Security Experts:

High Level Execs Not Always the Juiciest Target For Hackers

A C-level executive might seem like the perfect target for an attacker; after all, there is an old adage that goes, kill the head and the body will die. In the cat and mouse game of cybersecurity however, that axiom may not apply as much as some would think.

According to Symantec's latest Internet Security Threat Report, the percentage of targeted attacks focused on chief executive or board level employees fell from 25 percent in 2011 to 17 percent in 2012. The most targeted role belonged to employees in the research and development area, who were hit with 27 percent of attacks as opposed to just nine percent in 2011. The next most targeted group was the sales department, which saw 24 percent of attacks in 2012 compared to 12 percent in 2011.

Symantec Logo"I think the increase in R and D [research and development] and decrease in C-level is really about going right to the source," said Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's Security Response team.

While he was reluctant to call the shift the beginning of a trend, Haley noted that many of the roles outside of the C-level provide juicy targets that may have access to crucial business information, including intellectual property and sales data. And while attacks against human resources (HR) employees dropped, they offer attackers a sneaky jump off point into an enterprise.

"Security 101 says don't open an email with an attachment from somebody you don’t know, but boy, that's what an HR person does all day," he said. "They get people looking for jobs who have attached a PDF or [Microsoft] Word document with their resume. So they're a perfect target for attack."

Hackers are also favoring smaller businesses more. According to the report, targeted attacks are growing the most among businesses with less than 250 employees. All totaled, SMBs were hit by 31 percent of attacks in 2012 – a threefold increase from 2011, Symantec found.

Overall, the number of targeted attacks jumped 42 percent compared to 2011. Many of these were designed to steal intellectual property from the manufacturing sector. Attacks against manufacturing companies represented 24 percent of targeted attacks compared with 15 percent in 2011.

"Attacks against government and public sector organizations fell from 25 percent in 2011, when it was the most targeted sector, to 12 percent in 2012," according to the report. "It’s likely the frontline attacks are moving down the supply chain, particularly for small to medium-sized businesses."

"This year’s ISTR shows that cybercriminals aren’t slowing down, and they continue to devise new ways to steal information from organizations of all sizes," said Stephen Trilling, chief technology officer of Symantec, in a statement. "The sophistication of attacks coupled with today’s IT complexities, such as virtualization, mobility and cloud, require organizations to remain proactive and use ‘defense in depth’ security measures to stay ahead of attacks."

A video summary of Symantec's report is embedded below.