Hacktivists, nation-state hackers and cyber-criminals expanded their operations and demonstrated more sophisticated capabilities in 2013, suggesting that the number of significant cyber-attacks will continue to grow in the coming year, according to an annual report released by security services firm CrowdStrike on Jan. 22.
While groups linked to China continued to account for the lion's share of attacks targeting intellectual property and classified information, groups in the Middle East, Russia and other Asian nations are considered the source of an increasing number of cyber-operations.
Attackers also diversified their techniques for compromising strategic Website targets by employing more "watering hole attacks," which involve infecting a frequently visited Website with malware, rather than just targeted phishing attacks, the report stated.
Overall, the attacks show that companies and governments have to be prepared for a more sophisticated and persistent adversary, said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence for CrowdStrike.
"Cyber is increasingly important for statecraft, commerce and many of the other areas of our live," Meyers said. "We continue to see the adversaries advancing, and we have to keep the pressure on them."
Cyber-espionage became a fact of world politics in 2013. In February, incident-response firm Mandiant released a report that identified an intelligence group in China's military as the source of more than 140 attacks on U.S. firms and government agencies.
In June, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency leaked documents showing that the intelligence group had collected massive amounts of information on Americans, eavesdropped on the communications of world leaders and developed a catalog of techniques to compromise hardware and software systems.
Because of its client base, CrowdStrike does not encounter operations carried out by U.S. intelligence agencies, but has seen a wide variety of Chinese operations, Meyers said. CrowdStrike attempts to link attacks to known groups of adversaries, using commonalities in the attackers' tools, techniques and procedures.
A central technique that emerged this year was to target certain industries and government agencies by compromising Websites tailored for those groups. Starting in December 2012 with the compromise of the Council on Foreign Relations' Website, a variety of Chinese groups used strategic Website compromises (SWCs), or watering hole attacks, to gain the trust of their targets.
"Attackers still have to clear the first hurdle of compromising and weaponizing a legitimate Website, but once that is done, there are advantages to using an SWC attack over spear-phishing," the report stated. "One is that as security awareness increases, potential victims are becoming attuned to look for spearphishing emails, and if they recognize them, they can thwart attackers at the outset."
CrowdStrike uses a naming system that classifies attackers by their affiliations with major groups. Chinese attackers as thus dubbed "Panda," Russian attackers are called "Bear," and hacktivists are named "Jackal." A number of Chinese groups featured prominently in the report included Emissary Panda, Violin Panda and Wet Panda.
The year also marked the rise of Middle Eastern cyber-attack groups. The Syrian Electronic Army, dubbed Deadeye Jackal by CrowdStrike, defaced a number of sites worldwide and compromised a handful of communications service providers. Perhaps most seriously, the group began targeting third-party service providers, such as the registrar Melbourne IT, as a way to compromise its ultimate targets.