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Nation-state actors operate at a higher level than regular cybercriminals, posing critical challenges to cybersecurity. Today we’ll explore their common modus operandi, targets, and motivations, as well as what prevention strategies the business sector can apply against nation-state hacking.

What Is Nation-state Hacking?

Methodically planned and executed, nation-state cyberattacks are usually carried out by state-sponsored hackers who are acting on behalf of their government – Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China are top sponsors of state-hacked cybercrime.

Common targets for nation-state hacking include critical infrastructure (such as power plants and financial institutions), military targets (such as weapon systems and intelligence databases), and political targets (such as election campaigns and government websites). In some cases, hackers may not have any specific target in mind and will simply exploit vulnerabilities in order to gain access to sensitive data.

What do nation-state threat actors want to achieve? Their goal is to gather intelligence or to cause disruption. Sometimes, these attacks lead to physical damage.

Nation-state Hacking – Modus Operandi

Highly skilled and well-funded, nation-state hackers tend to go after high-value targets such as government agencies and critical infrastructure providers. Their modus operandi often includes espionage and sabotage, and they typically use sophisticated tools and techniques to gain access to their targets’ systems.

They may also use phishing and other methods like social engineering, DDoS attacks, and the dissemination of malware through email attachments, social media links, or infected websites.

What Are the Differences between a Nation-state Attack and a Regular Cyberattack?

A few key differences distinguish between a nation-state attack and a regular cyberattack:

  • Firstly, nation-state attacks are usually much more sophisticated and well-funded than traditional cyberattacks. This means that they can target specific individuals or organizations due to a clear political or military motivation. Other motivating factors are nationalism, financial gain, and the fact that they can sometimes get away with their crimes if their countries’ interests are served.
  • Secondly, nation-state attackers tend to be very patient, and will often spend months or even years planning their attacks. This is in contrast to regular cyberattacks, which are often carried out quickly and without that level of planning.
  • Finally, nation-state attackers typically have access to powerful tools and resources that allow them to conduct very targeted and effective attacks.

Nation-state Targets and Memorable Attacks

When it comes to this kind of cyberattacks, hackers do have a few preferred targets:  government agencies, critical infrastructure, and military organizations. Each of these targets has its own unique set of vulnerabilities that nation-state attackers can exploit:

  • Government agencies get targeted in cyberattacks due to the sensitive information they possess. In this case, nation-state cybercriminals seek to steal classified data or disrupt government operations.
  • Critical infrastructure, another common target, is essential to the functioning of society. I’m sure you can imagine that attacks on critical infrastructure might cause widespread damage and disruption.
  • Military organizations possess sensitive information and technology – by targeting them, nation-state hackers try to gain intelligence or disrupt military operations.

Some of the most notable examples of nation-state hacking that I’ve seen over the years include:

Operation Aurora

Operation Aurora was a series of targeted cyberattacks launched in 2010 against dozens of organizations, including Google, Adobe, Yahoo, Symantec, and Morgan Stanley, among others, initiated through the spear-phishing technique.

Although the true motives for the attack are still unknown, it’s clear that Operation Aurora’s consequences were intellectual property theft and cyberespionage.

The Russian Interference in the 2016 US Elections

The Russian government meddled in the 2016 US presidential election in an effort to harm Hilary Clinton’s campaign and undermine American stability. Back in 2016, hackers broke into the computer systems of various governmental organizations and released stolen files online.

Russian Cyberattacks on Ukraine

Ukraine was the target of several Russian cyberattacks both before and during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Numerous government and banking services, as well as about 70 official Ukraine government websites, were taken down. Further cyberattacks, though, had only modest success. In a quite interesting positioning, the unaffiliated hacktivist collective Anonymous launched cyberattacks in retaliation against Russia.

How Can Businesses Prevent Nation-state Cyber Attacks?

Nation-state hacking is changing cybersecurity. Surely, nation-state actors have historically specifically targeted foreign governments, think tanks, and infrastructure. Nowadays, however, as organizations strengthen their defenses, threat actors can simply turn to the supply chain attack technique and target the vendors, software developers, and networks businesses rely upon. From there, the road to destruction is paved with the supply chain’s cybersecurity – or lack of it.

Additionally, as nation-state actors extend their goals to obtain intellectual property, the business sector is also at a bigger risk of attack than ever.

I have to be honest – there is no silver bullet when it comes to preventing nation-state cyber attacks. There are, however, certain strategies that can be adopted in order to greatly reduce the likelihood of becoming a target.

  • You must understand what a nation-state cyber attack is and how it works. Once you are aware of the danger that this kind of cyberattack poses, you can start putting preventive measures into practice.
  • You have to ensure that your company’s systems are up-to-date and patched. This may seem like a no-brainer, but many organizations still fall victim to attacks because they failed to update their software or apply security patches in a timely manner.
  • You must also implement proper access control measures. Each business, regardless of size, must know who has access to which systems and data, and must carefully monitor access activity. This includes both physical and digital access.
  • The next point is quite obvious: regularly back up your data and have a plan in place for how to restore systems in the event of an attack. This way, if an attacker does manage to gain access to your systems, they will not be able to do irreparable damage.
  • Finally, raise awareness among employees about cybersecurity risks and train them on how to identify and report suspicious activity.

By taking these steps, I guarantee that you will become much less attractive to nation-state cyber attacks.

How Can Heimdal® Help?

Surely, you can contact us if you need to talk to one of our cybersecurity experts regarding the best approach for a powerful cybersecurity strategy.  

In terms of products, the Heimdal portfolio includes innovative AI-powered components that allow you to:

  •       prevent attacks before they even start,
  •       detect and respond to threats and stop outbreaks,
  •       manage rights and access for compliance,
  •       defend your users and brand.

Our Patch Management and Privileged Access Management solutions can surely help you avoid becoming a target of nation-state hacking. The Patch Management solution handles both Windows and 3rd party applications in any location and can help you close vulnerabilities and mitigate exploits while being fully customizable and easy to use. Heimdal’s Privileged Access Management tool combined with Application Control can help your IT team remove permanent rights, give access to temporary elevation and application execution when users need it – and be NIST AC-1,6 compliant.

A revolutionary new product is on its way as well – in early 2023 we will launch the Threat-Hunting and Action Center, which will empower security leaders and teams with an advanced threat-centric view of their entire IT landscape, offering granular telemetry to enable swift decision-making using built-in hunting and remediation capabilities – all managed from a single unified platform. Make sure you subscribe here if you would like to get exclusive updates about it!

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Final Thoughts 

Nation-state cyberattacks are a real-time bomb in the current security landscape – they are well-funded and sophisticated and can target any organization.

Understanding the motivations (such as politics, financial gain, nationalism, etc.) and tactics (such as cyber-espionage, sabotage, social engineering, etc.) used by nation-state cyber attackers are the most crucial strategies that businesses, regardless of size, can use to reduce their chances of becoming a target.

Author Profile

Morten Kjaersgaard is the visionary CEO of Denmark-based Heimdal®, an AI-powered cybersecurity leader with a global reach, safeguarding 15,000 businesses from 260+ million cyberattacks. With a Corporate Marketing background, Morten bridges cybersecurity intricacies with business goals. He's a cybersecurity advocate, event speaker, and insightful blog contributor. Morten uniquely translates technicalities into actionable insights, a valuable asset in the digital landscape. His presentations blend cybersecurity expertise, real-world business engagement, and data-driven insights, inspiring innovative strategies. Morten doesn't settle for the status quo, pushing organizations to embrace bold, revolutionary approaches. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more.

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