At the Ready: Risk Lessons Learned from a Cybercrime

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My introduction to cybercrime came seven years ago as a bolt from the blue. I Googled myself and found that four of the top five search results showed I was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Top Ten Most Wanted List.

The attack came as a bolt from the blue.

After checking outside my front door to make sure no FBI agents were lining up to arrest me, I researched what had happened. I was the victim of an Internet stalker—a previous business associate looking to mar reputations of people this person had had no contact with for nearly two decades.

This experience personally taught me the harm that could be done through the Internet and the unique nature of the risks involved, and sparked my commitment to practicing sound cyber-risk oversight.

Cybersecurity as a Risk

Cyber risks have unique characteristics that not many of the more than 60 different risks reported in public companies’ 10-K reporting share. Most other risks and the damage they cause, although highly detrimental to a company, can be assessed and quantified (consider, for example, the cost of rebuilding after a fire). Cyber risk is different because a victim of a cyberattack may never be able to find out who attacked the company or person, where the attack came from, what was taken, or how long the attack had been going on for.

The most striking feature of cyberattacks is their anonymity. It is very difficult to trace an attacker who wants to stay anonymous. An attacker can create dummy corporations, hijack e-mail accounts, and use multiple servers to become virtually untraceable. Another method that hackers use to hide themselves is the virtual private network, which make it very challenging to track where the attack originated. Say the intrusion appears to have come through a server in Singapore. The attacker actually could be in Estonia. Even if you can trace the perpetrator, getting redress would mean international ligation.

What are they taking? Unless the attacker is confronting you with a ransom demand for your data, you may not know what is being taken or corrupted without extensive and time-consuming forensics.

Lastly, how long has this been going on? For the same reasons that it is difficult to identify what is being stolen, the time of the origination of the attack is hard to assess. Often known as “Logic Bombs,” malicious software can lie dormant for long periods, and sometimes years, before it is activated. The classic example is the disgruntled employee who leaves malware that activates itself on the anniversary of his firing.

You Are Not Invulnerable

One of the worse mistakes a board can make is to assume that they are at a lower state of cyber risk, as their corporation is not a bank or does not store credit card information. If the company transfers money and is connected to the Internet, which means just about every company in the United States and many around the world, the company is at high risk for being attacked. Banks and retailers are at extremely high risk. Low risk simply does not exist in the cyber-risk spectrum.

For most companies, the principal vulnerability is economic. Simply put, attackers are trying to make money. Besides stealing information such as employee health care data, or social security numbers that can be sold on the black market, an increasingly popular form of attack is to lock out the company from its data, or encrypt it and charge a ransom to release it or decrypt it.

Brand and reputation attacks are another vulnerability done more to discredit a company’s reputation for either competitive or political motives. To take an obvious example, imagine the damage to a cybersecurity company’s reputation if its own firewalls were breached. Such an attack would deeply harm the core promise that a cybersecurity company makes to its customers to secure its enterprise.

Hacktivism, as the name connotes, is an attack launched based on the attacker’s beliefs and ideologies. For instance, a company that tests its products on animals could find itself as a hacktivism target. Typically, the attacker will post messages about the cause on the company’s website or contact its customers and suppliers.

Lastly, malicious attacks can be launched to inconvenience and disrupt the company such as in the Logic Bomb attack described above. There is usually no economic effect—vengeance is the principal motive.

Since her “arrival” on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list, Wendy Luscombe has led a real estate investment trust as CEO, served as a director on European and American boards, and studied cybersecurity and cyber-reputation management. All views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

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