Although direct attacks against agency systems have decreased, attackers appear to be targeting upstream companies to get around government defenses, Symantec says.
Attacks against government systems dropped sharply in 2012 compared with the year before, according to the latest Internet Security Threat Report from Symantec, but that does not mean that the pressure is off. Attackers are just changing their tactics by targeting upstream companies in the government supply chain.
“There has been a marked shift” in targeting, said Paul Wood, Symantec’s cybersecurity intelligence manager. Attackers seem to be shifting their sights to the manufacturing sector, and often to smaller companies that offer softer targets, he said.
The most recent report analyzes attack data gathered during 2012 calendar year from Symantec’s Global Intelligence Network and its cloud-based Web and e-mail security services.
The shift is evident in the lists of most commonly targeted sectors for the last two years. In 2011 government was the most-targeted sector, with 25 percent of identified attacks. In 2012 it moved to fourth place, with just 12 percent. In the same period, the manufacturing sector went from third place to the top of the list, accounting for 24 percent of attacks last year.
But “manufacturing” is a broad classification and the figures become more interesting when you break them down. “The vast majority seem to be in the defense realm,” Wood said. Six of the 10 most frequently targeted companies are defense industry contractors.
In an increasingly global, off-the-shelf IT environment, supply chain security has become a major concern for agencies and steps are being taken to identify trusted suppliers. In addition to the risk of counterfeit or compromised products and components, vendors and private-sector partners also can be back doors into well-defended government systems. Homeland Security and the Defense Department address this issue in the Defense Industrial Base program to streamline the sharing of intelligence with supply chain partners.
But protecting the entire chain with sensitive information can be difficult. The percentage of small to medium-sized businesses being targeted has increased sharply in the last year, from 18 percent in 2011 to 31 percent in 2012.
“When you look at the supply chain, the small business is perhaps the weakest link,” Wood said. A small upstream partner could provide the access and information an attacker could use to successfully social engineer an attack against a larger partner.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the source of many attacks, and because those being analyzed were the ones that were identified and blocked, it is hard to say for sure what the attackers would have done had they been successful. But the shift shows that the attackers are motivated, disciplined and persistent. The worst kind of attacker.