Cyber-attacks are a constant threat for everyone who uses the internet or stores data in any digital format. In a world where cybercriminals seem to always find new ways to exploit system vulnerabilities, keeping data and assets safe is one of the biggest challenges faced by internet users, especially businesses.

The consequences of suffering an attack can be hefty, and it can be very difficult to recover and get back to business as usual. Organizations must have a good understanding of what cyber-attacks are and how big an impact they can have on business operations to be ready to respond to and recover from them. 

What are cyber-attacks?

Cyber-attacks are unwelcome, intentional entries into computer networks or systems that aim to cause some kind of damage. They are not the same as cyber threats, which are not necessarily deliberate actions but rather potential ways for security violations to occur and affect a system. Threats can be unintentional and derive from human error or negligence, or even natural disasters. Attacks, on the other hand, are always premeditated.

The intent of cyber-attacks may be to modify or steal data, or to control, disrupt, disable, or destroy systems and networks. Attacks on the integrity of systems will manipulate data, while those that aim to disrupt availability will make it difficult or impossible for people to access data that should be available to them. Finally, attacks on confidentiality will grant access to restricted, confidential information to cybercriminals. 

If the attacker modifies anything in the targeted environment, this is called an active attack. If they just observe and copy information, it is a passive one. Passive attacks often do not impact the system or data, which makes them harder to detect.

A cyber-attack can be performed from anywhere by a single individual (referred to as a cybercriminal, hacker, or bad actor), a group of attackers, or even organized cybercrime syndicates. Perpetrators study their targets to find vulnerabilities like system weaknesses or issues that they can exploit to design and carry out attacks.

Common types of cyber-attacks include malware, phishing scams, man-in-the-middle (MitM), and denial-of-service (DoS). We will explore these later in the article. First, let’s look at the motivations behind cyber-attacks.

Why cyber-attacks happen

Most cybercriminals aim to get financial gain by disrupting business operations, stealing data, or even taking payment information or money directly from the victim.

However, this is not the only reason why a cybercriminal may invade a system or network. Bad actors can be motivated by revenge, espionage, hacktivism, cyberterrorism, or cyber warfare: 

  • Revenge: This is usually down to personal motivation. For example, a collaborator or current or former employee may wish to cause operational disruption or steal sensitive information.
  • Espionage: The goal, in this case, is to spy on the competition to obtain information that can possibly bring an unfair advantage to the malicious actor.
  • Hacktivism: These attacks aim to make a socio-political point that will likely be heard once an attack is made public, creating visibility and awareness for a cause supported by the hackers.
  • Cyberterrorism: Similar to hacktivism, the motivation behind cyberterrorism is political. However, it typically targets critical infrastructure and may bring about violence or fear in the population.
  • Cyber warfare: This is an attack or a series of attacks against a nation-state with the intention of threatening national security by disrupting critical systems or infrastructure, worsening the impact of physical warfare, and even directly causing loss of life.

Most commonly, cyber attacks are associated with intruders that come from outside of the organization they are attacking. However, they may come from the inside, too. Insiders may even pose a bigger challenge than outsiders, as they have privileged access to data and systems, which makes it easier for them to compromise them.

It is also very easy for insiders to become unintentional cyber threats. That is because they can make mistakes or act negligently and accidentally open doors for bad actors to perform attacks. For example, they may click on harmful links, open email attachments that contain viruses or lose a USB drive or laptop with sensitive data. In other words, cyber threats can easily be caused by human error and a lack of awareness.

Types of cyber-attacks

There is an uncountable range of cyber-attack types. Worse yet, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) can emerge and evolve over time as cybercrime becomes more and more sophisticated. We will look at a few of the most common here: malware, phishing, man-in-the-middle (MitM), and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks.

Malware

Malware is an umbrella term that stands for “malicious software” and encompasses all kinds of software with malicious intent. Common forms of malware include viruses, ransomware, spyware, and trojans.

  • A trojan, or trojan horse, is software disguised as a harmless file or legitimate program but is malicious and may install other types of malware.
  • Spyware, as the name suggests, is a form of malware that monitors the user’s activity on a computing device without their knowledge and steals sensitive information.
  • Ransomware encrypts the victim’s files, blocking or limiting access to data until a ransom payment is made.
  • Viruses are designed to attach themselves to legitimate files, then replicate and spread to other files and computers. They can affect the system’s operation by slowing it down, as well as corrupting and destroying data.

Phishing

Phishing is when attackers pose as a trusted person or institution and send communications to victims, usually via email, in an attempt to get them to install malware or disclose sensitive information. Many companies with digital services will actively safeguard customers against phishing scams by letting them know how to tell when one of their emails is legitimate.

MitM attacks

Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks happen when the attacker secretly gets in the “middle” of two computers, networks, or users, and “eavesdrops” on the conversation to steal data. Once the attacker is conveniently positioned in the middle, they can impersonate both parties to achieve their goal and collect the information they need.

DoS attacks

Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks aim to make systems or networks unavailable by exhausting their resources. Attackers send a mass of superfluous requests which overload the service and cause it to be denied to its users, who are trying to make legitimate requests.

When cybercriminals use multiple host machines to launch the attack, this is called a distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDoS.

The impact of cyber-attacks on a business

Just like the reasons and types of cyber-attacks vary, so too does the level of impact they can have on businesses. When bad actors manage to intrude on critical systems and access very sensitive data, the consequences can be extensive, and it can take a long time until the organization is back on its feet – especially if there is no cyber resilience plan in place.

Many cyber-attacks are intended to cause data loss and interruption to operations in the target institution. When they succeed, business continuity can be seriously compromised. Depending on how serious the disruption is and how difficult it is for the organization to stop it, the business may have to shut down. This is particularly true for companies that do not have the capacity or resources to recover from cyber-attacks.

Cyber-attacks can also lead to legal and reputational damage. When any personal data stored by a company is accessed without permission or is compromised, fines and regulatory sanctions may be applied, such as those imposed by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This directly affects a business’ reputation, as customers, collaborators, and suppliers may feel their personal details are not safe with the organization anymore.

Finally, the financial losses that come from a cyber-attack can be substantial. The attack itself may involve capital loss from ransom payments or stolen details, such as bank account logins or credit card information. GDPR and other regulations add to the financial damage, as they can result in massive fines for the organization. On top of that, working to respond to and recover from the attack is a costly effort, just like trying to regain the trust of valuable customers.

Prepare for, respond to, and recover from cyber-attacks

As a business, it is crucial to accept that cyber threats are a reality and that you may become a target at any moment. You must be ready to deal with cyber-attacks and have a plan in place to recover from disruptions and losses, as well as to restore service continuity for your customers. This is where cyber resilience strategies come in.

Developing and implementing a cyber resilience strategy is what enables you to tackle the problem from all sides. It involves understanding your current capabilities and then improving them to adapt to the changing landscape of cyber threats. It also supports the creation of cyber resilience policies that can help make staff aware of important cybersecurity measures, as well as how to protect the business’ resources and data.

A cyber resilience strategy empowers your organization to become cyber resilient: ready to respond to and recover from cyber-attacks with as little disruption as possible while still maintaining business continuity. Combining cybersecurity and resilience means ensuring your infrastructure and data are well protected, malicious threats and attack attempts can be detected quickly, and new offensive techniques are anticipated and prevented in advance.

Taking the first step to becoming cyber resilient

A good way to create a cyber resilience strategy is by using a framework that provides a foundation and common best practices to get you started.

RESILIA Cyber Resilience is a framework that presents a flexible approach to achieving effective cyber resilience according to your organization’s situation and needs. The video below offers an overview of RESILIA’s recommended actions for addressing risk, for example.