Why you should care about cyber espionage

State-sponsored cyber threats generally don't target private businesses, but that doesn't mean they can't harm you or your company.

Malware attacks have taken on new meaning over the last few years. Businesses and consumers are more or less used to the day-in and day-out of Trojans, phishing scams and such, but a new breed of much more complex and sophisticated threats has changed the game.

The Stuxnet and Duqu worms, as well as Flame, Gauss and Red October malware all appear to have been developed by nation states or well-organized terrorist groups. Each has had specific goals and precise targets. Unless you're specifically in the crosshairs of one of these cyber espionage attacks, you have nothing to worry about, right? Not exactly.

There are three ways anyone will feel the consequences of cyber espionage or cyber warfare threats, even if they're not the intended target.

1. Critical infrastructure

A nation-state or terrorist organization using malware may be able to cripple the critical infrastructure of the target nation. That includes things like the electrical power grid, train and air transportation, traffic lights, natural gas pipelines, nuclear power facilities, water treatment plants, and more.

These things are called "critical infrastructure" for a reason--they're crucial elements required for basic survival, defense, transportation and communication. If an attack impacts the critical infrastructure of a nation, the fallout will be felt by all businesses that rely on those services.

2. Collateral damage

Despite the "good intentions" of the developers behind these sophisticated cyber-espionage attacks, businesses and consumers not intended as targets may be affected nonetheless. Collateral damage, after all, is calculated in pretty much any military or intelligence operation, and the same applies to strategic attacks by rogue groups.

An attack meant to cripple the PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) at an enemy nuclear facility may accidentally shut down similar model PLCs at an automobile manufacturing plant. The fact that the attack wasn't meant to impact the manufacturing facility is little consolation if you're affected.

3. Reverse engineering

In a presentation at the Kaspersky Cyber-Security Summit 2013 in New York this week, Costin Raiu, Kaspersky's director of global research and analysis, pointed out interesting data. Although the Duqu cyber-espionage threat was discovered and neutralized long ago, one of its core exploits showed up as the top, most prolific threat for two days in a row last December.

How is that possible? Well, once a threat is detected and identified, it becomes public domain. Attackers are able to acquire and reverse engineer the code to figure out what makes the attack tick, and then re-purpose those techniques for their own exploits. The original cyber-espionage threat may not be intended for the general population, but once it's discovered the innovative exploits used become fair game for any attacker.

Howard Schmidt, former White House cybersecurity coordinator, paraphrased Sun Tzu in a panel discussion at the Kaspersky event. He said there are three rules to remember if you choose to use fire in battle: 1) Make sure the wind isn't in your face. 2) If it is, make sure you don't have anything that will catch fire. 3) If you do, make sure the things that will burn are not important.

A cyber-espionage stike is like using fire in battle. It's a risky proposition because it's difficult to control once it's released, and there are no guarantees that it won't be discovered and used against the original developer, or spiral out of control and result in a much broader impact than intended.

Defending against these threats is obviously easier said than done. When these cyber espionage attacks are discovered, researchers find that the threats have actually been active in the wild for three, five, or even 10 years. It's a fair and valid question to ask why they were never detected by standard security measures in place at most businesses and government agencies, or how they were able to operate undetected for years.

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