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The ‘big four’ nations in the cyber threat landscape: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran

Mandiant 3 mins read



In the rapidly evolving landscape of cybersecurity, four nations stand out as major players—China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Each possesses unique motivations, tactics, and capabilities that shape their cyber activities. Via the Google Cloud Cybersecurity Forecast 2024, in which Mandiant collaborated with other elements of the Google Cloud security ecosystem, several issues were highlighted which reveal how nation-states continue to conduct cyber operations to achieve their geopolitical goals. 


China's Strategic Priorities

Focus on Internal Stability: China's cyber activities are driven by long-term priorities, including internal stability and territorial integrity. Issues related to Taiwan, regional hegemony, and economic influence over key markets remain paramount.


Stealthy Cyber Espionage: Chinese cyber espionage actors employ tactics such as zero-day exploitation, supply chain compromise, and the use of botnets and proxy networks to maintain stealth, reduce detection opportunities, and stymie attribution.


Military and Civilian Development: China is actively developing a military and civilian force capable of launching disruptive and destructive operations in alignment with national political and military objectives.


Russia's Persistent Focus on Ukraine

Cyber Threats in Ukraine: Russia continues to focus on Ukraine, engaging in intelligence gathering, disruptive and destructive attacks, and information operations at elevated rates. Sanctions are impacting technological and military innovation, leading to potential increased intellectual property theft.


North Korea's Financially Motivated Operations

Cryptocurrency Emphasis: North Korea's cyber threat activity increasingly emphasizes financially motivated operations, targeting the cryptocurrency industry and blockchain-related platforms. Expectations include a heavier focus on stealing cryptocurrency and NFTs to fund weapons and nuclear programs.


Iran's Geopolitical Drivers

Geopolitical Ambitions: Iran's cyber threat activity is shaped by geopolitical ambitions, economic development needs, regional competition, and surveillance of diaspora and opposition groups. Increased threats to Israel are anticipated, driven by recent events.


Global Cybersecurity Trends for 2024

Continued Use of Zero-Day Vulnerabilities

Persistent Zero-Day Exploitation: The use of zero-day vulnerabilities, particularly targeting edge devices, is on the rise. Nation-states and cybercriminal groups are expected to exploit these vulnerabilities to maintain persistent access.


Cyber Activity Targeting U.S. Elections

Election-Related Cyber Activity: Nation-states, especially China, Russia, and Iran, are expected to engage in cyber activity targeting U.S. elections. This includes espionage, influence operations, and an uptick in attacks following the elections.


Rise of Disruptive Hacktivism

Hacktivist Activity Surge: The volume of hacktivist activity is increasing, particularly aligned with geopolitical conflicts. Hacktivist groups with advanced capabilities and alignment with state objectives may be leveraged by nations for plausible deniability.


Wipers as Standard Cyber Arsenal Capability

Wiper Malware Adoption: Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the use of wiper malware is becoming a standard capability in nation-state cyber arsenals. Expect pre-placed wiper malware at strategically important targets in 2024.


Targeting of Space-Based Infrastructure

Cyber Attacks on Space Infrastructure: State-sponsored cyber actors are anticipated to target space-based infrastructure, including satellites and communication networks, to interdict, disrupt, deny, degrade, destroy, or deceive adversaries.


Attacks on Hybrid and Multicloud Environments

Maturing Attacks on Cloud Environments: Threat actors will evolve techniques to target hybrid and multicloud environments, exploiting misconfigurations and identity issues to move laterally across different cloud environments.


Increased Use of Serverless Services

Leveraging Serverless Technologies: Cybercriminals and nation-states are expected to increasingly use serverless technologies in the cloud for greater scalability, flexibility, and deployment using automated tools.


Continuing Trend of Extortion Operations

Impactful Extortion Operations: Extortion operations remain a significant cyber threat, with continued growth in 2023 and anticipated further escalation in 2024.


Espionage and "Sleeper Botnets"

Scalable Espionage Operations: Cyber espionage groups are likely to scale their attacks by creating "sleeper botnets" from vulnerable Internet of Things, small office, home office (SOHO), and end-of-life devices, complicating tracking and attribution efforts.


In conclusion, the cyber threat landscape is dynamic and multifaceted, with these four nations shaping the future of global cybersecurity. Organizations and governments must remain vigilant and adaptive to navigate the evolving challenges posed by these actors.

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