The Lowdown on Cyber Attacks and Ways to Prevent Them
In today’s digital world, cyber attacks are one of the biggest threats to businesses. Regardless of business size or industry operating in, every business with digital assets must take the cyber threat seriously. Failure to do so could lead to catastrophic consequences.
Businesses need to have a holistic understanding of their digital footprint and the threat landscape. At all times, they need to think about what information is accessible, where it resides, who can see it, how it’s secured, and more. Being aware of the dangers is an important part of a remediation strategy against damaging cyber attacks.
So, what actually is a cyber attack? Simply put, a cyber attack is an unwelcome attempt by cybercriminals using one or more computers against single or multiple computers or networks. As IBM states, the attempt is designed to ‘steal, expose, alter, disable or destroy information through unauthorised access to computer systems.’
Remember, the threats are very real and increasingly complex.
Taking the first steps to improve cyber intelligence
A lack of cyber intelligence makes it incredibly difficult to monitor and stay abreast of the threats. Without knowing, and understanding, what the dangers are, how can businesses expect to protect themselves? Therefore, the first step to cyber prevention is improving general cyber intelligence across the business, both at the employee and board levels.
Businesses must regularly be asking themselves questions such as: ‘What are the latest attack methods used by hackers?’; ‘What is encryption?’; ‘How can our staff identify a phishing email?’; ‘Is our software regularly updated?’; ‘Where is the business vulnerable?’ and ‘Is our data in a secure location?’.
Before implementing robust security technologies and processes, the first part of preventing cyber attacks is to identify the threats. That gives businesses the ability to understand what they need to protect, how to protect it, what dangers to look for, and so on. It’s about having the ability to make informed and educated decisions.
The common vulnerabilities – where are businesses weak and how can they mitigate risk?
There are normally three parts to cyber attack prevention: People, processes and technology. It’s often people that are the weak spot and provide cyber attackers with unwarranted access to business networks.
Clearly, technology is vitally important in defending against potential attacks but should not be viewed in isolation. It is understanding, educating and governing that ensures businesses view cyber security as another part of risk management. After all, cyber security is a risk like every other. It’s about how that risk is managed that determines how successfully a business can prevent a cyber attack.
Exploiting the people within a business is, and always has been, the easiest way to compromise a business. Cyber attackers regularly use malware disguised through adverts, phishing emails or social engineering to penetrate and attack targets.
Addressing the threats head-on by educating the wider team is essential in promoting good governance and procedures. Combined with robust technology, a combination of technology, processes and training people gives businesses the ability to navigate the complicated cyber world.
Here are some of the most common business weaknesses:
People – As mentioned, the easiest way to expose a business is by exploiting the people within. Even if the business has good security for itself, it’ll have vulnerabilities if the people in the business operate outside the parameters set by IT or continually carry out risk behaviours, such as clicking on spam links.
Email – Email phishing is the most common cyber-attack delivery mechanism. The increasing success of ransomware attacks, which hold encrypted data for ransom, highlights this. Malicious emails are very easy to execute as an attack and can be incredibly persuadable at tricking someone to click on the link. Cyber attackers can get inside business networks and steal data or extort money by simply getting a target, anyone connected to the network, to click on a malicious link.
Leadership – Cyber “negligence” is no longer excusable from leadership. Cyber security is a boardroom concern today. Whenever the business has a leader who takes an active interest in cyber prevention then, almost always, the business performs better against cyber attacks.
Software – Failing to update software regularly with patches is another common weakness for businesses. Out-of-date software and applications present gaps for cyber criminals to expose. The infamous Wannacry ransomware attack that took out the NHS, for example, was one that exploited a specific Microsoft Windows vulnerability, targeting machines running the supported, but unpatched, Microsoft Windows 7 operating system.
What are the impacts of a cyber attack?
Cyber attackers generally target businesses for financial gain or reputational damage, but occasionally, it’s just for sport. Either way, they want to steal and extort money, expose secrets, cause mischief, and damage reputations.
If an attack is successful, there are three main areas of impact:
Financial: The first and most common impact is financial losses. Businesses can lose millions of pounds from cyber attacks. Cyber attacks hit hard and fast. From the moment a hacker breaches a business, they can get access to compromised bank accounts, where they can extract sums of money, or, in the case of ransomware, demand huge fees to ‘release’ the information back to the business.
Reputation: Despite financial impacts being potentially severe, reputational damage is arguably worse as it’s harder to recover from. Additionally, it can be damaged in a lot of ways. For example, It could mean losing clients or losing consumer trust. Many businesses build their brand on their reputation, so reputational damage for them can be devastating. Once reputation is lost, it’s extremely difficult to get back.
Corporate secrets: Thirdly, leaked corporate secrets can have a huge impact on both an individual and their business. Corporate deals have collapsed because data has been released into the public domain. Valuations can significantly fluctuate, partners and business deals can evaporate, and business leaders can be ousted.
How can businesses prevent cyber breaches?
Albeit an ever-evolving and complicated threat, cyber doesn’t need to be overly complicated. It needs to be managed and mitigated like every other risk. Taking robust and well-planned actions to identify and remove vulnerabilities drastically reduces the chances of being hacked. For instance, enforcing the use of strong passwords; updating software regularly; implementing good technology; and improving the understanding of threats. It is the understanding and training of staff, combined with the correctly configured technology, that results in best practice behaviours and risk mitigation.
Don’t be fooled into overlooking strong password controls and patch management because of their perceived simplicity or relevance; these are usually the first targets of vulnerability that would-be hackers will focus on and compromise.
Consider asking staff these questions:
- What is phishing?
- How do you know if something is potentially malicious?
- What do you do if you’ve clicked on a malicious link?
- How do you use online applications and tools safely?
- What is a good password?
- What’s two-factor authentication?
- What is the Cloud?
- Is public Wi-Fi dangerous?
It is the management of ‘cyber risk’ that enables businesses to run their operations with confidence and peace of mind.
Five basic cyber attack prevention tips
With the number of cyber attacks increasing every year, it’s clear it’s time for businesses to get the basics right. Here are the simple tips you should be focusing on right now:
Patching: Given the simple reason for the NHS outage (unpatched software), you must make it a priority to regularly keep your operating system and software applications updated regularly. The sooner you patch, the less chance there is for a criminal to exploit a vulnerability.
Be ready: Being ready for a data breach is vital, because it is going to happen at some stage. If you get it wrong, you could be in line to receive a hefty fine from the regulator. Get a process in place for if a breach occurs and make sure you inform the regulator.
Educating: Don’t see cyber as just a technology problem. Cyber is as much a people problem as anything else. You can have all the tech and processes you want, but if the people aren’t aware then you don’t get any benefit out of it.
Risk management: If you are going to handle personal or sensitive data, you must have a plan. Equally, you need to have a regular risk management process in place to stay on top of the latest threats to make sure you can avoid or minimise their impact.
Emails: When in doubt, don’t open any link or attachment sent by an unknown party. Email phishing is the most common of all cyber attacks with a high success rate. Be smart and ensure everyone in the business is aware of the dangers of opening malicious emails.
If you don’t get these basic cyber prevention steps right, you can be sure the bad guys will take advantage of it. Read our latest whitepaper here to learn more about how you can prevent potential attacks.