Why simulated cyber attacks are such a powerful security tool

Cyber crime is one of the biggest threats currently facing organisations, and as such is a persistent cause of headaches for IT decision makers and their teams. In 2022 39% of UK businesses reported facing a cyber attack, demonstrating how those who are prepared to leave their security to chance are taking a risky gamble. Sooner or later, the odds won’t be in their favour.

hackers it by a computer monitor that has green code and data on the screen

The tactics that cyber criminals use (such as ransomware, that accounted for 21% of cyber-attacks in 2021) are designed to paralyse an organisation. Criminals will attempt to leave decision makers with no choice but to either begin the long and complicated process of trying to restore affected IT systems, or paying their ransom demands. Neither option is cheap, incurring heavy financial costs, prolonged business downtime, and causing damage to an organisation’s reputation that is so severe that many businesses never recover.

However, there are ways that IT teams can mitigate this risk. One of the most powerful is by actually simulating a cyber attack on your organisation’s systems.

What is a simulated cyber attack?

Simulated cyber attacks replicate the actions of a real-world cyber criminal by attempting to exploit any vulnerabilities in an organisation’s network, systems, or applications in a safe and controlled environment. The goal of this is not to cause damage or disruption, but rather to identify any weaknesses in an organisation’s security strategy and improve their security posture.

Security teams begin by determining the scope of the simulated attack, as well as defining its goals and objectives. They will then gather information about the target’s IT systems and networks, scanning them for vulnerabilities such as outdated software, outdated passwords, and misconfigured settings. The simulated attack then will attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities with a variety of real-world techniques such as social engineering and network attacks, and if successful they will then access the network and escalate their privileges to gain deeper access and control. Throughout the process the security team will document their findings, including vulnerabilities, exploits, and any data that they were able to compromise.

Security experts will use a number of real-world techniques to test defenses, including:

1. Phishing

Phishing is by far the most common attack vector. In fact, 91% of all data breaches begin with a phishing email. The simulated cyber attack will send emails or other messages that appear to come from trusted sources, but actually contain links or attachments that are designed to infect the user's computer with replica malware.

2. Social engineering

This technique involves manipulating people into sharing confidential information or performing actions that can compromise an organisation's security. Social engineering can include phone calls, email messages, or even in-person interactions, and security teams will use these to attempt to steal credentials for the purpose of gaining initial access to a company's internal network and systems.

3. Vulnerability scanning

Simulated cyber attacks use automated security tools to scan an organisation's computer systems and networks for any known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by cyber attackers. Security teams will use automated vulnerability scanning tools that compare software versions and configurations against a database of known vulnerabilities, as well as penetration testing to assess the effectiveness of a company's security policies.

4. Password attacks

Security teams will attempt to guess or crack passwords used to access internal computer systems or networks. This can be done with a number of techniques that include brute forcing, dictionary attacks (where security teams will attempt to gain entry using a pre-built list of commonly used passwords), and also through the use of password cracking tools, which use algorithms to guess passwords based on known patterns and character sets.

5. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks

A DDoS attack involves flooding a network or computer system with traffic or requests to overwhelm it and force it offline to customers, clients, and other users. This allows security teams to test the resilience and effectiveness of an organisation's network infrastructure, including load balancing, traffic filtering, and resource scaling. By simulating a DDoS attack, an organisation can identify vulnerabilities and improve their mitigation capabilities.

6. SQL Injection Attacks

These involve exploiting vulnerabilities in web applications, allowing attackers to execute unauthorized SQL commands on a database. Malicious SQL code can be used to extract sensitive data, or modify and damage a database. The goal here is to identify weaknesses in the application's input validation and SQL query construction that real-world attackers might seek to exploit, helping organisations to identify any vulnerabilities and take further steps to improve the security of their web applications and secure databases.

What are the key benefits of simulated cyber attacks?

1. Identify vulnerabilities and fill security gaps

The most obvious benefit of simulated cyber attacks is that it allows organisations to identify weaknesses in their security posture. Data breaches can be incredibly costly, from both a financial standpoint and also in terms of the damage to your organisation’s reputation. By highlighting vulnerabilities in IT systems before cyber criminals are able to exploit them IT teams are able to take corrective action, fixing gaps in their security strategy and ensuring that their organisation is more resilient in the event of a real cyber attack.

2. Improve customer trust

Suffering a cyber attack can have severe consequences for your organisation’s reputation, especially in the event that sensitive data becomes compromised. Simulated cyber attacks are a great way to demonstrate a business’ commitment to cyber security, in a world where customers are becoming increasingly concerned about how businesses use and handle their personal information. By taking proactive steps to protect sensitive data, organisations can differentiate themselves from their competitors, and build customer trust and loyalty. One time internet giant Yahoo suffered a data breach in 2013 that saw 3 billion customer records compromised. After taking two years to notify their customers, Yahoo’s reputation never recovered.

3. Meet compliance requirements

All organisations that handle sensitive data, whether public or private, are required to stay compliant with data protection regulations such as the UK’s Data Protection Act, the EU’s GDPR, and the ADPPA in the US. Businesses may also have to be further compliant with specific industry based regulations which require regular security testing and audits. Simulated cyber attacks allow organisations to demonstrate their compliance, avoiding costly fines and penalties.

4. Long term cost savings

The potential long term cost savings from simulated cyber attacks far outweigh the cost of the simulation itself. A data breach is now one of the biggest financial risks facing all organisations. With the average data breach now costing organisations $4.35 million, the impact of being unprepared can be catastrophic. In addition, being cyber resilient will also help to minimise any IT downtime in the event of an attack, reducing the impact on the operational capacity of a business. Finally, having a robust security posture prevents the theft of intellectual property, such as trade secrets and proprietary information. Loss of intellectual property can have devasting, long term consequences for an organisation’s bottom line. Recently, hackers stole and published over 90 pieces of early development footage of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto VI, as well as source code, assets, and testing builds in what was described as one of the gaming industry’s biggest breaches.

Celerity's Simulated Cyber Attack Service

Celerity's Simulated Cyber Attack Service is a fully managed service that will test the strength of your security posture with continuous validation across the full cyber kill chain. The simulations will show exactly where you are exposed and how to fix these gaps, making security fast, continuous, and part of your every day activities.

Our Cyber Security Portfolio is designed to secure your organisation, improve your security posture, and advance your maturity. Get in touch with us to find out how our skilled experts can enhance your understanding of your security strengths and weaknesses, increasing your capacity to innovate and engage with your customers.

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