Hacking attacks — what IT security specialists refer to as external threats — are living up to their pop-culture billing as the leading security problem for today’s organizations. However, the days when hacking attacks were associated with gifted but maladjusted young people working in their parents’ basements are long gone.

Today’s malicious hackers are ruthless and highly sophisticated professionals, working in teams and drawing from an underground resource base of specialized tools. Some may be politically motivated or affiliated with state intelligence organizations, while most are cybercriminals are in it for the money. Security leaders worry that the external threat they pose to businesses will become even more serious over the coming years.

External Threats on the Rise

The rising concern about external threats was underlined by IBM’s third annual chief information security officer (CISO) assessment, “Fortifying for the Future.” The survey of CISOs and equivalent security leaders found that among the concerns facing these leaders — from budgeting and new technology to internal threats, fraud and regulatory compliance challenges — external threats have pulled away to form a class of their own.

Nearly half of the security leaders surveyed reported a “dramatic” increase in the challenge posed by external threats in the past three years, while nearly 40 percent believed these threats would call for the greatest organizational response over the next three to five years. In both cases, these far outstripped all other concerns. Nearly three out of five respondents worried that attackers’ sophistication was outstripping that of their organization’s defenses.

A Spectrum of Vulnerabilities

The most recent high-profile hacking attack against Sony differs from typical external threats in that it appears to have been state-sponsored, launched by or on behalf of North Korea. However, as Seth Rosenblatt reports at CNET, the attack — which may be the costliest to date — demonstrates the range of damage that can be inflicted on an organization.

The data stolen and released by the attackers ranged from confidential financial information (such as employees’ credit card numbers) and embarrassing remarks in confidential emails to intellectual property in the form of scripts of upcoming films. Additionally, the attackers appear to have remotely crippled the firm’s computer systems.

Financially motivated cybercriminals primarily target information that can be sold directly on the black market, such as credit card numbers. However, the potential for blackmail could also motivate attacks aimed at damaging rather than stealing from the victimized firm. In short, external threats can target anything and everything of value.

It’s no surprise, then, that external threats have come into a class of their own as a challenge for businesses and their security leaders.

Download the complete 2016 IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Report

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