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Web Attacks Spike in Financial Industry

Web application compromise beats human error as the top data breach cause, putting finance companies at risk for larger attacks, according to a new study.

Web application compromise has topped human error as the most common type of data breach for finance companies. This shift gives the financial sector reason to be worried about broader, and more dangerous cyberattacks, acccording to a recent report from BitSight. 

BitSight investigated types of data breaches targeting finance companies over the past three years. After massive cyber attacks hit major corporations in 2017, researchers wanted to learn the growth and impact of different attack types.

What they discovered was a fundamental shift in the types of attacks hitting the sector.

"One of the first things we were interested in was a significant increase in Web application compromise as the type of breach most prevalent within the finance industry," says BitSight data analyst Ryan Heitsmith.

When BitSight says a breach is caused by "human error," Heitsmith explains, it's referring to one-off events in which an employee erroneously emailed personal or financial data to the wrong person. These incidents are typically smaller, and easier to contain, than web-based attacks, he says.

Back in 2015, more than half (51%) of breach events were caused by human error, 13% were caused by privilege abuse, and 8% were caused by Web applications. In 2016, human error caused 35% of breach events, followed by DoS (14%), and Web applications (11%).

This year had a significant uptick in Web application compromise, which accounted for 33% of breach events among finance companies in 2017. Human error fell in second, at 21% of events. Heitsmith says there could be a few reasons behind the shift. Better employee education, for one, could be driving the decrease in human error. More detailed reporting is another factor.

"Over the years we've been collecting data breach events at a large scale. We've seen reporting get a lot better, and stricter mandatory breach reporting requirements," he explains. More intense scrutiny in the press has also driven a broader understanding of the threat landscape, he notes.

Web application compromise, or any incident in which a Web application was the attack vector, encompasses a range of incidents including SQL injection attacks or a hacker who bypasses employee authentication to gain access into the company.

This year, researchers also saw the threat landscape shift from events primarily caused by internal actors, to those caused by actors outside the company. Researchers note that while internal actors were sometimes malicious, some were making silly mistakes. Not all attacks were intentional or widespread, according to researchers who observe that external actors intentionally seek data through a variety of different exploits.

"What's interesting is these events tend to be larger in significance due to the large number of records lost as a result of data breaches," says Heitsmith of Web application compromise. "Human error incidents are smaller, maybe one to a couple of records, though some might be larger. But in Web applications, the median record count is a lot larger than any of the other breaches we look at within the finance industry."

There is a two-pronged approach to how finance companies can monitor for Web application compromise, he continues. The first is to ensure all Web applications are properly configured and invest in proper Web application security. The second is to use continuous monitoring platforms to keep an eye on third parties, which Heitsmith says is a weak spot in finance.

The spike in Web application compromise shouldn't diminish the focus on human error, which at 21%, is still a large problem. Mandatory employee training, to provide awareness around common exploits and problems like phishing, says Heitsmith, is as important as Web monitoring.

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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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