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75% of AU businesses wrestling with increased attack surface

By Catherine Knowles
Tue 31 May 2022

Fastly has released new research in partnership with Ecosystm that shows 75% of Australian businesses are now living with a vastly increased attack surface caused by their reliance on web-based applications.

Large attack surfaces are routinely sought out and tested by attackers looking for less-protected entry points into corporate IT environments, the researchers state.

According to the survey, organisations in Australia moved en masse to more decentralised IT architectures over the past two years, but still struggle with some of the cybersecurity implications of these kinds of digital and cloud first operating models.

Cloud, web applications and the APIs that enable these apps to integrate and exchange data rate highly in the risk and challenge assessments by CIOs, IT directors and technology leaders of Australian organisations, according to the report.

API endpoints, cloud service provider authentication, and enterprise open source software are all seen to pose considerable risks as potential entry points for attackers. Inadequate controls around these architectural elements, coupled with a lack of operational maturity and reliance on traditional defensive postures, has Australian business leaders on edge and fearful of attacks.

The survey shows that 65% of large enterprises in Australia rate nation state attacks as a very high or high risk to their organisations. There is also concern among leaders of all business sizes over credential stuffing, which attackers may use to try to compromise cloud accounts and individual as-a-service logins.

The research also shows that:

  • IT leaders expect to increase focus on the security of web applications in the next two years, but more likely in 2023. Digital has dominated IT strategies over the past two years, but operating securely in a majority or fully web or cloud based environment means living with elevated risk tolerances and discomfort for security teams.
  • Application security often comes off second in the competition for attention and funding. More than half (53%) of IT leaders say they’re prioritising other digital transformation projects above application security in 2022, while 39% say other business initiatives outside of IT are taking priority, to the detriment of cybersecurity.
  • More than 40% of leaders identify cloud misconfiguration as being still among their top five cybersecurity challenges. Despite the attention and focus this issue has received in the past couple of years, and the rise of low-code/no-code platforms and configurations, cloud environments remain complex, and errors or misunderstandings mean even experienced engineers can encounter cost overruns and/or unintended data exposure risks. This is higher for enterprises (41%) than for large (22%) and medium-sized (26%) organisations.
  • The key challenge for managing application security initiatives is complexity. Overall, 55% of leaders say too many third parties are involved in end-to-end security of their applications, pointing to the new reality of operating in a cloud, web and API driven world.

According to the researchers, that is because a typical response by decision-makers to the increasing complexity of their technology environments is to deploy additional new security solutions. However, that approach means nearly half of Australian companies have more than 50 cybersecurity tools, and are battling alert fatigue and high false positive rates as a result.

The researchers state that organisations need a modern cybersecurity posture that enables them to anticipate threats before they happen, and respond instantly when attacks occur. They need security controls that are capable of automatically sensing, detecting, reacting and responding to access requests, authentication needs, and outside and inside threats.

Administration and application of these controls should also be automated to a high degree to improve coverage and consistency, and reduce the burden on Security Operations Centres (SOCs) and cybersecurity practitioners.

Fastly area vice president Australia and New Zealand, Derek Rast, says, "As Australian companies move deeper into digital transformations, they come up against a known problem: the challenges of securing a rapidly rising number of mission-critical cloud services and API-centric applications.

"The tools these companies use to secure their digital-first, cloud-first and microservices-based architectures need to evolve. Traditional web application and API security tools fall short in this regard. Leveraging Web Application Firewalls (WAFs) and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) should be part of a holistic defence-in-depth security strategy."

Illustrating the cyber maturity challenges faced by Australian companies is the lack of consistency in the operating parameters, powers and preparedness of cyber threat and incident response teams, the researchers state.

The report finds one in three cyber threat response teams lacks the support of key internal stakeholders, is unclear about escalation points for incident management, and doesn't have the authority to confiscate or disconnect equipment and monitor suspicious activity, including from senior management.

In addition, when it comes to cyber threat response planning:

  • Only 54% have a full plan that includes legal and corporate communications teams,
  • 50% rehearse the plan at least once a year, the other half practice less frequently or don't practice at all, and
  • 48% have a timeframe for additions and improvements for the plan, and hold senior leaders responsible for making the improvements

Enterprises are more likely than large or medium-sized organisations to have a multi-stakeholder plan that is well-rehearsed, the report finds. However, they're also more likely to be subjected to regulated requirements for incident planning and response. This is supported in the study by compliance being identified as a major cybersecurity challenge facing organisations.

Medium and large organisations are more likely than enterprises to be rethinking the way they deploy applications and business logic to end users and to be in active pursuit of that target state.

The research shows 64% of medium-sized organisations and 56% of large organisations are embracing edge computing, moving business logic from application servers to an edge cache. By contrast, just 43% of enterprises are doing the same - 10% below the overall average.

Moving business logic from the backend to the edge not only increases application performance but can also substantially reduce an organisations risk, since user requests are funnelled through a single front door, instead of to any number of servers that host the application.

The survey represents the views of 200 cybersecurity decision-makers, mostly CIOs, IT Directors and equivalent titles, in Australia. It was commissioned by Fastly and conducted in April-May 2022. It covers organisations of three sizes: medium (101 to 499 staff), large (500 to 999) and enterprise (1000-plus staff).

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