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Even in today’s heightened digitally aware environment, companies remain unprepared to protect themselves against an emerging, relentless cyber security danger that threatens national security and economic stability, a new survey said.

Advanced persistent threats (APTs) are not easy to eliminate, which makes them different from traditional threats, according to global IT association ISACA. But an ISACA survey of more than 1,500 security professionals found 53 percent of respondents do not believe APTs differ from traditional threats.

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This disconnect indicates IT professionals and their organizations may not be fully prepared to protect themselves against APTs, ISACA said.

“APTs are sophisticated, stealthy, and unrelenting,” ISACA International Vice President Christos Dimitriadis said. “Traditional cyber threats often move right on if they cannot penetrate their initial target. But an APT will continually attempt to penetrate the desired target until it meets its objective — and once it does, it can disguise itself and morph when needed, making it difficult to identify or stop.”

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High-profile examples of APTs include the Google Aurora attack, disclosed in January 2010, and an attack on security, compliance, and risk management provider RSA in 2011. Although APTs are espionage tactics that often look to steal intellectual property, the Google Aurora and RSA attacks show these threats are not just facing government entities, the report said.

Although more than 70 percent of IT professionals surveyed said their organizations are able to detect APT attacks, and more than 70 percent said they are able to respond to APT attacks, their description of controls indicate a misunderstanding and lack of preparation, according to ISACA. Top controls enterprises use to stop APTs were anti-virus and anti-malware programs (95 percent), and network perimeter strategies such as firewalls (93 percent).

The difference is APTs can get around these types of defenses. “APTs call for many defensive approaches,” said ISACA Director Jo Stewart-Rattray.

APT hackers do use social media to learn information about employees of organizations. Then they send “spear phishing” emails that appear legitimate. Ninety percent of respondents in the ISACA survey said the use of social networking sites increases the likelihood of a successful APT attack.

While 22 percent of respondents said they suffered an APT attack, 63 percent said it is only a matter of time before their enterprise ends up targeted by an APT.

“We are only in February, and already we can declare 2013 as the year of the hack,” Tom Kellermann, vice president of cyber security for Trend Micro said in the news release. “… Enterprises are under attack, and they don’t even know it.”

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