19.04.2021 Emerging cyber threats: The big risks to five key industries

by Andrew Milne

In a recent global study, 47% of CEOs expressed concern about cyber security — making it the second largest threat to businesses after pandemics. Executives in North America and Western Europe specifically ranked cyber security as their top worry. 

And while it’s becoming clear that attackers don’t discriminate targeting virtually all organizations — cyber threats can vary across industries.  

Knowing the risks emerging in your industry and others can help chief information security officers (CISOs), infosec teams, and entire organizations establish a better defence. Keep reading to learn more about critical risks in the healthcare, utility, legal, education, and finance industries.  

Healthcare remains a prime target for ransomware 

Ninety-six percent of IT professionals in healthcare claimed they are struggling to keep up with cyber threats. In past years, criminal groups rarely targeted healthcare providers, but this has changed. This industry faces many types of attacks but is particularly vulnerable to ransomware, and there are a few reasons why. 

First, healthcare institutions store personally identifiable information (PII) and medical records that are valuable to cyber criminals. Second, the nature of the industry means that medical institutions are more willing to pay ransom to resume operations and minimize consequences. 

Meanwhile, the industry has been largely focused on the global pandemic, directly impacting the amount of time and attention they can allocate to cyber security measures. 

Universal Health Services, a healthcare giant with 400 facilities across the US and UK and millions of patients each year, recently suffered a ransomware attack causing $67 million in pre-tax losses. This significant financial toll was partly attributed to:  

  • Lost business (redirecting patients to competitors) 
  • Additional labour costs to restore operations  
  • Months-long delays to billing and administrative functions 

But attacks aren’t limited to multinational institutions and external threats. NHS Lothian, a medical provider in Scotland, recently experienced a data breach after an insider compromised the private medical records of more than 150 staff members. Internal incidents like this are quite common, with healthcare reporting the highest percentage of internal bad actors across any industry at 48% 

Increasing cyber threats in the utility industry 

Utility providers should be cautious about vulnerabilities in their operational technology (OT) that attackers may exploit. As oil, gas, and other distributors become increasingly connected integrating equipment such as smart sensors into their networksecurity efforts must keep up. 

From a business perspective, digitalizing OT makes good sense. It increases efficiency by enabling businesses to automate and better manage systems, but it also introduces additional cyber risk. Left unsecured, OT can be attacked directly or used as an access point to the rest of your infrastructure. 

This market may be targeted by politically motivated hacktivists without the sophistication to cause significant harm, as well as nation-state actors who are equipped and motivated to create disruption. 

The interconnectivity of power grids significantly increases the potential for damage. The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security acknowledged that Canadian power grids could be a foot in the door for threat actors seeking access to US utility providers. Similarly, increasing cyber attacks targeting US grids could impact those north of the border. 

Left unsecured, OT can be attacked directly or used as an access point to the rest of your infrastructure. 

The recent attack on a Florida wastewater treatment plant highlights the potential for harm in this industry. After exploiting a server with a weak password and no security monitoring, the threat actor was able to tamper with the water chemical levels. This attack could have had lethal consequences if not for the plant manager who witnessed the change and immediately corrected the chemical levels. 

Legal sector a growing target for attack 

Law firms, and the legal sector in general, are quickly becoming a lucrative target for all types of cyber crime, in part due to the volume of sensitive documents and communications the industry handles. 

Depending on the practice, a single firm may be collecting and storing data such as: 

  • PII (including medical records 
  • Intellectual property  
  • Financial credentials  
  • Business transactions 
  • Confidential contracts 

According to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), financially motivated attackers are the biggest cyber threat to the UK legal sector. The organization also noted that the growing hacktivist community has been targeting law firms for political, economic, or ideological reasons.  

…financially motivated attackers are the biggest cyber threat to the UK legal sector. 

The costs of an attack can soar quickly for the legal industry, especially when ransomware is involved. Our CEO recently spoke about cyber risks and costs indepth on the Technically Legal podcast. Since many lawyers bill by the hour, losing access to critical files can quickly affect the firm’s bottom line. If private documents are compromised or leaked, this may impact client trust and cause reputation damage.

Cyber criminals eyeing educational institutions 

Colleges and universities collect a substantial amount of information. From academic research to the PII of staff and students, theres certainly no shortage of valuable data for cyber criminals to compromise. Just look at the recent attack on Simon Fraser University in Canada. 

And with thousands of staff and students using their own accounts to access learning portals or other services in the network, schools may be a prime target for credential stuffing attacks. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US and NCSC in the UK both recently issued alerts about a new string of high-profile ransomware attacks targeting higher education institutions, K-12, and seminaries in their countries. The attackers claim they can encrypt all connected Windows and Linux devices, making data, files, and backups inaccessible to users. A disruption like this could disrupt schools relying on remote learning and may entice them to meet ransom demands.

Emerging cyber threats on the banking industry 

Financial institutions face up to 300 times more cyber attacks per year than those in other industries, likely because these organizations are highreward targets. 

Since they deal with money and other valuable assets, the financial industry is targeted by all types of cyber criminals — relatively inexperienced hackers looking to make a dollar, as well as nation-state threat actors seeking to set off a catastrophic financial crisis. 

Financial institutions face up to 300 times more cyber attacks per year than those in other industries, likely because these organizations are high-reward targets. 

Recent incidents suggest that banks should be cautious of supply chain attacks on their third-party vendors, too. 

Several of the UK’s largest banksincluding Barclays and HSBC — were among the third-party clients impacted by a ransomware attack on foreign exchange currency provider, Travelex. Foreign currency services were disrupted at more than a dozen banks after the company’s systems went offline due to the attack. 

Navigating new and emerging cyber threats 

If the past is any indication of the future, cyber criminals will continue to use previously successful attack tactics such as phishing and ransomware — but with more sophistication, targets, and speed. 

The CISO role is a challenging one, especially with a threat landscape that never stands still. Sign up for our newsletter for helpful insights about emerging risks, security tips, webinar invites, and much more.

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