Foreign cyber adversaries on the rise


Data breaches perpetrated by state-affiliated cyber-attackers increased rapidly in 2012, and in a dangerous development for federal agencies, these sophisticated adversaries are often motivated more by the information they can steal than by a quick spot of cash.

Cyber criminals seeking financial gain get in and out as fast as they can, trying to leave no clues. State-affiliated attackers in search of secrets can spend days, weeks, months, even years prowling around inside federal networks.

The growth of state-affiliated actors is highlighted in Verizon's 2013 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), which contains information on upwards of 47,000 cybersecurity incidents and 621 confirmed data breaches reported by 19 international contributors over the past year.


Get the report

In 2012, invaders with ties to foreign governments – more were linked to China than any other country – comprised 19 percent of data breaches; in 2011, the same kind of adversary accounted for only 1 percent.

The explosion in data breaches tied to foreign governments can be partly tied to DBIR's inclusion of new partners, including the Department of Homeland Security, and improved incident information-sharing between private sector companies and public sector law enforcement agencies.

Still, the numbers highlight an evolving threat landscape to which the federal government is far from immune, according to Bryan Sartin, director of Verizon's Research, Investigations, Solutions and Knowledge (RISK) team. The changing nature of attacks shows in the number of data breaches driven by financial motives as well: Up to 97 percent of data breaches were efforts to steal financially useful data  historically, but in 2012 that number dropped to about 75 percent.

"Most of what was contributed in the past stemmed from financial crimes in the private sector, but that has started to change," Sartin said. "It's moved into people stealing data that doesn't have an immediate resale market. It's clearly strategic. They're leveraging information. They make use of this stuff strategically; it doesn't have much in the way of cash value."

Sartin said state-sponsored espionage tends to target government networks and corresponding critical infrastructures. While the government tends not to take a proactive approach at disclosing data breaches unless they become public through other means, Sartin said breaches against federal systems are certainly increasing, just as they are in other sectors.  

On average, Sartin said data breaches resulting from state-sponsored espionage take an average of seven months to discover. In other words, seven months passes between the attacker's initial points of entry to when the victim finds out.

In addition, the DBIR states that about two-thirds of cyber-attack victims learn of a breach through a third-party, meaning their threat-deterrence and detection efforts are often found lacking.

"In state-affiliated attacks, they just walk all over the crime-scene, there seems to be no concern at all" of being caught, Sartin said.

Aside from beefing up security and defensive measures, Sartin encouraged organizations and agencies to improve information-sharing, especially regarding data breaches. Proactive approaches such as sharing IP watch lists can help thwart future attacks.

But in this evolving threat landscape, there is no single approach to success.

"Suddenly with all this variability, you don't have a one-size-fits-all answer," Sartin said. "You have to determine what kind of entity you are, and what kind of criminals would be after you."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.


  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group