A Year in Review: Threat Landscape for 2020

As we gratefully move forward into the year 2021, we have to recognise that 2020 was as tumultuous in the digital realm as it has in the physical world. From low level fraudsters leveraging the pandemic as a vehicle to trick victims into parting with money for non-existent PPE, to more capable actors using malware that has considerably less prevalence in targeted campaigns. All of which has been played out at a time of immense personal and professional difficulties for millions of us across the world.

Dealing with the noise

What started as a trickle of phishing campaigns and the occasional malicious app quickly turned to thousands of malicious URLs and more-than-capable threat actors leveraging our thirst for more information as an entry mechanism into systems across the world. There is no question that COVID was the dominant theme of threats for the year, and whilst the natural inclination will be to focus entirely on such threats it is important to recognise that there were also very capable actors operating during this time.

For the first time we made available a COVID-19 dashboard to complement our threat report to track the number of malicious files leveraging COVID as a potential lure.  What this allows is real time information on the prevalence of such campaigns, but also clarity about the most targeted sectors and geographies.  Looking at the statistics from the year clearly demonstrates that the overarching theme is that the volume of malicious content increased.

Whilst of course this a major concern, we must recognise that there were also more capable threat actors operating during this time.

Ransomware – A boom time

The latter part of 2020 saw headlines about increasing ransom demands and continued successes from ransomware groups. An indication as to the reason why was provided in early 2020 in a blog published by Thomas Roccia that revealed “The number of RDP ports exposed to the Internet has grown quickly, from roughly three million in January 2020 to more than four and a half million in March.”

With RDP a common entry vector used predominantly by post intrusion ransomware gangs, there appears some explanation as to the reason why we are seeing more victims in the latter part of 2020.   Indeed, in the same analysis from Thomas we find that the most common passwords deployed for RDP are hardly what we would regard as strong.

If we consider the broader landscape of RDP being more prevalent (we have to assume due to the immediate need for remote access due to the lockdowns across the globe), the use of weak credentials, then the success of ransomware groups become very evident.  Indeed, later in the year we detailed our research into the Netwalker ransomware group that reveals the innovation, affiliate recruitment and ultimately financial success they were able to gain during the second quarter of 2020.

A year of major vulnerabilities

The year also provided us with the added gifts of major vulnerabilities. In August, for example, there was a series of zero-day vulnerabilities in a widely used, low-level TCP/IP software library developed by Treck, Inc.  Known as Ripple 20, the affect to hundreds of millions of devices resulted in considerable concern related to the wider supply chain of devices that we depend upon. In collaboration with JSOF, the McAfee ATR team developed a Detection Logic and Signatures for organizations to detect these vulnerabilities.

Of course the big vulnerabilities did not end there; we had the pleasure of meeting BadNeighbour, Drovorub, and so many more. The almost seemingly endless stream of vulnerabilities with particularly high CVSS Scores has meant that the need to patch very high on the list of priorities.

The ‘sophisticated’ attacker

As we closed out 2020, we were presented with details of ‘nation states’ carrying out sophisticated attacks.   Whilst under normal circumstances such terminology is something that should be avoided, there is no question that the level of capability we witness from certain threat campaigns are a world away from the noisy COVID phishing scams.

In August of 2020, we released the MVISION Insights dashboard which provides a free top list of campaigns each week. This includes, most recently, tracking against the SUNBURST trojan detailed in the SolarWinds attack, or the tools stolen in the FireEye breach.   What this demonstrates is that whilst prevalence is a key talking point, there exists capable threat actors targeting organizations with real precision.

For example, the Operation North Star campaign in which the threat actors deployed an Allow and Block list of targets in order to limit those they would infect with a secondary implant.

The term sophisticated is overused, and attribution is often too quickly relegated to the category of nation state.  However, the revelations have demonstrated that there are those campaigns where the attack did use capabilities not altogether common and we are no doubt witnessing a level of innovation from threat groups that is making the challenge of defence harder.

What is clear is that 2020 was a challenging year, but as we try and conclude what 2021 has in store, we have to celebrate the good news stories.   From initiatives such as No More Ransom continuing to tackle ransomware, to the unprecedented accessibility of tools that we can all use to protect ourselves (e.g. please check ATR GitHub repo, but recognise there are more).

McAfee 2021 Threat Predictions

Our experts share their 2021 predictions for the new year and how to protect yourself and your enterprise.

Read Now


Introducing McAfee+

Identity theft protection and privacy for your digital life

FacebookLinkedInTwitterEmailCopy Link

Stay Updated

Follow us to stay updated on all things McAfee and on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats.


More from McAfee Labs

Back to top