The cyberattacks against Google and more than 30 other technology companies by adversaries operating out of China highlights what some call the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) confronting a growing number of commercial entities.
The term has been used for some time in government and military domains to describe targeted cyberattacks carried out by highly organised state-sponsored groups with deep technical skills and computing resources.
Such attacks are typically highly targeted, stealthy, customised and persistent. They also often involve intensive surveillance and advanced social engineering. In many cases, the attacks target highly placed individuals within organisations who are tricked into visiting malicious sites or downloading malicious software onto their systems. The goal in most of these attacks is to steal trade secrets rather than personal or financial data.
Government networks, especially those of the Department of Defense, have been the target of such advanced persistent threats for years. But as the attacks against Google and others show, these threats are spilling over into the commercial side.
Writing in a blog post, security vendor McAfee's chief technology officer George Kurtz noted that APTs had begun to change the threat landscape.
"These attacks have demonstrated that companies of all sectors are very lucrative targets," Kurtz said. APTs, he noted, have become "the equivalent of the modern drone on the battlefield. With pinpoint accuracy they deliver their deadly payload and once discovered - it is too late."
Confronting the threat does not always require the implementation of new technologies. But it does require rethinking some of the strategies that companies may be adopting to protecting data, Kurtz and others said. Among the steps:
1. Your adversaries are not just organised crime any more
Given the enormous growth in organised cybercrime over the past few years, most companies have implemented defenses for protecting personal and financial data from theft. While that's important, it's also essential for companies to think about protecting their intellectual property data, said Ed Skoudis, co-founder of InGuardians, a security consultancy.
"The threat has shifted," Skoudis said. "If you go back over 10 years, the primary threats we faced were from hobbyists. Then the landscape changed, and the primary threat we most had to deal with was organised crime. And now it has shifted again," he said.
Many cyberattackers are more are interested in corporate espionage and in stealing intellectual property than they are in going after credit card numbers or patient health data.
"There's still the concern about people stealing 27 million cards," Skoudis said. But a failure to adequately protect IP and corporate secrets against similar theft could result in far more long term damage, he said. "You got to realise what your threat is and how to look for it," he said.