New threat report finds a 400% increase in IoT and OT malware attacks

Courtesy of Brett Sayles

IoT and OT insights

  • The manufacturing industry, which relies heavily on both IoT and OT, was the top targeted sector, bearing the brunt of blocked IoT malware attacks, accounting for 54.5% of all attacks and averaging 6,000 weekly attacks across all monitored devices.
  • Education experienced a substantial increase in IoT malware attacks, with a percentage jump of 961%.
  • Mexico and the United States were the most targeted countries, collectively accounting for 69.3% of attacks.
  • IoT botnet activity, a growing concern in the realm of OT, continues to dominate, with the Mirai and Gafgyt malware families accounting for 66% of attack payloads.

Cloud security company Zscaler recently announced the release of their Zscaler ThreatLabz 2023 Enterprise IoT and OT Threat Report. This year’s report provides an in-depth look at malware activity over a six-month period, analyzing approximately 300,000 blocked attacks on Internet of Things (IoT) devices secured by the Zscaler Zero Trust Exchange platform. The high number of attacks on IoT devices represents a 400% increase in malware compared to the previous year. The increasing frequency of malware attacks targeting IoT devices is a significant concern for operational technology (OT) security, as the mobility of malware can facilitate movement across different networks, potentially endangering critical OT infrastructure.

ThreatLabz focused on understanding IoT device activity and attributes via device fingerprinting and analyzing the IoT malware threat landscape. As more industries, organizations and individuals continue to rely on internet-connected devices, the threat from malware and legacy vulnerabilities increases. By adopting a zero-trust architecture, organizations can gain visibility into IoT device traffic and minimize IoT security risks.

“Weak enforcement of security standards for IoT device manufacturers coupled with the proliferation of shadow IoT devices at the enterprise level poses a significant threat to global organizations. Often, threat actors target ‘unmanaged and unpatched’ devices to gain an initial foothold into the environment,” said Deepen Desai, global CISO and head of security research at Zscaler. “To address these challenges, I encourage organizations to enforce zero-trust principles when securing IoT and OT devices — never trust, always verify and assume breach. Organizations can eliminate lateral movement risk by utilizing continuous discovery and monitoring processes to segment these devices.”

Consistent growth in IoT and OT attacks

With the steady adoption of IoT and personal connected devices, the report found an increase of more than 400% in IoT malware attacks year over year. This growth in cyber threats demonstrates cyber criminals persistence and ability to adapt to evolving conditions in launching IoT malware attacks.

Additionally, research indicates that cyber criminals are targeting legacy vulnerabilities, with 34 of the 39 most popular IoT exploits specifically directed at vulnerabilities that have existed for more than three years. The Mirai and Gafgyt malware families continue to account for 66% of attack payloads, creating botnets from infected IoT devices that are then used to launch distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against lucrative businesses. Botnet-driven DDoS attacks are responsible for billions of dollars in financial losses across industries around the globe. In addition, DDoS attacks pose a risk to OT by potentially disrupting critical industrial processes and even endangering human lives.

Manufacturing, education top targeted industries

Manufacturing and retail accounted for nearly 52% of IoT device traffic, with 3D printers, geolocation trackers, industrial control devices, automotive multimedia systems, data collection terminals and payment terminals sending the majority of signals over digital networks. However, the quantity of device traffic has created opportunities for cyber criminals, and the manufacturing sector now sees an average of 6,000 IoT malware attacks every week. Moreover, these substantial IoT malware attacks can disrupt critical OT processes, which are integral in many industrial manufacturing plants like automotive, heavy manufacturing, and plastic and rubber. This creates long-term challenges for security teams at manufacturing businesses but also demonstrates that industrial IoT holds a substantial lead in adopting unique IoT devices (nearly three times more than other sectors). This increase is critical as manufacturing organizations continue adopting IoT tools for automation and digitization of legacy infrastructure.

Education is another sector that suffered from outsized attention from cyber criminals in 2023, with the propagation of unsecured as well as shadow IoT devices within school networks providing attackers with easier access points. The wealth of personal data stored on their networks has made educational institutions particularly attractive targets, leaving students and administrations vulnerable. In fact, the report found IoT malware attacks in the education sector increased by nearly 1000%.

The U.S. and Mexico are the most targeted in IoT and OT attacks

Findings show that the United States is a top target for IoT malware authors, with 96% of all IoT malware distributed from compromised IoT devices in the United States.

In 2023, Mexico experienced the most infections, with 46% of all IoT malware infections. In fact, three of the top four most infected countries (Mexico, Brazil and Colombia) are all Latin American countries.

Report methodology

The research methodology for this report includes analysis of device logs from a multitude of sources and industry verticals between January and June 2023.

The report uses data derived from customer deployments that connect to the Zscaler global security cloud, which processes over 500 trillion daily signals and blocks 9 billion threats and policy violations per day, with over 250,000 daily security updates.




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