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3.5 min read

What’s Driving Nation-State Cyber-Attacks, and What Can You Do About It?

Digital map of the world
Written by
James Mignacca
Published on
April 12, 2023

Increasing global unrest means that nation-state cyber-attacks are becoming increasingly common. These malicious activities are sponsored by governments and state actors to gain access to sensitive information or disrupt operations of other countries. As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, so too do the reasons why these attacks happen, and the tactics state-sponsored actors use.

Over the years nation-state attacks have become more malicious in nature and objective. We expect to see nation-state attacks become more sophisticated, so much so that most people won’t even know that they’re happening.

A few factors that make today’s brand of state-sponsored attacks particularly effective are:

1. Cloud adoption

In our rush to digitization and implicit trust in cloud service providers, businesses have inadvertently put themselves in the crosshairs. State-sponsored attackers target a unique set of crown jewels, and they recognize that today many of the jewels they covet are stored in cloud services. As such, expect to see attacks on cloud service providers rise.

2. Strong funding

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has demonstrated how effective strategic attacks can be, particularly when critical infrastructure and core services are targeted. Adversary groups are well funded and have the resources, tools and teams they need to execute.

3. Attack surface expansion

Rapid cloud services adoption, hybrid work models, lax data governance, and deficient attack surface management have morphed the attack surface. Data duplication, proliferation, and sprawl mean that sensitive data lives everywhere. Unclassified and orphaned data is vulnerable and can be leveraged as an access point.

4. Broad denial and avoidance

Average businesses don't look at state-sponsored cybercrime seriously until it's widespread. Yet from a cost and damage perspective it's just as bad as the usual brand of cybercrime businesses regularly face. State-sponsored actors are effectively using non-obvious business targets as an inroad to larger strategic targets.

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When we look at the tactics fueling attack trends, the most common type of attack is a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, which floods a target with traffic from multiple sources in order to overwhelm its systems and cause disruption. This type of attack has been used for many years as a way for nation-states to send messages or demonstrate their power over another country’s infrastructure. However, more recently there has been an increase in targeted attacks that focus on stealing data or disrupting business operations rather than simply causing disruption.

Attacks can be direct or indirect; direct attacks involve targeting specific organizations while indirect ones involve exploiting vulnerabilities within third-party services such as cloud providers or software vendors that may be used by multiple companies at once. In either case, the most common goal is financial gain through intellectual property or trade secret theft. However, these attacks can also be used for espionage purposes as well.

Here are a few steps you can take to guard your organization against direct or indirect attack:

1. Understand your organization’s risk profile and take offensive steps accordingly:

This includes conducting regular attack surface assessments and implementing appropriate controls such as firewalls and antivirus software where necessary.

2. Stay up-to-date on current trends in cybersecurity:

It seems obvious, but the threat landscape changes every day. Being aware of popular tactics and toolkits can help you better understand the kinds of threats you should look out for and how to respond if your business is attacked directly or indirectly by a nation-state actor.

3. Have an incident response plan ready:

This is another obvious but overlooked initiative. Having a comprehensive and up-to-date incident response plan in place ensures that breaches are addressed quickly and effectively. Ensuring your plan is reviewed and updated quarterly or semi-annually will help you adjust to threat trends and adapt remediation measures accordingly.

Nation-state cyber-attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated. With proper preparation businesses can guard against them successfully without sacrificing efficiency or productivity levels.

Staying on top of current trends in cybersecurity, regularly assessing risks, implementing appropriate controls, and having an incident response plan ready will help your business better guard against both direct and indirect nation-state cyber-attacks.

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