Australian businesses caught in the cyber crosshairs

The attack on US health insurer Anthem is the first big hack of 2015 and our businesses are not immune to the rising tide of cyber attacks and breaches.

With the influx of social media, cyber security breaches rarely miss the media’s eyes. The course of 2014, witnessed multiple high profile cyber attacks in all forms around the world, which drew headlines. Sony, Home Depot and Target are just a few high profile examples of some of the global brands that fell prey to sophisticated cyber attacks.

The situation is likely to get worse in 2015 and with the attack on US health insurer Anthem, were hackers broke into a database containing personal information of about 80 million of its customers and employees, we have our first big hack of the year.

Looking back at last year, one of the more prominent cyber attacks that received extensive media coverage was the nude celebrity photo leak, that not only raised concerns for privacy, but also the security risks involved in downloading content from the internet.

Reportedly, malware from distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on those computers that accessed the photographs took down the entire IT infrastructure in New Zealand.The ramifications from such an example goes to show that ANZ is not immune to cyber attacks and breaches. 

In fact, a growing number of these types of incidents originate in ANZ and are much more common than what is disclosed. 

In addition to DDoS attacks, malware has emerged as one of the most powerful tools for targeted data exfiltration, used particularly when an attacker wants to steal intellectual property or currency. According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), an average of 16,500 cases of malware have been reported to Australian internet service providers every day last year. 

Size doesn’t matter

While the media has certainly increased its coverage over the last couple years pertaining to data loss, many of the headlines involved global brands. Recent trends show however, that smaller companies are not immune to the threat of cyber attacks either.

The annual, Verizon Data Breach Report noted that of the 621 confirmed data breaches, almost half happened at companies with less than 1000 employees and almost 200 at companies with less than 100 employees.  A Symantec report echoed the findings and noted that start-ups are especially vulnerable in the early going.

Why target smaller companies?

Similar to large corporations, small companies have valuable data such as intellectual property, financial information, and digital identities. The key difference however, is that they may not have the resources to properly protect that data as a larger organsiation would. Many large, global companies have beefed up their security in fear of becoming the next headline in a major newspaper. 

Unfortunately for small businesses, thieves usually go after the easiest target – that is those with limited resources to protect against such an attack.  Criminals may also infiltrate a smaller organisation to jump on a global network if a partnership is in place. This tactic essentially aims to ‘take out the villages before entering the capital’.  In a start-up's situation, all it takes is one employee to click on a malicious link to spread the malware across the network. Most start-ups get infected with malware within the first year of operation.

More vigilance required

We all know that security is a global issue and isn’t going away anytime soon. DDoS attacks are increasingly prevalent and show no signs of losing popularity with cyber criminals.

Large cyber-attacks are capable of knocking out business-critical applications that generate revenue and facilitate communications, which can have severe business impacts. 

Organisations that depend on their online presence for survival absolutely need invest in security solutions that protect themselves, staff, customers and end-users against these attack vectors. So what can organisations in Australia do to protect themselves more effectively?

Mitigating attacks

Predicting a DDoS attack is difficult, and the results can be disastrous: loss of revenue-generating applications as well as reputational damage can negatively impact a business for years.

Protecting against an attack however, may be less difficult. There are ways a company can keep their applications, services and even their entire network online, without stopping legitimate traffic. From blocking attack traffic to re-routing legitimate requests to ensure uptime, the solutions are available. At the same time, understanding who is attacking the business, as well as how and why, can help prevent an attack from causing too much damage and can help protect against future attacks.

Whether these kinds of DDoS attacks are the work of cyber criminals or even attempts to sabotage rivals is unclear. What is clear is that defending against DDoS attacks is not just the province of private and public sector businesses. These attacks have become more prevalent and have amplified over the last year; we can expect to see a lot more of them, with even greater power, across different sectors in 2015.

Matt Miller is director - Field Systems Engineering ANZ at F5 Networks