The threat to corporate data security is higher than ever, with hackers and other cyber criminals devising ever more complex ways of gaining access to company secrets, employee data, and protected health information. IT security teams now need to monitor and track new threats like never before. Phishing emails must be blocked, employees must be prevented from visiting malicious websites, audits must be conducted to check for malware and viruses, and systems protected against keyloggers and Trojans.

The volume of new malware now being discovered is enough to keep IT security professionals awake at night, with many fearing the security of their systems. IT budgets are strained enough as it is, and the rapidly changing threat landscape is placing those budgets under even greater strain.

What Information are Cyber Criminals Trying to Obtain?

Individual hackers may attempt to break through security defenses for any number of reasons, in fact their aims are not always financially motivated. A grudge may be held against an ex-employer. Business practices may be deemed to be questionable. A company’s carbon footprint may even make it a worthy target for attack. Often the aim is to sabotage, with unscrupulous business competitors willing to employ hackers to enable them to gain a competitive advantage.

However, in the majority of cases, cyber criminals attack companies for the data they hold, which can be sold on to the highest bidder on Darknet websites or used to obtain goods, services, or cold hard cash. Data carries a high value on the black market as it can be used for a myriad of different types of fraud.

Healthcare data can be used to fraudulently obtain medical services. Insurance data used to make bogus insurance claims. Social Security numbers can be used for identity theft or to file false tax returns, and credit card details used to rack up thousands of debts in victims’ names. Corporate secrets such as product development information can be obtained and sold to competitors. The theft of that information can be used by competitors to devastating effect.

Some cyber criminals are not interested in stealing data, just in preventing companies from accessing it. If ransomware can be installed, criminals are able to encrypt an entire system and hold the company to ransom. They will only release the security keys to unencrypt data if a ransom is paid.

How Are Criminals Obtaining the Data?

Spam emails and phishing campaigns (via email, social media networks and over the telephone) are common, although one of the biggest threats to data security comes from malware. If malware can be installed on computers or servers, it can record and exfiltrate data to the hacker’s control centers. All communications can be intercepted and all keystrokes recorded. This enables hackers to obtain login names and passwords: Those used to access internal systems or online bank accounts. It is not just corporate data that is at risk. Any information stored on clients and customers can also potentially be obtained by the attackers.

Common Hacking Techniques Used to Gain Access to Data

Some of the techniques used by hackers to gain access to data include:

Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF)

Even apparently safe websites can allow hackers to install malware or access sensitive data. This type of attack involves legitimate websites sending requests to other sites. Twitter has suffered cyber attacks involving this method, resulting in logins and passwords of site users being obtained.

Web 2.0 Application Exploits

These attacks are difficult to prevent as they are often not identified by standard anti-virus defense mechanisms. They can exploit vulnerabilities in Adobe Flash, XML, JavaScript, JSON and Xpath to deliver malware and malicious code.

Cross-Component Attacks

Take two innocent looking sections of malware code that have been installed on a website. Individually they do no harm, and can easily evade detection. However, when two appear on the same webpage they interact and infect visitors’ devices with malware.

SQL Injection

One of the most popular techniques for hacking involves the insertion of meta-characters or SQL commands into input fields on a website. The commands are able to execute back-end SQL code.

Cross-Site Scripting

Hackers can embed code in URLs which can be used to execute Javascript code on visitors’ devices when the links are clicked.

All Companies are at Risk, and the Majority Have Already Been Impacted by Malware

If you think only small to medium sized organizations are at risk from malware (due to IT security budgetary constraints) think again. Even the world’s largest corporations are at risk from malware. Earlier this year, Apple was targeted by hackers and suffered a serious malware attack. Full details of the extent of the attack were not disclosed, but a number of Apple Mac computers were compromised by the attackers.

How could the hackers install malware on the computers of such a security conscious company with exceptionally deep pockets? Via a perfectly legitimate website! Users had visited a software development website, with the hackers gaining access via an unpatched Java bug.

The biggest social media sites are not immune to attack either. Twitter suffered a malware attack that exposed the confidential accounts of approximately 250,000 users. This is believed to have happened as a result of the same unpatched Java vulnerability.

No Company is Immune to Cyber Attacks

Around this time last year, a medical equipment manufacturer called Neurocare was targeted by cyber criminals. In that attack, all employees of the organization were affected. In that case, it was not the company’s systems that were attacked directly. The malware came via the company’s payroll processor.

These are all very large companies. But last year hackers used malware to pull of an even bigger and bolder campaign, launching an attack on the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As you could well imagine, the IMF has rather robust security controls in place, yet even they proved no match for the hackers. The attackers just went for the weakest link: IMF employees.

That attack involved spear phishing. Individuals working for the IMF were targeted with a highly convincing campaign which allowed malware to be installed on their computers. That attack was highly sophisticated in nature, and is believed to have been orchestrated by a team of hackers who had received backing from foreign governments. Highly confidential data was exfiltrated in the attack.

Phishing Campaigns Have Proved to be Highly Effective

This year, Kaspersky Labs reported a sizable increase in phishing attacks involving Apple IDs. Two years ago, the average number of attacks per day was just 1,000. Only 12 months later that figure had jumped to 200,000 per day.

Even security firms are not immune to phishing scams. RSA, a prominent American computer and network security company, suffered a phishing attack that was caught by the company’s spam filter. The emails were quarantined, yet were opened from within, unleashing a Trojan that harvested data from employee accounts. RSA’s SecurID tagsix was compromised in that attack.

RSA should not be singled out of course. Even bigger companies have suffered at the hands of phishers. An estimated 20% of Fortune 500 companies have become victims of these campaigns. Even the world’s largest corporations have been hit in recent months. IBM has been affected, and bigger companies still. Microsoft and Google are also victims of phishers.

Beware of Blended Threats Delivered Through Spam Email

The web may now carry the highest risk of malware distribution, but email is still commonly used to deliver malicious software. It remains one of the commonest attack vectors used by phishers. Email spam can be used to attack any device capable of receiving and opening email. This means tablets and Smartphones are vulnerable to attack, not just laptop computers and desktops.

One of the biggest threats comes from blended attacks. These are spam emails that contain links to malicious websites, or even legitimate websites that have been infected with malware. These threats are more difficult to deal with. They require a different form of defense that uses a combination of standard email anti-spam controls along with web security defenses.

Spam may not be the favored choice of hackers these days, but it still represents a serious threat to businesses. Dealing with the emails can waste an extraordinary amount of time and money. Spam can take up huge amounts of bandwidth that affects all employees in a company. Dealing with spam adds significant amounts to operational budgets.

The messages by themselves may not be dangerous, but links to malicious websites can represent a serious problem, especially if staff members have not been warned how to identify malicious links. Infected attachments also place computer systems at risk. Both methods can be used to deliver malware, which has potential to cause a serious amount of damage.

A number of defenses can be used to reduce the risk of malware attacks. Anti-virus software is a must, as is a separate anti-malware shield and scanner. Anti-spam controls are vital, as they can prevent the delivery of phishing emails to employees. Web filtering solutions are also highly beneficial. If a spam email gets through to an endpoint user, the software can prevent a malicious website from being visited.

Unfortunately, there is no single control that can be used to prevent all attacks. The solution is to use multi-layered security defenses and to keep them updated.