East Asia top source of cyber espionage, but with major caveats

chinaVerizon’s annual Data Breach Investigations Report is out and several headlines have pointed to it highlighting China once again as the biggest source of global cyber espionage threats, however we need to be careful drawing such conclusions.

The report revealed that when it comes to cyber espionage, the majority (87%) is state affiliated rather than committed by organised crime (11%) and is targeted at victim organisations outside of the country of origin.

When it comes to “victim countries”, the US (54%) accounts for by far the majority, followed by South Korea (6%) and Japan (3%), although this is more of a reflection of the intelligence sources that inform the report than anything else.

More interestingly, it pegged “external actors” operating from Eastern Asia – mainly China and North Korea – as the most prolific worldwide, accounting for 49%.

Eastern Europe was next (21%), followed by Western Asia (4%), while North America and Europe were way down with just 1% each.

So what does this tell us? Well, those looking to prove that China is once again the arch bogeyman when it comes to global state-sponsored attacks should think twice, according to Verizon.

Report co-author and senior analyst, Kevin Thompson, told me that the results reflect the fact that large numbers of North American companies participate in the study and relatively few hail from East Asia – with none from China and Japan.

“We have been trying to recruit a partner organisation from China, Japan, or South Korea to increase our visibility into that part of the world,” he added. “Since many of our partners that investigate cyber espionage are based in North America they tend to only see attacks that are aimed at North American companies.”

Also, out of 511 total cyber espionage incidents recorded, more than half (281) were removed because no country could be attributed as the source of an attack.

“East Asia is the most commonly seen espionage actor when our partners are able to identify the country at all, which is not even half of the time,” Thompson explained.

“There tends to be more research around East Asian espionage than other countries, especially among North American partner organisations. Since there is more research in that area, it is easier for a partner to identify espionage from those regions while espionage from North America or Europe might be labelled ‘Unknown’ and would not be included in figure 59 of the report.”

If the NSA revelations have taught us anything it’s that the 1% figure for North America-based attacks is likely to be way smaller than in reality.

Verizon also claimed in the report that “the percentage of incidents attributed to East Asia is much less predominant in this year’s dataset”.

The real growth in activity is actually coming from Eastern European attackers, it said, adding the following:

At a high level, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the industries targeted by East Asian and Eastern European groups. Chinese actors appeared to target a greater breadth of industries, but that’s because there were more campaigns attributed to them.

Malicious email attachment (78%) and web drive-by (20%) are still the most popular method of gaining access to a victim’s environment.

As for advice on how to lower the risk of a compromise, Verizon reiterated the basics.

These include: patch all systems and software so they’re fully up-to-date; use and keep an updated anti-malware solution; maintain user training and awareness programs; segment your network; log system, network, and application activity; monitor outbound traffic for data exfiltration; and use 2FA to stop lateral movement inside the network.

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