Cyber espionage “rampant”, US investigation finds

By on 15/05/2019 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Behind the mask: foreign governments were behind over three quarters of external data breaches, Verizon’s report says (Image courtesy: TheDigitalArtist/pixabay)

Cyber espionage against governments around the world is growing year-on-year, “with state-affiliated actors accounting for 79 percent of all breaches involving external actors”, according to the 12th edition of the Verizon Data Breach Investigations report, which was released last week.

The communications technology company examined data from 73 sources in the public and private sectors, spanning 86 countries worldwide.

Within the public sector, it found 23,399 recorded incidents, in 330 of which data disclosure was confirmed. “Cyber-Espionage is rampant in the public sector,” the report said, forming the top threat in 2018 – up dramatically compared with 2017 data.

Breaches up by two thirds

“While the cyber-espionage pattern was also the most prominent in this industry in last year’s report, the number of breaches in the cyber-espionage pattern is 168% of last year’s amount,” the researchers said.

Privilege misuse and error by insiders accounted for 30% of public sector breaches.

“Given the sheer number of incidents in this sector, you would think that the government incident responders must either be cape-and-tights-wearing superheroes, or so stressed they’re barely hanging on by their fingernails,” analysts wrote in the report.

Hidden crimes

Data breaches in the public sector are also more likely to be going under the radar for months or, in many cases, even longer. “Public breaches are over 2.5 times more likely to be undiscovered for years,” it said.

“Espionage-related breaches typically do take longer to discover due to the lack of external fraud detection,” researchers found, though they lacked sufficient data to derive “breach timeline metrics.” Breaches often remained undiscovered for long periods in cases of privilege misuse – meaning that public sector staff have, accidentally or deliberately, permitted unauthorised access.

Phishing emails, malware and hacking were the most common causes of privilege misuse in the public sector, suggesting inadequate training and cyber-security practices.

The public administration data was part of the wider Verizon study examining 41,686 security incidents (defined as an “event that compromises the integrity, confidentiality or availability of an information asset”) and 2,013 data breaches, where data was disclosed to an unauthorised party.

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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