How social media can be weaponized by cybercriminals

Here are three ways social media exposes individuals and organizations to cyber threats.

Filipinos are among the world’s most active social media users, according to the Digital 2023 report. The report says 72.5% of the population uses social media to connect with family and friends, get news and entertainment, and find content.

But as social media becomes more influential in everyday life, Filipinos also need to be more aware of the evolving threats that come with it. New technologies, especially artificial intelligence, have increased these risks and require more caution and protection

With World Social Media Day approaching, here are three ways social media exposes individuals and organizations to cyber threats.

Social media exploits human psychology

Cybercriminals often rely on user behavior to find openings to breach network defenses. Some exploit unpatched vulnerabilities in a system or network, but often the easiest way to target a business is through social engineering methods that trick users into violating security policies and giving away information that can be used to steal data or launch an attack.

According to Palo Alto Networks Unit 42’s 2022 Incident Response Report, attackers used phishing, a form of social engineering, in 40% of cases to gain initial access to a system. By studying an employee’s social media profile, cybercriminals can create a detailed profile of their victim, which they can use to launch a targeted attack. These attacks appeal to emotions such as fear, curiosity, urgency, and greed and lure unsuspecting employees to click on a link or attachment, ignoring basic cybersecurity hygiene.

Meanwhile, the Unit 42 Network Threat Trends Research Report found that 66% of malware is delivered through PDFs, just one wrong click can have disastrous consequences, allowing malicious macros to infiltrate the system.

From identity theft to deep fakes

Another risk of social media is that it involves people forming connections without necessarily verifying authenticity. This requires trust, which can easily be abused by threat actors. From identity theft to catfishing, cybercriminals use social media to capture information and content from unsuspecting victims, assume their identities, and commit fraudulent activity.

But the ways impersonations or fake identities are used in the security space are expanding. As technological advancements improve the quality, customizability, and accessibility of artificial intelligence-enabled content creation, malicious actors are using this technology to manipulate images and videos — often taken from social media platforms — and create content that can be used for extortion, harassment, misinformation, and reputational damage.

When spread through social media, convincing fake content — deep fakes — can reach millions instantly. A video altered to make it look like a CEO announced that profits were down could affect a company’s stock price; similarly, a presidential candidate appearing to confess involvement in a crime could disrupt an election. Although impersonators don’t need to use techniques as advanced as deep fakes to cause trouble, such as the case of a fake account for a U.S. pharma company announcing it would distribute free insulin, causing the company’s stock to plummet.

Malware and ransomware infect the social web

Besides using social media for intelligence gathering and dissemination, cybercriminals also share malicious links on social media directly. These links, harboring anything from viruses, trojans, spyware, and ransomware, help hackers access devices and networks to steal data and take control of systems.

Of these formats, ransomware is seeing alarming growth. Philippine organizations were found by Unit 42’s Ransomware and Extortion Report to be severely affected by ransomware, with attacks surging to around 60% in 2022.

As public interest in generative AI chatbots grows, hackers are increasingly using ChatGPT-themed lures to spread malware across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Earlier this year, Meta’s security teams uncovered 10 malware families using ChatGPT (and similar themes) to deliver malicious software to users’ devices.

In one instance, cybercriminals created malicious browser extensions available in official web stores that claim to offer ChatGPT-based tools, which were then promoted on social media and through sponsored search results to trick people into downloading malware.

Tackling social media-powered cybercrime

The above are just a few tools among a wide-ranging toolkit that cybercriminals are using to weaponize social media. And with the number of social media users worldwide predicted to grow to close to 6 billion by 2027, the risk that these platforms pose is unlikely to go away.

So what can organizations do to protect their employees? First and foremost, embedding cybersecurity education within the workplace curriculum and regularly testing the effectiveness of that training is crucial. Many companies incorporate measures like rewarding employees that spot phishing attempts and report them to the security operations team, and they see the value these practices can have for promoting cyber safety.

On a company level, organizations should prioritize embedding a safety-first culture with a plan in place to manage the inevitability of a cyber incident. Business leaders should constantly be identifying, measuring, and evaluating risks and, where possible, limiting access to sensitive information to need-to-know employees. Alongside building a robust defense plan, organizations should also establish a social media policy that sets standards around the organization’s online interactions, imposes consequences for misuse of social media, and mandates cyber awareness training for those directly involved with content publishing.

Sean Duca, vice president and regional chief security officer of Japan & Asia Pacific, said, “Ultimately, everyone has the right to feel safe online. And with the threat of a cyberattack ever-present in our personal and professional spaces, education is key to ensuring our digital identities and our business assets remain protected.”

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