Gap between perception and reality of cyberthreats widened in 2015

And the number of areas in which the gap is showing up is also increasing

There is a widening gap between what security executives believe to be true and the reality of cyberthreats, according to the Cisco 2015 Annual Security Report released today.

And the number of areas in which the gap is showing up is also increasing, as attackers get more and more sophisticated.

The confidence gap

According to the study, which surveyed CISOs and security operations managers at 1,700 companies in nine countries, 90 percent of respondents said they were "confident" in their security efforts.

But 54 percent also reported that their companies have had to manage a public security breach.

Meanwhile, fewer than 50 percent of respondents said that they used the kinds of standard tools that thwart breaches, such as user provisioning, patching, penetration testing, endpoint forensics, and vulnerability scanning.

Take patching, for example. A browser, for example, needs to be regularly updated in order to protect users against malicious downloads and similar exploits. But many companies don't.

According to Cisco principal engineer Jason Brvenik, only 10 percent are running the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Even the Chrome browser, which updates itself automatically when restarted, saw only 64 percent penetration of its latest version, not 100 percent -- one possible explanation being that users don't fully shut down their computers at night.

"And there are environments where, once you're running a version that's compliant, you're not allowed to upgrade it," Brvenik added. "Medical environments, for example."

Another example is the Heartbleed bug.

"It's hard to find someone in the IT profession who hadn't heard of it," he said. "And we found that 56 percent of SSL versions were more than four years old, and still vulnerable to Heartbleed. They haven't been patched."

According to Cisco CSO John Stewart, patching is one of the hardest things to do in a complex IT system because they have to be taken out of service.

Patches also might not be available yet, or the software is not longer being patched.

"I know real world companies that still run Windows NT, and there's no patching," he said.

And when you have a complex environment with many vendors, there might be more patching than a company can handle.

The business model gap

For attackers, successfully breaching a company's defenses is how they make their money. And the strategies they use are becoming increasingly profitable as the attackers get more professional.

Take spam, for example, which increased 250 percent by volume this year because spammers have changed their strategies.

"The attackers have gained access to accounts that have no reputation, or higher reputation, and we're calling it the 'Snowshoe' spam attack," said Brvenik. "They're spreading out their weight and sending sending several messages from hundreds of thousands of accounts, instead of hundreds of thousands of messages from a few accounts."

The spam writers are also carefully tracking their response rates and continuously adjusting the text of the spam emails.

"In one campaign we saw 95 different iterations of their spam messages," he said.

And the spam messages are being increasingly customized to target individual recipients, helping them bypass spam filters.

There was also a 250 percent increase in malvertising last year, Brvenik added.

The criminals use a variety of tactics, including spending actual money to buy their own advertising.

"They buy short-term ads on high-exposure websites, and then they're gone," he said.

The ads -- which carry malicious payloads -- appear on reputable websites, making them very difficult to defend against. Especially for companies with out-of-date browsers.

But while successful attacks are completely aligned with the business models of the criminal organizations, there's no such alignment on the side of the defending team.

"The business goals of a company or organization and the security goals have to be mutually reinforcing," said Stewart.

That's a big gap.

A couple of parts of it, however, are closing, he added.

First, technology buyers are increasingly asking about security when choosing between vendors.

"We think security is now beginning to differentiate offers between competitors," he said.

And, second, security is becoming a more important issue for top-level management.

"The most senior-level part of the company, the board, is now increasingly getting included and asking hard questions about the risks of cyberattacks," Stewart said.

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