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Greenville Business Magazine

Cyberattacks Continue to Threaten Businesses, Individuals in South Carolina

Dec 13, 2022 04:05PM ● By Kevin Dietrich

It’s been a decade since the South Carolina Department of Revenue was hacked, leaving the personal data of millions of state residents vulnerable. Ten years later, cyberattacks remain an ongoing threat, as bad actors from around the world focus on targets big and small.

There have been tens of thousands of cyberattacks in recent years, including some high profile cases:

Last year, hackers that took down the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S. through a ransomware attack, and the result included fuel shortages across the East Coast;

This past August, hackers targeted the website of Ukraine’s state energy agency responsible for oversight of the country’s nuclear power plants; and

In June, U.S. security officials announced that Chinese state-sponsored hackers targeted and breached major telecommunications companies and network service providers since at least 2020.

Closer to home, a 2019 Russian cyberattack on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina froze the tribe’s critical infrastructure and databases. The attack caused 911 emergency services to go down – possibly resulting in the death of a young woman who had been in an auto accident, because it took emergency services an extra 18 minutes to locate her. 

A 2021 communication from the S.C. Department of Commerce underscored the damage cyberattacks can have on businesses.

“According to IBM, the average cost of a breach to U.S. companies in 2020 was more than $8 million, with costs spiraling from lost revenue, downtime, reputation, IT work and more,” Commerce wrote in an external communication. “Additionally, one study found that only 40 percent of companies that fall victim to a major data breach will survive for more than six months.”

Cyberattacks are escalating, according to Shankar Banik, a professor at The Citadel, head of the school’s Department of Cyber and Computer Sciences, and director of The Citadel Department of Defense Cyber Institute.

“They impact government and private sector interests at all levels,” Banik stated earlier this year. “This emphasizes that the need to protect the country and our shared interests is more pressing than ever.”

South Carolina is just as likely as anywhere else in the world to find itself the target of hackers, according to Richard Brooks, a Clemson University professor of computer and electrical engineering.

“The situation is pretty dire here, but I don’t think South Carolina is being hit any harder than other places,” said Brooks, whose research area includes computer network security. “Yes, the situation here is terrible, but it’s no worse than anywhere else.”

Cyberattacks are efforts by individuals or organizations seeking to illegally access computer systems, networks, or personal computers through hacking into or using guile to gain access.

They have been an ongoing issue for businesses, along with government bodies and individuals, for nearly as long as computer systems have been around.

Businesses are open to several different types of cyberattacks, including:

Ransomware, which involves hackers stealing data from a business, encrypting that information so it can’t be retrieved easily, and then demanding ransom for its return;

Phishing, which often involves hackers sending fake emails or text messages that look legitimate. The object is to trick individuals into turning over personal information or clicking a link that infects the computer or system with malware; and

Malware, in which hackers access a company’s computers and install malicious software which can steal data.

An FBI report for 2021 showed that more than 5,200 South Carolina residents lost approximately $42.7 million to cybercrime last year, according to Columbia cybersecurity firm K2 Tech Group.

Cyberattacks are such a problem that Gov. Henry McMaster created S.C. Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity Program in 2017. Its goal is to protect critical infrastructure in a variety of areas such as energy, transportation, ports, and government from cyber threats.

The effects of cybercrime can be devastating, both financially and emotionally.

In the 2019 ransomware attack on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the band lost an invaluable amount of work that had been done to preserve its language, which is in danger of dying, according to Caden Rosenbaum, a technology and innovation policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Libertas Institute

“The tribe lost 15 years’ worth of work collecting audio and video recordings of the spoken Cherokee language,” he said, adding that there are reported to be only about 160 fluent speakers left. “The worst part about the recording loss was that the tribe was unable to recover the recordings even after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom money.” 

The success of cyberattacks against businesses and other entities is the result of a combination of factors, including a failure to understand potential cybersecurity issues until it’s too late, Rosenbaum said. 

“It requires a great deal of imagination to foresee the unknown as a business, and if you’re running a tire shop or a restaurant supply company, that foresight of the potential for a cyberattack is a lot more akin to paranoia than standard business practice,” he said. “That doesn’t make them any less likely, unfortunately.”

Nearly 90 percent of data breaches occur when an employee makes a mistake, such as clicking on a bad link or opening an attachment, according to McKinsey & Company, a New York-headquartered management consulting firm.

Brooks, of Clemson University, said while employees may be the ones making the mistakes, they’re not the only ones at fault.

“I keep hearing about how stupid people are for continuing to fall for phishing attacks,” he said. “But if your company is like most companies and communicates with employees through links and attachments in emails, you’re only making it easier for those doing the phishing. 

“If employees are used to opening attachments and clicking on links in order to get company information, they’re going to continue to be victimized,” Brooks added. “Bad actors are very good at creating emails that look exactly like what companies use; it’s not realistic or productive to closely scrutinize every email you get from someone in your company.”

The problem with so-called “spear-phishing” attacks, so named because hackers pose as trusted contacts to steal data, is that the massive increase in remote workers because of the Covid-19 pandemic has made even more employees susceptible to attempted breaches.

Spear-phishing attacks have increased by nearly seven times since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a McKinsey & Company survey.

Adding to the problem is the use of passwords to protect accounts and computers.

“Consider how experts say passwords should be used,” Brooks said. “They’re supposed to be a long random sequence of numbers and letters, they’re supposed to be different for every account someone has, and users aren’t supposed to write them down. That’s just not realistic.”

Brooks believes the use of security measures such as two-factor authentication is much more effective. With two-factor authorization, an individual employs a password for their account, followed by a second step, such as use of a verification code sent to the user’s phone or a fingerprint scan. The extra level stops criminals because it requires more than just a username and password.

Indeed, the best offense against cyberattacks is a good defense, according to industry experts.

Preventing access is the key to keeping hackers from wreaking havoc. A key aspect of this is cyber hygiene, defined as steps and practices that digital users take to maintain system health and improve online security.

Cyber hygiene isn’t a one-time or once-every-five-years event. It needs to be done an annual basis because criminals continue to adopt more sophisticated means of hacking into computers and systems.

This can involve protecting networks by setting up firewalls and encrypting information, educating computer and tech users, designing security guidelines, and training workers to differentiate between legitimate computer correspondence and that from hackers.

Major technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft dedicate massive resources to cybersecurity, employing teams of specialists, artificial intelligence, and data centers to protect their information and that of customers.

Brooks believes small companies would be far safer relying on cloud security platforms maintained by larger companies instead of using their own computers and servers to store company files.

“Letting big companies such as Google or Amazon provide security allows smaller firms to take advantage of the significant infrastructure the big companies devote to protecting data,” Brooks said. “Jeff Bezos and Amazon can afford the best security available.”