Cyber espionage is a growing concern for individuals, businesses, and governments. Learn about it here to prepare yourself against cyber spying.
As information technology grows, so do cyber crimes. Cyber espionage is one of the darkest cyber crimes, where nobody is safe from bad actors.
Cyber spying is not just limited to organizations. It has also touched individual internet users. So, you must prepare yourself, or else your data might find its way to the dark web for sale in no time.
What is Cyber Espionage?
Cyber espionage is a type of cybercrime where hackers get unnoticed access to digital systems that are always connected to the internet.
Using obscure tactics, bad actors mostly steal personal and professional data that could fetch money in the dark web, gain competitive gains over business rivals, or tarnish the reputation of political rivals.
It has many names like cyber spying, cyber intelligence, cyber eavesdropping, cyber tailing, and more. Irrespective of these names, the objective is to steal secret or private data from a company or individual.
Then, sell the data to a rival of the target, use the data to steal money/profitable assets, or destabilize governments, armed forces, and so on.
The goal of such cyber attacks is to stay hidden as long as possible and shadow your or your organization’s every transaction on the internet. When the right time comes, or an appropriate secret asset has been noticed, steal it and transfer it to the cyber spying team’s data vault.
Cybercrime detection, prevention, and research experts usually call such hacking attacks advanced persistent threats (APTs).
As the name suggests, hacking groups equipped with advanced algorithms and electronic surveillance systems get undetected access to government, business, and individual devices for months, years, and decades. When the right time comes, they strike to cause any or all of the followings:
- Disrupt communication and utility operations in a locality or region
- Shut down business operations and manufacturing units and corrupt the machinery in use
- Deactivate your bank accounts, credit cards, debit cards, and more to put you in financial distress
- Siphon money undetected from business or personal accounts
Difference Between Cyber Espionage and Cyber Warfare
Both cyber spying and cyber warfare are crimes involving people via the internet and computer devices. However, here are the following differences between these two:
- Cyber spying could target one individual, a specific organization, a government, or the whole country. On the contrary, cyber warfare always targets the whole country.
- Cyber espionage could get motivation by personal, business, or government-level rivalries. On the other hand, cyber warfare always gets its fuel from conflict between two or more countries.
- Cyber eavesdropping could get sponsors from individual to government levels. Contrarily, a rival government mostly sponsors cyber warfare against the opposing nation.
- Cyber spying is stealthy and undetectable. On the other hand, cyber warfare is loud and its objective is to destroy the target nation’s utility, telecom, defense systems, economy, and more.
Targets of Cyber Espionage
Cyber spies can target solo internet users for various reasons. The most obvious is personal rivalry. For instance, someone has hired a hacker group to damage an individual’s reputation and finances.
Sometimes, foreign rival states may target intellectuals of another state and siphon research or advisory documents from them to cause harm.
Cyber espionage at the private level is highly popular in corporate and business environments. Business rivals hire hackers from the dark web to steal confidential information from other companies. In such cases, the followings are the main target for cyber espionage:
- Company’s internal information like hierarchy, CEO’s email, etc.
- Trade secrets, patents, IPO filings, business deals, tender quotes, and more
- Documents, files, multimedia, and other data on a business’s client base, pricing for clients, new product ideas, etc.
- A business’s market intelligence report bought or carried out in-house is a lucrative target for another rival company
- Laboratory computers and databases that store data on research and development
- Salaries structure of a rival company to steal its talented employees
- Discovering political and social affiliations of businesses
- Accessing source code of proprietary software developed by a rival company
On a large scale, cyber espionage mainly targets governments. In governments, countries like the USA, UK, Israel, Iran, Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea, etc., are the popular names in the cyber spying spectrum.
At a national level, the main targets of cyber eavesdropping are:
- Operational units of governments like ministries, administration, the justice system, etc.
- Public utility services hubs like power stations, gas pipelines, nuclear reactors, satellite stations, weather stations, traffic control infrastructure, etc.
- Government secrets that could destabilize it
- Election proceedings
#4. Not-For-Profit Organizations (NGOs)
NGOs usually work at the public level; hence cyber spying groups often target such entities to steal public data. Since such agencies typically do not invest much in cyber security, they become easier targets for the long-term stealing of data.
Examples: Cyber Espionage
In 2022 Microsoft reported that, after the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war, the SEABORGIUM cyber spying group has been running spying campaigns against NATO countries. The group tried to steal defense intelligence, defense operations, and intergovernmental activities in NATO countries to help Russia.
From 2003 to 2007, Chinese military hackers have run spying campaigns on the US and the UK government assets like foreign ministries, defense ministries, federal government facilities, etc.
The GhostNet spy group found a breach in networked computers of Dalai Lama offices in 2009. They used this access to spy on foreign embassies communicating with infected computers. A Canadian research team has reported that GhostNet has infected computers in 103 countries.
A group of Chinese hackers performed cyber espionage on multiple US and Spanish laboratories that were working on Covid-19 vaccines. The group used an SQL injection attack to enter the database of the laboratory. The malware then transmitted research data to the group through a custom web shell.
General Electric (GE) Incident
Chinese companies, namely Nanjing Tianyi Avi Tech Co. Ltd., Liaoning Tianyi Aviation Technology Co. Ltd., and a Chinese individual Xiaoqing Zheng have been accused by the US justice department of stealing turbine technology secrets from General Electric, USA.
How does Cyber Espionage affect Data Privacy and Security?
Given its diverse and secret operational mode, narrowing down how cyber espionage works is challenging. It can be a multimillion-dollar project run by rival corporations or governments to target a single person, a small group of professionals, or the whole region.
However, the followings are the primary mode of action for cyber spying to cause severe damage to data privacy and security:
#1. Stealthy Hacking Tactics
At the same time, cyber spying aims to find a breach in the target system to gain unauthorized access and do everything the hacking team can to hide its activity from the infected device.
Even after the attack is complete, the hacking team will remove its history down to the level of bytes and bits of data so that data forensics can not detect the attack.
To accomplish this, cyber espionage groups use custom malware and apps mimicking popular software like banking portals, graphic design apps, word processing apps, etc. They also use zero-day attack tools that antivirus apps can not detect.
#2. Unauthorized Access to Personal or Business Identities
Cyber eavesdropping always aims at sneaky access to computer systems and databases. These digital systems often host critical data, as mentioned below:
- Personal identity documents, banking KYC documents, and account passwords
- Organization’s trade secrets, patents, research and development reports, upcoming products, business accounting data, etc.
- Government’s plans for armed forces, utility services, etc.
#3. Steal Confidential and Valuable Digital Assets
Cyber espionage also slowly and steadily steals data from the target computer. Attackers can use such data to gain short-term benefits like stealing money or closing a manufacturing plant of the rival.
Alternatively, there could be long-term plans like tarnishing an individual’s reputation in society, corrupting a business for good, or bringing down rival governments.
#4. Motivated Actions
The basis of such attacks is always strong motivations, as mentioned below:
- The conflict between two individuals, usually of VIP stature
- The rivalry between business entities
- Conflict between countries
Cyber espionage groups use the above tactics to access your personal or professional secrets. Then, they put the data up for bidding on the dark web. Alternatively, the group themselves utilize the data to cause harm to lifestyle, finance, assets, or even life. This applies to an individual, business, or government.
How to Know if You Are a Victim of Cyber Espionage
It is almost impossible to detect cyber espionage by your business unless you are hiring an expert. Here is how you should plan cyber eavesdropping detection:
- Install software-based sensor apps that detect anomalies in apps that your computer uses. Review the anomalies to make informed decisions.
- Create a database of indicators of compromise (IOCs) and scan your workstations against such indicators.
- Deploy a security information and event management (SEIM) application in all business workstations
- Aggregate threat intelligence report from various antivirus developers and scan your systems for those threats.
- Hire freelance or in-house cyber espionage bounty hunters that will frequently scan your organization’s computers for malware and spyware infections.
- Use websites like Have I been pwned to scan emails.
How to Prevent Cyber Espionage
Adopt Zero-Trust Policy
Implement an organization-wide zero-trust policy when it comes to business data. Here, the cyber security team must consider every internal and external device linked to the business has been compromised. It should be the employee’s responsibility to prove that the device has no infection of malware, spyware, trojan, and more.
Educate Yourself and Your Employees
You and your team must go through constant cybersecurity training sessions. The IT sector is evolving daily, so you must stay updated about the current tactics of cyber eavesdropping.
Create a Culture of Security
In a business or government organization, all employees must foster a culture of digital data security. Employees should not share their passwords with anyone, use company email for personal requirements, leave computers unlocked, or pause security updates for devices.
Allow Minimum Access
Give the least possible access to your business data. Use sophisticated cloud storage platforms to give instant access to required business data and revoke access when the work is done.
Implement Multi-Factor Authentication
Across the organization, for any kind of system and facility access, use multi-factor authentication protocols. This helps to track accountability and the source of the security breach.
Change Passwords Most Often
Ensure that you change online account passwords every week, fortnight, or month. Also, enforce a business policy so that the employees also follow this digital security hygiene.
Stop Phishing and Spamming Through Emails
Use advanced email security protocols like DKIM records to authenticate incoming emails. If some incoming emails do not allow DKIM authentication, sandbox those emails in your email server.
If you have the resources, manually audit the emails before redirecting those to employees. Or simply block emails that do not authenticate them via DKIM signatures.
Review Software Source Code
Before installing any software, hire a software engineer to review the source code from start to bottom. This will ensure that a business rival does not sabotage any software deliveries to cause damage to your business workstations or machinery.
Stop Using Pirated Software
Pirated software contains cracked source codes that do not ask for any code validation upon installation. Hence, these are the easiest vehicles to deliver malware, spyware, and trojans. Stay away from such apps at the personal and professional levels.
You must back up your business databases in multiple data centers in different countries. This will help you recover business data from a backup source should you fall prey to excessive cyber spying followed by cyber warfare.
Skilled hackers or insiders are always out there to damage government organizations, business entities, and even individuals through cyber espionage. Online bad actors do this out of monetary greed or to win a business competition.
If you want to protect yourself at a personal or organizational level, you must become familiar with cyber espionage basics. Also, you can apply the above cyber spying detection and prevention tips to make you well prepared for any future cyber security threats, especially for business or personal data theft.