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An online security shield used to protect some of the largest global enterprises from cyber attacks is now being deployed by a leading telecoms provider to safeguard its business and domestic customers.

Duncan Kennedy, HighNet’s network architect

HighNet is amongst the first telecoms companies in the UK to use the service which has helped eliminate attacks against major government agencies worldwide, as well as leading financial services, pharmaceutical, educational and internet organisations.

The action is needed to combat a growing number of cyber attacks aimed at gaining entry to customers’ computer systems and potentially disrupting or even shutting down business.

Criminal activity, such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against businesses, doubled during 2017 and included a high-profile breach affecting the National Lottery.

A UK Government survey also showed that just under half (46 per cent) of all UK businesses identified at least one cyber attack during the previous 12 months, rising to two-thirds among medium-sized firms (66 per cent) and large companies (68 per cent).

HighNet, which manages more than 20,000 business lines across the UK, has installed the new security software as part of a £6.5 million investment in its network.

The system spots when an attack is starting and stops it entering the network, then sends an email alert to HighNet’s engineers.

DDoS attacks involve a network of compromised computers, known as a ‘botnet’, which flood an IP address leaving legitimate traffic unable to get through.

Cybercriminals can use DDoS attacks to cripple a firm’s services, or possibly extort money from a target. They can also be deployed to distract security and IT staff while malware, or malicious software, is installed or data is stolen.

An attack can involve thousands of devices, with everyday objects connected to the internet including webcams, security cameras, TVs and even fridges, vulnerable to being used in a criminal attack if they are not secure.

Duncan Kennedy, HighNet’s network architect, said: “There are a number of attack strategies that are employed, but the most basic and common one is to swamp the target with traffic so that it’s too busy to deal with legitimate business requests.

“It’s like having a shop in the High Street and thousands of people come and jam up the doorway, meaning your customers can’t get in.

“But our ethos is to ensure security, peace of mind and plain sailing for our customers’ telecoms. That’s why we are using world-class, highly sophisticated anti-DDoS protection which stops an attack getting through.

“This acts like a security shield and stops the bad traffic coming in. It’s a very important investment in our network infrastructure.”

HighNet’s new system blocked an attack every couple of days for the first two weeks in January and during the month stopped one of the biggest cyber attacks so far on one of its customers.

“This was a sophisticated, multivector attack targeting a customer in Aberdeen, and was of sufficient bandwidth to have had a serious impact on their business”, said Duncan. “Most attacks we see are much smaller than this example, but in recent weeks we’ve started to see, and block, more of these high bandwidth attacks.”

Conventional firewalls offer little or no defence against DDoS attacks, he said: “Because the first D in DDoS stands for distributed, you can’t easily install a firewall rule or something similar that will stop this kind of attack.

“Firewalls are designed to block bad traffic from single sources, whereas a DDoS attack is the combined effect of thousands of devices swamping a target, usually with what is otherwise legitimate traffic.”

Duncan advised people to be more security conscious in the age of the ‘Internet of Things’ when many devices are connected online.

“In terms of stopping your own kit being used, or being taken over to participate in cyber attacks, you should be aware of some basic network security points. Don’t just plug in TVs or other appliances to the internet without changing the default password, for example.”

Other tips for securing your devices

  • Make sure all your passwords are secure
  • Make sure the software on devices is up to date.
  • Only connect devices if you plan to use that functionality (eg don’t connect a TV to the network if it’s just going to show broadcasted channels)
  • If you don’t need it, turn off Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) on your router and IoT devices.

HighNet has also been successful in tackling a number of voicemail fraud attempts on customers.

Voicemail, or dial-through, fraud is a growing problem in the UK, costing businesses £953 million annually – making it bigger than credit card fraud. It can cost companies upwards of £1,000 per day and potentially thousands of pounds during a holiday period.

It occurs when criminals target phone systems from the outside and use them to make a high volume of calls, typically to premium rate or overseas numbers.

Hackers can obtain access to a business’s call-forwarding system via its voicemail if security passwords have either not been set or are not strong enough. They can then call an extension which has call-forwarding enabled, directing the call to the premium-rate number, with the revenue for those calls being received by the fraudsters.

HighNet has revealed that in the past year its security systems have intercepted eight fraud cases – involving numbers from Morocco, Cuba, Liberia, Togo, Tunisia, Albania and Bosnia – potentially worth around £100,000 in total.

Instead, the total cost was limited to £2,327, with some of the victims escaping without any financial loss due to the level of protection they have.

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