Cyber espionage is evolving and spreading on the domestic and international levels. A straightforward definition of cyber espionage is the intentional stealing of data, information, or intellectual property from or through computer systems. Social engineering, malware dissemination, advanced persistent threat (APT), watering hole assaults, and spear phishing are a few techniques. However, this is by no means a comprehensive list.
What is cyber espionage?
Cyber espionage, often known as cyberespionage, is a type of cyberattack committed against a rival business or governmental organization. The purpose of cyber espionage, also known as cyber spying, is to offer the assailant information that gives them an advantage over rival businesses or governments.
Cyber espionage is frequently carried out by bad actors who prefer to go unnoticed for extended periods. This indicates that this kind of attack is frequently highly expensive and difficult to execute.
Given its inherent secrecy and diverse range of potential operations, providing a specific definition of cyber espionage is challenging. It can be executed on a small or large scale, with varying degrees of sophistication, and it can target anyone, from a single user to an entire region. Cyber espionage can, however, be distinguished from other hacks by several recurring characteristics:
- A focus on sneaky tactics: Unlike other attack types like ransomware, cyber espionage often tries to go undiscovered throughout the whole attack lifecycle. The offenders could take extraordinary steps to conceal their identities, goals, and plan of action. Custom malware and zero-day exploits are often utilized, which antivirus software finds challenging to identify using signatures.
- Unauthorized access to or theft of confidential data or intellectual property: Numerous cybercrimes target consumer information, financial data like account numbers, or the digital infrastructure businesses depend on to run their daily operations. Attacks by cyber spies typically have a particular target in mind, such as closely held secrets of enemy countries, advanced technology and intellectual property of corporate rivals, or covert communications of political opponents or dissidents. It’s interesting to note that because the data targeted by cyber espionage are frequently exempt from data breach reporting and notification requirements, statistics on cybersecurity may not accurately reflect these types of attacks.
- A clear objective or motivation: Many cyberattacks target any person or group unfortunate enough to download the incorrect software, click the wrong link, or otherwise come into the attacker’s sights. Individuals, entire populations, and countries can all be the targets of cyber espionage, but the threat actor nearly always has a target in mind before starting a campaign. This is not frequently an opportunity crime.
The impact of cyber espionage
Cyber espionage is mostly used to collect sensitive or classified information, trade secrets, or other kinds of intellectual property that the aggressor can exploit to gain a competitive edge or sell for profit. In some instances, the breach is only meant to tarnish the victim’s reputation by disclosing sensitive data or dubious business practices.
Attacks carried out for financial gain, military purposes, or as a form of cyber terrorism or cyber warfare are all examples of cyber espionage. Cyber espionage can impair public services and infrastructure and result in fatalities, especially when it is a part of a larger military or political effort.
Types of cyber espionage: Who do attackers target?
Large enterprises, government agencies, academic institutions, think tanks, and other organizations with significant intellectual property and technical data that can provide another organization or government a competitive edge are the most frequent targets of cyber espionage. Targeted campaigns can be launched against specific people, including well-known politicians, high-ranking government officials, business leaders, and even celebrities.
Most frequently, cyberspies try to gain access to the following resources:
- Data and activities related to research and development
- IP related to academic research, such as product specifications or designs
- Salaries, compensation structures, and other sensitive financial and operational data of the organization
- Lists of clients or customers and payment methods
- Corporate objectives, strategic plans, and marketing strategies
- Strategies, allegiances, and communications in politics
- Military information
Cyber espionage attacker tactics
Since cyber espionage is a covert operation, so it is challenging to pinpoint precisely what strategies are used and on what scale. What we do understand is based on cyber espionage cases that have previously been made public. The following strategies are frequently combined, and a number of them have been seen in practice.
Social engineering is a common method used by cyberspies, according to Verizon’s 2020 Cyber Espionage report, a deeper breakdown of the espionage category in the company’s annual Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR). In 2020, more than 80% of these assaults made use of phishing of some kind. In the context of cyber espionage, social engineering is very appealing due to its low cost, low technical requirements for an attacker, and frequent combination of high effectiveness and difficulty in tracking or attributing.
Supply chain attacks
Supply chain attacks are a sophisticated cyberespionage group’s go-to weapon of choice. In this kind of assault, a threat actor will try to compromise a target organization’s reliable partners, suppliers, or vendors. This is frequently performed by inserting backdoor code into a good or service the target already utilizes. This is a very successful way to get past even the most sophisticated cyber defenses, and identifying the attack can be very challenging.
Fake or trojan apps
What better approach to carry out a cyber espionage operation than to convince your targets to bug their own devices? Numerous threat actors have employed this strategy frequently. The attacker might even embed a backdoor in a program that is otherwise functional or make a fake app. The next step is convincing the target—often through a social engineering campaign—to download the app.
Such malicious programs are frequently spotted on unofficial app shops, although they have occasionally managed to evade the approval procedure necessary to exist in third-party app stores. On the PC, cracked versions of pricey programs like Adobe Photoshop have for a long time included malware such as hidden trojans.
Watering hole attacks
In a “watering hole” attack, the threat actor compromises a website or service that the target is known to use and adds malware covertly to the website in an attempt to compromise the main target. For instance, if a threat actor was pursuing a significant oil and gas business, they may try to inject malicious code onto the website of a trade newspaper for the industry. A watering hole attack is frequently combined with a zero-day hack that exposes previously undiscovered flaws in a certain browser or operating system.
Attackers may also employ social engineering techniques, and trick the victim with a bogus software update or other requests. As a result, when a target visits a website, they may unintentionally download extremely effective malware that has been deliberately created and is very unlikely to be detected by antivirus or other security software.
Even though they may be categorized as a form of social engineering attack, catfishing schemes have been utilized in cyber espionage efforts frequently enough to warrant separate mention. Making a false identity is a key component of catfishing, a strategy that may be as old as spying itself. This technique has been made very simple by social media platforms and the rapid accessibility of billions of photos. Some threat actors have been known to cultivate a virtual friendship with their targets for several months while frequently assuming the identity of an alluring person of the opposite sex, an experienced recruiter in a lucrative field, or a journalist.
Cyber espionage examples
Below you can find some significant cyber espionage examples:
Chinese military hackers constantly threatened the U.S. government computers in the two years between 2003 and 2005. Attacks on the UK defense and foreign ministries were also a part of Titan Rain and persisted until 2007. This was the first instance of state-sponsored cyberespionage. Using various techniques, the hackers broke into the network computers and attempted to grab as much data as possible. Although the Chinese government’s involvement in this operation was not confirmed, nations started to be warier about cyber espionage attempts.
GhostNet, a sizable surveillance network that organized an incursion into more than a thousand computers in 103 countries, was discovered by Canadian researchers in 2009. The network of the offices of the Dalai Lama was breached by perpetrators, who then utilized it to compromise other machines. The foreign ministers and embassies of Germany, Pakistan, India, Iran, South Korea, and Thailand were also attacked. Chinese officials denied taking part in the strikes.
The Night Dragon operation, in which Chinese hackers started to target the biggest American and European energy companies, including Royal Dutch Shell and Baker Hughes, was covered by McAfee in 2011. One of the biggest cyber espionage incidents involved hackers gaining access to topographical maps that may have contained oil reserves. According to a McAfee assessment, hackers employed a variety of simple hacking methods and tools that could be found on Chinese hacker websites.
Cyber espionage vs cyber attack
Any attempt to obtain unauthorized access to a computer, computing system, or computer network to cause harm is a cyber attack. The goal of a cyber attack is to disable, disrupt, destroy, or take control of a computer system and to change, block, delete, modify, or steal the data stored on it.
A cyber attack can be launched by any person or group from any location using one or more different attack tactics.
Most of the time, those who commit cyberattacks are considered cyber criminals. They include persons who act alone and use their computer abilities to plan and carry out malicious assaults. They are also frequently referred to as bad actors, threat actors, and hackers. They may also be a part of a criminal organization that collaborates with other threat actors to identify holes or issues in computer systems, often known as vulnerabilities, which they can then use to their advantage.
Cyberattacks are also carried out by organizations of computer professionals funded by the government. They have been accused of assaulting other governments’ information technology (IT) infrastructure and non-governmental organizations, including companies, charities, and utilities. They have been classified as nation-state attackers.
Contrarily, cyber espionage is a type of cyber attack that obtains sensitive or confidential information or intellectual property to gain an advantage over a rival business or government organization.
How to detect cyber espionage?
Computers are made by humans. We must expect the software we use to contain security flaws. With current technology, governments and corporations cannot be completely protected from cyber espionage. Being current with security policies and procedures is currently the top issue for enterprises and governments. Regularly assess the risks and be prepared with a security strategy to address unanticipated vulnerabilities. Many businesses maintain regular security measures and are prepared to act as soon as an attack is discovered.
Adherence to regular, timely backups, security patches, and software and device updates is essential. These operations are thoroughly documented, verified, and audited for additional compliance measures. These processes also cover handling portable devices.
The IT department and cybersecurity experts collaborate to create multi-layered security firewalls. The virtual office environments are taken into consideration when creating the firewalls. Malware and viruses will inevitably target these extensively used virtual environments and cloud-based services.
How to prevent cyber espionage?
Even though not every business may have to worry about becoming the target of nation-state hackers, it is still a good idea to prioritize security because employees of competitor businesses can still carry out cyber espionage. A company can do the following to safeguard data and stop cyberespionage:
- Understand the methods employed in cyberespionage assaults. This might be a solid starting point for what to secure for an organization.
- Use modern security standards like Web Authentication (Webauthn).
- Make sure that vital infrastructure is upgraded and protected.
- Implement data policies that specify who has access to what data and how. This will make it possible to guarantee that only those who require access to crucial information may do so.
- For firms using bring your own device (BYOD), keep an eye on the data that can be saved on individual mobile devices.
- Verify that a system has no vulnerabilities and that any third-party software systems that are being used are safe from cyberattacks.
- Establish a cybersecurity policy that covers the threats and security procedures.
- Create an incident reaction plan. An organization should be able to react swiftly to attacks in order to limit harm.
- Keep an eye out for strange behavior in the system. Security monitoring solutions can assist in detecting or stopping any questionable behavior.
- Inform staff members about security procedures, such as how to avoid clicking on links or downloading files from emails that seem dubious.
- Make sure passwords are updated frequently.
- Ensure the use of strong authentication measures.
Today, cyber espionage is a reality of life. Governments and businesses take numerous precautions to protect themselves from cyber espionage attempts. The staff at the company is taught about security and its critical role. They are made fully aware of the need to protect sensitive information. Understanding malware and viruses are crucial since fraudsters use them for data breaches.