Assessing the threat of cyber espionage

Maciej Bartłomiej Sikora
Content Writer
cyber espionage

It's not double-o-seven, it's ones and zeroes

While the term "espionage" may evoke images of secret service agents like James Bond, saving the world from the sinister plans of crime lords, its definition revolves around using spies and technology to collect secret information, often through illegal means.

Today, when a significant amount of sensitive data resides in the digital realm, we are confronted with what we call "cyber espionage." This phenomenon centers around the malicious activities of cyber attackers causing harm to organizations and hard-working citizens by stealing or exposing their sensitive information. Let us explain a bit more.

What is cyber espionage, exactly?

If you google ‘cyber espionage definition,’ you will likely find a description somewhat similar to this one:

Cyber espionage (also called cyber spying) is a type of cyberattack where an unauthorized person tries to access confidential or classified information, aiming for economic gains, a competitive advantage, or political goals.

What such explanation will not provide you with, however, is how serious of a threat cyber espionage is.

In 2020, Verizon shared a chilling revelation in its Data Breach Investigations Report that approximately 10% of all data breaches were motivated by espionage. What makes cyber espionage even scarier is that it's not just about getting into classified records; it's a strategic act to tarnish the victim's reputation. Whether by revealing private details or spotlighting confidential business dealings, the ultimate goal of cyber espionage attacks is to inflict maximum damage.

The top 3 cyber espionage targets

Cyber espionage primarily zeroes in on government organizations, large-scale corporations, and academic institutions due to the valuable data they possess —- which can offer a significant advantage to potential competitors.

What assets do cyber spies attempt to access? Here are the most common ones:

  • Intellectual property (IP)

Intellectual property includes the products of creative thinking, like inventions, designs, or artistic works, and it holds immense value for organizations. Cyber attackers employ diverse espionage techniques to steal or compromise intellectual property, aiming to secure a competitive advantage or sell it on a dark web market.

  • Internal company data

Internal company data is a prime target for cyber spies. They focus on specifics such as operational plans (production schedules, logistics), strategic initiatives (business strategies, market expansion), and financial details (budgets, forecasts) to gather insights that can be exploited for economic, strategic, or competitive advantages.

  • Customer data

Customer data, which holds sensitive information about people interacting with a business, is another hot target for cyber spies. They might sneak in to exploit this data for purposes such as financial gain or identity theft. Bear in mind that this data includes not just personal details but also preferences and behaviors, making it a prime target for unethical actions.

  • Information about the market and rivals

By employing cyber espionage methods, attackers actively seek insights into market conditions and competitor activities. Understanding market trends and the strategies of rival organizations enables them to anticipate industry shifts, staying one step ahead in a highly dynamic business landscape.

Cyber espionage is a global threat

Just like the stories of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy highlight traditional espionage extending beyond a select few countries, the reality at hand indicates that the global nature of cyber espionage is just as evident.

This global scale of cyber espionage is evidenced by events like the 2020 SolarWinds attack. In this case, a nation-state, likely Russia's APT29 (Cozy Bear), took advantage of a supply chain vulnerability, impacting 18,000 customers — including a few major U.S. government agencies.

Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear further demonstrate this international reach by expanding their targets to include Norwegian and Dutch ministries in instances of state-sponsored hacking.

Moreover, North Korea heightens global cybersecurity concerns by allegedly engaging in cyber espionage attacks on countries like Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. Notably, U.S. intelligence officials traced the 2014 Sony Pictures corporate espionage attack back to the North Korean government (although it has denied any responsibility).

These instances, and many others, provide unequivocal proof of the widespread prevalence of cyber espionage.

Precautionary steps to prevent cyber espionage

When it comes to protecting yourself (or your business) against cyber espionage, you should take three important steps.

First, you need to fully understand the attackers' motives — which can vary significantly. For instance, state-sponsored actors may engage in covert moves to gain a strategic advantage or gather intelligence. At the same time, the so-called hacktivists (hackers driven by activism) may aim to promote their causes through corporate cyber espionage activities. Meanwhile, money-motivated cyber criminals can employ cunning tactics for financial gain. In other words, you need to know who you’re defending against exactly what, and why.

Second, you need to continually update your knowledge of the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures utilized by cyber espionage adversaries. By recognizing and familiarizing yourself with these ever-changing methods, you can proactively fortify your defenses against potential threats.

Speaking of being proactive, the third step is about being able to anticipate and mitigate risks before they materialize. This involves implementing robust security measures, like using end-to-end encrypted password managers, regularly updating and patching systems, and enhancing overall cybersecurity awareness in your environment. By taking such an approach, you'll be better prepared to tackle cyber espionage threats coming your way.

How NordPass protect your company from cyber espionage

NordPass is an advanced — yet easy-to-use — password manager, as well as a cybersecurity tool that can help you make sure no cyber spies gain unauthorized access to your sensitive information. Multiple factors support its effectiveness, including robust encryption algorithms, secure sharing capabilities, compliance with the latest data privacy standards, data breach monitoring functionalities, and single-sign-on and multi-factor authentication.

To put it differently, NordPass lets you collect your passwords, passkeys, credit card information, and personal data, store them all in an encrypted vault, share them securely with the people you trust, and check whether they have been compromised in a data breach.

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