The Anatomy of a Breach

How Outdated Tech is Crippling Critical Infrastructure Security

In today’s digital age, the question of whether a company will be hit by a cyber attack is not a question of if it will happen, but when it will happen. Unfortunately, many companies do not have adequate cybersecurity standards in place. As seen with recent breaches such as the Ticketmaster breach, the TTC breach, or the Indigo ransomware attack, even large enterprises are susceptible to cyberattacks and lack the cybersecurity measures to prevent severe damage.

However, cybercriminals do not only attack enterprise companies. In fact, 61% of cyber attacks were on small businesses in 2021. Additionally, 82% of ransomware attacks targeted businesses with less than 1000 employees. These types of organizations make prime targets for cyber criminals because they often have a lower security budget and fewer IT employees. Today, many small and medium-sized businesses are playing Russian roulette with their cybersecurity measures, waiting until a phishing link results in a ransomware attack or an end-user’s password gets compromised before they realize they need a stronger cybersecurity strategy. 

What Happens When a Breach Occurs?

The reality is that in many cases, a serious cybersecurity incident can lead to many consequences, and even cause businesses to go bankrupt. Data breaches can cause downtime, data loss, and the exposure of private information. Not only is it expensive for companies to get their businesses back up and running, but a data breach can also cost a company thousands of dollars in fines and a loss of customers and reputation. But what actually happens during a cybersecurity breach? This blog post will dive into the anatomy of a cybersecurity breach, what happens, and the steps taken to remediate it:

1. Initial Compromise

The initial compromise of a company begins with the attacker exploiting a vulnerability or using tactics such as phishing, malware, or exploiting unpatched software in order to gain unauthorized access to the company’s network or systems. This initial compromise on average occurs 196 days  before an organization will identify that they have been breached. 

2. Establishing a Foothold

Once the attacker has gained access to the company’s networks or systems, they aim to establish a foothold by installing malware or other tools to maintain access, even after the initial vulnerability is fixed. The attacker will often try to gain higher levels of access by exploiting further vulnerabilities, stealing credentials, or using social engineering to trick other users into granting them access. 

3. Internal Reconnaissance

After gaining the adequate level of access in an organization, the cyber attacker can then begin to explore the internal network to understand its structure and begin identifying valuable assets. During this phase, the attacker identifies sensitive data, critical systems, and potential targets for further exploitation.  Often at this point of a breach, an attacker may spend weeks or even months lurking within a network and gaining an understanding of the entire system and assets.

4. Lateral Movement

At this stage of the breach, the attacker moves laterally within the network to access more systems and data. Using their foothold, the attacker compromises additional systems to broaden their access. Their goal is to find as much valuable data to exploit, and as many critical systems to attack, in order to gain leverage against the company.

5. Data Exfiltration and Exploitation

The main goal of a cybercriminal in a data breach is to gather valuable, sensitive data in order to monetize it. They collect information such as intellectual property, customer and employee data, or financial records. They then transfer this data out of the company’s network to external servers in their control. The end goal of the attacker is monetization, and they plan to make money by either selling the data, blackmailing the company (ransomware), or leveraging it in some other malicious way to make money.

6. Detection

At this point in the breach, an attacker may make themselves known (in the case of blackmailing the organization, for example) or they may be noticed by monitoring systems that detect anomalies. The organization’s IT security teams should begin investigating the suspicious activities.

7. Containment

Once it is determined that they have been breached, the organization’s security team should take steps to isolate the affected systems in order to prevent further damage being done. Immediate actions must be taken to stop the attacker’s activities, such as shutting down compromised servers or accounts, changing passwords, and revoking access privileges.

8. Eradication

After the breach has been contained, it is time to start eradicating any malicious software that has been added to the network, as well as patching any exploited vulnerabilities. Additional security measures should also be implemented to prevent any further damage from the attacker. 

9. Recovery

Perhaps the biggest undertaking for many organizations dealing with a breach is the recovery phase. Systems and data must be restored from backups, or in the worst of cases, rebuilt. In situations where the attacker was able to tamper with the backup, companies may lose everything unless they comply with ransom demands or blackmail. After recovery has successfully occurred, businesses can resume normal business operations with their additional security measures in place. 

10. Post-Incident Analysis

It is important that after a data breach, a thorough investigation is conducted to understand what happened that allowed the breach to occur. Additionally, companies need to know the extent of the damage and the effectiveness of their response measures. These lessons learned from the breach can be translated into enhancing security policies, procedures, and technologies. 

11. Communication

In many cases, organizations that have been breached will be required to report the incident to the authorities, customers and other stakeholders to follow regulatory requirements. Employees should be informed about the breach, the response, and any actions they need to take. Organizations may also need to make a public statement to inform customers, partners and the media. 

12. Legal and Regulatory Actions

Depending on the severity and the type of the data loss, there is a potential for customers, partners or regulators to take legal actions or form lawsuits. Ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements related to data breaches is essential for preventing further fines or litigation.

13. Monitoring and Future Prevention

Finally, companies must act to better monitor their systems and prevent another breach from happening. This includes increased monitoring of systems to detect any signs of new or recurring threats, regular security assessments to identify and mitigate any new vulnerabilities, and ongoing training for employees to recognize and respond to security threats. 

Wrapping Up

These steps outline a typical response to a cybersecurity breach, but the exact process can vary depending on the nature of the breach, the size and type of the company, and the specific circumstances involved. By understanding the anatomy of a cybersecurity breach, and knowing how to respond effectively, companies can better protect themselves from the severe consequences of a cyberattack. Proactive measures, continuous monitoring, and thorough post-incident analysis are essential in building a robust defense against future breaches. Ultimately, the best defense is a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that evolves with emerging threats, ensuring that businesses are not just reacting to breaches but actively preventing them.


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