Defeating the Hackers in Asia

Learning from Malaysia’s approach to eliminating cybersecurity threats

By: Samuel Bocetta

New and evolving cybersecurity threats have developed into one of the greatest hazards for governments and private companies worldwide, with significant data breaches affecting millions of users escalating from around 200 per year in 2005 to more than 5,183 in 2019, exposing 7.9 billion records, according to the US-based Risk Based Security. 

Cyber-crime is expected to cost the global economy US$6 trillion annually in 2021, disrupting organizational operations and critical safety and security services, according to a Cybersecurity Ventures study. Asia faces a major skills gap mirrored across the world with almost 3 million open security vacancies. Specific skill sets that relate to analytics and digital forensics are few and far between. 

Hackers are continuously developing more sophisticated strategies and methods that involve a variety of phishing, malware, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, cryptocurrency and more to target their victims - and as our communication levels are being refined, their efforts are increasing.

Some of the biggest threats today are the results of the endeavors of state-sponsored actors, particularly China and Russia which were among the first to get their seats at the Nation/State-backed hacking table, but other countries such as North Korea have also entered the fray. As such, even though millions of dollars are being invested in cybersecurity and new cyber safety strategies, our networks may never be 100 percent safe.

The cybersecurity landscape in Malaysia

Malaysia has phenomenal bandwidth and internet connectivity infrastructure in place with a variety of industries – as wide-ranging as the smart farming industry – open to adapting to fast-changing technologies. Their infrastructure makes them a target of cybercriminals, falling into the top 10 countries globally affected by cybercrime. 

The nation has however made great strides towards safer online experiences across the spectrum. In 2005 it became one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to implement a National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP) after a study by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MOSTI). The policy includes the development and continuous advancement of a series of frameworks (namely Public-Private Cooperation, Technology, Legislation, and Regulatory, Institutional and International) to ensure the safety and security of the country’s critical sectors, like public health and safety, national economic strength and national defense and security. 

Apart from these frameworks, the government has deployed several cybersecurity services and continually drives public awareness campaigns on risk areas, ensuring a remarkable level of cybersecurity readiness.

Cybersecurity services deployed

Malaysia continuously updates its cyber-security legislation by a dedicated agency, CyberSecurity Malaysia, which has also created a certification process for cyber-security products and vendors which potentially assist SMEs and lead to economic growth in the region. Nearly a dozen cybersecurity services have been deployed to cater to the needs of the private and public sectors and their Internet users including:

  • Cyber999: Emergency response experts who assist the public in detecting, interpreting and responding to events such as targeted attacks, malware and any instances of cyber harassment.

  • CyberDEF: Dedicated to securing critical security infrastructures that include cyber threat detection and eradication and forensic analysis.

  • CyberCSI: Extensive training and certifications, data recovery, digital forensic services, and litigation services for private organizations, law enforcement agencies and government institutions

Malaysia is ranked third globally when it comes to cybersecurity. But have they done enough?

The human factor

Given the profitability of cryptocurrency and forex trading, experts in Malaysia are witnessing an upsurge in targeted phishing attacks against online banking customers and those who use social media platforms. These victims then unknowingly create infiltration points that cybercriminals use against large corporations

“The best form of incident response is mitigating the threat in the first place,” said Sharifah Roziah Mohd Kassim, the manager of the Malaysian Computer Emergency Response Team (MyCERT) Security Operation Centre. “Before getting involved with online trading, the public should know the financial risks of doing business online and be able to make informed decisions and manage the associated cybersecurity risks.”

To mitigate phishing risks in a solution that would help globally, MyCERT developed an anti-phishing add-on for Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome called “DontPhishMe” that allows automatic detection of unsecured and fake banking sites. 

But one add-on alone isn’t enough. All too often, the basics of online security are overlooked. Websites, and more specifically some of the most common content management systems, are vulnerable because site owners don’t take basic precautions to improve their security. Organizations should always be sure to make use of dedicated web hosting companies and have an effective patch management system in place to avoid exposure to phishing vulnerabilities. 

The use of VPNs also drastically reduces the instances of security breaches and cyber-attacks as they allow internet users to create secure connections to other networks. Some of the best VPN services have started to rise in Canada and the US, two countries besieged by foreign state-sponsored cyberattacks, as users become more tech-savvy.

The move to support end-users obviously isn’t confined to Malaysia. Worldwide CERTs are playing a bigger role in their economies by identifying and acting on major areas that add value to the safety and security endeavors that are being implemented by ISPs, software developers and law enforcement agencies. At the same time organizations have started to invest in cybersecurity training and compliance for employees to successfully defend themselves.

Avoiding breaches and planning for the future

Technological advances in the IoT (Internet of Things) sector and the roll-out of 5G mobile technology are set to revolutionize our daily lives forever. With it comes a magnitude of new challenges and previously unthought-of threats to networks. With cybersecurity professionals in short supply, governments and organizations will have to investigate the possibilities of machine learning’s impact on web development as well as currently available levels of automation and Artificial Intelligence, to address the lack of capacity and to improve the capabilities of their security strategies and operations. 

To date, the latest research into AI’s uses in this regard is showing phenomenal promise, not just in finding and detecting threats that the human eye has missed, but also in processing threat data and coming up with solutions. These systems are flourishing in cloud implementations where we now have massive amounts of data that can be accessed and processed within seconds. Great strides have also been made in the fields of adaptive technology as these networks can scale up or down depending on the requirements and scale of the network.

Regardless of the steps taken by governments and global organizations, we will never know perfect internet security. As the technological landscape advances and newly discovered threats become known, it has never been more important than the private and public sectors, nations and governments come together and collaborate in order to find long-lasting solutions.

Samuel Bocetta is a retired security analyst and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.