Now hotel computer systems are getting hacked by criminals

South African businesses are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the 400% growth in global ransomware extortion attacks‚ says audit‚ tax and business advisory firm Grant Thornton.

Ransomware attacks are relatively straight-forward: Businesses receive an email with a link that contains software that encrypts files on their computer. These victims are then held to hostage until they pay a ransom.

 Recently an upmarket hotel in Austria had its electronic key system compromised by hackers who locked management out of its own computer system. Guests were unable to access or leave their hotel rooms and this led to the hotel being forced to pay a ransom of two Bitcoins – an electronic currency that is difficult to trace – equivalent to about $1‚800 (R20‚000) to gain access to their system‚ the firm said.

Martin Jansen van Vuuren‚ director of advisory services at Grant Thornton‚ said the Austrian attack indicates just how easily hotels’ systems can be infiltrated from cyber space.

“The security of convenient computer-driven systems is vital because everything from air-conditioning and room management‚ to sprinkler systems‚ suddenly become vulnerable to external attacks.”

Jansen van Vuuren said mobile phones‚ used as keys in many hotels these days‚ are also vulnerable as they often do not have the same level of security as a desktop system. Hackers could steal “door keys” via cyber space or simply disable keys causing huge inconvenience. Open WiFi systems‚ that are by their nature made easy to access for hotel guests‚ are another potential source for hackers if they are linked to systems which can be used to gain entry to devices and then to lock out users or steal data.

 “The biggest weakness for hotels is their public interfaces such as booking systems that need to connect the internal systems and users to third party applications and ultimately customers. The booking system is therefore particularly vulnerable to ransomware attacks and hackers‚” said Jansen van Vuuren.

“Many hotels do not have on-site IT support and rely on the hotel chain’s head office or an external service provider to attend to IT issues. This centralised approach places individual properties at additional risk of attack‚ as a cyber-attack may not be picked up quickly enough leading to a delay in combating the cyber-attack.”

Grant Thornton’s Director of IT Advisory Services‚ Michiel Jonker‚ cited data from the United States Justice Department stating that ransomware attacks quadrupled in 2016 to an average of 4‚000 a day. The F.B.I. said the costs to victims rose to $209-million (R2.7 billion) in the first three months of 2016‚ compared with $24-million (R312 million) for the whole of 2015.

“Ransomware syndicates are extremely sophisticated‚ even hosting their own ‘call centres’ which assist you to access your decryption key and undertake not to attack you with the same ransom. They even use algorithms to determine your particular industry‚ and the ransom price is based on your industry’s perceived ‘wealth’‚” said Jonker.

 “You can’t really prevent these attacks; you can only reduce your attack vulnerability to some extent. Preventive controls are not enough. Organisations will have to rely on corrective controls‚ most notably backups and disaster recovery plans.”

Tips from Grant Thornton’s IT advisory team include:

- Remove admin rights for laptop users to prevent users from inadvertently downloading malicious software;

 - Ensure that all systems undergo well-structured backup processes and that they are recoverable;

- Segregate networks so that different network segments are limited to different groups of authorised users;

 - Provide database access only to those people who require access;

- Install anti-virus software on all devices including laptops; smart phones and other wearable technologies; and

- Use low-code programming platforms to develop apps‚ where security has already been incorporated into the platform.


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