Cyberattacks the greatest threat to nations, say global execs

Business brass and IT pros around the world believe cyber attacks are a greater threat to their countries than a physical attack, a survey released Tuesday by Cyber Ark reveals.

Some 80 percent of more than 900 executives and IT pros from around the world polled for Cyber Ark's Global Advanced Threat Landscape survey felt their nations were at greater risk from cyberattacks than physical attacks.

"Businesses are realizing how important these threats are," Cyber Ark CMO John Worrall told CSO. "Their concern reflects the government's concern about the threats."

In recent months, publicity about cyberattacks connected with China, reports about the potential for cyberattacks on the nation's critical infrastructure and speeches by prominent military and government officials about cyber threats have raised the visibility of network attacks in the public eye -- and apparently the corporate mind, as well.

"At a security conference in February, one security officer told me he'd been sent there by his CEO because the President had mentioned cybersecurity in the State of the Union address," Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst with IT-Harvest, said in an interview.

"That shows a growing awareness among executives," he said, "although many organizations still aren't close to understanding the magnitude of the threat."

Public reports and pronouncements may not be alone in fueling awareness in boardrooms. With cyberattacks increasing at alarming rates, awareness in many organizations is born from pain.

" DDoS attacks have increased 600 percent over the last year," former Navy Rear Admiral and head of the cyber security practice at Venable James Barnett told CSO.

The notion that many businesses have first hand knowledge of the risks of cyberattacks is reflected in the Cyber Ark study, too. It found that more than half of those participating in the survey (51 percent) believe a cyberattacker is currently residing or has resided on their systems during the past year.

What people believe and what would actually be found through forensic examination could vary. "That number sounds high to me, but it doesn't sound grossly inflated," said Sam Curry, chief technology officer for identity and data protection for EMC's security division, RSA.

Perceptions expressed in the survey could be influenced by fevered media coverage of the subject, but the risks are nonetheless real. "If you remove all the hyperbole," Curry said, "the real, imminent risk of a cyberattack is greater than a physical attack --- although a physical attack poses greater risk of damage to your body."

"While a lot of damage can be done online," he continued, "I don't want to stand next to a nuclear bomb, and I'm actually OK standing next to a computer with Trojan in it."

Nevertheless, as Chris Petersen, founder and CTO of LogRhythm, points out, corporate executives have good reason to worry about cyberattacks.

[Also see: Preemptive cyberattack disclosure a warning to ChinaÃ'Â | Opinion varies on actions against Chinese attacks | Lesson learned in cyberattack on The New York Times]

"The path to disruption and destruction when it comes to cyber warfare and terrorism is through U.S. corporations that support critical infrastructure," Petersen said in an email. "Cyber provides a weapon that can touch hundreds of US corporations without ever having to put feet on the ground."

"For me, this is a classic race condition," he said. "Will a terrorist organization or desperate nation state achieve a 'nuclear' level cyber capability and strike a known vulnerable United States? Or, as a nation, will we shore up our cyber defenses with enough capability to defend against such attacks."

"Unless we start to really address this issue as a nation, we stand a real chance of losing this race," Petersen said.

Survey researchers also found that 61 percent of their respondents felt the government could protect a nation's critical infrastructure from advanced cyber threats.

Although the survey didn't get into specific government actions to protect the infrastructure, Venable's Barnett advocated programs that provided incentives to businesses to bolster their security.

"The fight against cyberattackers is in private hands in United States," Barnett said. "Businesses need tax credits and liability protections to encourage them to make themselves more secure."

Despite the mantra that's been chanted by the security industry for the last decade, that perimeter defenses should be part of a layered cyberdefense strategy, the Cyber Ark researchers found that more than half the survey's participants (57 percent) said their organizations put too much faith in perimeter security.

"There is no barrier that you can erect that will keep out a determined and intelligent opponent," RSA's Curry said.

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.

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