Cyberattacks have become an inevitable part of everyday business for organizations of all sizes worldwide. Despite growing awareness of the consequences of a successful attack, many organizations still downplay the associated risks, especially when additional spending on security is discussed. But make no mistake – a cyberattack can have devastating and long-lasting consequences for the entire organization. In this article, we will look at 5 crucial ways that a cyberattack can hurt your business.
Cyberattacks: the Dark Side of the Online Age
Web applications and cloud solutions continue to revolutionize business, public administration, and other areas of life, but with global access comes global exposure to attacks. Organizations can no longer afford to treat cyberattacks as something that only happens to others. Cybercriminals are increasingly going after data rather than money – and this means that every business and institution has something valuable and can be a viable target. What’s more, every cyberattack brings the risk of a data breach, with all the associated regulatory and legal consequences.
With so many organizations moving to the cloud, business-critical applications and vast quantities of vital data can now reside on systems accessible from anywhere in the world – accessible not just to employees and customers, but potentially also to cybercriminals. Web applications make a particularly attractive target, as they present a huge attack surface and can provide a gateway to internal business systems and valuable data. They also tend to use widely known APIs, frameworks, and libraries, so any emerging exploits can quickly be leveraged across a variety of targets.
A successful cyberattack can impact the entire organization in many ways and on many levels, from minor operational disruption to a total business meltdown. Worse still, consequences of the incident might still be felt many weeks if not months later. Let’s look at 5 main areas where your business can suffer.
Risk #1: Financial Losses
Direct financial costs are perhaps the most obvious consequence of many attacks, especially where money is the main target, for example, unauthorized or fraudulent transfers, or ransom payments after a ransomware infection. Fines and damage payments also fall under this category. However, practically all the consequences of a cyberattack can have their own financial cost and significant impact on your bottom line:
- Cost of response and recovery: A serious cyber incident is likely to engage most or all of your IT personnel, and probably external contractors and providers as well, resulting in costly additional man-hours. Depending on your environment, restoring backups and performing other recovery operations may mean even more expense.
- Cost of investigation: Post-breach forensics and vulnerability analysis may require you to bring in costly external auditors, consultants, and contractors.
- Cost of lost productivity: For many businesses, every minute of downtime brings measurable financial losses – if systems or data are unavailable, employees can’t get on with making money. And even if your main business is not impacted by the attack, your IT security and operations staff will be drawn away from value-added activities to deal with the emergency.
- Lost revenue: For some organizations, downtime might directly mean lost business – if your online store goes offline, customers can’t place orders or buy products. For others, lost revenue following a cyberattack may be caused by degraded system functionality, or by concerned customers canceling orders or postponing them until the situation has normalized.
- Legal and PR costs: Following a major data breach, you may need to finance intensive legal and PR efforts to protect the company image, manage communications with stakeholders and regulators, and prepare for or head off potential legal or regulatory action.
- Decreased company valuation: Serious damage to a company’s reputation and productivity following a cyberattack can mean less favorable financial forecasts, potentially impacting share value and the company’s overall valuation.
Risk #2: Loss of Productivity
As with any other outage, the main impact of a cyberattack is lost productivity, potentially all across the organization. This starts with staff time directly consumed by the incident – following an attack, routine IT work is likely to grind to a halt. Even after normal operations resume, you will still need your IT staff to perform cleanup, determine the root cause, fix vulnerabilities, and reinforce security, or to assist external assets in this process. As long as your specialists are fighting fires, they are not contributing to business growth.
Even as IT personnel are dealing with the technical side, other staff may be left without access to business-critical systems and processes. Depending on the type and scope of the attack, this can mean anything from minor disruptions and delays to a total failure of all business processes. Besides ongoing financial costs, lost productivity can undermine future growth or even jeopardize business continuity.
Risk #3: Reputation Damage
Apart from immediate costs, a cyberattack can also have less obvious long-term consequences related to reputation damage, especially for data breaches. Many (if not most) organizations initially try to conceal information about attacks and breaches to minimize harm to their reputation, but this strategy can easily backfire. If the incident is exposed anyway, initial attempts to cover it up can exacerbate reputation damage and, crucially, loss of trust.
Trust is probably the most important yet most fragile aspect of any partnership or customer relationship. Customers and partners that have trusted you with their business and data can turn away in anger, and persuading them to stay or return will not be easy. This is especially true in highly competitive markets with multiple players offering similar products and terms. And as with any PR crisis, a cyberattack may also tarnish your brand image, with all associated consequences.
Risk #4: Legal Liability
Large scale data breaches are by far the highest-profile cyber incidents in recent years, and barely a day goes by without news of another business or government institution losing customer or citizen data. While the direct cost and operational impact of a data breach may be relatively minor compared to, say, a ransomware infection, organizations now have to consider the risk of regulatory and civil liability for data breaches. Depending on the region and type of data, your organization may be obligated to report breaches or suspected breaches, with potentially hefty fines for noncompliance.
Apart from any regulatory obligations and fines, organizations can face civil lawsuits from affected customers and business partners. If your systems are breached and customer data is stolen, you may be forced to prove that the incident was not caused by negligence and that you did everything reasonably possible to maintain your best-practice security measures and procedures.
Cybercriminals often try to cover their tracks by staging high-profile attacks from intermediate compromised systems. If your web application or other system is hacked and used to launch an attack on another victim, forensic investigation may lead law enforcement to your systems. In that case, the onus is on you to prove that you were not complicit in the attack, your systems were secured according to the current state of the art, and your staff followed all the appropriate procedures.
Risk #5: Business Continuity Problems
When a cyberattack is so severe that business effectively grinds to a halt, the impact of lost productivity and rapidly accumulating costs may be severe enough to threaten business continuity. In the case of organizations that depend heavily or entirely on web applications and 24/7 connectivity, cybersecurity becomes the flip side of business continuity, and just one cyberattack may be enough to put a small company out of business. With cyberattacks now considered the most likely man-made threat, cybersecurity must be a key part of any business continuity strategy.
The ubiquity of web and cloud solutions has opened new possibilities for business but also created a huge attack surface. Attacks can now affect organizations of all sizes, and small and medium businesses that don’t have the resources to absorb unexpected costs and downtime can suffer especially badly. While different types of attacks can affect different parts of the organization, the problems experienced in the aftermath of a cyberattack are all interrelated, so, for example, a regulatory investigation may involve legal liability, financial costs, loss of reputation, and decreased productivity.
With cybercriminals increasingly shifting their interest from stealing money to stealing data, no organization can honestly say it has nothing valuable in its systems. Anyone can be targeted by automated exploits and other bulk attack attempts, so the best way to protect your organization is to avoid being an easy target. Maintaining cybersecurity is necessary for smooth business operations, and good response and recovery planning can help to minimize the fallout from any attacks that do succeed. And don’t forget about the human factor – cybersecurity is as much about training and awareness as it is about technology.
No less important than the technical side of business recovery is efficient and transparent communication, which can help to limit the negative consequences of outages and data breaches. News of major incidents tends to leak out sooner or later, so following a policy of full and responsible disclosure can help organizations better manage their reputation and avoid additional liability for concealing a data breach. By disclosing attack vectors and exploited vulnerabilities, responsible organizations can contribute to improving the state of global cybersecurity – and regain some of their lost customer trust in the process.