Cybersecurity - what’s the real cost? Ask IBM

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton July 28, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Big Blue’s latest survey suggests that cybersecurity costs could be contributing to inflation, but those using security AI and automation are seeing cost savings.

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Cybersecurity has always been a concern for every type of organization. Even in normal times, a major breach is more than just the data economy’s equivalent of a ram-raid on Fort Knox; it has knock-on effects on trust, reputation, confidence, and the viability of some technologies. This is what IBM calls the “haunting effect”.

A successful attack breeds more, of course, both on the same organization again, and on others in similar businesses, or in those that use the same compromised systems. The unspoken effect of this is rising costs for everyone, as all enterprises are forced to spend money and time on checking if they have been affected too.

But in our new world of COVID-19, disrupted economies, climate change, remote working, soaring inflation, and looming recession, all such effects are all amplified. Throw in a war that’s hammering on Europe’s door (with political echoes across the Middle East and Asia) and it’s a wonder any of us can get out of bed in the morning.

So, what are the real costs of a successful cyberattack – not just hacks, viruses, and Trojans, but also phishing, ransomware, and concerted campaigns against supply chains and code repositories?

According to IBM’s latest annual survey, breach costs have risen by an unlucky 13% over the past two years, as attackers, which include hostile states, have probed the systemic and operational weaknesses exposed by the pandemic.

The global average cost of a data breach has reached an all-time high of $4.35 million – at least, among the 550 organizations surveyed by the Ponemon Institute for IBM Security (over a year from March 2021). Indeed, IBM goes so far as to claim that breaches may be contributing to the rising costs of goods and services. The survey states:

Sixty percent of studied organizations raised their product or services prices due to the breach, when the cost of goods is already soaring worldwide amid inflation and supply chain issues.

Incidents are also “haunting” organizations, says the company, with 83% having experienced more than one data breach, and with 50% of costs occurring more than a year after the successful attack.

Cloud maturity is a key factor, adds the report:

Forty-three percent of studied organizations are in the early stages [of cloud adoption] or have not started applying security practices across their cloud environments, observing over $660,000 in higher breach costs, on average, than studied organizations with mature security across their cloud environments.

Forty-five percent of respondents run a hybrid cloud infrastructure. This leads to lower average breach costs than among those operating a public- or private-cloud model: $3.8 million versus $5.02 million (public) and $4.24 million (private).

That said, those are still significant costs, and may suggest that complexity is what deters attackers, rather than having a single target to hit. Nonetheless, hybrid cloud adopters are able to identify and contain data breaches 15 days faster on average, says the report.

However, with 277 days being the average time lag – an extraordinary figure – the real lesson may be that today’s enterprise systems are adept at hiding security breaches, which may appear as normal network traffic. Forty-five percent of breaches occurred in the cloud, says the report, so it is clearly imperative to get on top of security in that domain.

IBM then makes the following bold claim :

Participating organizations fully deploying security AI and automation incurred $3.05 million less on average in breach costs compared to studied organizations that have not deployed the technology – the biggest cost saver observed in the study.

Whether this finding will stand for long as attackers explore new ways to breach automated and/or AI-based systems – and perhaps automate attacks of their own invisibly – remains to be seen. Compromised digital employee, anyone?

Global systems at risk

But perhaps the most telling finding is that cybersecurity has a political dimension – beyond the obvious one of Russian, Chinese, North Korean, or Iranian state incursions, of course.

Concerns over critical infrastructure and global supply chains are rising, with threat actors seeking to disrupt global systems that include financial services, industrial, transportation, and healthcare companies, among others.

A year ago in the US, the Biden administration issued an Executive Order on cybersecurity that focused on the urgent need for zero-trust systems. Despite this, only 21% of critical infrastructure organizations have so far adopted a zero-trust security model, according to the report. It states:

Almost 80% of the critical infrastructure organizations studied don’t adopt zero-trust strategies, seeing average breach costs rise to $5.4 million – a $1.17 million increase compared to those that do. All while 28% of breaches among these organizations were ransomware or destructive attacks.

Add to that, 17% of breaches at critical infrastructure organizations were caused due to a business partner being initially compromised, highlighting the security risks that over-trusting environments pose.

That aside, one of the big stories over the past couple of years has been the rise of ransomware: malicious code that locks up data, enterprise systems, or individual computers, forcing users to pay a ransom to (they hope) retrieve their systems or data.

But according to IBM, there are no obvious winners or losers in this insidious practice. The report adds:

Businesses that paid threat actors’ ransom demands saw $610,000 less in average breach costs compared to those that chose not to pay – not including the ransom amount paid.

However, when accounting for the average ransom payment – which according to Sophos reached $812,000 in 2021 – businesses that opt to pay the ransom could net higher total costs, all while inadvertently funding future ransomware attacks.”

The persistence of ransomware is fuelled by what IBM calls the “industrialization of cybercrime”.

The risk profile is also changing. Ransomware attack times show a massive drop of 94% over the past three years, from over two months to just under four days. Good news? Not at all, says the report, as the attacks may be higher impact, with more immediate consequences (such as destroyed data, or private data being made public on hacker forums).

My take

The key lesson in cybersecurity today is that all of us are both upstream and downstream from partners, suppliers, and customers in today’s extended enterprises. We are also at the mercy of reused but compromised code from trusted repositories, and even sometimes from hardware that has been compromised at source.

So, what is the answer? Businesses should ensure that their incident responses are tested rigorously and frequently in advance – along with using red-, blue-, or purple-team approaches (thinking like a hacker, a defender, or both).

Regrettably, IBM says that 37% of organizations that have IR plans in place fail to test them regularly. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, you can’t code for stupid.

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