Throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic created something of a new playground for hackers. In response, many institutions fortified cybersecurity systems and fast-tracked digital transformation initiatives. But what does the landscape for cybersecurity and the evolution of threats look like in 2021?

We don’t have a crystal ball, but here are five cybersecurity trends to watch out for in the new year.


1. Increased social engineering attacks

Social engineering, a non-technical strategy that relies on human interaction and often involves deceiving people into breaching standard security practices, will only increase in the new year. In fact, Microsoft reports that social engineering attacks have jumped to 20,000 to 30,000 a day in the U.S. alone. And as criminal groups gain more and more monetary success, they will improve their engineering techniques and procedures.

Common tactics will become more advanced and increasingly enable attackers to gain access to confidential information. Social engineering attacks like phishing, fraudulent communications that are disguised as legitimate; spear phishing, highly targeted attacks that use personal information to gain trust; and pretexting, a series of lies pretending to need sensitive information from a victim to perform an urgent task, will only become more prevalent and dangerous.

Network detection and response paired with SIEM technologies can help your organization identify when and where malware entered the network, but to prevent social engineering attacks, your employees must be educated on cybersecurity best practices to further reduce the threat surface. By training the people that use the network to spot phishing and other social engineering attacks, you can boost their security posture and overall awareness of threats.


2. Exposure of known and unknown internet-facing vulnerabilities

Any network connected to the internet is exposed to internet-facing vulnerabilities, which includes any system that has an IP address or hostname resolving publicly in DNS. Therefore, remote workers using a VPN, Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or other access tool are at risk – especially as organizations continue to expand their internet presence through increased operation and use of interconnected internet accessible systems.

In 2021, cybercriminals will increasingly use tactics that focus on compromising internet-facing infrastructure – exploiting vulnerabilities in unpatched servers with stolen credentials or identify potential victims with exposed RDP connections or FTP servers. Organizations with ineffective, outdated cybersecurity systems are at risk – gone are the days where endpoint security solutions and perimeter defenses do the job.

Many organizations don’t have a vulnerability management program in place and generally scan and patch systems at a pace that is conducive to exploitation. To combat both known and unknown internet-facing vulnerabilities, consider these best practices from the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA):

  • Perform regularly scheduled vulnerability scanning and establish a patching policy;
  • Implement strict password controls;
  • Use two-factor authentication; and
  • Enable Network Level Authentication (NLA) and disable Server Message Block v1 (SMBv1).


3. Exploitation of system administration tools

Cybercriminals have long used system administration and other legitimate administration and management tools to breach enterprise networks. In fact, according to a study conducted by Positive Technologies, more than 50% of threat groups leverage publicly available penetration testing and system administration tools to develop attack strategies.

As IT systems become increasingly interconnected in 2021 and beyond, exploitation of system administration and penetration tools, like Cobalt Strike, PowerShell Empire and BloodHound, will also increase. Bad actors will progressively use these tools, already installed on target computers, to run harmful software directly into the computer’s memory – significantly reducing their chances of being detected.

While it is virtually impossible to manage IT infrastructure sans admin tools, your organization can proactively prevent devices from becoming infected with employee training, artificial intelligence and machine learning, up-to-date antivirus software and restricted privileges.


4. Lack of instrumentation and monitoring of critical systems

The lack of instrumentation and monitoring of critical systems can be due to several factors, like alert fatigue and overload, shortage of trained security engineers and poor automation. However, the root cause is generally a gap in cybersecurity skills.

According to the study of cybersecurity professionals by the Information Systems Security Association (ISSA) and independent industry analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), 70% believe their organization has been impacted by the global cybersecurity skills shortage. Further, 45% of respondents believe the cybersecurity skill shortage and its impact have gotten worse over the past few years. This gap can cause rising security incidents – leading to lost productivity, breach of sensitive information and increased resources for remediation.

In order to close the gap and take a step in the right direction in 2021, business leaders, CISOs, cybersecurity professionals, HR and educators must invest more in education, awareness, training and scholarships – leading the way for new generations to tackle the cyberthreats of tomorrow.


5. Human-operated ransomware on the rise

Human-operated ransomware attacks are controlled by skilled, adaptable criminals who are usually motivated by financial gain, and spend weeks, months or even years identifying and overcoming organization defenses to maximize the impact of their attacks. Criminal gangs are beginning to concentrate resources on more lucrative targets, as opposed to spray and pray techniques, seeing as pay off from larger victims can be in millions of dollars.

These big game ransomware attacks have become more powerful over the years and will continue to grow and cause more damage in 2021 and beyond. In fact, one in three attacks is enterprise ransomware and 24% of cyberattacks happen through ransomware.

There are three main paths through which ransomware can enter a device or system: email phishing, social media phishing and exploit kits (automated programs). To convince users to click, cybercriminals use extensive research and intelligence to find tactics, techniques and procedures that will be effective on the victim – including authentic email addresses, logos, grammar and tone. In 2021, hackers will find new ways to craft seemingly genuine messages to entice unsuspecting targets to open the message without thinking.

The only way to protect against human-operated ransomware attacks is to identify suspicious links, continuously scan for vulnerabilities, keep software up-to-date and ensure your organization has a strong cybersecurity posture and adequate cybersecurity training for employees.


A proactive new year resolution

Embracing these cybersecurity practices in advance can help your institution gain strategic advantage, differentiate itself from the competition and shift from a reactive to a proactive cybersecurity state of mind.

According to Accenture’s 2020 Cybersecurity Report, with a more proactive security strategy in 2021, organizations can incur fewer breaches, identify security events faster and minimize attack damage more effectively and efficiently than those who wait for trends to take root. Don’t get left behind – get proactive about your cybersecurity posture now.