Cisco warns of ‘unprecedented growth’ in cyber attacks

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Cyber attacks rose 14 per cent last year, as online criminals targeted intellectual property-rich industries such as pharmaceuticals, mining and electronics, according to a report by Cisco.

Vulnerabilities in computer systems and the threat from hackers reached the highest level since 2000, when the technology company launched its annual security report.

Cisco said there had been “unprecedented growth” in advanced attacks, with every large company it monitored becoming a target for malicious traffic.

John Stewart, senior vice-president and chief security officer, said the report painted a grim picture of the current state of cyber security.

But, he added, there was hope to restore trust by trying to understand hackers. “To truly protect against all of these possible attacks, defenders must understand the attackers, their motivations and their methods – before, during and after an attack.”

Pharmaceuticals, chemicals, agriculture, mining and electronics all saw increases in the malware targeted at them of more than 600 per cent, while attempts to breach security in the energy, oil and gas industries rose by more than 400 per cent.

Cyber criminal attempts to hack retailers and wholesalers – in the public eye after Target lost data from over 70m customers in an attack – rose by more than 100 per cent.

The attempts may not have led to breaches, depending on what protections were in place.

Cyber criminals are increasingly looking for intellectual property that they can either sell on the black market or use to inform decisions about competing products or plans. Levi Gundert, a threat researcher who worked on the Cisco report, said the attacks could be “criminals” or “nation states”. “You almost need to have The Economist or the FT in hand while looking at some of these numbers – they vertically correspond to geopolitical events,” he said.

Last year Steve Bennett, chief executive of Symantec, said intellectual property theft was a greater cyber security threat than cyber war, and even western companies were using cyber attacks to steal intellectual property. The number of companies suffering external cyber attacks designed to steal commercial secrets doubled in 2012-13, according to Kroll, the investigations agency.

Cisco said a key problem in the fight against cyber crime was a lack of employees with the right skills. Mr Gundert said there was a shortage of more than 1m employees in the sector because it took time and experience to train people to keep up with ever more sophisticated hackers. “There is a great pipeline of people at academic institutions coming out, but it takes time,” he said.

“You have to assume the attackers are already in your network,” he added, stressing the need to be quick to detect them, identify critical data on their behaviour and respond. “It comes back to having the right people – that’s really essential.”

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