Breaches, Zero-Day Attacks Rise in 2014, Symantec Finds

Cyber-attacker activities have reached new highs in the past year with nearly double the zero-day vulnerabilities reported compared to two years ago.

Symantec Cyber Report

Cyber-criminals, nation-state actors and hacktivists became more nimble in 2014, exploiting more zero-day vulnerabilities, compromising a greater number of networks and conducting more targeted attacks, according to security firm Symantec's annual Internet Security Threat Report.

The data suggests that attackers are becoming more adept—or using more sophisticated tools—to attack companies and organizations. In 2014, for example, attackers targeted at least 24 previously unknown vulnerabilities—so-called "zero-days," according to the report. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of zero-day vulnerabilities discovered in the wild generally varied between 8 and 14 each year.

With a big jump in zero-day vulnerabilities in 2013, to 23, attackers have seemingly upped their game, Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's security response group, told eWEEK. Last year, the greater focus on finding—or purchasing—unknown vulnerabilities continued, he said.

"I think we have hit a new plateau," Haley said. "I see that in the zero days. I see that in the targeted attacks. I see that in the breach numbers. We are always saying that it gets worse, but this is now a clear indication that we have seen a significant jump."

The annual Internet Security Threat Report analyzes data from the tens of millions of clients and security appliances that are part of Symantec's threat-intelligence networks.

By some measures, the number of online hazards decreased. The proportion of Websites found vulnerable by Symantec dropped by a single percentage point, to 76 percent, in 2014. The number of Websites that were compromised with malware also dropped by half—to 1 in 566 down from 1 in 1,126. Finally, the average number of spearphishing emails reaching organizations each day dropped to 73 from 83.

Scratch the surface, however, and the data seemed to indicate that threats continue to increase. While fewer Websites were vulnerable, for example, more of those vulnerabilities were critical, according to Symantec. While organizations received fewer spearphishing attacks in their inboxes, the number of campaigns increased by 8 percent, the firm stated.

Attackers appear to be more actively targeting companies, but at the same time, being more selective in their victims. In 2014, Symantec recorded 841 spearphishing campaigns, up from 779 the prior year, suggesting that more companies are being attacked. However, the average number of victims attacked in each campaign dropped to 25, from 29, in 2013.

Software vendors continued to significantly lag behind attackers. The top–5 zero-day vulnerabilities, for example, were left unpatched by vendors for a total of 295 days in 2014, compared to a total vulnerability window of 19 days in 2013.

"There are clearly companies that get it, and are doing the right things, and then there are still all these laggards that are not taking it seriously," Haley said.

The top attachments used in spearphishing attacks were Word documents (.doc), executable files (.exe) and screensaver files (.scr), which together accounted for nearly three-quarters of all malicious attachments. Companies that block executable attachments could stop 32 percent of attacks, Symantec stated.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...