Hacktivists Change Tactics From Data Breaches to Disruption: Verizon

The amount of data hacktivists stole plunged in 2012 as politically motivated hackers focused more on DDoS, but state-sponsored attackers and cyber-crooks picked up the slack.

Last year, much of the blame for data theft chronicled in Verizon's massive data breach report for 2011 was laid at the doorstep of hacktivists driven by political motives. Verizon's report on data breaches in 2012, however, reveals that the main ideology driving external attackers could be summed up this way: Greed is good.

Overall, organized crime was blamed for 55 percent of all external threat actors, compared with roughly 2 percent for hacktivists.

"They stole more data than any other type of threat actor in our 2012 report [for 2011]," explained Wade Baker, principal author of the Data Breach Investigations Report series. "In this report, there were far, far, far, far fewer records … whereas [in 2011] they stole over half of all the information."

"I think they just shifted their activity a little bit away from data breaches back to sort of your more traditional denial-of-service attack and causing disruption rather than stealing information," he said.

That shift means organizations must also shift what they prepare for, he said.

"Understanding the adversaries that are likely to attack you is extremely important," he told eWEEK. "If you're a financial institution right now, there is a good chance that you are getting attacked by these hacktivist groups. They are performing denial-of-service attacks on major financial institutions over the last six months. A year ago that wasn't as much the case."

For the most part, financially motivated attackers targeted the finance, retail and food industries, and put a bull's eye on point-of-sale [POS] devices as well as databases and desktops.

The biggest jump, however, can be seen in the amount of state-sponsored attacks, which disproportionately emanate from China. According to the report, 21 percent of the external attacks could be traced to nation-states, with as much as 96 percent of those coming from China. The remaining 4 percent were listed as unknown.

According to Wade, Verizon's attribution for the attacks is not just based on the geo-location of an IP address involved in the attack; instead, it is based on multiple layers of evidence and research connecting the dots between attack activity and hackers tied to the Chinese government.

"This may mean that other threat groups perform their activities with greater stealth and subterfuge," the report notes in its explanation of the figures. "But it could also mean that China is, in fact, the most active source of national and industrial espionage in the world today."

By and large, the attacks from nation-states target the manufacturing and transportation industries and go after credentials, internal data, trade secrets and system information.

At the center of these attacks is often a spear-phishing attack that enabled the culprits to get their hands on usernames and password information. In fact, the study found that the proportion of breaches using social-engineering tactics such as phishing was four times higher in 2012 than in 2011, in part due to its widespread use in espionage campaigns.

In most cases (69 percent), Verizon's forensic investigators were unable to determine who in the breached organizations had fallen victim to the social engineering or phishing attacks. However, in 30 percent of the cases involving enterprises, the victim was at the executive level. Twenty-seven percent of the cases in the enterprise world could be traced to managers. For small and midsized businesses [SMBs], however, the percentages were different, with just 11 percent of the issues traced to executives. The largest percentage belonged to cashiers, who accounted for 13 percent of the breaches.

Interestingly, a recent study by Symantec found that the number of targeted attacks focused on chief executive or board-level employees fell from 25 percent in 2011 to 17 percent in 2012, reflecting what one researcher speculated could be a shift among attackers to focus on employees directly involved in research and development.

Still, the Verizon report notes that executives and managers "make sweet targets for criminals looking to gain access to sensitive information via spear-phishing campaigns" because they have a higher profile than the average end user and are likely to have access to proprietary information. In addition, an executive may be more likely to open a booby-trapped PowerPoint or PDF attachment due to their everyday activity.

The report is available for download here.