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Espionage is not something new. But over the years we have moved on from globe-trotting secret agents, dust coats, and sunglasses and, as with many other operations, moved intelligence gathering to the digital realm. Cyberespionage is a become more and more common, and the real-world implications are as real as they used to be back in the day. Today, we are to take a deeper dive into the world of cyberespionage and get a better understanding of the subject.

What Is Cyberespionage?

Cyberespionage is a type of cyberattack primarily used to collect sensitive or classified information, trade secrets, or other kinds of intellectual property that the aggressor can exploit to gain a competitive edge or sell for profit. In some instances, the breach is only meant to tarnish the victim’s reputation by disclosing sensitive data or dubious business practices.

Such attacks can be motivated by financial gain, military purposes, or as a form of cyber terrorism or cyber warfare. Cyberespionage can impair public services and infrastructure and result in fatalities, especially when it is a part of a larger military or political effort.

Cyberespionage VS. Cyberwarfare

Although similar, the two terms are not the same. The biggest difference can be found in the primary goal. Cyberwarfare attacks have the goal to disrupt the activities of a nation-state, while in cyberespionage, the goal of the attacker is to remain undetected for as long as possible in order to acquire intelligence.  Despite the difference, the two concepts are often used together. Cyberespionage can act as a preliminary step for launching a cyberwarfare attack by acquiring the necessary information to help nations prepare for declaring a cyberwar.

Cyberespionage Targets

Cyberespionage attacks are most common in relationships with large corporations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, or any other agency or even individuals such as political leaders and officials, that may possess valuable IP and technical data, which can be used to confer the attacker a competitive advantage.

Some of the most common targets threat actors tend to access are:

  • Military intelligence
  • Sensitive information regarding organizational finances and expenditures
  • Personal information of government officials and employees
  • IP, such as blueprints, product formulas, or others
  • Client or customer lists and payment structures
  • Strategic plans
  • Business tactics and goals
  • Political strategies, affiliations, and communications
  • R&D data and activity

Most Common Cyberespionage Tactics Employed

Cyberespionage activities are usually categorized as advanced persistent threats (APT). Such attacks are sophisticated and need to be carefully planned and designed by the threat actor to infiltrate an organization and evade detection by its security management for long periods of time. APT attacks take more customization and skill to execute than conventional attacks do. The majority of the time, adversaries are well-resourced, skilled cybercriminal teams that prey on high-value enterprises. They’ve devoted a lot of time and money to investigating and locating weaknesses within the company.

Most espionage attacks involve some sort of social engineering tactic to spur activity or gather information. Such methods are notorious for exploiting human emotions such as curiosity, excitement, or fear to trigger a rushed reaction from the victim. Such tactics are used to trick victims into giving up personal information, clicking malicious links, downloading malware, or paying a ransom. For further information on social engineering, you can check out the designated related article.

Other tactics employed in cyberespionage:

  • Spear phishing: a tactic that refers to an email spoofing assault that targets extremely particular and highly “employed” people;
  • Zero-day vulnerabilities: Hackers may leverage an unknown security vulnerability or flaw to access classified documents;
  • Watering Hole: as explained in our glossary, this type of attack has the purpose to inflict damage upon organizations by utilizing weak points in its supply network;
  • Trojan apps: the attacker will create fake apps or will try to embed backdoors in already functional programs;
  • Insider attacks: the attackers will try to convince employees or contractors to sell classified information or access to the system.

How to Stay Safe from Cyberespionage

As every problem requires a solution, luckily there are accessible solutions for cyberespionage also. Getting rid of cyberspies can be a challenge, as cyberespionage attacks are typically meticulously prepared, highly sophisticated, and hard to detect. It may take organizations months to catch up to the attack, but prevention remains the strongest weapon.

Look for odd behaviors and anomalies

You probably saw this one coming, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. Threat actors go to great lengths to prevent detection, making use of advanced programming techniques, using encryption methods, or other tools that allow them to lay low. Take a close look at your system and try to detect any unusual behavior or anomalies that might give away the presence of a cyberspy.

Use Multi-Factor Authentication

Microsoft, Google, and many companies have implemented MFA systems to upgrade their layer of security. Reusing passwords across many websites should be prohibited for firms that handle important or secret data, and secure passwords must be used instead. Some of the more basic cyberespionage methods can be thwarted by password lockout policies and account monitoring.

After a certain number of unsuccessful login attempts within a predetermined time frame, lockout policies will restrict an account. In order to piece together an attacker’s subsequent actions after the first penetration, account monitoring can be crucial in spotting both evidence of unsuccessful and successful attempts.

Make your employees familiar with the threats

A good security solution has to include a human element to increase its efficiency. The best defense against social engineering assaults is frequently good security awareness training. Opportunities for espionage operatives to establish a base of operations can be eliminated by training staff to recognize the telltale symptoms of phishing, pretexting, and catfishing.

Use Privileged Access Management

A straightforward description of privileged access in a corporate environment would be that it encapsulates those capabilities or types of access that go beyond normal user access. Privileges enable the activation of network or system configurations, the disabling of security constraints, the configuration of various cloud accounts, and other functions.

Based on the Principle of Least Privilege, which states that users and applications should only be given access that is absolutely necessary for carrying out their duties or tasks, Privileged Access Management ensures business safety by preventing external and internal threats that arise from the improper use of admin rights.

The Heimdal® Privileged Access Management solution features an interface that gives you total control over the users’ elevated session. From the dashboard or from the go, you can administrate access from any device you have available, be it a laptop, desktop, or even a mobile device. Keep track of sessions, prevent system file elevation, live-cancel admin access for users, specify an escalation period, and immediately terminate system processes after a session has ended.

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Wrapping Up

Cyberattacks are getting more sophisticated and thus, threat actors become harder to detect. It is often that organizations notice the threat they are exposed to when it’s way too late to act against it. With the right policies and security solutions implemented, the increasing threat of cyberespionage will be kept at bay from your organization.

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Author Profile

Cristian Neagu


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Cristian is a Content Editor & Creator at Heimdal®, where he developed a deep understanding of the digital threat landscape. His style resonates with both technical and non-technical readers, proof being in his skill of communicating cybersecurity norms effectively, in an easy-to-understand manner.

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