In addition, more third parties are discovering the attacks rather than the companies themselves.

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Organizations are more quickly detecting attackers in their networks and systems, but the majority of attacks are still being found by third parties and not by internal security groups.

In 2019, companies needed 56 days, on average, to detect an attacker in their networks, down from 78 days in 2018, FireEye Mandiant stated in its "M-Trends 2020" report, out today. While the improvement is partially due to companies spending more effort and resources on detecting threats and responding to incidents, much of the impetus to improve is due to a second trend identified in the report: Attackers are more quickly taking action once inside a victim's network, and often the action is destructive, says Charles Carmakal, vice president of consulting and chief technology officer at FireEye Mandiant.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing a lot more disruptive threats," he says. "We are seeing a lot more ransomware out there, and ransomware operators are deploying in days to weeks, executing in a much shorter time frame than espionage-type threats."

Overall, 43% of attacks have a destructive element, the company found.

The findings indicate that, while organizations are getting better at detecting threats, attackers have become more agile as well. 

The groups behind the attacks, for example, are expanding beyond just attacking Windows systems. In 2019, 274 of the 1,268 malware families tracked by FireEye — 22% of the total — targeted either the Linux operating system or the Mac OS. Seven in 10 malware samples encountered belonged to the top five malware families, which are based on open source tools and under active development, the company stated in the report. About 41% of the malware families encountered by FireEye were previously unknown.

"Attackers continue to grow more adept at working across a range of operating systems and device types, as well as in both on-premises and cloud architectures," the report stated. "Traditional barriers to attacker success continue to lessen over time. Put simply, more attackers can do more things in more diverse environments."

While the overall time between the compromise of a network and the detection of the attack showed improvement, the percentage of attacks discovered by company employees, as opposed to external third parties, declined to 47% in 2019, demonstrating that businesses need to focus more on their own security. In 2017, internal detection of threats peaked at 62%.

Organizations based in the Americas had the best success, with 52% detecting threats internally rather than relying on third parties, while the Asia-Pacific region relied far more on third parties, with almost three-quarters of attacks discovered by external sources.

Data on threat detection varies widely. Cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, for example, sees companies detecting attacks more quickly; it found the average organization takes five days to detect an attack and a little less than seven days to contain a breach. Meanwhile, a Trustwave report found that companies detected attacks within 14 days in 2018, down from 26 days in the prior year.

The differences in estimates of the so-called "dwell time" could be due to the focus of the company collecting the data. FireEye Mandiant focuses on incident response, helping companies that have already been breached, while Trustwave and CrowdStrike aim to proactively prevent breaches and detect attacks. 

The company tracked 1,268 malware families in 2019, 41% of which were new. While the vast majority of malicious software targeted Windows systems, 208 targeted or could impact Linux systems and 66 targeted or could impact Mac systems. 

The attackers' focus on ransomware and other disruptive attacks raises the stakes for organizations. While many companies are prepared to recover from such attacks — regularly backing up data being a priority — many still pay ransoms to expedite recovery, Carmakal says. 

"The assumption is that when victims pay, they are doing it because they have not made good backups, but that's not the case," he says. "There are plenty of organizations that have terrific backups. But if you have so many systems taken offline in a matter of minutes or hours, and you have to recover so many servers in your environment, the amount of downtime can be excessive."

Carmakal declined to say how many, or what fraction, of ransomware incidents resulted in the victim paying a ransom.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline Journalism (Online) in 2003 for coverage of the Blaster worm. Crunches numbers on various trends using Python and R. Recent reports include analyses of the shortage in cybersecurity workers and annual vulnerability trends.

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