According to IBM’s “Securing the C-suite” report, most C-suite executives are confident in their cybersecurity plans. However, the truth is that only 17% exhibit the highest level of security.

60% of CFOs, CHROs, and CMOs feel the least engaged regarding cybersecurity threat management, despite often handling the most critical data of their respective companies. Poor threat management makes those companies ideal targets for hackers and other cybercriminals looking to take down big corporate businesses.

This post outlines the top cybersecurity threats executives, especially CIOs and CISOs, and other board members should familiarize themselves with. They can then oversee the implementation of information security policies and procedures to mitigate these risks to benefit an organization’s staff, shareholders, and customers or clients.

1. Social Engineering

Social engineering is one of the leading forms of cybercrime, which involves techniques to manipulate or trick targets into revealing information or performing actions for the purpose of exfiltrating data, stealing sensitive information, or acquiring money or financial equivalents.

One of the most common social engineering attacks that cybercriminals use is phishing scams, which have become more sophisticated in recent years, with an estimated 3.4 billion phishing emails sent every day. Phishing scams often trick users into giving up confidential data, such as personally identifiable information (PII) or protected health information (PHI).

Alternatively, the phishing email may ask the recipient to click a link or download a file. Either action typically results in a redirect to an infected website, giving unauthorized entry to the network or downloading malware or ransomware onto the recipient’s device and infecting the network.

Oftentimes, cybercriminals impersonate an individual close to the executive (friend, family, coworker, boss) to commit fraud or identity theft. These attacks are also called spear phishing or whaling attacks, which are targeted phishing attempts on high-profile or high-level executives.

The C-suite is even more at risk from targeted phishing attacks after a data breach or other cybersecurity incident because threat actors can use stolen confidential data to make their communications more convincing.

Business email compromise (BEC) is another example of a social engineering attack that executives must be careful of. While spear or whale phishing focuses on tricking high-level executives, BEC attacks aim to impersonate them. Lower-level employees may receive a fake or spoofed email from the executive and offer up critical information under the belief the email originated from the executive. FBI research puts BEC above ransomware in terms of financial damage from cybercrime. In 2021, BEC cost $49.2 million in victim losses.

In addition to educating staff on how to spot fraudulent communications, organizations can protect themselves from social engineering attacks, phishing attacks, or BEC through:

  • Social engineering prevention training
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA)
  • Message sender verification
  • Never provide sensitive or personal information through email, phone, or text
  • Updating antivirus, anti-malware, applications, and software

2. Ransomware

Ransomware attacks are targeted cyber attacks that gain access to systems and encrypt the data, making it completely inaccessible until a ransom payment is made by the affected company or individual. If the organization refuses to pay the ransom, cybercriminals often threaten to release or publish that information on the dark web or other public forums.

Ransomware attacks are heavily targeted toward individuals or businesses with poor cybersecurity practices and ineffective security programs. Oftentimes, these organizations are unable to operate without their data and end up paying the ransom to avoid a complete shutdown.

Although cybersecurity professionals and authorities advise business leaders not to pay the ransom when dealing with a ransomware attack, around 72% of companies affected by ransomware pay to recover their compromised data. In many cases, the cost of paying the ransom seems far more affordable than losing all access to the data and risking massive business disruptions. However, the cost of losing business and damaging reputation must also be considered.

For businesses such as hospitals, having confidential data exposed can be devastating for everyone involved. For any business, compromised records can lead to a loss of trust, business, and reputation. Executives must proactively prevent this risk by implementing strong security, continuous monitoring, and staff training.

With ransomware attacks, having an incident response, business continuity, and disaster recovery plan, along with regular data backups, are critical to ensuring ransomware does not cripple the business entirely.

Learn the top 10 ways to prevent ransomware attacks here.

3. Insufficient Preparation for Cyber Incidents

Dealing with cybersecurity threats isn’t only about how an organization responds to an incident. While the response is critical, mitigating risk from a cyber threat begins long before an incident occurs.

Preparing for cyber incidents requires system audits, risk analysis, and risk assessments to determine what threats exist to an organization, how likely they are to occur, and how damaging they could be. With this information, an organization can prioritize its risk mitigation and remediation strategies. Part of the risk management process involves creating incident response plans for each type of risk, a documented set of instructions that outlines the organization’s planned response to data breaches, cyberattacks, and other security incidents.

More importantly, preparation involves regular testing to stay updated with the latest threats. Businesses that regularly tested the effectiveness of their incident response plans reduced data breach damage costs by 61% and saved about $2.66 million more than those that did not regularly test.

Each kind of attack identified in the document will correspond to an appropriate response for limiting further damage, speeding up recovery time, and mitigating cybersecurity risk. IT employees should be trained every year on how to respond to attacks, and businesses should consider attack surface management solutions, such as UpGuard BreachSight, to minimize their threat potential.

4. Poor Response to Cyber Incidents

No matter how strong a company believes its cybersecurity is, it’s impossible to be fully protected from cyber attacks. In the event of a cyber incident, cyber resiliency and incident response measure how fast organizations move to quickly contain, diagnose, and mitigate the issue.

Organizations often fail to patch a known vulnerability or remediate an alerted risk due to a failure of executive leadership or the inability to recognize the dangers of their cyber risks. In many cases, even after a data breach has occurred, organizations are too slow to act and demonstrate poor attack response awareness, leading to far more severe data loss or system damage than if they had the proper response policies.

The way an organization responds to a cyber incident can have a significant effect on the following factor

  • Loss of business due to downtime
  • Amount of data lost or stolen during the incident
  • Loss of customers due to reputational damage and loss of trust
  • Cost of remediating the issue
  • The severity of penalties

Executives must do all they can to prevent a data breach, but they must also be realistic about the likelihood of successful cyber attacks in the current cyber threat landscape. As such, they must invest time and effort in planning the organization’s response to a significant cyber incident.

5. Lack of Authentication Processes

Poor password hygiene and a lack of proper authentication processes are the roots of many data breaches and cyber attacks, leading to credential theft, brute force attacks, or impersonation attacks. Many data breaches could easily have been prevented with better password management alone.

Multi-factor (MFA) or two-factor (2FA) authentication, including biometric scans, one-time PINs, or third-party app verification, are two examples of easy but highly effective identity verification methods that reduce the risk of unauthorized use or access of stolen credentials.

Another method to consider is access control, a process that restricts employee access to confidential or critical data to only those who need it to lower the risk of unauthorized access in the case of stolen credentials. In the healthcare sector, on average, employees can access around 20% of all files. Limiting who has access to confidential data also makes it easier to diagnose the exact entry point or method of access during a data breach or data leak.

Following the principle of least privilege and the zero trust model, executives can begin to implement more simple, effective security by requiring employees to authenticate themselves before gaining access to critical data.

6. Third-Party Exposure

An organization’s attack surface is only as strong as the security of its third-party service providers, suppliers, and vendors. A firm with excellent security can still be vulnerable to a cyber attack through a poorly secured third party.

Supply chain attacks typically involve trusted vendors of software or services. Cybercriminals may inject malicious code into an application or compromise physical components. The former - software supply chain attacks - are of the most concern.

Cybercriminals often target third-party vendors because they handle so much important data and use that data to access their larger business partners. Third-party vendors can be particularly vulnerable when they use off-the-shelf components, such as third-party APIs and open-source software (OSS).

Executives must ensure that their organizations perform necessary checks with their third parties to verify that they have sufficient information security policies and procedures. However, any organization may work with dozens or hundreds of third parties, increasing their entire attack surface. Larger businesses must consider using a third-party risk management solution, such as UpGuard Vendor Risk, to help manage the entire end-to-end vendor management process.

7. Poor Network Security

Network security addresses the underlying risks in the IT infrastructure by focusing on preventing unauthorized access or misuse of the network. The baseline for network security must start with a dedicated security team, antivirus, and firewalls to identify, contain, and deal with threats promptly.

Network security is typically staged into three parts:

  1. Protection
  2. Detection
  3. Reaction

Poor network security, on the other hand, gives attackers the freedom to gain access to a network and move freely about to make changes, steal data, and cause damage, including encrypting critical files.

Continuous monitoring is also worthwhile because an organization doesn’t always identify a data breach the moment it starts. On average, it takes more than 200 days for a business to identify a data breach, followed by an additional 70 days on average to contain it. Monitoring solutions help spot unusual network activity, which can be useful for diagnosing, containing, and repairing the issue.

8. Software Misconfigurations

Poorly configured applications and servers can lead to massive data breaches if left unaddressed. Misconfigurations are any errors or glitches in the app or system that can lead to the exposure of thousands of personal records unprotected by access credentials. Server misconfigurations can happen when an organization updates its software or hardware, modifies a network, or migrates data to the cloud.

Executives must also invest in cloud security heavily because cloud storage providers can have significant, exploitable vulnerabilities. C-suite executives must ensure that servers are correctly configured and be prepared to react if a misconfiguration occurs as part of their configuration management processes.

9. Poor Training & Lack of Education Leading to Employee Errors

According to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report, 82% of data breaches involved the human element, such as errors and social attacks. This is why it’s essential to mandate staff to participate in basic cybersecurity training. Ignorance and lack of awareness are easily preventable, but failing to address those issues can lead to data breaches or accidental disclosure of sensitive data.

At the very least, raising staff awareness of cyber risks will help a business immensely by providing the necessary education for spotting unusual activity and responding accordingly, including reporting it via the proper channels and not clicking on suspicious links.

Data leaks can cause significant damage to an organization and the affected individuals, especially in a highly-regulated sector such as healthcare or the financial industry. Unintentional disclosure by sending confidential information to an incorrect recipient is common and costly. Executives must ensure that information security measures limit this kind of damage.

10. Unsecured Smart and Mobile Devices

Smartphones, tablets, IoT (internet of things) devices, and other mobile devices are attack vectors that executives must consider to protect organizations, staff, and clients. Employees using personal devices while connected to company networks or IoT devices operating on the networks must be secured properly, or else risk threat actors intercepting important communications.

Executives must oversee policies and procedures to ensure that public access to a network is strictly limited and monitored. The use of public Wi-Fi also puts company data at risk, compounding the challenge of maintaining remote mobile device security. Furthermore, people at the executive level often rely on mobile devices and public Wi-Fi, increasing their attack vectors.

Another possibility is that mobile devices are lost or stolen, and if the device is unsecured or unencrypted, it poses a significant security breach that can affect the entire organization. Executives must consider physical security just as important as digital security, especially if employees access company files and servers on remote devices.

11. Insider Threats

There are two main types of insider threats: intentional (malicious) and unintentional (accidental).

Sometimes cybersecurity threats come from malicious threat actors inside the affected organization because they are disgruntled or dissatisfied with the company. An insider knows about the organization’s systems, information, networks, and personnel, which they may choose to expose to damage the company.

The other type of insider threat comes is unintentional, usually coming from unaware employees. Unintentional threats result from poor training, negligence, or carelessness that can lead to accidental data exposure. However, the blame also lies with the company for failing to implement data security and handling policies for its employees to lower insider threat risk.

Whether malicious or unintentional, the effects of insider action can be very damaging to a business’s data, personnel, or facilities. Such threats include:

  • Espionage
  • Sabotage
  • Data theft
  • Cyber attacks

Third parties can also be included in the category of insider threats. A third-party solution provider often has access privileges to certain assets, systems, or networks, even though they are not formal members of the organization. These third-party insiders can cause a data breach through malpractice or failure to follow security policies or regulations.

Learn about how to detect and prevent insider threats here >

12. DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) Attacks

In a DDoS attack, a malicious actor floods the target company’s servers with fake traffic to restrict website functionality and prevent customers and employees from accessing the site. DDoS attacks can be particularly damaging for a company in the event it leads to server downtime, which can lead to business disruption and inability to operate. Many times, the DDoS attack is used as a diversion while the hacker is actively stealing data undeterred.

DDoS attacks usually involve a system of botnets, a network of compromised computers used for the sole purpose of executing coordinated cyber attacks, which frequently target high-profile organizations, including governments, banks, healthcare institutions, or other large companies. A well-coordinated attack can even threaten critical infrastructure, national security, and economies.

In some cases, DDoS attacks can last anywhere from 24 hours to a few weeks and are becoming increasingly common amongst larger corporations. Every hour the systems are down can cost companies tens of thousands of dollars if the situation cannot be fixed.

Executives should consider the event of a potential DDoS attack and implement prevention processes such as:

  • Multi-layered DDoS protections
  • Network traffic monitoring and profiling
  • Attack surface management (reducing potential entry points and attack vectors)
  • Fortifying IT infrastructure to handle traffic spikes
  • Using rate-limiting cloud services
  • Web filtering to block botnet activity
  • DDoS attack incident response plan

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