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Cyberespionage Explained

Cyberespionage is a type of cyberattack that involves an unauthorized user (or multiple users) accessing a victim’s sensitive information in order to secure economic benefits, competitive advantages or political gain. Also known as cyber spying, the primary targets of such cyberattacks include government entities, large corporations and other competitive organizations.

Cybercriminals may leverage cyberespionage in attempts to gather classified data, trade secrets or intellectual property (IP) from their victims. From there, cybercriminals may sell this information for profit, expose it to other parties, or use it in conjunction with military operations, potentially threatening their targets’ reputations and overall stability. Oftentimes, cyberespionage is deployed across international borders by nation-state attackers.

Over the past few years, cyberespionage has become a rising concern, especially in certain countries. In fact, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) found that in 2020, Canada faced the highest levels of foreign espionage and interference since the Cold War. The CSIS also stated that Canada has been facing national security threats from violent extremism, foreign interference, espionage and malicious cyber activity. Canadian companies in almost all sectors of the economy have been targeted.

With this in mind, it’s crucial for businesses to understand cyberespionage and know how to effectively mitigate such incidents. This article provides a detailed overview of cyberespionage, outlines real-world examples of these cyberattacks and offers key prevention measures that businesses can implement to safeguard their operations.

Cyberespionage Overview

Although cyberespionage often involves nation-state attackers, it’s not interchangeable with cyberwarfare. While cyberwarfare is conducted with the intention of noticeably disrupting a target’s operations or activities, the goal of cyberespionage is for the perpetrator to remain undetected by their victim for as long as possible, therefore permitting them to gather maximum information. Yet, the information collected from cyberespionage efforts could be used later amid acts of cyberwarfare.

When leveraging cyberespionage, perpetrators may attempt to access a wide range of data from their targets, including:

  • Research and development activities
  • Critical organizational projects or IP (e.g., product formulas and blueprints)
  • Financial information (e.g., investment opportunities, employee salaries and bonus structures)
  • Sensitive stakeholder details
  • Business plans (e.g., upcoming marketing, communications or sales initiatives)
  • Political strategies or military intelligence

Cybercriminals may engage in a variety of tactics to execute cyberespionage, such as:

  • Exploiting security vulnerabilities in websites or browsers a target frequently visits and infecting them with malware to compromise the victim’s technology (as well as any data stored on it)
  • Utilizing phishing scams (i.e., deceptive emails, texts or calls) to steal login credentials and gain unsolicited privileges within a target’s network
  • Posing as employees or contractors and physically going to a victim’s workplace to steal hard copies of data or infect devices with malware
  • Bribing actual employees or contractors to share a target’s sensitive information in exchange for payment
  • Infiltrating another party in a victim’s supply chain and using that party’s digital privileges to compromise the actual target’s network
  • Injecting different forms of malware (e.g., Trojans and worms) within updates from third-party software applications, thus hijacking a victim’s technology upon installation of these updates

In any case, cyberespionage can lead to serious consequences for impacted organizations. What’s worse, as cybercriminals’ tactics get more sophisticated, these incidents could become increasingly common.

Examples of Cyberespionage

Over the years, multiple large-scale cyberespionage events have occurred, including the following:

  • The Microsoft Internet Explorer incident—Between 2009 and 2010, Chinese cybercriminals took advantage of a security vulnerability in Microsoft Internet Explorer to execute cyberespionage against at least 20 international media and technology companies, including Google, Yahoo and Adobe. Google reported that the cybercriminals, later coined the “Aurora” attackers, stole various IPs from the company and compromised many Gmail accounts.
  • The Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) incident—In 2014, a North Korean hacking group named the “Guardians of Peace” deployed cyberespionage against SPE during the months leading up to the entertainment company’s release of a film that depicted the assassination of the nation-state’s leader. The cybercriminals used malware to compromise SPE’s network and publicly expose a substantial amount of sensitive company data, such as personal details about employees, email exchanges between staff, information regarding executives’ salaries, copies of unreleased films and plans for future films. The incident significantly impacted the film’s release and garnered attention from the U.S. government.
  • The Zhenhua Data Information Technology incident—In 2020, global news sources revealed that Zhenhua Data InformationTechnology, which primarily serves China’s military and intelligence services, had been gathering sensitive data on 2.4 million individuals worldwide for several years. An estimated 20 per cent of this data was not publicly available and likely accessed through cyberespionage.

Considering these incidents and their associated ramifications, it’s clear that businesses need to take action to properly protect themselves against cyberespionage.

Cyberespionage Prevention Measures

Businesses should consider implementing the following best practices to help safeguard their operations from cyberespionage:

  • Educate employees. Be sure employees receive training on cyberespionage and related prevention tactics. Specifically, employees should be instructed to never respond to messages from unknown senders, avoid interacting with suspicious links or attachments and refrain from sharing sensitive company information online. In addition, employees should be required to form complex and unique passwords for all workplace technology.
  • Protect critical data. Review and update existing cybersecurity policies to ensure they promote maximum data protection. Implement new policies as needed (e.g., a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy and data breach response policy). Further, encrypt and store all critical data in safe, secure locations.
  • Restrict access. Only permit employees to access technology and data they need to perform their job duties. Require employees to implement multifactor authentication whenever possible.
  • Leverage sufficient software. Protect all workplace technology (and the data stored on it) with proper security software. This software may include endpoint detection tools, antivirus programs, firewalls, network monitoring services and patch management products. Review this software regularly for vulnerabilities and make adjustments when necessary.
  • Assess supply chain exposures. Assess whether suppliers have adequate measures in place to protect against network infiltration from cybercriminals. Consider including specific cybersecurity requirements in all supplier contracts and keeping the amount of sensitive information shared with these parties to a minimum.
  • Have a plan. Creating a cyber incident response plan can help ensure necessary protocols are in place cyberattacks occur, thus keeping related damages at a minimum. This plan should be well-documented, practised regularly and address a range of cyberattack scenarios (including cyberespionage).
  • Purchase proper coverage. It’s critical to secure adequate insurance to help protect against losses that may arise from cyberespionage. It’s best to consult a trusted insurance professional to discuss specific coverage needs.

Conclusion

Ultimately, cyberespionage is a pressing concern that businesses need to take seriously—especially as nation-state cyberthreats continue to rise. By understanding cyberespionage and implementing adequate prevention techniques, businesses can effectively safeguard themselves against these incidents and minimize associated losses.

For more risk management guidance, contact Reith & Associates.

Dan Reith, Principal Broker
Dan Reith, Principal Broker

Dan Reith

Principal Broker
Reith & Associates Insurance and Financial Services Limited
https://reithandassociates.com
Dan Reith BA(Hons) CAIB
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Cyber Security Tips for Business Travellers

Now that the world is generally taking a less restrictive approach to travel and business travel will be resuming, at some level, cyber security is a very real threat that need be considered.

Organizations face heightened cybersecurity risks when their employees travel. Business travellers are prime targets for cybercriminals, as they often carry valuable data and may not always be careful about securing their devices. This article discusses key cybersecurity exposures for business travellers and outlines steps employers can take to mitigate these risks.

Cybersecurity Threats While Travelling

Business travellers’ laptops, smartphones and tablets are particularly susceptible to data breaches, loss and theft. Some common cyberthreats that business travellers may encounter include:

  • Unsecured Wi-Fi networks—While convenient, public Wi-Fi networks are unsecure and can allow cybercriminals easier access to connected devices (as well as the data stored on them) than private Wi-Fi networks.
  • Publicly accessible computers—Business travellers sometimes find the need to use their login credentials to access accounts on public computers. However, public computers often lack sufficient security capabilities and may even be infected with malware.
  • Stolen or misplaced devices—Theft or loss of devices is a major threat to business travellers, as this can result in the exposure of important data. Devices could be lost or stolen in airports, hotel lobbies, conference rooms or rental cars. 

How Employers Can Mitigate Cybersecurity Risks

Neglecting cybersecurity when employees are on the road or abroad can be detrimental to a business. In fact, the latest Cost of a Data Breach Report from IBM and the Ponemon Institute found that a single data breach costs a business $4.24 million on average.

Here are some measures employers can implement to minimize cybersecurity risks for business travellers:

  • Establish Wi-Fi policies. Employers should have policies in place requiring employees to confirm the network name and precise login procedures with the appropriate staff before connecting to public Wi-Fi networks in airports or hotels. Sensitive activities, such as banking or confidential work-related projects, should not be conducted on public Wi-Fi networks. Auto-connect should also be disabled so devices don’t connect to Wi-Fi networks automatically.
  • Enforce Virtual Private Network (VPN) use. Via a VPN, all online traffic is routed through an encrypted virtual tunnel. Such a network can help can reduce the risk of cyberattacks by establishing a secure connection between users and the internet. Employers should create VPNs and require employees to utilize these networks whenever possible, especially during business travel.
  • Conduct physical security training for digital valuables. Most travellers let their guards down once they arrive at their destinations, but that can be one of the times they’re most susceptible to theft. Employers should encourage business travellers to never leave their devices unattended. Employees should also be instructed to utilize strong passwords or multifactor authentication capabilities (if possible) and lock devices in hotel safes upon leaving their rooms.
  • Encourage employees to pack minimal devices. Leaving unnecessary technology at home can help reduce the chance of theft or data loss. As such, employers should only permit employees to bring devices that are essential to completing their job duties on the road or abroad.
  • Require regular software updates. Cybercriminals typically look for security flaws in outdated software. Updates are sent out to patch any holes in the software and reduce the opportunity for cybercriminals to attack. Employees should be required to update software on all their devices regularly.
  • Establish response plans. Employers should have specific response plans that outline steps to take when devices containing confidential information are compromised, lost or stolen on the road or abroad.

Conclusion

Business travellers often carry sensitive personal- and work-related data on various devices, leaving them vulnerable to cyberattacks. However, taking the proper precautions while travelling can help them keep their devices and data secure.

For more risk management guidance beyond cyber contact us today.

Dan Reith, Principal Broker
Dan Reith, Principal Broker

Principal Broker
Reith & Associates Insurance and Financial Services Limited
https://reithandassociates.com

Nikki Johnson No Comments

Cyber Crime: SMISHING Explained

Most businesses and individuals are familiar with phishing, a cyberattack technique that entails cybercriminals leveraging fraudulent emails to manipulate recipients into sharing sensitive information, clicking malicious links or opening harmful attachments. While these email-based scams remain a pressing concern, a new form of phishing—known as smishing—has emerged over the years, creating additional cyber exposures for organizations and individuals alike.

Smishing relies on the same tactics as phishing. The sole difference between these two cyberattack techniques is that smishing targets victims through text messages rather than emails. As a growing number of individuals utilize their smartphones for both personal and work-related purposes (e.g., interacting with colleagues and clients on mobile applications), smishing has become a rising threat. In fact, in 2021, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre totaled 4,451 reports of phishing and 1,323 reports of spear phishing, both of which can involve texting platforms.

With these numbers in mind, it’s evident that organizations need to address smishing exposures within their operations. The following article provides an overview of smishing and offers best practices for organizations to protect against this emerging cyberattack technique.

What Is Smishing?

Smishing follows the same format as phishing, using deceiving messages to manipulate recipients. These messages are generally sent via text but can also be delivered through mobile instant messaging applications (e.g., WhatsApp). In these messages, cybercriminals may implement a wide range of strategies to get their targets to share information or infect their devices with malware. Specifically, they will likely impersonate a trusted or reputable source and urge the recipient to respond with confidential details, download a harmful application or click a malicious link. Here are some examples of common smishing messages:

  • A message claiming to be from a financial institution, saying the recipient’s bank account is locked or experiencing suspicious activity and asking them to click a harmful link to remedy the issue
  • A message impersonating a well-known retailer (e.g., Amazon, Costco or Walmart), encouraging the recipient to download a malware-ridden application to receive a gift card or similar prize
  • A message claiming to be from an attorney or law enforcement, saying the recipient is facing legal trouble or criminal charges and urging them to call an unknown number for more information
  • A message impersonating the government, asking the recipient to click a suspicious link for details on their taxes or participation in a federal loan program
  • A message claiming to be a research organization, requesting the recipient download a malicious application to complete an informational survey
  • A message impersonating a delivery service, informing the recipient that they are receiving a package and providing them with a fraudulent link for tracking the item

If a recipient is tricked into doing what a smishing message asks, they could end up unknowingly downloading malware or exposing sensitive information, such as login credentials, debit and credit card numbers or Social Insurance Numbers. From there, cybercriminals may use the information they obtained from smishing for several reasons, such as hacking accounts, opening new accounts, stealing money or retrieving additional data. Since individuals may use their smartphones for work-related tasks, smishing has the potential to impact businesses as well. For example, an individual who falls for a smishing scam could inadvertently give a cybercriminal access to their workplace credentials, allowing the criminal to collect confidential data from the victim’s employer and even steal business funds.

The nature of smishing has made this cyberattack technique a significant threat. This is because individuals are typically not as careful when communicating on their smartphones compared to their computers, often engaging in multiple text conversations at a time (sometimes while distracted or in a rush). Due to the large number of texts sent and received daily, individuals may be less wary or observant of a message from an unknown number than an email, making them more likely to interact with a malicious text message.

Furthermore, many individuals falsely assume that their smartphones possess more advanced security features than computers, thus protecting them from harmful messages. However, smartphone security has its limits. Currently, these devices are unable to directly safeguard individuals from smishing attempts, leaving all smartphone users vulnerable. That’s why it’s important for businesses to take steps to protect against smishing.

How to Protect Against Smishing

To effectively minimize smishing exposures and prevent related cyberattacks, businesses should:

  • Conduct employee training. First, businesses should educate employees on what smishing is and how it could affect them. Additionally, employees should be required to participate in routine training regarding smishing detection and prevention. This training should instruct employees to:
  • Watch for signs of smishing within their text messages (e.g., lack of personalization, generic phrasing and urgent requests)
  • Refrain from interacting with or responding to messages from unknown numbers or suspicious senders
  • Avoid clicking links or downloading applications provided within messages
  • Never share sensitive information via text
  • Utilize trusted contact methods (e.g., calling a company’s official phone number) to verify the validity of any request sent over text
  • Report any suspicious messages to the appropriate parties, such as a supervisor or the IT department
  • Ensure adequate bring-your-own-device (BYOD) procedures. Apart from providing smishing training, businesses should establish solid BYOD procedures to ensure employees act accordingly when utilizing their personal smartphones for work-related purposes. Such procedures may include using a private Wi-Fi network, implementing multifactor authentication capabilities, conducting routine device updates and logging out of work accounts after each use. These procedures can help deter smishing attempts and decrease the damages that may ensue from smishing incidents.
  • Implement access controls. Another method for limiting smishing exposures is the use of access controls. By only allowing employees access to information they need to complete their job duties, businesses can reduce the risk of cybercriminals compromising excess data or securing unsolicited funds amid smishing incidents. To further protect their information, businesses should consider leveraging encryption services and establishing secure locations for backing up critical data.
  • Utilize proper security software. Businesses should also make sure company-owned smartphones are equipped with adequate security software. In some cases, this software can halt cybercriminals in their tracks, stopping smishing messages from reaching recipients’ devices and rendering harmful links or malicious applications ineffective. In particular, smartphones should possess antivirus programs, spam-detection systems and message-blocking tools. Security software should be updated as needed to ensure effectiveness.
  • Purchase sufficient coverage. Finally, it’s vital for businesses to secure proper cyber insurance to protect against potential losses stemming from smishing incidents. Businesses should reach out to their trusted insurance professionals to discuss specific coverage needs.

Conclusion

In summary, smishing is a serious cyber threat that both individuals and businesses can’t afford to ignore. By staying aware of smishing tactics and implementing solid mitigation measures, businesses can successfully protect against this rising cyberattack technique, deterring cybercriminals and minimizing associated losses.

For more risk management guidance, contact us today.

Dan Reith, Principal Broker
Dan Reith, Principal Broker

Principal Broker
Reith & Associates Insurance and Financial Services Limited
https://reithandassociates.com