Top Cybersecurity Threats in 2024

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cyber security threats

A host of new and evolving cybersecurity threats has the information security industry on high alert. Ever-more sophisticated cyberattacks involving malware, phishing, machine learning and artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency and more have placed the data and assets of corporations, governments and individuals at constant risk.

Simultaneously, the industry continues to suffer from a severe shortage of cybersecurity professionals, and experts warn that the stakes are higher than ever. The cybercrime epidemic even risks shaking public faith in such cherished ideals as democracy, capitalism and personal privacy. “Honestly, we’re all at risk,” Heather Ricciuto of IBM Security told cnbc.com, “whether you’re talking about a large enterprise or an individual.”

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The nonprofit Information Security Forum, a self-proclaimed leading authority on cyber, information security and risk management, warns in its annual Threat Horizon study of:

  • Disruption — Over-reliance on fragile connectivity creates the potential for premeditated internet outages capable of bringing trade to its knees and heightened risk that ransomware will be used to hijack the Internet of Things.
  • Distortion — The intentional spread of misinformation, including by bots and automated sources, causes trust in the integrity of information to be compromised.
  • Deterioration — Rapid advances in intelligent technologies plus conflicting demands posed by evolving national security and individual privacy regulations negatively impact organizations’ ability to control their own information.

According to a Cybersecurity Ventures report, the cost of cybercrime reached  $8 trillion in 2023 — translating to over $250,000 per second — and is projected to rise to $10.5 trillion by 2025. With these staggering figures in mind, let’s examine the most pressing cybersecurity threats for 2024 and the strategies to mitigate them.

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Types of Cybersecurity Threats

As digital landscapes evolve, so do the types of cyber threats that target them. These threats can be broadly categorized into several types, each with unique characteristics and methodologies:

  • Malware continues to be prevalent, encompassing various forms such as viruses, ransomware and spyware. These malicious programs can disrupt operations, steal information or damage systems.
  • Social engineering exploits human interactions to gain unauthorized access to valuable information and systems. Phishing, one of the most common forms, tricks users into divulging sensitive data.
  • Insider threats arise from within an organization and can be accidental or malicious. These threats are particularly insidious as they bypass traditional security measures with legitimate access.
  • Advanced persistent threats (APTs) are complex, stealthy and prolonged attacks aimed at specific targets to steal data or disrupt operations, often undetected for long periods.
  • Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks overload systems with floods of internet traffic. These attacks disrupt services and can serve as a smokescreen for more invasive attacks.
  • Ransomware attacks involve encrypting the victim’s data and demanding payment for decryption keys. These attacks can paralyze critical systems and demand significant financial payouts.
  • Man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks intercept communications between two parties to steal or manipulate information.
  • Supply chain attacks compromise software or hardware before they reach the consumer, exploiting trusted relationships.

In the following sections, we’ll explore the complexities and defense strategies against these top cybersecurity threats shaping the landscape in 2024.

Malware Threats

Malware, or malicious software, continues to be a formidable threat to cybersecurity landscapes worldwide. In 2024, we are witnessing an evolution in the complexity and stealth of malware attacks that makes them more challenging to detect and mitigate. Below are some of the primary types of malware posing significant threats this year:

Viruses and Worms

Viruses and worms are some of the oldest types of malware but remain highly effective due to their evolving mechanisms. Viruses attach themselves to clean files and infect other clean files, which can spread uncontrollably, damaging the system’s core functionality and corrupting data. Worms, on the other hand, self-replicate without human intervention and typically exploit vulnerabilities within the system’s network. Recent variations have seen worms that can evade detection by mimicking benign network traffic.

Ransomware

According to the World Economic Forum, “Ransomware activity alone was up 50% year-on-year during the first half of 2023.” The year 2024 has also seen an intensification in ransomware attacks, where attackers encrypt a victim’s files and demand a ransom to restore access, usually demanding payment in cryptocurrencies for anonymity. 

This year, the emergence of RaaS (Ransomware as a Service) has made it easier for criminals, regardless of their technical know-how, to launch ransomware attacks, leading to an increase in their frequency and sophistication. 

Cryptojacking

Cryptojacking is a stealthy threat that remains under the radar but poses significant risks as it hijacks computer resources to mine cryptocurrency. Unlike other forms of malware, cryptojacking focuses on generating revenue without direct theft or data compromise, making it less noticeable but equally damaging in terms of resource utilization. 

Fileless Malware

Fileless malware leverages scripts or loaded modules into the random access memory (RAM) without writing to the disk, making it difficult for traditional antivirus solutions to detect. This type of attack exploits existing, legitimate programs to execute malicious activities, often bypassing user and endpoint defenses. 

To combat these malware threats, organizations should adopt a layered security approach that includes regular software updates, comprehensive end-user education to guard against phishing, advanced threat detection systems and rigorous access controls. Employing a robust cybersecurity framework and conducting regular audits will help in the early detection and mitigation of these cybersecurity threats.

Social Engineering Attacks

Social engineering remains one of the most insidious types of cyber threats because it exploits human psychology rather than technological vulnerabilities. These attacks trick individuals into breaking normal security procedures, often leading to significant data breaches or financial losses. Here’s how these schemes are evolving in 2024:

Phishing Variants

  • Spear phishing: Spear phishing targets individuals with highly tailored and convincing messages, often appearing to be from colleagues or trusted sources. For example, attackers might pose as remote tech support agents to address VPN complications, leveraging common workplace issues to manipulate employees during widespread remote work periods.
  • Vishing (voice phishing): In vishing scenarios, attackers use phone calls to extract sensitive information under the guise of legitimate requests. A typical scheme involves impersonators claiming to represent a bank, alerting victims about suspicious transactions and coaxing them into verifying personal account details, which can lead to financial theft.
  • Smishing (SMS phishing): This technique involves text messages sent under the guise of urgency requiring immediate action such as clicking a link to track an undelivered package.  The link, however, redirects the recipient to a malicious site intended to compromise personal data.

Baiting and Pretexting

  • Baiting: Baiting tactics involve enticing victims with the promise of goods or information. One common method includes distributing USB drives, purportedly containing important work-related data like employee salary lists, which actually contain harmful malware designed to infiltrate corporate networks.
  • Pretexting: Attackers often use pretexting to obtain personal information under false pretenses. They might, for instance, pose as surveyors needing confidential data for supposed business or security audits, exploiting the targeted individuals’ trust and cooperative instincts.

Business Email Compromise (BEC)

BEC is a sophisticated scam using email fraud to deceive companies into sending money or sensitive data to criminal actors. These schemes have become increasingly sophisticated in 2024, with fraudsters conducting extensive research to convincingly mimic internal communications. For example, attackers have used compromised emails to request wire transfers under the guise of urgent and confidential business deals. These emails are often only identified as fraud after the transaction is completed, leading to substantial financial losses for businesses.

To defend against social engineering attacks, organizations must prioritize security awareness training for employees to recognize and respond appropriately to such schemes. Implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) can also significantly reduce the risk of successful breaches originating from social engineering tactics.

Network and Application Attacks

As cyber threats evolve, network and application attacks have become more sophisticated, targeting the very backbone of organizational IT infrastructures. Here’s how these attacks are currently manifesting:

Distributed Denial of Service Attacks

DDoS attacks overwhelm networks, servers or websites with excessive traffic to deplete resources and bandwidth, making the services unavailable to legitimate users. 

Amplification attacks have exacerbated this issue, leveraging publicly accessible DNS (Domain Name System, which translates domain names to IP addresses), NTP (Network Time Protocol, which synchronizes clocks over a computer network), and SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol, used for collecting information and managing network devices) servers to significantly intensify the assault, often crippling systems within minutes.

The scale and frequency of DDoS attacks have surged dramatically. From 2022 to 2023, the global average number of DDoS attacks per customer increased by 94%, with the Americas experiencing a 196% rise. This inter-continental region was the target of nearly half of all DDoS attacks globally, emphasizing the growing strategic use of DDoS in cyber conflicts and hacktivism.

Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

MitM attacks occur when attackers intercept and alter communications between two parties without their knowledge. These attacks have grown more complex with the increase in encrypted traffic via HTTPS. Attackers often exploit flaws in SSL/TLS protocols or use stolen certificates to decrypt and manipulate communications.

A common example of MitM is WiFi eavesdropping, where attackers use unsecured WiFi networks to intercept user data. Recent statistics highlight a 35% increase in MitM attacks reaching inboxes from early 2022 to early 2023, with the majority targeting Office 365 authentication. Furthermore, these attacks frequently employ URL redirects to hide phishing sites, making them harder to recognize and block.

Injection Attacks

Injection attacks are prevalent across various platforms, particularly web applications. They occur when an attacker sends untrusted data to an interpreter as part of a command or query. The interpreter then executes unintended commands or accesses data without proper authorization.

  • SQL injection: SQL is a powerful tool for managing and manipulating structured data. By inserting malicious SQL statements — commands used to communicate with a database to perform tasks, queries, and operations on data — into input fields, attackers can manipulate a database to disclose information, modify data, or even delete it. Recent breaches have shown attackers exploiting even minutely flawed SQL queries to extract massive volumes of data.
  • Code injection: These attacks involve the injection of malicious code into a vulnerable application, which is then executed by the server. Common targets include applications that dynamically evaluate code stored in user-controllable locations.
  • OS command injection: This type of injection attack occurs when an attacker gains the ability to execute shell commands — instructions or commands that you input into a command-line interface or terminal to perform operations on a computer system — on a server. By manipulating input forms that are processed by application servers, attackers can execute arbitrary commands, often taking full control of the underlying operating system.

Defending against network and application attacks requires a multi-faceted approach:

  • For DDoS: Employ comprehensive threat monitoring systems to detect and mitigate attacks before they can cause significant damage. Utilizing rate limiting (which controls the amount and rate of traffic sent or received by a network server), web application firewalls (WAFs) and anti-DDoS hardware and software solutions are critical.
  • For MitM: Ensure proper SSL/TLS configurations — cryptographic protocols designed to provide secure communication over a computer network — and keep all certificates up-to-date. Educating users on the security of their internet connections, especially on public networks, is also vital.
  • For injection attacks: Implement rigorous input validation, use prepared statements with parameterized queries in databases and regularly review and update codebases to safeguard against vulnerabilities.

Digital Infrastructure Threats

As technology advances, new types of cybersecurity challenges emerge, particularly in the rapidly expanding domains of Internet of Things (IoT), supply chains and cloud computing. These sectors are increasingly integral to organizational operations and are consequently becoming prime targets for cyberattacks.

Internet of Things Attacks

The Internet of Things encompasses a vast array of devices — from household appliances to industrial equipment — all connected online. These devices often lack robust security features, making them susceptible to attacks. Common vulnerabilities include insecure firmware, weak authentication protocols and unsecured network services. 

For example, IoT devices can be compromised to create botnets that launch massive DDoS attacks. As the IoT continues to grow, securing these devices becomes increasingly critical, necessitating the development of new security frameworks and the adoption of rigorous security practices at the development stage.

Supply Chain Attacks

Supply chain attacks target the interconnected systems of organizations, exploiting trusted relationships and potentially compromising multiple entities with a single breach. Recent high-profile cases, such as the SolarWinds attack, have shown the devastating potential of such threats, affecting thousands of businesses and government agencies by compromising software updates with malicious code. 

Cloud Security

As businesses increasingly rely on cloud computing, vulnerabilities in cloud infrastructure have become more apparent. Misconfigurations and inadequate access controls are the most common issues that lead to unauthorized access and data breaches. For instance, improperly configured S3 buckets — a fundamental storage resource in Amazon Web Services (AWS) — have led to significant data losses for even major corporations. 

Preventive measures include:

  • IoT security: Regular firmware updates, default credential changes and network segmentation can significantly enhance the security of IoT devices.
  • Supply chain security: Continuous vetting, adherence to strict security standards by all parties and the integration of security practices into contract agreements are vital.
  • Cloud security: Utilization of automated tools to monitor and correct configurations, rigorous access controls and employee training on cloud security best practices are critical for safeguarding cloud environments.

State-sponsored and Insider Threats

As the cyber landscape becomes increasingly politicized and competitive, state-sponsored cyber activities and insider threats have risen sharply, posing sophisticated and stealthy challenges to global security infrastructures.

Nation-state Cyber Activities

Nation-state cyber Activities often involve operations aimed at espionage, sabotage, or influencing global political landscapes. Recent examples include Russian government-sponsored groups targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Ukraine, primarily through malware and DDoS attacks, to disrupt services and gather intelligence. 

Another instance is Chinese cyber units conducting prolonged espionage operations against technology companies to steal intellectual property and sensitive government data. These operations are characterized by their high level of sophistication, significant state resources and long-term objectives that often align with national military or economic strategies.

Insider Threats

Insider threats arise from individuals within an  organization who misuse their access to systems and data, either maliciously or through negligence. Strategies to detect and prevent these threats include:

  • Behavioral analytics: Implementing user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) to detect anomalous behavior patterns that may indicate malicious activity or policy violations
  • Access controls: Applying the principle of least privilege and regularly reviewing access permissions to ensure that employees only have access to the resources necessary for their job functions
  • Regular audits and training: Conducting comprehensive security audits and providing ongoing security awareness training to educate employees about the indicators of insider threats and the importance of following organizational security policies

Mitigation strategies include the following:

  • For nation-state threats: Strengthening national cybersecurity policies, enhancing international cooperation and developing counter-cyber espionage strategies are critical. Organizations should also invest in cybersecurity intelligence to stay ahead of new threats posed by foreign governments.
  • For insider threats: Establishing a clear policy that outlines acceptable and secure behaviors, integrating robust data loss prevention (DLP) technologies and maintaining an up-to-date incident response plan that includes provisions for insider incidents.

Privacy Concerns and Data Breaches

In an era when data is a critical asset, privacy concerns and data breaches have become central issues for organizations worldwide. Regulatory changes and compliance with international laws significantly shape cybersecurity strategies, while lessons from major breaches provide crucial insights for security enhancements.

Regulatory Changes and Compliance

The impact of international laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), has redefined cybersecurity strategies. These regulations impose stringent data protection requirements on organizations, mandating robust measures to safeguard consumer information and severe penalties for non-compliance. 

For instance, GDPR’s provisions for data breach notifications have forced companies to enhance their incident response strategies to detect and mitigate breaches more rapidly. Compliance not only ensures legal conformity but also helps in building trust with consumers by protecting their personal information.

Major Data Breaches

 Several high-profile data breaches in recent years have exposed the vulnerabilities in cybersecurity defenses and underscored the need for stringent security measures. For example:

  • The Equifax Breach was one of the most significant data breaches, which compromised the personal information of approximately 147 million consumers. This incident highlighted the importance of patch management, as the breach was due to an unpatched vulnerability in a web application.
  • The Capital One Breach involved the data of over 100 million customers being stolen after a   configured web application firewall was hacked. This breach emphasized the need for comprehensive security configurations and routine security assessments.

Address these risks by incorporating the following preventive measures:

  • Continuous monitoring and updates: Regularly update and monitor systems to defend against new vulnerabilities.
  • Enhanced incident response: Develop and rehearse incident response protocols to handle data breaches effectively, ensuring rapid mitigation and compliance with breach notification laws.
  • Education and awareness: Conduct ongoing training for employees on cybersecurity best practices and phishing recognition to reduce the risk of human error.
  • Compliance audits: Perform regular audits to ensure all systems comply with  relevant international and local privacy laws.
  • Advanced security infrastructure: Invest in advanced security technologies, including encryption, intrusion detection systems and comprehensive endpoint security, to mitigate data breach risks.
  • Third-party risk management: Incorporate rigorous security assessments and controls into all third-party contracts to prevent breaches through vendors.

Advanced Persistent Threats

APTs are complex cyberattacks aimed primarily at stealing information or sabotaging operations, often targeting national governments, infrastructure and large corporations. These threats are executed over extended periods, making them discreet and particularly dangerous due to the strategic planning that underpins them.

Characteristics of APTs

APTs distinguish themselves through their sophistication and persistence, with attackers focusing on achieving their long-term objective by avoiding detection. Here are some defining characteristics of APTs:

  • Highly targeted: Attackers spend considerable time and resources to target specific entities or sectors. They tailor their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) based on the vulnerabilities and value of their targets.
  • Long-term engagement: Unlike other cyber threats that seek quick hits, APTs involve long durations of engagement with the target’s network, sometimes lasting years to continuously steal data or await the right moment to strike.
  • Use of advanced malware: These threats often involve complex malware and spear-phishing attacks to gain initial access and maintain persistence within the target’s infrastructure.
  • Evasion techniques: APTs use sophisticated methods to evade detection, including encryption, kill switches and exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities.
  • Lateral movement: Once access is gained, APTs move laterally through the network to establish footholds in different parts of the organization’s digital infrastructure.

Defending against APTs requires a multi-layered approach, combining advanced security technologies with vigilant monitoring and rapid response strategies. Here are some effective prevention and defense measures:

  • Regular security assessments: Continuously assess and update the security posture of the organization to respond to emerging threats.
  • Encryption: Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit to reduce the usefulness of intercepted information by unauthorized parties.
  • Threat intelligence sharing: Participating in industry and government cybersecurity initiatives can provide early warnings about new APT tactics and remediation techniques.
  • Segmentation and zero trust: Implement network segmentation and adopt a zero-trust security model to minimize lateral movements and restrict access to critical information.
  • Advanced detection technologies: Utilize behavior-based threat detection systems that can identify anomalies indicative of APT activities, such as unusual network traffic or unexpected data flows.
  • Incident response and forensics: Prepare a comprehensive incident response plan that includes forensic capabilities to investigate and mitigate breaches after an APT attack is detected.
  • Continuous monitoring and updating: Regularly update security systems and software to protect against known vulnerabilities and perform continuous monitoring of all network activity to detect and respond to threats promptly.
  • Employee training and awareness: Educate employees about the risks and indicators of APTs, particularly focusing on spear-phishing and social engineering tactics, as human elements are often the weakest links in security chains.

A Severe Shortage of Cybersecurity Professionals

The cybersecurity workforce shortage has reached a critical level, with a record-high gap of nearly 4 million unfilled positions globally, despite a 10% increase in the workforce last year. This alarming trend underscores the escalating need for qualified cybersecurity professionals as the workforce gap has widened by 12.6% year-over-year, according to the latest Cybersecurity Workforce Study by ISC2.

Two-thirds of cybersecurity professionals report that their organizations lack sufficient staff to effectively prevent and troubleshoot security issues. The deficit is compounded by economic uncertainties, budget cuts and hiring freezes, fundamentally challenging organizations’ ability to maintain robust cybersecurity defenses.

Furthermore, skills gaps are reported to be even more detrimental than the sheer number of unfilled positions. Cloud computing security, artificial intelligence, machine learning and zero-trust implementation are critically underserved sectors. A staggering 92% of companies indicate a skills gap in essential cybersecurity skills, and according to Forbes, “these gaps can cause everything from irresponsible handling of personal information to catastrophic failures of infrastructure that could have life-and-death consequences.”

This persistent shortage and the expanding skills gap create a prime opportunity for individuals considering a career in cybersecurity. Engaging in advanced education provides the critical knowledge and skills needed to fill these gaps.

What Companies Are Doing to Combat Cybersecurity Threats

One of the most effective methods for preventing and mitigating cybersecurity threats and attacks is through proper cybersecurity education. Many companies and organizations are using webinars and training tools to keep employees informed of best practices and protocols. 

Companies may also adopt new technologies and run security audits, in addition to hiring experienced cybersecurity professionals and/or consultants to help strengthen their cyber defenses. 

That’s why the University of San Diego created two master’s degree programs focused specifically on the most critical issues facing cybersecurity professionals today — the innovative, online Master of Science in Cyber Security Operations and Leadership and Master of Science in Cyber Security Engineering, which is offered both on campus and online.

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