The global cyber war is heating up: Why businesses should be worried

From NotPetya's global disruption to North Korea's digital plundering of financial institutions, state-sponsored cyber attacks should be top of mind for business leaders. Here's how to defend against them.

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Last Friday, the Department of Justice indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering with the 2016 elections. Also last week, several countries including the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and Denmark accused Russia of being behind last summer's NotPetya attack.

"[NotPetya] was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine, and it demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict," said White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. "This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber attack that will be met with international consequences."

Even though both attacks had political targets, the final list of victims wasn't limited to just political organizations and critical infrastructure providers. "NotPetya had substantial impact beyond the intended political targets, disrupting the IT systems and operations of thousands of civilian organizations worldwide," says Steve Grobman, CTO at McAfee. "It’s critically important to ultimately hold nations accountable for the comprehensive damage inflicted by such attacks.”

Civilian organizations that are targeted by state-sponsored attacks or suffer collateral damage are at a disadvantage when it comes to identifying the attacker. Governments are in a better position to identify the perpetrators behind such attacks, Grobman says, since they have access not only to cyber forensics but also traditional intelligence data.

In cyber war, everyone is a target

Nation-state attackers typically go after political targets: the Democratic National Committee, government agencies, critical infrastructure, and defense contractors. It's become increasingly clear that any company, in any industry, could be affected, either as a result of being a deliberate target or as collateral damage in a wider attack.

Campaigns like NotPetya can hit any company, of any size, and even deliberate, targeted, advanced attacks can hit any industry. "Private entities are being targeted every day," says Adam Meyers, VP of intelligence at CrowdStrike.

North Korea is targeting Bitcoin exchanges and global financial institutions, he says. Chinese groups go after companies making specialized medical hardware and other technology. "You name an industry, and I can tell you a threat actor that we've seen targeting it," he says.

This year's Winter Olympics received its share of cyber attacks as well. Targeted companies included utilities companies, display screen manufacturers, construction companies that were involved in Olympics-related building projects, media firms, and telecoms, he says.

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