Cybersecurity Threats and Attacks

Current cyber threats are varied, ranging from sensitive data and infrastructure infiltration to brute force and spear-phishing attacks. Despite their variations, one thing is common about cyber threats – they do not discriminate organizations from individuals or small companies from big enterprises when looking for targets. What exactly are these cybersecurity threats making headlines today?

What are Cybersecurity Threats?

A cyber threat, otherwise known as a cybersecurity threat, refers to a malicious activity seeing to damage or steal data. By and large, potential threats that include data breaches, computer viruses, malware, and denial of service attacks disrupt digital life.   

A recent post published by SentinelOne on the history of cybersecurity highlighted the first case of cybersecurity threat. Bob Thomas discovered that a computer program could move across a network, leaving a small trail wherever it went. Bob christened the program creeper and designed it to travel between Tenex terminals.

Ray Tomlinson, the guy who invented email, created the first computer worm by designing the creeper program to self-replicate in a separate incident. It is striking to hark back to where it started and where we are now, in an era of complex cyber threats, such as fileless malware, state-backed attacks, and sophisticated ransomware. It is hilarious to realize that the antecedents to cybersecurity threats were not actively malicious software and did not cause any damage to sensitive information. However, the research foundations of cybersecurity encountered a quick turn to criminality. 

Today, the term cybersecurity threat exclusively describes information security issues. Malicious actors mount cyber threats and attacks against targets in cyberspace. The attacks can be severe, potentially threatening businesses and human lives.

Why are Cybersecurity Threats Such a Big Deal?

Needless to say, cyber threats and attacks matter so much today. They can disrupt system operations, adversely impact personal devices, computers, and IoT devices, making information and services unavailable to authorized users. In addition to that, cyber attacks can result in the loss of valuable information, including medical records, financial data, and personally identifiable information (PII).

What’s worse, cyber threats can aversely affect critical infrastructure. Cyber attacks potentially cause electrical blackouts, lock pipelines, or breach national security secrets. Meanwhile, it remains practically impossible to imagine what life would be without digital technology. It is not an overstatement to say that cyber threats can affect the functioning of life in a society that is highly dependent on technology.

Data Explosion

Information storage on mobile phones and laptops makes it easier for malicious actors to find an avenue into a corporate computer network. Unquestionably, the volume of data is practically exploding by the day. Statistics show that the amount of data created, captured, copied, and consumed globally reached a new high in 2020 and will exceed 180 zettabytes by 2025. Organizations are increasingly collecting user information and storing it in public networks, exposing it to vulnerabilities

Attacks are Becoming Sophisticated

Hackers are devising new ways and tactics to launch sophisticated and frequent threats. The Microsoft Digital Defense Report reveals that “threat actors have rapidly increased in sophistication over the past year, using techniques that make them harder to spot and that threaten even the savviest targets.” A case in point is the nation-state actors engaging in new reconnaissance techniques that increase their chances of compromising high-value targets. In other incidents, criminal groups targeting enterprises migrate their infrastructure to the cloud to hide their activities among legitimate services.

Noteworthy Microsoft report findings include: ransomware has become the most common reason behind incident response engagement; nation-state actors are frequently using credential harvesting, malware, and VPN exploits; IoT threats are constantly expanding and evolving, with the first half of 2020 experiencing an approximate 35 percent increase in total attack volume compared to the second half of 2019.

Attacks are Increasingly Becoming Prevalent   

On top of attack sophistication, cybersecurity threats are becoming more prevalent. An article published on UpGuard mentions that both “inherent risk and residual risk is increasing, driven by global connectivity and usage of cloud services, like Amazon Web Services, to store sensitive data and personal information.” The post further adds that the widespread poor configuration of cloud services paired with more sophisticated cyber criminals means the risk organizations face from successful cyber attacks is rising.  

It is apparent that some industries are more vulnerable to attacks than others simply due to their business nature and the value of information assets. With the recent data breaches news, it is not an exaggeration that there is a considerable upsurge in attacks from increasingly common sources in the workplace. On top of this, the current COVID-19 pandemic that has triggered sudden and unpremeditated work from home approaches is progressively making inroads for cybersecurity threats.

Organizations are Still Operating Below the “Security Poverty Line”

Most organizations and government agencies still operate without proper security practices in place, making them vulnerable to cybersecurity attacks. Despite the increasing data breach incidents, some small businesses spend nothing at all to protect themselves from attacks. Other organizations risk their online safety by operating at or below the ‘security poverty line.’ Oblivious of the approaching danger, enterprises still expose identity and personal information to the web via cloud services.

We can all acknowledge that gone are the days of simple perimeter security tools, like firewalls and antivirus, being the sole security measures for an enterprise. It turns out that C-level executives and business leaders can no longer leave information security responsibility to security personnel.

Regulations Mean You Cannot Ignore Cyber Threats

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), PCI DSS, HIPAA, FISMA, and GLBA are some of the stringent regulations that highlight organizations cannot ignore cybersecurity. Governments and industries around the world are bringing more attention to cyber threats and attacks. One way they are doing this is to enact and require all organizations to comply with regulations requirements. Regulations principally compel cyber attack victims to reveal details about a data breach, approve a data protection officer, require subject consent to process or share user information, and implement controls to enhance data privacy.   

Hacker’s Motivations

Cybercriminals commit their malicious acts for different intents. Mainly, they attack organizations for financial gains. A desire to steal money continues to be the principal motivator behind cyber attacks, according to Verizon’s annual Data Breach Investigations Report. Key takeaways from the report indicate that 86 percent of data breaches are financially motivated, up from 71 percent in 2019. In addition to that, 67 percent of breaches resulted in credit card numbers theft. Other crucial data targets include social security numbers and login credentials.

Typically, financially motivated data breaches include direct theft of victim’s money by hacking their bank accounts or stealing financial information. Besides that, malicious actors can make money by selling stolen credentials on the dark web. A look into the pricing of stolen identities for sale on dark web marketplaces shows that credit card details cost between $0.11 to $986 while hacked PayPal accounts sell between $5 and $1,767.

Besides financial gains, cybercriminals launch attacks for espionage, ideology, and other secondary motivations, such as the desire to steal intellectual property ad trade secrets. Security experts and agencies have accused criminals of meddling in current and corporate affairs, which forms the modern-day version of espionage.

Other than espionage, some cyber actors are motivated by anger. In this case, they leverage their skills and hacking tools to target companies directly. Infamous hacker groups, like Anonymous, also use their expertise to compromise large organizations and call the public’s attention to something the hacktivists believe is a crucial issue. Different causes, such as freedom of information, human rights, or religious believes, drive hacktivism. 

Prevalent Cybersecurity Threats

Cybercriminals and malicious insiders have an abundance of techniques and tactics to deliver attacks. Some of the popular types of attacks and top cybersecurity threats include:

  • Malware: also known as malicious software, is an umbrella term covering viruses, worms, trojans, and other harmful computer programs attackers use to wreak destruction and gain illegal access to systems and information.
  • Phishing and Spear-Phishing:  phishing attacks are a means to lure potential targets into divulging information, such as credentials and bank details. Attackers combine deception and social engineering attacks, such as urgent requests or scare tactics in phishing emails, to persuade victims to take action, such as opening malicious links or attachments. On the other hand, spear-phishing is a sophisticated and more elaborate version of phishing. Unlike phishing attacks that target many victims, spear-phishing targets specific individuals or organizations seeking unauthorized access to systems and data. Cyber actors frequently use social media sites to collect target’s information needed to personalize messages and impersonate users.
  • Ransomware Attacks: ransomware attacks are a form of malicious program that encrypts the victim’s files. Ransomware attackers send a malicious link that installs malware once users click on it. They displace a message to demand a ransom from victims to restore access to systems and data. Typically, hackers show instructions for victims to pay a fee and get a decryption key. Ransomware costs range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, primarily payable in Bitcoin.
  • Internet of Things (IoT) Exploits: currently, there are security vulnerabilities in millions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. These flaws could potentially allow cybercriminals to knock devices offline or control them remotely. For instance, various vulnerabilities affect TCP/IP stacks responsible for communication in IoT devices.
  • DDoS and DoS: Denial of service (DoS) attacks flood systems with traffic, making resources unavailable to authorized users. Conversely, a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack uses multiple devices or machines to flood a targeted IT resource. Both DoS and DDoS attacks overload networks, servers, or web applications to disrupt regular services. 

Cybersecurity Best Practices

Businesses and individuals alike should relinquish the ‘not much to steal’ mindset regarding cybersecurity threats. It is entirely out of sync with today’s cybersecurity to think that cybercriminals will pass over you while launching attacks because you run a small business. The factual situation is that 43 percent of cyber attacks still target small businesses, and 60 percent of victims of a data breach go out of business within six months. Individuals are also targets, often because they upload their personal information on insecure mobile devices and public clouds.  

How can your business avoid becoming the next victim of an attack? Here is a list of cybersecurity best practices that businesses and individuals can implement today.

  • Use security tools: One of the first lines of defense in cybersecurity is a firewall and antivirus programs. The Federal Communications Commission (FTC) recommends installing a security tool like a firewall to prevent outsiders from accessing sensitive information on a private network. FTC also cautions organizations to ensure that their operating system’s firewall is enabled. With employees working remotely, businesses should ensure they enable and update their security tools. They can deploy security technologies based on machine learning and artificial intelligence to automate threat detection and response. It would be best if users set antivirus software to run scans regularly and after each update.
  • Cybersecurity awareness training: organizations should train employees in security risks and principles. They can establish security practices and policies for employees, such as requiring strong passwords and implementing appropriate systems and internet use guidelines that highlight penalties for non-compliance with company policies
  • Endpoint security: businesses and individuals should operate secure machines. In that case, they should ensure devices have the latest security software, updated web browsers, and patched operating systems that combat malware and other online attacks.
  • Backup data: make backup copies of crucial data and sensitive information. If possible, implement an automatic backup solution that stores information copies offsite or in safe cloud locations
  • Develop and update security policies: small businesses should shift from operating by word of mouth and intuitional knowledge to documenting protocols and procedures in cybersecurity. Resources such as the FCC Cyberplanner 2.0 and SANS Security Policy Templates provide a starting point for security documentation.
  • Access control: organizations can improve their cybersecurity postures by limiting user access to sensitive information and systems and restricting their authority to install online applications. In this case, no one employee should have access to all data systems. Instead, companies should give users access to specific resources and information that they need for their job. Besides that, insiders should not be allowed to install applications without the IT department’s approval. At the same time, users should use unique, strong passwords to access systems and online accounts to combat insider threats. Businesses can implement robust access control mechanisms, preferably by implementing multi-factor authentication that requires additional information beyond usernames and passwords to grant access. 

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