Cyberattack

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What is a Cyberattack?

A cyberattack is the deliberate exploitation of computer systems, technology-dependent enterprises, and networks. Cyberattacks are purposeful and target individuals, businesses, and governments for financial gain or to steal or alter data.

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Cyberattacks use malicious code – including botnets, spyware, and exploits of vulnerabilities – to alter computer code, logic, or data. This results in disruptive consequences that can compromise data and lead to cybercrimes, like information and identity theft or ransomware attacks, where a ransom is demanded in exchange for decryption keys to unlock files.

Victims of cyberattacks range from individuals to large corporations and government entities – all targeted for their data and financial assets or simply to disrupt business operations.

A cyberattack is also known as a computer network attack (CNA).

What is a Cyberattack?

Key Takeaways

  • A cyberattack is the exploitation of computer systems, technology-dependent enterprises, and networks.
  • Cyberattacks follow a structured sequence of stages, referred to as the “cyber kill chain.”
  • Motivations for cyberattacks vary from financial gain to espionage.
  • Preventive measures against cyberattacks include installing antivirus, staying informed about cyber threats, using strong passwords, etc.
  • The most prevalent types of cyberattacks are data breaches, malware, social engineering, phishing and ransomware.

How Cyberattacks Work

Cyberattacks generally follow a systematic process involving unauthorized access and malicious actions against computer systems or networks. Once access is gained, attackers then execute their objectives, which could include data theft or ransomware encryption.

How Cyberattacks Work

Stages of a Cyberattack

Cyberattacks follow a structured sequence of stages, commonly referred to as the “cyber kill chain,” a model developed by Lockheed Martin. This model outlines the steps cybercriminals take to plan and deliver an attack.

Stages of cyberattacks include:

  1. Reconnaissance

    Gather data on targets to find vulnerabilities.
  2. Weaponization

    Create a malware payload to exploit vulnerabilities.
  3. Delivery

    Send the malware to the target via email, web, etc.
  4. Exploitation

    Activate malware to leverage vulnerabilities.
  5. Installation

    Establish a persistent presence on the infected system.
  6. Command and Control (C2)

    Communicate with and control the compromised system.
  7. Actions on Objectives

    Execute specific goals, like data theft or system damage.

Why Do Cyberattacks Happen?

Cybercriminals have varied motivations for launching attacks. Some are financially motivated, while others are driven by political beliefs or purely malicious intent.

Examples include:

Cyberwarfare
Data breach

Breaching systems to steal data.

Espionage

Security systems are breached for strategic, political, or economic advantage.

Extortion

Demanding ransom payments to restore access to systems.

Financial gain

Attackers steal valuable data for resale.

Identity theft

Acquiring personal information for fraudulent activities.

Malicious software (malware)

Infecting systems for data theft or control.

Social engineering

Manipulating individuals for information or system access.

Types of Cyberattacks

Account securityAPI security threatsEmerging technology threatsInsider and targeted threatsMalwareNetwork attacksSocial engineeringWeb application attacks

Account compromise, password attack, typosquatting

Broken object-level authorization (BOLA), broken user authentication, injection flaws, excessive data exposure

AI-powered attacks, deepfakes, IoT-based attacks

Cryptojacking, mobile malware, ransomware, rogue software, zero-day exploit

Cyberattack Examples

The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) tracks significant cyber incidents in government agencies and high-tech companies.

Notable examples from the past year include:

  • March 2024: Microsoft reported that Russian hackers stole its source code and infiltrated its systems, continuing an espionage campaign targeting its top executives.
  • November 2023: Russian hackers launched Denmark’s largest cyberattack, targeting 22 power companies since May 2023 to access its power grid by exploiting a command injection flaw.
  • August 2023: A Canadian politician was the subject of a Chinese disinformation campaign on WeChat, spreading false claims about their race and political beliefs.

Cyberattack Examples

Cyberattack Trends

Ransomware ranks as a top cybersecurity threat. In such attacks, malicious software encrypts files, and a ransom is demanded in exchange for the decryption key to unlock the files. In 2023, ransomware attacks worldwide secured over $1 billion in payments.

Additionally, other cybersecurity trends are evolving, including increased malware use and a growing focus on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and generative AI (GenAI). As these technologies become more accessible, AI-driven cyberattacks are on the rise.

Cyberattack Prevention

There are many best practices consumers can adopt to prevent falling victim to cyberattacks.

This includes:

Antivirus

Install and regularly update security software to detect and prevent threats.

Education

Stay informed about phishing and other common cyber threats.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Enable MFA to add an extra layer of security.

Network Security

Use firewalls, encrypt sensitive data, and segment networks to restrict access.

Secure Configuration

Strengthen security settings for both hardware and software to reduce vulnerabilities.

Strong Passwords

Create complex passwords and consider using a password manager for enhanced security.

The Bottom Line

The cyberattack definition refers to intentional attacks using digital devices targeting individuals, businesses, and governments. These vary, including social engineering, malware, and network breaches, each posing unique threats like ransomware and phishing.

The bottom line is that cyberattacks cause significant financial losses, data theft, and operational disruptions. Preventing cyberattacks requires strict security practices, continuous monitoring, and staying informed about cybersecurity trends.

FAQs

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Vangie Beal
Technology Expert
Vangie Beal
Technology Expert

Vangie Beal is a digital literacy instructor based in Nova Scotia, Canada, who has recently joined Techopedia. She’s an award-winning business and technology writer with 20 years of experience in the technology and web publishing industry.  Since the late ’90s, her byline has appeared in dozens of publications, including CIO, Webopedia, Computerworld, InternetNews, Small Business Computing, and many other tech and business publications.  She is an avid gamer with deep roots in the female gaming community and a former Internet TV gaming host and games journalist.