We thrill to the adventures of the suave, sophisticated James Bond with his tuxedos, martinis, tricked-out cars and a license to kill. However, the most daring spies today are wielding keyboards and software instead of guns and gadgets. Cyber spies who use computer systems to steal information from rival businesses or governmental organizations pose a growing threat to national security, business competitiveness and individual privacy.
China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are the acknowledged leaders in state-sponsored cyber operations designed to steal intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technologies, military intelligence and more. The 2016 Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack by Russian operatives is among the more well-known examples of state-sponsored cyber espionage. A recent Microsoft report claims that such state-sponsored cyber incursions have doubled over the past two years.
State-sponsored hackers aren’t the only types engaging in these activities. Organized crime groups also conduct cyber espionage against businesses, governments and individuals for financial gain. Some cyber espionage is driven by competition within industries, with companies spying on each other to gain advantages, access proprietary technology or monitor market trends. Hacktivist collectives that promote social or political causes sometimes try to expose or embarrass select agencies or businesses by stealing and releasing sensitive information.
Cyber spies use a variety of techniques to gain access to confidential information. Here are some of the more common tactics:
Cyber espionage relies heavily on social engineering tactics that are challenging to detect. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of cyber espionage incidents involve phishing. Social engineering is attractive due to its cost-effectiveness, low technical requirements and high effectiveness. Attackers manipulate human psychology, which often makes tracking and attribution difficult.
Supply Chain Attacks
In these attacks, malicious actors infiltrate an organization’s trusted vendors, suppliers or software providers. By compromising these upstream sources, attackers can inject malware, backdoors or other vulnerabilities into widely used products or services, which then get distributed to the target’s network or user base. Once executed, these attacks allow cyber spies to exploit numerous victims, exfiltrate sensitive data and establish persistent access within a target’s environment.
Fake or Trojan Apps
Fake or Trojan apps are typically disguised as legitimate and desirable applications, enticing users to download and install them. Once installed, they can conduct various espionage activities, including data theft, remote surveillance, keylogging, backdoor access and even the propagation of additional malware. Some Trojan apps provide remote control capabilities, enabling cyber spies to access the device’s camera, microphone and file system, effectively turning the compromised device into a surveillance tool. Unofficial app stores are common distribution points for these malicious apps.
Watering Hole Attacks
In a watering hole attack, threat actors compromise a website or service regularly visited by target individuals or organizations. By injecting malware into the site, malicious actors can covertly deliver exploits to unsuspecting visitors, thereby gaining unauthorized access to their systems, networks and sensitive data. This tactic is particularly effective for espionage purposes, as it leverages the trust associated with familiar websites and significantly increases the chances of infiltrating high-value targets.
Catfishing, the practice of creating false personas to manipulate or deceive others, can be leveraged as a potent tool for cyber espionage. Using fake online identities, attackers establish trust and rapport with targeted individuals — often employees or individuals with access to sensitive information. By cultivating these virtual relationships, the attacker can extract critical details, initiate phishing attacks or manipulate their targets into unknowingly sharing confidential data.
Cloak-and-dagger tales of intrigue and espionage may capture our imaginations, but there’s nothing entertaining about a real-world cyber-espionage attack. In our next post, we’ll offer suggestions for preventing such attacks and safeguarding your most sensitive information.
November 24, 2023