In this tech-driven world where so much of our business data is stored, tracked, managed, and used online, information is always vulnerable to the risk of a cyberattack.
While most of us think about general hacker issues that we need to secure our firms and details against, cyber espionage is a specific threat that can be a big problem yet isn’t so well understood.
What Is Cyber Espionage?
Cyber espionage, also called cyber spying, is the term used to describe a specific type of cyberattack involving a person attempting to access, steal, delete, or share and expose sensitive or classified data or intellectual property (IP) in an unauthorized way. Those who do this have malicious intent or are hired by those with malicious intent. The idea is to gain some type of competitive, economic, or political advantage in a corporate or governmental setting.
Sometimes cyber espionage is used to harm the reputation of individuals, businesses, or organizations. Cyber espionage can be simple, sophisticated, or anything in between and often involves long-game breaches of a target’s network that take time to pull off and may involve complex strategies.
Who and What Does It Target?
Cyber espionage can involve an attack on anyone and any organization. However, common targets are large firms, government departments, academic institutions, think tanks, and any other types of groups and organizations with valuable intellectual property or systems that others want to gain knowledge of or share with the public. Also, political leaders and government officials may be targeted, as well as prominent CEOs, business owners, and celebrities.
Cyber espionage typically attempts to gain access to the types of data that include product formulas and blueprints, tech code, academic research data, and research and development information. Client lists, payment structures, and business plans, goals, and marketing tactics get focused on too, as do military and political intelligence, affiliations, and various communications.
How Does Cyber Espionage Work and What Types of Strategies Get Used?
Cyber espionage often evolves as technologies and plans change and spies develop more sophisticated attacks. However, some of the current common ways people conduct cyber espionage are through social engineering, malware attacks, spear phishing, and the advanced persistent threat (APT).
Social engineering is an attack involving exploiting people’s emotions to gather information from them or spur them to undertake certain types of activities. For example, cyber spies often trick victims into giving up data or enabling access by honing in on feelings of fear, empathy, excitement, anxiety, or curiosity to get people to act rashly or to trust the spy.
Another strategy is to use cyberattacks such as planting malicious links or downloads infected with malware for people to click on or use that can give access to digital systems and expose information. Sometimes cyber spies use ransomware to gain access to business or other networks, lock owners out, and then demand a ransom to stop intellectual property or other details from being released to the public.
Spear phishing is a type of phishing (sending fake communications pretending to be from someone else) that targets specially-chosen individuals within an organization with fraudulent emails, phone calls, texts, or other messages. This is done to gain access to that person’s account or other information. Cyber spies target those involved in a company’s confidential and often financial operations, as well as ranking officials and the like, and steal login credentials or impersonate someone to get information or money.
A lot of cyber espionage happens through an advanced persistent threat, a sophisticated and sustained cyberattack style. It involves an intruder finding a way to get into an online network undetected and stay there for a long time, continually stealing sensitive data as the months pass.
This type of attack must be planned out carefully and done strategically to evade security measures long-term and not alert organizations that they’ve been hacked. Often, teams of people work on these attacks and spend a lot of time and resources on spotting vulnerabilities in digital systems that can be exploited.
Another attack in cyber espionage is zero-day exploits, where hackers exploit software flaws and security vulnerabilities before they’re found and fixed by an organization’s tech team. There’s also the “watering hole” strategy, where cybercriminals infect legitimate websites that targeted individuals visit often, to get malware onto their systems that way.
Plus, there is the use of inside actors or insider threats, where external parties convince an employee, contractor, or other stakeholders with access to assets to share or sell information or provide access to a system.
Why Do People Use It?
There are numerous reasons why people use cyber espionage to try to get ahead or cause others harm. However, it’s primarily used as a tactic when aggressors are looking to either create a competitive advantage by gathering trade secrets or other IP or sell information for financial gain.
There are also times when the people causing the attacks are looking to cause reputational harm or, on odd occasions, want to call out unethical or other questionable business practices that have been going on. Sometimes, an extended and very strategic plan deployed for military or political means can occur as a form of cyber warfare since this type of espionage and terrorism may disrupt infrastructure, public services, or other chaos and societal harm.
Tips for Staying Safer and Minimizing Your Chances of an Attack
While it’s generally impossible to protect against every possible threat, plenty of steps can be followed to minimize your chances of falling victim to cyber espionage. For example, organization leaders must focus on working with their Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to implement as many digital security protections as possible.
Comprehensive CISO security involves tactics such as installing comprehensive security software and firewalls, stopping staff members from accessing certain types of websites, monitoring threats in real-time, and protecting users’ privacy when they do things online. Plus, there’s backing up data to multiple locations regularly and having employees use decent passwords to log in to systems and update them yearly.
Other tips to reduce risk include:
- Patching software ASAP
- Using multi-factor authentication wherever possible
- Segmenting networks
- Reviewing data policies often
- Restricting access to sensitive and valuable data
- Monitoring unexpected and suspicious behavior closely
- Staying up to date on hacker strategies as they develop
The more you understand cyber espionage and take steps to stop it from happening to you and your organization, the lower your chances of facing the difficulties of being attacked. Take the time to learn what you need and outsource relevant protection functions to well-vetted experts.