6 min read

Last week, the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) published a report on cyber incident trends in the UK from October 2018 to April 2019. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has recommended this report to better understand and know how to defend against most prevalent cyber security threats. The NCSC report reveals five main threats and threat vectors that affected UK organizations: cloud services (Office 365 in particular); ransomware; phishing; vulnerability scanning; and supply chain attacks.

The NCSC report examined each of these, presented specific methods used by threat actors and provided tips for preventing and mitigating incidents.

NCSC report reveals Cloud services and Office 365 as primary targets

The NCSC report highlights the primary target of the attackers as Cloud services, and Office 365. The large scale move to cloud services has put the IT infrastructure of many enterprises within reach of internet-based attacks as these services are only protected by a username and password. 

Tools and scripts to try and guess users’ passwords are abundant. And a successful login gives access to corporate data stored in all Office 365 services. For example, both SharePoint and Exchange could be compromised, as well as any third-party services an enterprise has linked to Azure AD.

Another common way of attacking Office 365 mentioned in the report is password spraying. In this method the attackers attempt a small number of commonly used passwords against multiple accounts. In most cases, they aren’t after just one specific account as this method can target a large number of accounts in one organisation without raising any suspicions. 

Other than this, credential stuffing is another common approach to attack Office 365. Credential stuffing takes pairs of usernames and passwords from leaked data sets and tries them against other services, such as Office 365. According to the report it is difficult to detect the vulnerability in logs as an attacker may only need a single attempt to successfully log in if the stolen details match those of the user’s Office 365 account. The report further suggests a few remediation strategies to prevent compromising Office 365 accounts.

Ransomware attacks among enterprises continue to rise

Since the WannaCry and NotPetya attacks of 2017, ransomware attacks against enterprise networks have continued to rise in number and sophistication. The NCSC report mentions that historically, ransomware were delivered as a standalone attack. But today, attackers are using their network access to maximise the impact of the ransomware attack. 

Ransomware tools such as Cybercrime botnets like Emotet, Dridex and Trickbot are commonly used as an initial infection vector, prior to retrieving and installing the ransomware. The report also highlights the use of Pen-testing tools such as Cobalt Strike.

Ransomware such as Ryuk, LockerGoga, Bitpaymer and Dharma were seen to be prevalent in recent months. Cases observed in the NCSC report often tend to have resulted from a trojanised document, sent via email. The malware will exploit publicly known vulnerabilities and macros in Microsoft Office documents. Some of the remediation strategies to prevent ransomware include:

  1. Reducing the chances of the initial malware reaching devices
  2. Considering the use of URL reputation services including those built into a web browser, and Internet service providers.
  3. Using email authentication via DMARC and DNS filtering products is highly recommended
  4. Making it more difficult for ransomware to run, once it is delivered.
  5. Having a tested backup of your data offline, so that it cannot be modified or deleted by ransomware. 
  6. Effective network segregation to make it more difficult for malware to spread across a network and thereby limit the impact of ransomware attacks.

Phishing is the most prevalent attack delivery method in NCSC report

According to the NCSC report, phishing has been the most prevalent attack delivery method over the last few years, and in recent months. Just about anyone with an email address can be a target. Specific methods observed recently by the NCSC include:

  • targeting Office 365 credentials – the approach here is to persuade users to follow links to legitimate-looking login pages, which prompt for O365 credentials. More advanced versions of this attack also prompt the user to use Multi Factor Authentication.
  • sending emails from real, but compromised, email accounts – quite often this approach will exploit an existing email thread or relationship to add a layer of authenticity to a spear phish.
  • fake login pages – these are dynamically generated, and personalised, pulling the real imagery and artwork from the victim’s Office 365 portal.
  • using Microsoft services such as Azure or Office 365 Forms to host fake login pages – these give the address bar an added layer of authenticity.

Remediation strategies to prevent phishing attacks include implementing a multi-layered defence against phishing attacks. This will reduce the chances of a phishing email reaching a user and minimises the impact of those that get through. Additionally you can configure Email anti-spoofing controls such as Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC), Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Domain-Keys Identified Mail (DKIM).

Vulnerability scanning is a common reconnaissance method

NSCS report mentions that vulnerability scanning is a common reconnaissance method used to search for open network ports, identify unpatched, legacy or otherwise vulnerable software and to identify misconfigurations, which could have an effect on security. It further details that attackers identify known weaknesses in Internet-facing service which they then target using tested techniques or ‘exploits’. This approach means the attack is more likely to work for the first time, making its detection less likely when using traditional Intrusion prevention systems (IPS) and on-host security monitoring.

Once an attacker has a foothold on the edge of your infrastructure, they will then attempt to run more network scans and re-use stolen credentials to pivot through to the core network. For vulnerability remediation NSCS suggests to ensure that all internet-facing servers that an attacker might be able to find should be hardened, and the software running on them must be fully patched. They also recommend penetration test to determine what an attacker scanning for vulnerabilities could find, and potentially attack.

Supply chain attacks & threat from external service providers

Threats introduced to enterprise networks via their service providers continue to be a major problem according to the report. Outsourcing – particularly of IT – results in external parties and their own networks being able to access and even reconfigure enterprise services. Hence, the network will inherit the risk from these connected networks. 

NSCS report also gives several examples of attackers exploiting the connections of service providers to gain access to enterprise networks. For instance, the exploitation of Remote Management and Monitoring (RMM) tooling to deploy ransomware, as reported by ZDNet. And the public disclosure of a “sophisticated intrusion” at a major outsourced IT vendor, as reported by Krebs on Security. Few remediation strategies to prevent supply chain attacks are:

  1. Supply chain security should be a consideration when procuring both products and services.
  2. Those using outsourced IT providers should ensure that any remote administration interfaces used by those service providers are secured.
  3. Ensuring the way IT service provider connects to, or administers the system, meets the organisation’s security standards.
  4. Take appropriate steps to segment and segregate the networks. Segmentation and segregation can be achieved physically or logically using access control lists, network and computer virtualisation, firewalls, and network encryption such as Internet Protocol Security.
  5. Document the remote interfaces and internal accesses in use by your service provider to ensure that they are fully revoked at the end of the contract.

To read the full report, visit the official NSCS website.

What’s new in security this week?

A new Stuxnet-level vulnerability named Simjacker used to secretly spy over mobile phones in multiple countries for over 2 years: Adaptive Mobile Security reports

Lilocked ransomware (Lilu) affects thousands of Linux-based servers

Intel’s DDIO and RDMA enabled microprocessors vulnerable to new NetCAT attack


Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.