Vulnerabilities / Threats
2/7/2012
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How (And Why) Attackers Choose Their Targets

To build a sure defense, you need to know what makes you a juicy target. Here are some tips

[The following is excerpted from "How (and Why) Attackers Choose Their Targets," a new report posted this week on Dark Reading's Vulnerability Management Tech Center.]

Every day, we hear another story about a company whose sensitive data has been breached. Press releases, tweets, customer support email, and followup articles all provide insight into the kind of information that’s been compromised, the company’s plans to investigate, and how affected parties can protect themselves. But what’s almost never shared—unless the attacker spreads the word—is how and why the target was chosen and which methods and tools were used.

To effectively fend off attacks and protect our data systems, we must determine how hackers identify their targets and exploit weaknesses to extract data. We must also understand what motivates hackers.

Verizon’s 2011 Data Breach Investigations Report found that 92 percent of data breaches studied stemmed from external agents, 17 percent from implicated insiders, 9 percent from multiple parties and fewer than 1 percent from business partners.

There is no single method used to identify and compromise vulnerable targets. Much like rock stars and CEOs, each attacker has a unique style and process. However, some methods are simply more successful than others and thus tend to be used more often.The 2011 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report found that 50 percent of breaches studied resulted from some form of hacking, 49 percent incorporated malware, 29 percent involved physical attacks, 17 percent resulted from privilege misuse, and 11 percent employed social tactics.

To identify vulnerable hosts, an attacker will begin scanning for a specific set of vulnerabilities known to be exploitable and prevalent in the wild. And, much like security industry professionals discuss best practices, attackers share knowledge about how quickly each finds targets vulnerable to specific attacks.

Many scripts and scanners are used to find and exploit vulnerabilities—the MySql 5 Enumeration script from Blackhat Academy, for instance, is used to automatically exploit SQL injection flaws. It is trivial to wrap this script with a scanner that spiders a provided URL list and tests for SQL injection flaws. This type of attack targets a known type of vulnerability rather than a specifically known application flaw. These attacks allow a hacker to exploit flaws a company isn’t even aware of and thus probably won’t have an immediate fix for.

To learn more about how attackers find vulnerabilities and choose the organizations they want to go after, download the full report on how hackers choose their targets.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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