Cyber attack case studies
Science and TechnologyCybersecurity

Cyber attack case studies


Cyber attacks have become increasingly common in recent years, with high-profile breaches making headlines on a regular basis. Understanding past cyber attacks and their impacts can help organizations better defend themselves against future threats. This article examines several notable cyber attack case studies from the past decade, outlining key details and takeaways.

Notable Cyber Attack Case Studies

Target (2013)

  • Overview: Attackers accessed network credentials from a third-party HVAC vendor to infiltrate Target’s payment system and steal data on 70 million customers.
  • Impact: Sensitive payment data was compromised, including debit and credit card information. Target faced expenses of $292 million and saw profits drop 46% after the breach.
  • Takeaways:
    • Third-party vendor access can provide a pathway for attackers. Vendor security practices should be closely audited.
    • POS systems can be lucrative targets for attackers. POS security and segregation from other systems is critical.
    • Rapid incident response and notification containment damage. Target initially failed on both counts.

Equifax (2017)

  • Overview: Attackers exploited a vulnerability in Equifax’s web server software to gain access to internal systems and data on 147 million consumers.
  • Impact: Massive breach of sensitive personal and financial data, including Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and driver’s license details.
  • Takeaways:
    • Vulnerable internet-facing systems provide easy initial access points for attackers. Regular patching and hardening of these systems is essential.
    • Restricting access to sensitive data reduces potential impact. Equifax failed to separate data stores and segment access.

Capital One (2019)

  • Overview: A former AWS employee exploited a misconfigured web application firewall to access data on 100 million credit card applicants.
  • Impact: Breach included 140,000 Social Security numbers and 80,000 bank account numbers. Capital One faced over $200 million in breach-related costs.
  • Takeaways:
    • Cloud misconfigurations are a common attack vector. Robust cloud security tools and practices are needed.
    • Data retention and privileged access should be minimized. The breach was enabled by excessive data retention.

Colonial Pipeline (2021)

  • Overview: Ransomware attack took down Colonial Pipeline’s IT systems and forced a shutdown of their 5,500 mile fuel pipeline.
  • Impact: Worst gas shortage in years across the eastern U.S. Colonial paid $4.4 million in ransom. Outage cost estimated at over $90 million.
  • Takeaways:
    • Ransomware can significantly disrupt physical infrastructure. Oil/gas firms need robust anti-ransomware measures.
    • Incident response and resiliency planning are crucial. Colonial lacked contingency plans for IT outages.

SolarWinds (2020)

  • Overview: Russian hackers compromised software updates for SolarWinds Orion to breach numerous public and private organizations.
  • Impact: 18,000 SolarWinds customers installed backdoored updates. Threat actors gained access to systems at the U.S. Treasury, DOJ, State Dept and other agencies.
  • Takeaways:
    • Third-party software risks and supply chain security are paramount. Vendor access provides attackers opportunities.
    • Persistent threats from nation-states challenge traditional security models. Advanced defenses and threat intelligence are key.

Common Attack Vectors

Cyber attack case studies show several common initial attack vectors:

  • Phishing – Malicious emails with links or attachments remain a top threat vector. User security awareness training can help prevent success.
  • Third-party access – Partner, vendor or managed service provider access allows bypass of perimeter defenses. Review third-party controls and connections.
  • Cloud misconfiguration – Improper cloud setup exposes systems and data. Use available cloud security tools and frameworks.
  • Vulnerable internet-facing systems – Unpatched systems, insecure protocols and poor hardening often provide initial access.
  • Supply chain compromise – Infected third-party software or dependencies lead to downstream compromise. Vet supplier practices.

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Key Takeaways and Recommendations

Reviewing these cyber attack case studies highlights patterns and recommendations applicable across industries and use cases:

  • Limit data retention and access – Reduce amount of data stored and limit privileges to only what is needed.
  • Practice least privilege – Follow zero trust model and strict access controls.
  • Prioritize patching – Rapidly address vulnerabilities in internet-facing systems and software.
  • Deploy strong controls at network edges – Use next-gen firewalls, web application firewalls, endpoint detection etc.
  • Monitor for threat activity – Log, monitor and analyze network/user activity to hunt for anomalies.
  • Test incident response – Regularly test and update response playbooks and procedures.
  • Control third-party connections – Limit access, audit controls and monitor activity for vendors.
  • Train personnel on threats – Education on phishing, social engineering, and current attacks helps all staff.

Major Cyber Attack Case Studies by Year

Year Company Records Lost Primary Attack Vector
2013 Target 70 million Third-party vendor access
2014 eBay 145 million Database compromise
2015 Anthem 80 million Phishing
2016 Yahoo 3 billion Unpatched systems
2017 Equifax 147 million Web app vulnerability
2018 Marriott 500 million Third-party vendor access
2019 Capital One 100 million Cloud misconfiguration
2020 Twitter 130 accounts Social engineering
2021 Colonial Pipeline NA Ransomware


Examining past cyber attack case studies provides valuable understanding of common risks, attack methods and lessons learned. Organizations should leverage this knowledge to implement appropriate security controls, minimize data collection, provide security training, and prepare incident response plans. Staying aware of new and emerging attack trends is also critical given the constantly evolving threat landscape. With robust defenses and diligent monitoring, companies can reduce their risk and limit potential damage from modern cyber attacks.


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