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Why even smaller enterprises should consider nation-state quality cyber defenses

Sep 11, 20174 mins
CyberattacksCybercrimeData and Information Security

Recent events are forcing smaller enterprises to reconsider their security posture.

Traditionally, there was a stratification of security requirements influenced by organization size.  These requirements imposed expenses, policies, and processes – and were often a balance between efficacy and convenience.  

Governments, for example, were often prime targets.  The government adversary is typically another nation state with deep pockets and high motivation for espionage or worse.  Governments must assume that there will be groups of professionals targeting them and security is robust. 

Some large enterprises found themselves in similar situations.  The reward for successfully compromising a financial institution is high.  Financial institutions recognize that they are attractive targets, so they create comprehensive security solutions as insulation from possible attacks.  

Smaller enterprises, such as the middle market, tend to fly under the radar believing themselves to be less attractive targets.  These organizations will often deploy just enough security to ensure they are not an easy target for the casual adversary.

Until recently, this has been a successful strategy.

Nation state capabilities for casual adversaries

The threat landscape has gradually changed for the last ten years.  In 2010, a significant new form of malware called “Stuxnet” was discovered in the wild.  Researchers determined that this malware may have been operating undetected for about five years.  Further, it used a number of previously unknown, or zero-day, exploits.

Stuxnet was developed by nation-states for use against another nation-state, but there were also unintended consequences.  The malware-infected individuals and enterprises across many countries. 

Fortunately, Stuxnet did not appear to cause damage outside its intended target. Unfortunately, future attacks would not be as discerning.

In 2017, two ransomware variants, WannaCry and Petya spread rapidly throughout Europe. These two attacks utilized an exploit called EternalBlue that was leaked from the NSA in the months prior.  

Unlike Stuxnet, this malware caused damage to the devices it infected by encrypting and destroying data. While the EternalBlue exploit was originally carefully guarded, the publicity meant it could be weaponized for larger scale attacks.  The implications are significant because this means even casual attackers can potentially tap the power of a nation-state. 

This trend is on the rise and there is no reason to believe that things will get better.  Whether an attack escapes the control of a nation-state or a carefully guarded zero-day exploit becomes public knowledge, sophisticated and devastating attacks will become more frequent and destructive.

Organizations of all sizes can be caught in the crossfire.  For the chief information security officer (CISO), the cost to the organization is the same, regardless of whether it originated as a target or was merely collateral damage. Organizations must accept the reality that a new caliber of attack is going to be more common.

Recent events are forcing smaller enterprises to reconsider their security posture.  Organizations of all sizes must evaluate more advanced options for mitigating zero-day attacks, identifying network anomalies, and even threat hunting to identify threats that may have already infiltrated the trusted zones of their networks. 

Evolving cybersecurity strategies for smaller enterprises  

Cybersecurity strategies such as threat hunting were once the exclusive domain of the high-value targets like government institutions and financial services organizations.   The modern threat landscape has evolved to the degree that even smaller enterprises may find themselves victim to a previously unthinkable attack. 

1) Develop a baseline for normal activity

Knowing what normal network activity looks like today helps to more quickly identify the cause when things are going wrong tomorrow.  For example, when accounting starts pulling information from the database server for the first time, this might raise a red flag. 

2) Have some defense for unknown malware

Virus scanners are a good first step, but they are easily defeated. Consider malware identification that considers file behavior in addition to signatures.

3) Avoid over-reliance on endpoint defenses

Endpoint defenses are a valuable part of cybersecurity, but these are generally the last resort.  If the endpoint solution fails to identify the threat, the organization will be compromised.  A better approach is to lean forward – seek to identify and block the threat before it hits the endpoint.

4) Trust but verify the internal network

Too many organizations create strong perimeter defenses and deem the internal network trusted, and there for unprotected.  Monitor your internal network the way you monitor your internet connection. 

5) The fundamentals remain important

Having a good backup strategy would have minimized the impact of these newsworthy ransomware attacks.  I recommend the 3-2-1 approach:  Keep three backups, two of them on-site, one off-site. 

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As most CISOs know, there is no guarantee against a highly motivated and targeted attack.  However, the assumptions that have driven security stratification are changing to the degree that an enterprise doesn’t have to be the target to fall victim to a targeted attack enabled by nation-state capabilities.


Druce MacFarlane is the Director of Security Products with Gigamon. He has more than two decades of progressive product management and marketing leadership experience with network and cybersecurity organizations ranging from large corporations to smaller startups, including FireEye, Bricata, Aruba and Netscout.

Druce previously ran the products organization at Cyphort and helped McAfee transition during its spin out from Intel Corporation.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Druce MacFarlane and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.