Data hiding using steganography was, once upon a time, one of the safest methods for protecting sensitive business data, but now it has become a hacker's newest form of cybersecurity threat.
As the craze for digital transformation grows, concerns around data security also increase. Businesses who are following or even thinking to follow the digital trend have to pay special heed to developing cybersecurity defense mechanisms. Organizations are trying their best to find an incredible solution that will relieve them of all sorts of digital attacks. But given the pace at which cybercrimes are intensifying, there’s a clear indication that the current methods for protecting against crimes are failing big time. With advancements in technologies, hackers are becoming smarter. Armed with cutting-edge technologies, they are becoming sophisticated and quicker with the criminal work they do. From ransomware to malware injection to phishing to automated cyberattacks to cryptojacking, we see different new cyberattack methods in the headlines daily. Hackers are altering the security solutions developed by industry experts and are using it for their advantage. One such security solution that was originally designed to offer safeguard against hacking is being used by hackers to carry out illicit activities. Yes, we’re talking about steganography. Data hiding using steganography was indeed a secure method for collaborative business communication over digital platforms until hackers used the same approach for their selfish interests.
What is Data Hiding Using Steganography all About?
Communication is an important aspect of any business for optimized workflow execution and performance excellence. To have seamless communication, organizations make use of digital platforms. Hackers try to identify the weakest touchpoints, intercept the communication, and steal the digital assets. To curb this issue, cybersecurity professionals came up with a solution - steganography. Steganography is a cybersecurity defense practice of hiding sensitive information inside another data file, may it be a video, an image, or even a text file. The practice is similar to cryptography, except for the change that the data is not obscured in an encrypted format. In fact, the data in steganography is actually embedded into other communication forms in plain sight and is extracted at the destination point.
The practice of concealing secret messages dates back to centuries ago. Back then, invisible ink was used to hide any sensitive message within an innocuous container. Digital equivalent of invisible ink is steganography, which emerged as one of the safest and impactful cybersecurity methods to protecting data from malicious actors.
How Are Hackers Using Steganography?
While steganography was designed to serve legitimate uses, it is now being used by malicious actors to perform awful activities. Hackers are now increasing obscuring malicious codes into any benign content or any file. Organizations, unaware of this fact, will carry on with their routine work processes and communication with employees on digital platforms. Hackers trick not only businesses, but also Internet users. Now the question is, how real this cybercrime is? Well sadly, there is an evidence of hackers using this method and being successfully able to perform their crimes already.
- At the end of the year 2016, hackers injected Visbot malware in an e-commerce platform, Magento. The malware used steganography for hiding credit card and payment details inside a JPG image file while sending it back to the hacker's command and control servers. Here, the malware waited until the user entered their credentials and other vital payment information. On sensing that the data is being entered, the malware executes as per the code, encrypts the details, and embeds the encrypted information into an image file. At the destination end, once the hackers receive the image, they decrypt it and extract the confidential details.
- Again in the year 2016, the massive malvertising campaigns conducted by AdGholas and GooNky made use of steganography to hide malwaretising traffic in an inoffensive PNG image file.
- More recently, in the year 2019, hackers used steganography to drop Powload malware and also hide malvertising traffic. Malicious actors targeted and tricked the victims via spam emails, which contained images with malware implanted inside them.
- Also, in February 2019, attackers launched Ursnif Malware via office Document using Steganography technique.
The news and reports clearly indicate the fact that steganography for negative use is only going to continue rising. To add to the list, Kaspersky - multinational cybersecurity and antivirus provider - has also identified steganography has a worrying hacker trend after detecting three attacks from the same form in recent months.
How Can Organizations Protect Against Steganography?
Along with other cyberattacks, organizations now have to deal with this rising problem - steganography. Instead of using old security tools and systems, businesses should plan to outwit the application. Besides, organizations should strengthen their security walls, enforce rules, and strictly follow a set of policies and procedures.
- Ensure that your users are aware of the fact that downloading from an untrusted source could be harmful. Educate them about the same.
- Tighten the software distribution and delivery policies. Make sure that users download applications from credible sources only.
- Check images and videos thoroughly. With editing tools available, organizations should take a look at every image that comes in for steganographic codes. The editing tools can help them identify whether an image is being embedded with any malware or not. Check specifically for slight color changes, pixels or resolution difference, duplication of colors, or size variations in the images.
- Include digital signatures in emails for assuring that attachments sent to users are trustworthy. Besides, encourage users to take precautionary measures for reducing spam and promotional emails.
- Harden the security systems to identify the binders (two files are bound together such that they go unnoticed by antivirus application), which are a fertile place for hackers to send malware-embedded harmless files using the steganographic technique.
- Along with the mentioned security procedures, organizations should most importantly take into account practices such as inspecting documents regularly, configuring browser security policies and procedures, tightening antivirus and antimalware systems, and automating patch management for endpoints.
The reason why malicious data hiding using steganography is becoming a hacker’s weapon is due to its ability to go undetected without the use of too many tools and systems. Curbing this hacker issue is a challenging endeavor for organizations, no doubt. It becomes extremely complicated for organizations to detect this attack. Simply put, steganography is easy to launch and difficult to be caught. Hence, organizations have to think beyond the old-school security techniques and tweak the defense mechanism using the measures mentioned above, along with using new-age technologies like AI and ML. Necessary alterations should be made to the strategy, right from infrastructural changes to new tool adoption to employee training and so on. When all of these factors are taken into consideration, the likelihood of victims (including organizations and Internet users both) falling for steganographic-based attacks will reduce significantly.