Results and analysis

The results found in this and subsequent sections within the report are based on a data set collected from a variety of sources such as publicly-disclosed security incidents, cases provided by the Verizon Threat Research Advisory Center (VTRAC) investigators, and by our external collaborators. The year-to-year data set(s) will have new sources of incident and breach data as we strive to locate and engage with organizations that are willing to share information to improve the diversity and coverage of real-world events. This is a convenience sample, and changes in contributors, both additions and those who were not able to participate this year, will influence the data set. Moreover, potential changes in their areas of focus can stir the pot o’ breaches when we trend over time. All of this means we are not always researching and analyzing the same fish in the same barrel. Still other potential factors that may affect these results are changes in how we subset data and large-scale events that can sometimes influence metrics for a given year. These are all taken into consideration, and acknowledged where necessary within the text, to provide appropriate context to the reader.

With those cards on the table, a year-to-year view of the actors (and their motives),3 followed by changes in threat actions and affected assets over time,  is once again provided. A deeper dive into the overall results for this year’s data set with an old-school focus on threat action categories follows. Within the threat action results, relevant non-incident data is included to add more awareness regarding the tactics that are in the adversaries’ arsenals.

Defining the threats

Threat actor is the terminology used to describe who was pulling the strings of the breach (or if an error, tripping on them). Actors are broken out into three high-level categories of External, Internal, and Partner. External actors have long been the primary culprits behind confirmed data breaches and this year the trend continues. There are some subsets of data that are removed from the general corpus, notably over 50,000 botnet related breaches. These would have been attributed to external groups and, had they been included, would have further increased the gap between the external and internal threat.

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Financial gain is still the most common motive behind data breaches where a motive is known or applicable (errors are not categorized with any motive). This continued positioning of personal or financial gain at the top is not unexpected. In addition to the botnet breaches that were filtered out, there are other scalable breach types that allow for opportunistic criminals to attack and compromise numerous victims.4 Breaches with a strategic advantage as the end goal are well represented, with one-quarter of the breaches associated with espionage. The ebb and flow of the financial and espionage motives are indicative of changes in the data contributions and the multi-victim sprees.

This year there was a continued reduction in card-present breaches involving point of sale environments and card skimming operations. Similar percentage changes in organized criminal groups and state-affiliated operations are shown in Figure 8 below. Another notable finding (since we are already walking down memory lane) is the bump in Activists, who were somewhat of a one-hit wonder in the 2012 DBIR with regard to confirmed data breaches. We also don’t see much of Cashier (which also encompasses food servers and bank tellers) anymore. System administrators are creeping up and while the rogue admin planting logic bombs and other mayhem makes for a good story, the presence of insiders is most often in the form of errors. These are either by misconfiguring servers to allow for unwanted access or publishing data to a server that should not have been accessible by all site viewers. Please, close those buckets!

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    Figure 7

Figures 9 and 10 show changes in threat actions and affected assets from 2013 to 2018.5, 6 No, we don’t have some odd affinity for seven-year time frames (as far as you know). Prior years were heavily influenced by payment card breaches featuring automated attacks on POS devices with default credentials, so 2013 was a better representative starting point. The rise in social engineering is evident in both charts, with the action category Social and the related human asset both increasing.

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Threat action varieties

When we delve a bit deeper and examine threat actions at the variety level, the proverbial question of “What are the bad guys doing?” starts to become clearer. Figure 11 shows Denial of Service attacks are again at the top of action varieties associated with security incidents, but it is still very rare for DoS to feature in a confirmed data breach. Similarly, Loss, which is short for Lost or misplaced assets, incidents are not labeled as a data breach if the asset lost is a laptop or phone, as there is no feasible way to determine if data was accessed. We allow ourselves to infer data disclosure if the asset involved was printed documents.

Switching over to breaches in Figure 12, phishing and the hacking action variety of use of stolen credentials are prominent fixtures. The next group of three involves the installation and subsequent use of backdoor or Command and Control (C2) malware. These tactics have historically been common facets of data breaches and based on our data, there is still much success to be had there.

 

  • Figure 9

     

  • Figure 10

Hacking

A quick glance at the figures below uncovers two prominent hacking variety and vector combinations. The more obvious scenario is using a backdoor or C2 via the backdoor or C2 channel, and the less obvious, but more interesting, use of stolen credentials. Utilizing valid credentials to pop web applications is not exactly avant garde. 

The reason it becomes noteworthy is that 60% of the time, the compromised web application vector was the front-end to cloud-based email servers.

 

  • Figure 13

     

  • Figure 14

Even though stolen credentials are not directly associated with patch currency, it is still a necessary and noble undertaking. At most, six percent of breaches in our data set this year involved exploiting vulnerabilities. Remember that time your network was scanned for vulnerabilities and there were zero findings? You slept soundly that night only to be jolted from your drowsy utopia by your alarm radio blaring “I Got You Babe.” Vulnerability scanning always yields findings (even benign informational ones) and it is up to the administrators to determine which are accepted, and which are addressed.

Figure 15 shows the patching behavior of hundreds of organizations from multiple vulnerability scanning contributors. Based on scan history, we determine that organizations will typically have a big push to remediate findings after they are intially discovered and after that there is a steady increase in percentage of findings fixed until it levels out. Not unlike the amount of romance and mutual regard that occurs while dating vs. once married. You get the idea.

The area under the curve (AUC) is how protected you are while you are actively patching. Quick remediation will result in a higher AUC. The percentage completed-on-time (COT) is the amount of vulnerabilities patched at a pre-determined cut-off time; we used 90 days. Your COT metric could be different, and it would make sense to have different COTs for internet-facing devices or browser vulnerabilities, and certainly for vulnerabilities with active exploitation in the wild. It is important to acknowledge that there will always be findings. The key is to prioritize the important ones and have a plan for the remaining actionable vulnerabilities; and to be able to defend acceptance of unaddressed findings.

  • Figure 15

Malware

Malware can be leveraged in numerous ways to establish or advance attacks. Command and Control (C2) and backdoors are found in both security incidents and breaches. Ransomware is still a major issue for organizations and is not forced to rely on data theft in order to be lucrative.

We were at a hipster coffee shop and it was packed with people talking about cryptomining malware as the next big thing. The numbers in this year’s data set do not support the hype, however, as this malware functionality does not even appear in the top 10 varieties. In previous versions of VERIS, cryptominers were lumped in with click-fraud, but they received their own stand-alone enumeration this year. Combining both the new and legacy enumerations for this year, the total was 39—more than zero, but still far fewer than the almost 500 ransomware cases this year.

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Figure 18 displays that when the method of malware installation was known, email was the most common point of entry. This finding is supported in Figure 19, which presents data received from millions of malware detonations, and illustrates that the median company received over 90% of their detected malware by email. Direct install is indicative of a device that is already compromised and the malware is installed after access is established. It is possible for malware to be introduced via email, and once the foothold is gained, additional malware is downloaded, encoded to bypass detection and installed directly. Like most enumerations, these are not mutually exclusive. 

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  • Figure 18

Social

While hacking and malicious code may be the words that resonate most with people when the term "data breach" is used, there are other threat action catego­ries that have been around much longer and are still ubiquitous. Social engineering, along with Misuse, Error, and Physical, do not rely on the existence of "cyberstuff" and are definitely worth discussing. We will talk about these "OGs" now, beginning with the manipulation of human behavior. 

There is some cause for hope in regard to phishing, as click rates from the combined results of multiple security awareness vendors are going down. As you can see in Figure 21, click rates are at 3%.

With regard to the event chain for these attacks, if the device on which the communication was read and/or interacted with does not have malicious code installed as part of the phish, it may not be recorded as an affected asset. For example, if a user is tricked into visiting a phony site and he/she then enters credentials, the human asset is recorded as well as the asset that the credentials are used to access. To that end, those moments when the user's thoughts are adrift provide an excellent opportunity for criminals to phish via SMS or emails to mobile devices. This is supported by the 18% of clicks from the sanctioned phishing data that were attributed to mobile. Below is a window into mobile devices and how the way humans use them can contribute to successful phishing attacks, provided by researcher Arun Vishwanath, Chief Technologist, Avant Research Group, LLC.

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Research points to users being significantly more susceptible to social attacks they receive on mobile devices. This is the case for email-based spear phishing, spoofing attacks that attempt to mimic legitimate webpages, as well as attacks via social media.7, 8, 9

The reasons for this stem from the design of mobile and how users interact with these devices. In hardware terms, mobile devices have relatively limited screen sizes that restrict what can be accessed and viewed clearly. Most smartphones also limit the ability to view multiple pages side-by-side, and navi­gating pages and apps necessitates toggling between them—all of which make it tedious for users to check the veracity of emails and requests while on mobile.

Mobile OS and apps also restrict the availabil­ity of information often necessary for verifying whether an email or webpage is fraudulent. For instance, many mobile browsers limit users’ ability to assess the quality of a web­site’s SSL certificate. Likewise, many mobile email apps also limit what aspects of the email header are visible and whether the email-source information is even accessible. Mobile software also enhances the prominence of GUI elements that foster action—accept, reply, send, like, and such—which make it easier for users to respond to a request. Thus, on the one hand, the hardware and software on mo­bile devices restrict the quality of information that is available, while on the other they make it easier for users to make snap decisions. 

The final nail is driven in by how people use mobile devices. Users often interact with their mobile devices while walking, talking, driving, and doing all manner of other activities that interfere with their ability to pay careful attention to incoming information. While already cognitively constrained, on screen notifications that allow users to respond to incoming requests, often without even having to navigate back to the application from which the request emanates, further enhance the likelihood of reactively responding to requests. 

Thus, the confluence of design and how users interact with mobile devices make it easier for users to make snap, often uninformed decisions—which significantly increases their susceptibility to social attacks on mobile devices.

Misuse

Misuse is the malicious or inappropriate use of existing privileges. Often, it cannot be further defined beyond that point in this document due to a lack of granularity provided; this fact is reflected in the more generic label of Privilege abuse as the top variety in Figure 22. The motives are predominantly financial in nature, but employees taking sensitive data on the way out to provide themselves with an illegal advantage in their next endeavor are also common.

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Error

As we see in Figure 24, the top two error varieties are consistent with prior publications, with Misconfiguration increasing at the expense of Loss and Disposal Errors. Sending data to the incorrect recipients (either via email or by mailed documents) is still an issue. Similarly, exposing data on a public website (publishing error) or misconfiguring an asset to allow for unwanted guests also remain prevalent.

 

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Affected Assets

Workstations, web applications, and surprisingly, mail servers are in the top group of assets affected in data breaches. There is a great deal to be learned about how threat actions associate with assets within the event chains of breaches. We get down to business in Table 1 to pull out some of the more interesting stories the 2019 DBIR data has to tell us.

 

  • Figure 26

The table above does exclude assets where a particular variety was not known. In the majority of phishing breaches, we are not privy to the exact role of the influenced user and thus, Person - Unknown would have been present. We can deduce that phishing of Those Who Cannot Be Named leads to malware installed on desktops or tricking users into providing their credentials. Most often, those compromised credentials were to cloud-based mail servers. There was an uptick in actors seeking these credentials to compromise a user’s email account. It turns out there are several ways to leverage this newly found access. Actors can launch large phishing campaigns from the account, or if the account owner has a certain degree of clout, send more targeted and elaborate emails to employees who are authorized to pay bogus invoices. There were also numerous cases where an organization’s email accounts were compromised and the adversary inserted themselves into conversations that centered around payments. At this point, the actors are appropriately positioned to add forwarding rules in order to shut out the real account owner from the conversation. Then they simply inform the other recipients that they need to wire money to a different account on this occasion because… reasons. 

Another trend in this year’s data set is a marked shift away from going after payment cards via ATM/gas pump skimming or Point of Sale systems and towards e-commerce applications. The 83 breaches with the association of web application and the action of type capture application data is one indicator of this change. Figure 26 below illustrates how breaches with compromised payment cards are becoming increasingly about web servers – additional details can be found in the Retail industry section. 

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Compromised data

Figure 27 details the varieties of data that were disclosed as a result of the data breaches that occurred this year. Personal information is once again prevalent. Credentials and Internal are statistically even, and are often both found in the same breach. The previously mentioned credential theft leading to the access of corporate email is a very common example.

  • Figure 27

Breach timeline

As we have mentioned in previous reports, when breaches are successful, the time to compromise is typically quite short. Obviously, we have no way of knowing how many resources were expended in activities such as intelligence gathering and other preparations.10 However, the time from the attacker’s first action in an event chain to the initial compromise of an asset is typically measured in minutes. Conversely, the time to discovery is more likely to be months. Discovery time is very dependent on the type of attack in question. With payment card compromises, for instance, discovery is usually based upon the fraudulent use of the stolen data (typically weeks or months), while a stolen laptop will usually be discovered much more quickly because it is relatively obvious when someone has broken the glass out of your car door and taken your computer.

Finally, it goes without saying that not being compromised in the first place is the most desirable scenario in which to find oneself. Therefore, a focus on understanding what data types you possess that are likely to be targeted, along with the correct application of controls to make that data more difficult (even with an initial device compromise) to access and exfiltrate is vital. Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of data around time to exfiltration, but improvements within your own organization in relation to both that metric along with time to discovery can result in the prevention of a high impact confirmed data breach.

  • figure 28

And we show the whole deck in Appendix B: Methodology.

In Appendix C: “Watching the Watchers,” we refer to these as zero-marginal cost attacks.

Credit where it’s due. These dumbbell charts are based on the design at http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/social-networking-very-popular-among-adult-internet-users-in-emerging-and-developing-nations/ and code at https://rud.is/b/2016/04/17/ggplot2-exercising-with-ggalt-dumbbells/

Note these are incident years, not DBIR years. All of the 2018 breaches will be represented in this year’s data, but a 2012 breach not discovered until 2013 would be part of the 2014 DBIR.

Vishwanath, A. (2016). Mobile device affordance: Explicating how smartphones influence the outcome of phishing attacks. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 198-207.

Vishwanath, A. (2017). Getting phished on social media. Decision Support Systems, 103, 70-81.

Vishwanath, A., Harrison, B., & Ng, Y. J. (2018). Suspicion, cognition, and automaticity model of phishing susceptibility. Communication Research, 45(8), 1146-1166.

10 Though we are starting to look before and after the breach in the Data Breaches, Extended Version section

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