The Impact of a Cyberattack

Table of Contents

A cyberattack is a malicious assault by cybercriminals aiming to damage a computer network or steal or misuse its protected data.

Given the attacker’s motives and end goals, a cyberattack can range from the simple home network breach stealing usernames and passwords to the sophisticated malware attack encrypting computers to demand a ransom.

The impact and cost of a cyberattack therefore vary just as much. From the thousands of dollars in unauthorized online purchases with someone’s credit card to the millions of dollars in computer network restoration following a malware attack.

The list is extensive.

At any rate, how could a malicious cyberattack affect your organization? To help answer this question, let’s look at the most common types of damaging cyberattacks, how they work, and how your organization can help protect against them.

53% of cyberattacks resulted in damages of $500,000 or more
Source: Cisco

Most common cyberattacks

Among the most common types of damaging or dangerous cyberattacks are the following:

Infrastructure cyberattacks

Infrastructure cyberattacks consist of any malicious attempt to infiltrate, alter or manipulate a network infrastructure.

These types of attacks – often delivered as malware spreading itself through a network or as some ransomware encrypting computers to demand a ransom – are generally done using automated tools.

In 2021, 86% of all companies hit by a cyberattack recorded a
major impact on their network infrastructure
Source: Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)

Among those automated tools are the ones constantly scanning the Internet for vulnerabilities on a network or within an infrastructure. For example, a basic type of infrastructure vulnerability is a misconfigured external network allowing hackers to gain administrative access.

This privileged access allows them to do other things, such as encrypting devices with ransomware, installing spyware or cryptomining software, and even setting themselves a “backdoor” for future attacks.

In March 2021, Russian hackers have briefly taken over Poland’s National Atomic Energy Agency and Health Ministry. The damage only resulted in falsely alarming the population about a non-existent radioactive threat.

Nevertheless, this example is very telling of how truly disastrous an infrastructure attack could become in the hands of malicious attackers.

Application cyberattacks

Most application cyberattacks are the result of user misconfigurations of web application security settings. Misconfigurations allow attackers to target vulnerabilities in an application’s business logic (the way it handles a given action) and try to breach its underlying infrastructure or database.

84% of observed vulnerabilities in web applications
are security misconfigurations
Source: PT Security

Among the most common techniques used to attack applications is the “XSS Cross-Site Scripting attack,” which involves inserting malicious code into a search engine field. An XSS Cross-Site Scripting vulnerability can also be exploited using a penetration testing tool.

A Cross-Site Scripting or XSS attack can allow an attacker to gain access to the application’s database or impersonate a legitimate user. These security flaws are generally critical or high in terms of severity, with the potential impact ranging from web application defacement to session hijacking of legitimate users.

This type of cyberattack can undermine an organization’s image, affect consumer confidence, and result in loss of revenues. In April 2021, the US government drafted an executive order obliging their application vendors to promptly notify them of any security breach.

In 2020, 1 in 4 cyberattack
targeted a web application
Source: Verizon

Social engineering attacks

These attacks, also known as “phishing attacks,” are often delivered through emails as coercive and convincing messages urging a user to perform a given action. For example, targeted users may be prompted to change their password on a malicious web page that replicates a trusted source and asks for their previous password and username.

Phishing emails are responsible for
nearly 91% of all cyberattacks
Source: PhishMe

This allows hackers to ultimately steal and attempt using credentials to impersonate the targeted user or to directly connect to their company email accounts. Another form of social engineering attack is Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks impersonation, where the hacker lurks on the company’s email infrastructure for an opportunity to steal a payment by diverting emails.

According to the FBI, BEC attacks caused 26.2 billion in losses in 2019.

In October 2020, hackers stole a six-figure sum from
several Swiss Universities using phishing emails
Source: Symantec

How to prevent cyberattacks

With remote work and online services more mainstream than ever, these common cyberattacks can be launched against your organization at an increasing rate. A first, basic step could then be to identify and mitigate the vulnerabilities exploitable by hackers on your external network.

To that end, performing a penetration test on your network and systems can go a long way toward building, step by step, your first line of defense against hackers:

  • Identifying and remediating your system’s vulnerabilities.
  • Gaining insight into what common cyberattacks your
    organization is most vulnerable to.
  • Understanding how the cyberattacks can be executed.
  • Evidence their potential impact on your company.

Complementing a regular pentest of your systems with these prevention measures will also help your organization mount a good defense against potential attackers:

  • Keeping your systems and software updated.
  • Assessing and training your employees.
  • Auditing your user privileges.
  • Segmenting your networks and assets.
  • Using a least-privilege model in your IT environment.
  • Regularly backing up your data.

Continuously auditing your IT systems.

On top of having a firewall and antivirus installed on all your devices, knowing the most common types of cyberattacks and how a penetration test is key to identifying exploitable vulnerabilities is a great start to protecting your network and assets.

Developing some basic cybersecurity skills and best practices can add another layer of security to protect your information assets from attackers. Among those best practices are the following:

  • Avoid downloading anything from popular download sites or file-sharing services.
  • Avoid clicking links or downloading an attachment from a fake or suspicious email.

A penetration test is a simulated hacking attempt that identifies opportunities for real hackers to break through your defences and perform various malicious acts. It generally leverages tools used by hackers and various professional methodologies to replicate the steps that modern hackers would take to intrude into your IT systems.

A pentest attempts to exploit your vulnerabilities to determine their potential impact, should they be used in a real hacking scenario. They provide a list of vulnerabilities with their respective level of severity, as well as technical recommendations to help your team apply corrective measures and focus on the most critical vulnerabilities.

These services allow your organization to answer the following questions, among several others:

  • Can a hacker gain access to any sensitive information?
  • Can a hacker hijack my technologies for any malicious acts?
  • Could a malware infection spread through the network?
  • Can an attacker escalate access to an administrative user?

Learn more about penetration testing →

There are many contexts in which a penetration test should be performed.

Here are some common use cases for a pentest:

  • As part of the development cycle of an application. (To test the security of a new feature/app)
  • To comply with security requirements. (3rd-parties, PCI, ISO27001, etc.)
  • To secure sensitive data from exfiltration.
  • To prevent infections by malware. (Ransomware, spyware, etc.)
  • To prevent disruptive cyberattacks. (Such as denial of service)
  • As part of a cybersecurity risk management strategy.

All businesses are advised to conduct a penetration test at least once a year, as well as after any significant upgrades or modifications to the company network. Given the rapid rate at which new exploits are discovered, we generally recommend that quarterly tests are performed.

Various steps are taken over the course of the project to prevent the potential impact of our tests on the stability of your technological environment and the continuity of your business operations.

For this reason, a communication plan will be put in place at the beginning of the project to prevent and mitigate any potential impact. A representative of your organization will be identified to act as the main point of contact to ensure rapid communication in the event of a situation directly impacting the conduct of your daily operations, or if any critical vulnerabilities are identified, for which  corrective measures need to be implemented quickly.

While we use a simple 4 levels risk rating approach (Critical, High, Moderate, Low), our risk assessment is actually based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) standard. Two main criteria are considered when  assessing the risk level of each vulnerability:

  • Potential impact: The potential impact of an attack based on a vulnerability, combined with its  potential effect on the availability of the system, as well as the confidentiality and integrity of  the data.
  • Exploitability: The potential exploitability of a vulnerability; a vulnerability that is easier to  exploit increases the number of potential attackers and thus the likelihood of an attack.  Different factors are considered when evaluating the exploitability potential of a vulnerability  (e.g.: access vector, authentication, operational complexity, etc.)

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