Verizon today issued its 2013 Data Breach Investigations Report—the sixth such report published by the company—which is based on the analysis of 47,000 reported security incidents and 621 confirmed data breaches suffered last year. Eighteen organizations contributed incident data for analysis using VERIS—Vocabulary for Event Reporting and Incident Sharing—a common language developed by Verizon for describing security incidents. 

The report indicates that hacking was a factor in 52% of the incidents that were studied, with malware accounting for 40% of the data breaches. Interestingly, hacking and malware accounted for 72% and 54%, respectively, of the data breaches experienced by small businesses, but only 40% and 36%, respectively, in large businesses.

The reason is fairly simple, said Marc Spitler, senior analyst with Verizon’s RISK (research, investigations, solutions, knowledge) team.

“Large corporations are doing, and have done, a better job of protecting their Internet-facing assets,” Spitler said. “They have limited the number of assets that are open to the Internet; they’ve done a good job of establishing a business need for each device that’s open to the Internet and each service or port that’s open to the Internet. They’ve done a good job of tightening that down.”

That’s clearly not the case with small and medium-sized businesses, Spitler said.

“It’s still a matter of not securing devices that are connected to the Internet properly,” he said. “That goes to … not having a firewall that does basic port blocking, allowing only the people who need access to certain things in and not allowing others … That’s one of the biggest weaknesses we see in small and medium-sized businesses.”

Indeed, the report indicates that 76% of network intrusions exploited weak or stolen credentials (user names and/or passwords).

A lack of money for such protections isn’t the problem, according to Spitler.

“The controls that would need to be put in place to protect the small and medium businesses … would be nominal, and—in some cases—there would not be any additional hardware or technology costs.” said Spitler, whose company has a business unit, dubbed Verizon Enterprise solutions, that provides managed security and security consulting services.

“[The problem] is that they don’t have an information-technology staff, and they certainly don’t have an information-security staff,” he continued. “They’re relying on things that are being set up by vendors and third parties, and there might be an assumption that a password would be changed, and it’s not. I don’t necessarily know where the blame lies in that relationship, but that’s the situation that they’re in.”

The report further indicates that 71% of the data breaches were driven by financial motives, which would explain why 61% of them targeted financial institutions, retailers or restaurants, in search of bank-account, credit-card and debit-card information. But Spitler said government entities shouldn’t rest easy, because they also have sensitive data in their possession—for example, social-security numbers—plus they accept credit cards and debit cards as payment for various services.

And then there’s the activist factor. When activist groups get riled, denial-of-service attacks on government networks often follow.

“We certainly saw a lot less [activism] this year in our data set, but they might just be switching tactics,” Spitler said. “They’re still out there. We just haven’t seen the very splashy data breaches—the multi-million-record-loss incidents that we saw [in 2011]. Last year was sort of a one-year wonder.”

The good news is that hackers tend to go after low-hanging fruit, and government agencies typically have robust data-security protections in place. The analogy is that of a burglar, who wants to find the easiest, least risky way into a home. As is the case with many home homeowners, businesses often leave the doors and windows to their data unlocked.

“There’s no need for them to rappel through the chimney, if they can walk through the front door,” Spitler said. “And the financially motivated hackers, especially, are going to think the exact same way. They’re not going to try to find a new vulnerability in an operating system, or create [a new method of attack], when they can either find an easy way in or use a commoditized malware to do their work for them.”