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Cyberthreats increasingly target the world’s biggest event stages

An illustration of a football stadium with a lot of different icons.

Cyber Signals Issue 5: State of play

Threat actors go where the targets are, capitalizing on opportunities to launch targeted or widespread, opportunistic attacks. This extends into high profile sporting events, especially those in increasingly connected environments, introducing cyber risk for organizers, regional host facilities, and attendees. The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) found that cyberattacks against sports organizations are increasingly common, with 70 percent of those surveyed experiencing at least one attack per year, significantly higher than the average across businesses in the United Kingdom.

The pressure to deliver a smooth, safe experience on the world stage introduces new stakes for local hosts and facilities. A single misconfigured device, exposed password, or overlooked third-party connection can lead to a data breach or successful intrusion.

Microsoft delivered cybersecurity support to critical infrastructure facilities during the State of Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022TM. In this edition we offer first-hand learnings about how threat actors assess and infiltrate these environments across venues, teams, and critical infrastructure around the event itself.

We are all cybersecurity defenders.
Microsoft performed over 634.6 million authentications while providing cybersecurity defenses for Qatari facilities and organizations between November 10 and December 20, 2022.

Opportunistic threat actors exploit target-rich environment

Cybersecurity threats to sporting events and venues are diverse and complex. They require constant vigilance and collaboration among stakeholders to prevent and mitigate escalation. With the global sports market valued at more than USD 600 billion, the target is rich. Sports teams, major league and global sporting associations, and entertainment venues house a trove of valuable information desirable to cybercriminals.

Information on athletic performance, competitive advantage, and personal information is a lucrative target. Unfortunately, this information can be vulnerable at-scale, due to the number of connected devices and interconnected networks in these environments. Often this vulnerability spans multiple owners, including teams, corporate sponsors, municipal authorities, and third-party contractors. Coaches, athletes, and fans can also be vulnerable to data loss and extortion.

Furthermore, venues and arenas contain many known and unknown vulnerabilities that allow threats to target critical business services, such as point-of-sale devices, IT infrastructures, and visitor devices. No two high-profile sporting events have the same cyber risk profile, which varies depending on factors like location, participants, size, and composition.

To focus our efforts during Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, we carried out proactive threat hunting through which we assess risk using Defender Experts for Hunting, a managed threat-hunting service that proactively searches for threats across endpoints, email systems, digital identities, and cloud apps. In this instance, factors included threat actor motivation, profile development, and a response strategy. We also considered global threat intelligence on geopolitically motivated threat actors and cybercriminals.

Top-of-mind concerns included the risk of cyber disruption of event services, or local facilities. Disruptions like ransomware attacks and efforts to steal data could negatively impact the event experience and routine operations.

Timeline of publicly reported incidents from 2018-2023

  • January 2023 the National Basketball Association warns fans of a data breach that leaked their personal information from a third-party newsletter service.1
  • November 2022 Manchester United confirmed that the club experienced a cyber attack on its systems.2
  • February 2022 the San Francisco 49ers were hit by a major ransomware attack on Super Bowl Sunday.3
  • April 2021 a ransomware group claims to have stolen 500 gigabytes of Rockets’ data, including contracts, non-disclosure agreements, and financial data. Internal security tools prevented ransomware from being installed except for a few systems.4
  • October 2021 a Minnesota man was charged with hacking Major League Baseball computer systems and attempting to extort the league for $150,000.5
  • 2018 the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang saw a high level of attacks. Russian hackers carried out attacks on Olympic networks before the opening ceremony.6

The threat hunting team operated under a defense-in-depth philosophy to inspect and protect customer devices and networks. Another focus was monitoring the behavior of identities, logins, and file access. Coverage spanned a variety of sectors, including customers involved in transportation, telecommunications, healthcare, and other essential functions.

Overall, the total number of entities and systems monitored twenty-four-seven with human-led threat hunting and response support encompassed more than 100,000 endpoints, 144,000 identities, 14.6 million plus e-mail flows, over 634.6 million authentications, and billions of network connections.

As an example, some healthcare facilities were designated as urgent care units for the event, including hospitals delivering critical support and health services for fans and players. As healthcare facilities owning medical data, they were high-value targets. Microsoft machine- and human-powered threat-hunting activity leveraged threat intelligence to scan signals, isolate infected assets, and disrupt attacks on these networks. With a combination of Microsoft Security technology, the team detected and quarantined pre-ransomware activity targeting the healthcare network. Multiple unsuccessful sign-in attempts were logged, and further activity was blocked.

The urgent nature of healthcare services requires devices and systems to maintain a peak level of performance. Hospitals and healthcare facilities have a challenging task balancing service availability while maintaining a healthy cybersecurity posture. A successful attack, in the near term, could have immobilized medical facilities from a data to IT perspective, leaving medical providers relegated to pen and paper when updating patient data and weakening their ability to perform life-saving medical care in an emergency or mass triage situation. Long term, malicious code planted to provide visibility across a network could have been leveraged for a broader ransomware event aimed at further disruption. Such a case could have opened the door to data theft and extortion.

As large global events continue to be desirable targets for threat actors, there are a variety of motivations from nation states which seem to be willing to absorb collateral damage from attacks if it supports broader geopolitical interests. Furthermore, cybercriminal groups looking to leverage the vast financial opportunities that exist in sporting and venue-related IT environments will continue to see these as desirable targets.

Recommendations

  • Augment the SOC team: Have an additional set of eyes monitoring the event around the clock to proactively detect threats and send notifications. This helps correlate more hunting data and discover early signs of intrusion. It should include threats beyond endpoint, like identity compromise or device to cloud pivot.
  • Conduct a focused cyber risk assessment: Identify potential threats specific to the event, venue, or nation where the event occurs. This assessment should include vendors, team and venue IT professionals, sponsors, and key event stakeholders.
  • Consider least privileged access a best practice: Grant access to systems and services only to those who need it, and train staff to understand access layers.

Vast attack surfaces require additional planning and oversight

With events like the World Cup™, the Olympics, and sporting events in general, known cyber risks surface in unique ways, often less perceptibly than in other enterprise environments. These events can come together quickly, with new partners and vendors acquiring access to enterprise and shared networks for a specific period of time. The pop-up nature of connectivity with some events can make it hard to develop visibility and control of devices and data flows. It also fosters a false sense of security that “temporary” connections are lower risk.

Event systems can include the team or venue web and social media presence, registration or ticketing platforms, game timing and scoring systems, logistics, medical management and patient tracking, incident tracking, mass notification systems, and electronic signage.

Sports organizations, sponsors, hosts, and venues must collaborate on these systems and develop cyber smart fan experiences. Further, the huge swell of attendees and staff that bring data and information with them through their own devices increases the attack surface.

Four cyber risks for large event

  • Disable any unnecessary ports and ensure proper network scanning for rogue or ad hoc wireless access points update, patch software and opt for applications with a layer of encryption for all data.
  • Encourage attendees to (1) secure their apps and devices with latest updates and patches, (2) avoid accessing sensitive information from public Wi-Fi, (3) avoid links, attachments, and QR codes from unofficial sources.
  • Ensure POS devices are patched, up to date, and connected to a separate network. Also, attendees should beware of unfamiliar kiosks and ATMs and limit transactions to areas officially endorsed by the event host
  • Develop logical network segmentations to create divisions between IT and OT systems and limit cross-access to devices and data to mitigate the consequences of a cyberattack.

Providing security teams with information they need upfront—including critical services that must remain operable during the event—will better inform response plans. This is essential in IT and OT environments that support venue infrastructure, and to maintain the physical safety of attendees. Ideally, organizations and security teams could configure their systems before the event to complete testing, snapshot the system and devices, and make them readily available to IT teams to rapidly redeploy when needed. These efforts go a long way in deterring adversaries from taking advantage of poorly configured, ad hoc networks within the highly desirable, target-rich environments of large sporting events.

Additionally, somebody in the room should consider privacy risk and whether configurations add new risks or vulnerabilities for attendees’ personal information or teams’ proprietary data. This person can implement simple cyber smart practices for fans, directing them, for example, to scan only QR codes with an official logo, to be critical of SMS or text solicitation they didn’t sign up for, and to avoid using free public Wi-Fi.

These policies and others can help the public better understand the cyber risk at large events, specifically, and their exposure to data harvesting and theft. Knowing safe practices can help fans and attendees sidestep becoming victims of social engineering attacks, which cybercriminals can wage after gaining a foothold into exploited venue and event networks.

In addition to the recommendations below, the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security offers these considerations for connected devices and integrated security for large venues.

Recommendations

  • Prioritize the implementation of a comprehensive and multi-layered security framework: This includes deploying firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and strong encryption protocols to fortify the network against unauthorized access and data breaches.
  • User awareness and training programs: Educate employees and stakeholders about cybersecurity best practices, such as recognizing phishing emails, using multifactor authentication or passwordless protection, and avoiding suspicious links or downloads.
  • Partner with reputable cybersecurity firms: Continuously monitor network traffic, detect potential threats in real time, and respond swiftly to any security incidents. Conduct regular security audits and vulnerability assessments to identify and address any weaknesses within the network infrastructure.

Get more insights on common security challenges from Principal Group Manager Justin Turner, Microsoft Security Research.

Snapshot data represents the total number of entities and events monitored twenty-four-seven between November 10 and December 20, 2022. This includes organizations either directly involved in, or affiliated with, tournament infrastructure. Activity includes human-led proactive threat hunts to identify emerging threats and track notable campaigns.

Key Insights:
 

45 organizations protected                                 100,000 endpoints protected

 

144,000 identities protected                               14.6 million email flows

 

634.6 million authentication attempts                4.35 billion network connections

Methodology: For snapshot data, Microsoft platforms and services, including Microsoft Extended Detections and Response, Microsoft Defender, Defender Experts for Hunting, and Azure Active Directory, provided anonymized data on threat activity, such as malicious email accounts, phishing emails, and attacker movement within networks. Additional insights are from the 65 trillion daily security signals gained across Microsoft, including the cloud, endpoints, the intelligent edge, and our Compromise Security Recovery Practice and Detection and Response Teams. Cover art does not depict an actual soccer game, tournament, or individual sport. All sports organizations referenced are individually owned trademarks.

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