Small and midsize businesses look to outsourcing as threats become more complex

4 Min Read

As malware and social engineering attacks become more sophisticated, many companies -- especially small and midsize businesses (SMBs) -- are arriving at one conclusion: We need help.

Nearly three-quarters of SMBs cut or froze their security spending last year, despite 71 percent believing a serious attack would put them out of business, according to a recent survey by McAfee. The cost cutting and lack of expertise has led companies to leave themselves vulnerable to sophisticated attacks, says Michael Sutton, vice president of security research for Zscaler, a provider of Web security services.

"I've never had a trial [of the Zscaler service] for a company of 100-plus users where I haven't been able to go back in a week and tell them about infected machines," Sutton says. "That tells me that they do not have adequate visibility into their networks."

Sensing the opportunity, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and managed security service providers (MSSPs) are pushing their services to help close the gap between attackers and defenders. While some enterprises have adopted managed security services to cut costs, round-the-clock protection and greater expertise have become the top reasons companies consider such services today, according to a new study from Forrester Research.

"Some organizations simply don't have the desired security expertise in certain areas or can't afford it, leading to large gaps in the security portfolio," wrote Forrester analyst Khalid Kark in the report.

Companies must develop stronger defenses as attackers use more sophisticated techniques, especially in social engineering, which convince employees to expose their systems to attack, experts say.

Early this month, an investigation into a large cyber-espionage network, dubbed the Shadow network, found sophisticated attackers in China had used social networks, free email accounts, and cloud services to compromise computers at government agencies and companies in southeast Asia.

The attack resembled details of Project Aurora, which successfully compromised Google and more than two dozen other large companies late last year.

In another series of targeted attacks, cybercriminals using the Zeus Trojan launched a campaign directed at employees responsible for accounting in small firms.

The number of targeted attacks -- generally defined as unique or low-volume email attacks -- has climbed quickly in the past five years. In 2005, Symantec Hosted Services detected one or two targeted attacks per day, which rose to 10 per day the following year. Today, the group detects an average of 60 targeted attacks per day.

Clearly, third-party services could help businesses handle the increasing volume and sophistication of targeted attacks. So far, however, experts don't agree on the optimum mix of security services and technology.

Hardening systems can make attackers' jobs more difficult, so companies should make patching a priority, many experts say. While a few attacks use zero-day vulnerabilities to compromise systems, the vast majority of attacks attempt to exploit known flaws that have already been patched, says Sean Sullivan, security advisor for antivirus firm F-Secure's North American Labs.

Because the IT group may not know about every machine on the network, a vulnerability scanning service helps identify systems that have not been patched, Sullivan says. "It's the 1 percent of machines that are forgotten that help the attacker compromise the network," he says.

Hosted e-mail providers argue that their "proactive" approach to security works.

"Because we are part of the cloud -- as opposed to on someone's desktop -- we have more time to look at the data and more thoroughly tear it apart before forwarding it onto the customer," says Seth Hardy, senior malware analyst for Symantec Hosting Services.

Others argue that because compromise is virtually unavoidable, the most important security technologies are those that detect the compromised systems. Companies should look into Website whitelisting services and be ready to do forensics -- both log analysis and machine forensics -- to catch infections, says Dave Marcus, director of security response and communications for McAfee.

"The bad guy is going to do a really good job on what the victim is using for machines and software," Marcus says. "Really, when you are talking about that kind of attack, there is a one-to-one chance that it is going to work."

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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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