For Cyberattackers, Time Is The Enemy

Current research in cybersecurity often has a narrow focus, detailing recently successful attacks and how those attacks were accomplished. Attackers are often represented as shadowy, nameless figures, with a special kind of mystique surrounding them. That Hollywood image couldn’t be further from the truth. In a new study released today, “Flipping the Economics of Attacks,” Palo Alto Networks has partnered with the Ponemon Institute to understand not only what motivates these attackers but also how we can turn the tables on them by taking away their financial incentives to attack.

The data also shows us a clear path to shift the economic motivation of attacks with two compelling facts:

  • Increasing the time it takes to breach an organization by less than 2 days (40 hours) will deter 60 percent of attacks.
  • Organizations rated as having “excellent security,” as compared to “typical,” took double the time to breach (140 hours).

To understand how to influence an attacker’s economic motivation, we must consider what I call the “adversary arithmetic,” which boils down to the cost of an attack versus the potential outcome of a successful data breach. If malicious actors are putting in more resources than they are getting out, or we decrease their profit, being an attacker becomes much less attractive. Using the survey findings as a guideline, let’s walk through what we can do to reverse this trend.

An Attacker’s ROI

Here is the situation today: we found that 53 percent surveyed believe that the cost of executing successful attacks has gone down, with more available malware and exploits, better attacker skills, and more effective toolkits as the primary drivers. This is important because as Moore’s Law shows us, increasing computing power over time, and in this case the automation and sophistication of hacking tools, makes launching a successful attack cheaper.

The survey also found that 69 percent of adversaries were motivated solely by profit, meaning that changing the arithmetic to increase the cost of attacks could prevent the majority of them from ever being launched. It is important to note that there is a spectrum of malicious actors, and organizations must always maintain awareness of potentially dangerous, highly targeted attacks, or nation-state led activity such as cyber espionage or cyber warfare. However, if we can de-incentivize anywhere near that number of attackers, we will see seismic change in the threat landscape.

There’s a common notion that attackers are motivated by big potential paydays. We found this to be the exception, rather than the rule, with average annual earnings from malicious activity totaling less than $30,000. This limited earning power becomes even less attractive when you consider the added legal risks, including fines and jail time.

The next step in our equation is how attack targets are selected. We found that the majority of attackers (72 percent) were opportunistic, not wasting time on efforts that do not quickly yield high-value information. While advanced nation-state actors employ lots of planning, think about the average attacker as the mugger on the street, versus the Ocean’s Eleven crew that spends weeks planning a complicated high stakes heist. When put into this context, organizations that prioritize making themselves a harder target will actively prevent a significant number of potential breaches.

Taken together, we have a simple picture of an average adversary: motivated by profit and going after easy targets in an environment where attacks are becoming cheaper. There is reason for hope though, as this same attacker is making a relatively small income, especially compared to cybersecurity professionals, with the added element of risk they face.

Time is the defining factor to change the adversary’s arithmetic. As network defenders, the more we delay adversaries, the more resources they will waste, and the higher their cost will be. We can interrupt the march toward more and more lower-cost attacks by taking a slightly different perspective on the problem. We need a prevention-based focus on the right investments in the right people, process and technology to defend the organization. Working together as a community to shift the economics of this problem, we can hit the core motivation for attackers and shift their behavior over time, bringing us to a world where cyberattacks are the exception, not the norm.

Read the full report for additional findings, including key recommendations for preventing attacks.

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