What is cyber espionage?





Cyber espionage definition

Cyber espionage is a type of cyberattack conducted by a threat actor (or cyber spy) who accesses, steals, or exposes classified data or intellectual property (IP) with malicious intent, in order to gain an economic, political, or competitive advantage in a corporate or government setting. It can also be used to harm an individual or business’s reputation.

Cyber espionage does not have to be sophisticated, but it can involve complex tactics and long, patient breaches of a target’s network. Common methods of cyber espionage include advanced persistent threats (APT), social engineering, malware attacks, and spear phishing. The cyber espionage threat landscape is constantly evolving as attacks become more sophisticated.

Cyber espionage targets

Becoming a victim of cyber espionage can have damaging consequences for an organization's reputation and can erode trust between corporations and their customers. Cybercriminals target corporate and government entities rich with sensitive informaiton. Targets of cyber espionage include:

Internal operations information

  • Research and development (R&D) data, employee salaries, and operational data.

Intellectual property (IP)

  • Proprietary plans, sensitive projects, and any property that an attacker could sell for profit.

Client or customer information

  • Client lists, the services they are provided, and how much they pay.

Competitor and marketing intelligence

  • Brand names, domain names, logos, unique website design, and creative assets.

Small business to large enterprise

Cyber-spying is a form of corporate espionage. The aftermath of a cyberespionage attack can not only damage customer-company trust, it can also damage shareholder confidence. Cyber-spies can inflict financial damage on corporations by disrupting their operations. Ramifications of these attacks include theft of competitor marketing strategies used to manipulate unfair market conditions. Attacks can target large and small businesses, as well as individuals ranging from business executives to public figures.

Cyber espionage attacks

Infamously, in 2009, 30 high-profile Fortune 500 companies were targeted by a cyber espionage campaign designed to steal trade secrets. Among the victims, only Google publicly admitted that it was breached, disclosing that Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights advocates had been compromised. The attack, known as Operation Aurora, is believed to have originated from China.

Operating since 2008, Fancy Bear is a Russian-based cyber espionage group that attacks government and military organizations. Politically motivated, the group targets American electronic systems, including the infamous 2016 spear-phishing attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

In 2021, the United States NSA and FBI disclosed that Fancy Bear was behind “widespread, distributed, and anonymized brute force access attempts” against the cloud-based systems of hundreds of government and private sector targets around the world.

Global impact of cyber spying cases

Victims of cyber espionage extend beyond the US border. Government agencies, academic institutions, political leaders, and officials around the world can become targets of computer espionage.

Other examples of global cyber espionage cases:

  • MuddyWater (2022) – Iranian APTs targeting telecommunications, local government, defense, and other sectors worldwide.
  • Pioneer Kitten (2017) – Iranian-based attack that targeted MENA and US organizations.
  • Goblin Panda (2013) – Chinese APTs that primarily focused the Southeast Asian governments.
  • GhostNet (2009) – A breach discovered at the Dalai Lama’s office. GhostNet attacked embassies and government offices worldwide.

Cyber espionage attacks are ongoing and remain relevant today. In January 2022, a Chinese hacking group breached German pharmaceutical and technology companies targeting high-value intellectual property. With an increase in work from home activity, organizations have become harder to defend and are responding by prioritizing cyber-risk and mitigation strategies.

Cyber espionage prevention

Growing more sophisticated and advanced, cyber-spy attacks are increasingly able to evade traditional cybersecurity methods.

Tips to prevent cyber espionage attacks:

  • Patch software promptly, particularly internet-facing systems.
  • Use multi-factor authentication that includes factors that cannot be brute-forced or phished, such as harware keys.
  • Segment networks to make lateral movement by attackers more difficult.
  • Monitor unexpected, suspicious behavior and take a proactive approach to detection. This includes threat hunting and threat intelligence found in cybersecurity solutions and services, such as MDR (managed detection and response) and SIEM (security information and event management).
  • Review your organization's data policy and restrict who has access to sensitive data by practicing the principle of least privilege.

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