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Blog | Jul 07, 2020

Mitigating Risk in a World of Gray Zone Threat Actors

I had the pleasure of speaking at a virtual conference hosted by the National Association of Manufacturers to bring leaders together to examine the latest threats facing manufacturing. Shortages in off-shored medical equipment over the last few months under the thumb of a pandemic demonstrated the strategic value and critical role that manufacturing plays in the economy and security of the country.

The conference kicked off with guest speaker Jacob Helberg, who is a senior advisor at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center. It was refreshing to hear his perspective from a high altitude above the cybersecurity field. He reiterated that while many threat actors are financially motivated, state-sponsored or nation state actors are driven by political motivation. He spoke of “gray zones” or countries seeking to challenge the United States below the threshold of war. It’s a murky world between war and peace. As I describe in my book, No Safe Harbor, the delineation between combatant and non-combatant has evaporated. There is no such thing as collateral damage anymore. It’s simply damage.

Security operations have seen nation states targeting mid-market firms (read more) and these attacks seem to follow major global events. As a result, organizations feel the aftershocks of the tectonic political events like, much like missile exchanges in the Middle East or trade wars with Asia.

And these attacks lead to a four-times increase in annualized cyber insurance claims. Catherine Lyle, Head of Claims with Coalition, walked us through two specific claims to explore the challenges and best practices to offset risk through insurance, managing cyber incidents, and making claims.

Her presentation was packed with eye opening metrics:

  • Ransomware, Funds Transfer Fraud (FTF) and Business Email Compromise (BEC) comprise 90 percent of claims
  • Funds lost to cybercrime incidents increased by 216 percent in the first third of 2020
  • Ransomware payments increased 130 percent in the same timeframe

These are staggering numbers in some respects. Many business leaders thought ransomware was diminishing, which is the opposite of reality. Ransomware payments are increasing as criminals invest in hands-on-keyboard attacks. While ransomware as a single-point (say one laptop) is dying, invested attacks are leveraging your own tools against you to matestize, planting ransomware across your environment and back-up systems to create massive outages and disruptions, as seen with Travelex at the beginning of 2020.

And Lyle warned not to make payment without consulting with your general counsel and insurer. In many cases, she described the insurer’s agents negotiated with the criminals, reducing ransoms, and in 97.2 percent of the cases, were able to recover funds lost to fraud.

Cybersecurity is not an IT problem to solve. It’s a business risk to manage. Understanding that global events do affect you, and identifying those that target you and why, is critical to building a strategy of “deterrence by denial” (denying the enemy their objective) as Jacob Helberg called it. It’s an old Cold War theory that stresses the criticality of using tactics to deter the enemy without escalating the threat, to avoid all out war. And managing that risk, including understanding offset strategies such as insurance, are critical to preparing for the worst. Or in a world of gray zone power players who see everyone as fair game, the inevitable.

Mark Sangster

Mark Sangster

Vice President and Industry Security Strategist

Mark is a cybersecurity evangelist who has spent significant time researching and speaking to peripheral factors influencing the way that legal firms integrate cybersecurity into their day-to-day operations.