Statistics reaffirm breach threat, but executive inaction still impeding security: Black Swan

Threats from external hackers may be at pandemic levels and still growing, but inappropriate IT architectural models and a lack of executive commitment continue to impede security efforts, a review of more than 25 recent security-industry threat reports has concluded.

Keith Price – a 30-year industry veteran who is principal of security consultancy Black Swan Group and a member of the Australian Information Security Association (AISA) executive committee – pored over dozens of information sources to draw out the key trends in security attacks.

The resulting study – entitled Cybersecurity Counterintelligence – Research, Strategy, and Tactics – paints a bleak picture of the threat facing organisations in Australia and around the world.

“The general trend is a greater overall number of breaches involving different kinds of assets,” Price told CSO Australia. “Information is being stolen and sold online in unprecedented levels and professionally written malicious code is behind most of this data theft.”

Ongoing surveys of data-theft targets showed payment cards were “a lock as the most oft-stolen data type”, he said, with more than half of all external breaches tied to organised criminal groups and money the most frequent motivation of largely US or Eastern European based hackers.

A review of studies into state-affiliated hacking groups found China remains the most high-profile perpetrator of state-sponsored attacks, with 96% of espionage cases attributed to Chinese hackers and the most commonly compromised industries including IT, aerospace, public administration, satellites and telecommunications, scientific research and consulting, energy, and transportation.

Yet state-sponsored groups compared with current and former employees as the greatest risks for companies today, with the report highlighting the value of long passphrase-based passwords and other figures reinforcing the importance of robust patch management. Staying on top of such issues is a daily obligation for IT managers, yet many are already struggling to keep up with hackers’ many and varied attack vectors.

Page after page, Black Swan’s review paints a bleak picture of the merciless threat targeted at today’s companies; the more one reads, he said, the more it is clear just how bad things have gotten.

“Reading one report doesn’t really help you,” Price explained. “Reading five gives you an idea, but reading 25 gives you an idea of what the outliers are too. Most of this data we’ve seen before, but the data seem to show that the overall number of breaches is increasing across the board.”

The most interesting finding from the report, he said, came from a report that identified nine key behaviours that are impeding organisational security responses. These included a lack of vision, ineffective security strategy, and leadership at the CEO, CIO and CSO level.

“Strategy and vision are senior management functions”, Price said. “So, five of the nine indicators point directly to senior management as an obstacle for improving security. I’m dumbfounded by that.”

While methods for earning executive buy-in are still something of a black art to many, Price said IT managers should address the implications of such surveys by taking a more proactive approach to their information architecture.

Organisations of all sizes should look inwards and architect their networks with a zone-based ‘cyber kill chain’ security defence, he said, that guides attackers through a number of chokepoints that can be cut at any point, thereby stopping attacks in their tracks well before intruders reach protected sensitive assets.

“Done properly, it’s a lot of effort to hack,” Price said, while adding that economies of scale made this a much bigger issue in terms of the corporate world’s overall threat profile.

“I know what I can tell individual companies to do about the cyber kill chain and their information architecture,” he explained. “But an entire industry? To take it up a level and think about how we protect the economy and the world, is a tough one.”

Follow @CSO_Australia and sign up to the CSO Australia newsletter.