The practice of cyber-espionage is rapidly moving beyond the government sector and finding its way into the world of international business, according to experts with SANS Institute, one of the world's top IT security training organizations.
While the United States and Chinese governments, most notably, have accused each other in recent years of carrying out surreptitious hacking campaigns aimed at stealing strategic information from their respective IT systems -- and many security experts believe that both countries, and many others, are actively engaging in such electronic warfare -- leaders with SANS maintain that the practice has recently begun to spill over into the private sector with greater frequency.
According to the training institute's latest research, cyber-espionage efforts funded by "well-resourced organizations" -- including both government-backed and private efforts -- will expand significantly during 2008, in particular as overseas companies look to gain an upper hand in negotiating business deals with large companies based in the U.S. and Europe.
In one common scenario, said Alan Paller, director of research for SANS, organizations in the process of establishing legitimate partnerships with such companies are willing to pay hackers to break into those firms' IT systems to gather competitive information to gain an advantage at the bargaining table.
More companies than ever before are finding out that they have been victimized in such a manner based on the discovery of their sensitive data in the hands of hackers and other fraudsters who have been apprehended by law enforcement officials, the expert contends.
"Cyber-espionage is clearly growing across the board. It was much bigger in 2007 than in previous years, and it is expanding slowly into economic espionage involving both businesses and government entities," Paller said. "This really has a lot of significant implications because people who have never thought of themselves as targets for this type of attack have suddenly become a sweet spot, and many are not prepared to defend themselves."
Paller said that federal law enforcement agencies have been contacting private industry firms directly to inform them that their data may have been compromised. From closely-protected product designs to company financials, the expert said that cyber-espionage is already working its way into many different areas of business.
"If you live in a foreign country and you want to do business with a big American company, you want to negotiate the best possible deal, and we're seeing more evidence of instances where parties have clearly been paid to break into a companies' computers, as well as those of their accountants, consultants and lawyers, to find information that can be used to tilt deals in their favor," Paller said. "In some cases, it's fair to say that the people who are negotiating these deals overseas end up with more information than the people that are being paid to negotiate with them."
Paller said that while in many cases the business data being stolen is being used to the advantage of private industry players, the training organization believes that a fair amount of the corporate espionage activity may be backed by government sponsors.
While such attacks have been somewhat common among government and defense contractors for years, he said, the process is highlighting a lack of perception regarding security risks inside other major U.S. businesses.
SANS reported that the attack of choice in many cases of cyber-espionage is a targeted spear phishing campaign that attempts to dupe workers into opening tainted attachments made to appear as if they come from people they work with.
The content of the virus-laden attachments is often tailored to look exactly like legitimate materials that the employees involved might send to each other, making it more likely that users will open the messages and remain unaware that they may have been compromised, Paller said.
Attackers crafting the messages most often use newly discovered Microsoft Office vulnerabilities, also known as zero day flaws, to further hide their activities and to circumvent anti-virus systems, according to the expert.
"This type of business-driven cyber-espionage is already happening a lot more frequently than some people might think," said Paller. "We're only finding real evidence because more companies are hearing from law enforcement when someone finally discovers the stolen data."
On the flip side, SANS is also predicting that so-called insider data theft carried out against U.S. businesses by trusted employees will also continue to flourish.
One of the factors accelerating that trend is the ability for attackers to attempt to attack their employers both from inside their networks and from the outside using known vulnerabilities they discover in their work, the group said.
With traditional security perimeters increasingly being taxed by the use of mobile devices that are allowed to come onto corporate networks from outside the workplace, SANS said that workers are finding many new opportunities to sneak information out the door and sell for a profit.
One of the key strategies that organizations need to embrace to thwart the insider problem is to put into place more substantial defenses that limit access to various IT systems and data stores based on the specific level of admission to those assets that individuals need to do their jobs, the training group said.