail, AOL, Hotmail, but this one was using the lookalike domains. And that kind of gave us a little bit more to talk about because we could look into when the domains were registered. I saw that they were registered the day, I think one to two days before the attack commenced. And that also gave us a little bit more to talk about in terms of BEC in the blog, because this kind of combined a couple of different methods of BEC, right? It has the gift cards scam, which we see just all the time, but it also had that kind of lookalike domain, which could help us talk about that angle of BEC.Emily Hacker:But I had been, Microsoft is, is definitely starting to focus in on BEC, I don't know, starting to focus in, but increasing our focus on BEC. And so, I think that a lot of the stuff that happens in BEC isn't new. Because it's so successful, there's really not much in the way of reason for the attackers to shift so dramatically their tactics. I mean, even with the more sophisticated attacks, such as the ones where they are compromising an account, those are still just like basic phishing emails, logging into an account, setting up forwarding rules, like this is the stuff that we've been talking about in BEC for a long time. But I think Microsoft is talking about these more now because we are trying to get the word out, you know, about this being such a big problem and wanting to shift the focus more to BEC so that more people are talking about it and solving it. Natalia Godyla:It seemed like there was A/B testing happening with the cybercriminals. They had occasionally a soft intro where someone would email and ask like, "Are you available?" And then when the target responded, they then tried to get money from that individual, or they just immediately asked for money.Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Natalia Godyla:Why the different tactics? Were they actually attempting to be strategic to test which version worked, or was it just, like you said, different actors using different methods?Emily Hacker:I would guess it's different actors using different methods or another thing that it could be was that they don't want the emails to say the same thing every time, because then it would be really easy for someone like me to just identify them- Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Emily Hacker:... in terms of looking at mail flow for those specific keywords or whatever. If they switch them up a little bit, it makes it harder for me to find all the emails, right? Or anybody. So I think that could be part of the case in terms of just sending the exact same email every time is gonna make it really easy for me to be like, "Okay, well here's all the emails." But I think there could also be something strategic to it as well. I just saw one just yesterday actually, or what day is it, Tuesday? Yeah, so it must've been yesterday where the attacker did a real reply.Emily Hacker:So they sent the, the soft opening, as you said, where it just says, "Are you available?" And then they had sent a second one that asked that full question in terms of like, "I'm really busy, I need you to help me, can you call me or email me," or something, not call obviously, because they didn't provide a phone number. Sometimes they do, but in this case, they didn't. And they had actually responded to their own email. So the attacker replied to their own email to kind of get that second push to the victim. The victim just reported the email to Microsoft so they didn't fall for it. Good for them. But it does seem that there might be some strategy involved or desperation. I'm not sure which one.Natalia Godyla:(laughs) Fine line between the two.Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:I'd want to ask question that I don't know if you can answer, because I don't wanna ask you to essentially, you know, jeopardize any operational security or sort of tradecraft here, but can you give us a little tidbit of a glimpse of your, your job, and, and how you sort of do this day-to-day? Are you going and registering new email accounts and, and intentionally putting them in dodgy places in hopes of being the recipient? Or are you just responding to emails that have been reported as phishing from customers? Are you doing other things like, again, I don't wanna jeopardize any of your operational security or, you know, the processes that you use, but how do you find these?Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:And how do you then sort of go and follow the threads and uncover these campaigns?Emily Hacker:Yeah, there's a few ways, I guess that we look for these. We don't currently have any kind of like Honey accounts set up or anything like that, where we would be hoping to be targeted and find them this way. I know there are different entities within Microsoft who are, who do different things, right? So my team is not the entity that would be doing that. So my team's job is more looking at what already exists. So we're looking at stuff that customers have reported, and we're also looking at open source intelligence if anyone else has tweeted or released a blog or something about an ongoing BEC campaign, that might be something that then I can go look at our data and see if we've gotten.Emily Hacker:But the biggest way outside of those, those are the two, like I would say smaller ways. The biggest way that we find these campaigns is we do technique tracking. So we have lots of different, we call them traps basically, and they run over all mail flow, and they look for certain either keywords or there are so many different things that they run on. Obviously not just keywords, I'm just trying to be vague here. But like they run on a bunch of different things and they have different names. So if an email hits on a certain few items, that might tell us, "Hey, this one might be BEC," and then that email can be surfaced to me to look into.Emily Hacker:Unfortunately, BEC is very, is a little bit more difficult to track just by the nature of it not containing phishing links or malware attachments or anything along those lines. So it is a little bit more keyword based. And so, a lot of times it's like looking at 10,000 emails and looking for the one that is bad when they all kind of use the same keywords. And of course, we don't just get to see every legitimate email, 'cause that would be like a crazy customer privacy concern. So we only get to really see certain emails that are suspected malicious by the customer, in which case it does help us a little bit because they're already surfacing the bad ones to us.Emily Hacker:But yeah, that's how we find these, is just by looking for the ones that already seem malicious kind of and applying logic over them to see like, "Hmm, this one might be BEC or," you know, we do that, not just for BEC, but like, "Hmm, this one seems like it might be this type of phishing," or like, "Hmm, this one seems like it might be a buzz call," or whatever, you know, these types of things that will surface all these different emails to us in a way that we can then go investigate them.Nic Fillingham:So for the folks listening to this podcast, what do you want them to take away from this? What you want us to know on the SOC side, on the- Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... on the SOC side? Like, is there any additional sort of, what are some of the fundamentals and sort of basics of BEC hygiene? Is there anything else you want folks to be doing to help protect the users in their organizations?Emily Hacker:Yeah, so I would say not to just focus on monitoring what's going on in the end point, because BEC activity is not going to have a lot, if anything, that's going to appear on the end point. So making sure that you're monitoring emails and looking for not just emails that contain malicious links or attachments, but also looking for emails that might contain BEC keywords. Or even better, if there's a way for you to monitor your organization's forwarding rules, if a user suddenly sets up a, a slew of new forwarding rules from their email account, see if there's a way to turn that into a notification or an alert, I mean, to you in the SOC. And that's a really key indicator that that might be BEC, not necessarily gift cards scam, but BEC.Emily Hacker:Or see if there is a way to monitor, uh, not monitor, but like, if your organization has users reporting phishing mails, if you get one that's like, "Oh, this is just your basic low-level credential phishing," don't just toss it aside and be like, "Well, that was just one person and has really crappy voicemail phish, no one's going to actually fall for that." Actually, look and see how many people got the email. See if anybody clicked, force password resets on the people that clicked, or if you can't tell who clicked on everybody, because it really only takes one person to have clicked on that email and you not reset their password, and now the attackers have access to your organization's email and they can be conducting these kinds of wire transfer fraud.Emily Hacker:So like, and I know we're all overworked in this industry, and I know that it can be difficult to try and focus on everything at once. And especially, you know, if you're being told, like our focus is ransomware, we don't want to have ransomware. You're just constantly monitoring end points for suspicious activity, but it's important to try and make sure that you're not neglecting the stuff that only exists in email as well. Natalia Godyla:Those are great suggestions. And I'd be remiss not to note that some of those suggestions are available in Microsoft Defender for Office 365, like the suspicious forwarding alerts or attack simulation training for user awareness. But thank you again for joining us, Emily, and we hope to have you back on the show many more times.Emily Hacker:Yeah, thanks so much for having me again.Natalia Godyla:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.Nic Fillingham:And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity, or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on our future episode. Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla:Stay secure.