Security can be a hard sell, and that’s particularly true in small and medium sized organizations (SMEs). A study of threat awareness, carried out by Symantec in 2011, shows that though some SMEs are aware of the security risks posed to information systems, many don’t consider themselves potential targets because hackers are more interested in large corporations and government agencies.

The steady adoption of cloud services over the last few years has allowed Symantec to collect information from its own platform to give some insight into the proportion of attacks targeted specifically at SMEs, and it may be surprising to know that 40 per cent of attacks are aimed at small businesses, compared to just 28 per cent at large corporations.

The days when malware was distributed in the hope of randomly gaining access to any organization’s systems are gradually passing in favor of targeted attacks. Hackers design malware to target a specific person, group, business or industry with the aim of phishing valuable data, sometimes known as spear phishing in the context of targeted attacks.

One of the most common types of targeted attack is to send a document in an email that looks as if it’s intended specifically for the recipient with some relevant content. The document exploits an unpatched operating system or application vulnerability on the recipient’s PC, so if the document is opened, a backdoor Trojan is dropped onto the PC to gain further access to the company’s systems.

SMEs provide hackers with a low-risk alternative to corporations, and tend to be easier to attack as they don’t have the same amount of resources available to protect their systems. Larger corporations and government agencies often have the additional advantage of forensic systems that collect data which can later be used as evidence should their systems be compromised. While many corporations are already hacked - or owned - but don’t know it, when it does eventually come to light that there’s been a security breach, there’s more likely to be some data available that can be used to identify the source of the hack.

However large corporations shouldn’t rest on their laurels, as Shawn Henry, outgoing chief cyber security official at the FBI, says:

"Too many companies, from major multinationals to small start-ups, fail to recognize the financial and legal risks they are taking - or the costs they may have already suffered unknowingly—by operating vulnerable networks."

Companies can bolster security by protecting end points. In addition to installing and keeping antivirus software up-to-date, removing administrative privileges from users significantly reduces the attack surface and damage that malware can inflict should a PC be infected. Application whitelisting can further lower the risk by ensuring that employees are only allowed to run authorized programs. Patching the operating system and applications is equally important to stop malware leveraging known vulnerabilities.

Symantec’s SMB Threat Awareness Poll can be downloaded here: