The ‘Sophisticated Attack’ Myth

Every significant data compromise is said to be sophisticated. Well, sophisticated attacks are now average attacks. Deal with it.

sophisticated blogger
Credit: Mike Licht via Flickr, CC By 2.0
sophisticated blogger Mike Licht via Flickr, CC By 2.0

Sometimes I wonder whether any company will ever fall victim to an unsophisticated cyberattack. Because after every attack that comes to light, we hear that same excuse: It was a sophisticated attack.

The latest hit Anthem. The company, right on cue, credited the attack to “Chinese hackers” carrying out a “sophisticated attack.”

Target, Sony, Home Depot, U.S. government agencies and countless other organizations have all made similar claims about sophisticated attacks.

When this same characterization shows up time and again, you begin to suspect that some blame-shifting is going on. These claims of sophisticated attacks appear to be intended to demonstrate that typical and accepted security practices were doomed to fail.

The truth, however, is that these attacks seem sophisticated only when you compare them to the unsophisticated security programs that fail to defend against them.

Because when you dissect the attacks, you notice some rather unsophisticated hallmarks. Many times, the attackers got in through a spearphishing message, or they exploited known vulnerabilities. Quite often, industry-standard technologies such as whitelisting applications on critical systems weren’t employed, or the critical systems lacked multifactor authentication, or insufficient IDS/IPS tools were deployed. The list goes on.

And despite the fact that study after study demonstrates that poor awareness is the primary attack vector for “sophisticated attackers,” companies still treat security awareness as a minor part of their security programs. They use trivial phishing simulations without implementing a comprehensive program to create the behaviors that would arise if their employees understood, detected and properly reacted to human-based attacks.

Once the attackers get a foothold in a system, they are able to penetrate generally insufficient systems and network security, exploiting known vulnerabilities, installing malware that is usually detectable with the proper tools and worse. None of this qualifies as sophisticated, but the attackers go undetected for an extended period of time, as they exfiltrate gigabytes, if not terabytes, of valuable data.

In the recent spate of breaches, the one “victim” I have to give credit to is JPMorgan Chase. Well, yes, of course it said that a sophisticated attacker was involved in the attack, but it also acknowledged that the attack resulted from failing to install multifactor authentication on the targeted system. That frankness contrasts sharply with Sony’s failure to comment on the revelation that some malware introduced into its systems had administrator credentials embedded. But Sony’s silence didn’t change the fact that the malware could not have been effective if Sony had required multifactor authentication and required periodically changing critical passwords.

Look, any attack against medium to large size companies involves more than a script kiddie with a “drive by” hack is going to involve detailed planning and reconnaissance. The perpetrators will likely make it a full-time effort for an extended period of time. But planning and preparation don’t translate to “sophisticated” if the attack only involves a systematic exploitation of known vulnerabilities with very well-known attack methodologies and tools.

What organizations have to recognize is that such attacks are common and ongoing. And they should be expected. If you have any value in your systems — critical information, money that can be stolen, the data of tens of millions of people — you should expect to be targeted by dedicated and professional criminals whose attacks, while not sophisticated, aren’t trivial either.

Report after report states that China, Russia, Iran and other entities are regularly targeting just about every major organization. People should expect sophisticated attackers to launch coordinated attacks. It is a given.

But it is aggravating to me as a security professional to hear any attack attributed to sophisticated attackers, as if that itself is a mitigating factor. It always sounds like an attempt to forgive the victim for having insufficient protection, detection and reaction capabilities in place, both technical and nontechnical.

Even more aggravating was to hear the FBI say in effect, following the Sony breach, that 90% of organizations would have fallen victim to the same attack. It was aggravating because the statement carried the idea that this was a mitigating factor. It wasn’t, though; as attack details emerged, it became clear that Sony had failed to implement common protection, detection and reaction countermeasures. So when the FBI says that 90% of organizations would not have stopped the same attack, it is more a testament to the overall poor security throughout industry and government.

I am not saying that organizations can be immune to incidents. Even with the best programs, “preventable incidents” can still result in varying degrees of damage. That is to be expected. But I do have a problem with an attack being characterized as unpreventable when it is really a matter of a systematic failure to implement good security practices. The JPMorgan Chase hack was preventable, but in the company’s defense, the successful attack was an aberration of its overall program, which has relatively few incidents given the fact that the company, like many others, is under constant attack.

And I have a problem with organizations claiming they were the victim of a sophisticated attack when that attack should have been expected and when similar attacks are ongoing against every major organization. The way I look at it, if you are not being attacked in some way, you should be embarrassed — you must not have anything that anyone wants.

It’s time that the media call people on their claims of “sophisticated attacks” and calls them what they are, “common attacks.”

Ira Winkler is president of Secure Mentem and author of the book Spies Among Us. He can be contacted through his Web site,

This story, "The ‘Sophisticated Attack’ Myth" was originally published by Computerworld.

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