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Attacks/Breaches

3/5/2019
08:00 AM
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Organizations Taking Less Time to Detect Breaches

But by the time they became aware, attackers have been on their networks for more than six months, new 2018 data shows.

Update: This story was updated on 03/05 with comments from FireEye.

Internal security teams at enterprise organizations are generally getting better at detecting compromises, but it's still taking them well over a month to discover them.

A FireEye analysis of global breach data from 2018 shows that half of all organizations last year took 50.5 days or longer to detect an intrusion after it first began. That was one week faster than the median of 57.5 days it took them in 2017.

However, when organizations first learned of an intrusion from law enforcement or another source, it was typically only after the attackers had already been on their networks for 184 days, or more than six months. That number was almost unchanged from the 186 days recorded in 2017. The FireEye report shows that a higher proportion of organizations in the Americas discovered breaches internally compared with counterparts in Europe, the Middle East, and the Asia Pacific region.

Thirty-one percent of the compromises that FireEye's Mandiant group investigated in 2018 had dwell times of 30 days or less, meaning the breaches were detected in less than a month from first intrusion. The number represents a modest increase from the 28% of organizations that detected intrusions in less than one month in 2017.

One reason why more companies were able to detect compromises in less than one month last year was simply because there were more incidents involving ransomware and cryptomining tools. Such attacks are generally easier to spot than other types of attacks, according to the FireEye Mandiant report.

"While there was a modest decrease in dwell time, the dwell times by engagement varied in large measure," the FireEye report noted. "We saw an uptick in financially motivated compromises such as ransomware and business email compromise, which tend to have both immediate impact and immediate detection by the targeted organization," the vendor said.

Another reason was that more firms are improving data visibility through better tooling and technologies.

Reducing dwell times can help organizations become more effective at containing incidents, says Charles Carmakal, vice president and CTO at FireEye.

"The time to contain an incident can vary based on several variables," he says. This can include the size of the organization, scope of the compromise, length of time the threat actor is in the environment, and number of compromised systems.

"If a compromise is identified within hours, it may only take hours to contain the incident," he says. "However, if a threat actor has been in an environment for months, it could take two to four weeks — or months — to contain the incident."

Significantly, FireEye's data also shows that threat groups frequently go back and attack organizations they have previously already targeted. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of organizations that were victims of a targeted attack last year experienced at least one other attack by the same or similar threat group. The data represented a noticeable increase from the 56% that experienced a similar fate in 2017 and shows that companies that have experienced a breach are much more likely to experience once again, the FireEye report said.

Many organizations that had previously been compromised are retargeted because they continue to have data of value to the attackers, Carmakal says. "For example, threat actors that successfully stole intellectual property associated with defense systems in 2014 may be tasked to steal updated versions of the data in 2019. As companies continue to innovate, governments will task groups to obtain that data," he says.

Advanced persistent threat groups from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran continued to pose major challenges for organizations in the US and elsewhere last year. FireEye's report highlights several of them, including APT40 aka Periscope, a newly emerged China-government-sponsored espionage group targeting organizations of interest to the country's naval modernization effort. APT40's targets last year included maritime companies, defense, chemicals and aviation firms, as well as government, R&D, and technology companies.

Governments worldwide generally have not changed their rules of engagement in response to the growing threat posed by state-sponsored cyberthreat actors. But several of them last year publicly attributed attacks to specific APT groups and handed down indictments against their members. Examples in the US cited in the FireEye report include indictments against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in March 2018, indictments against Ukraine's FIN7 group in August, and the indictment and subsequent extradition of a Russian hacker in September.

"Public attribution by governments and indictments by the US Department of Justice have helped curb activity from some threat actors and increase their cost of offensive operations," Carmakal notes. In one instance, FireEye observed a noticeable decline in activity by a threat actor following their indictment, he says. In other instances, groups that have been indicted have shifted tactics, tools, and procedures, he says.

"While we don't expect public attribution and indictments to stop threat actors completely, we believe it can reduce and delay some activity," Carmakal says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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