What Is Cyber Espionage? Understanding State Sponsored Cyber Attacks

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Nation-state cyberattacks target intellectual property and trade secrets stored on business networks. Rather than snatch and grab data following a breach, the sophisticated hackers who carry out state-sponsored cyber attacks are more than willing to patiently hide in plain sight. As manufacturers, big pharma, and contractors in the military-industrial base develop next-generation technologies and make scientific breakthroughs, well-funded hackers are waiting to steal them.

Consider the example of the Chinese cyber espionage group APT 41, which launched what has been dubbed Operation CuckooBees. These Chinese cyber criminals infiltrated upwards of 30 multinational corporations in Asia, Europe, and North America. Concealing their presence for at least two years, intellectual property theft includes hundreds of gigabytes of proprietary information, including helicopter and fighter jet blueprints.

“(China has) a bigger hacking program than that of every other major nation combined. And their biggest target is, of course, the United States," FBI Director Christopher Wray reportedly said. “Across the Chinese state, in pretty much every major city, they have thousands of either Chinese government or Chinese government-contracted hackers who spend all day – with a lot of funding and very sophisticated tools – trying to figure out how to hack into companies' networks.”

While Operation CuckooBees was a massively funded and deftly executed cyber espionage campaign focused on high-level secrets, economic adversaries routinely spy to gain an unfair and illegal competitive edge. If your operation has projects in the development stage, or you work with sensitive data, protecting your digital assets from cyber espionage is mission-critical.

What is Cyber Espionage?

Cyber espionage is a type of cyber attack funded by enemy nation-states and rival organizations utilizing the skills of cyber criminals to breach corporate and government networks and steal intellectual property, trade secrets, and valuable digital assets. These state-sponsored cyber attacks aim to learn national security plans or military hardware designs and steal the research and development of privately owned corporations. Although any cyber espionage definition tends to lump together a wide variety of hacking efforts, it’s the endgame that matters. A cyber-espionage effort spies to gain a military or economic advantage.

How Does Cyber Espionage Work?

It’s important to understand that large, wealthy countries like China and Russia are not the only U.S. adversaries targeting government agencies and privately held companies. Small rogue nations such as Iran have invested heavily in hacking groups. That’s largely because the internet helps level the playing field for foreign adversaries that lack stealth planes, satellites, and financial bandwidth to develop other means of spying. That being said, these are methods cyber spies commonly use to creep into business networks.


This strategy involves crafting an online identity that gains the trust of company or government employees. Using social media platforms and professional networking platforms, among others, hackers build personal relationships. It’s not uncommon to use photos of attractive people and add a romantic element.

Fake Apps

State-sponsored cyber attacks are so well funded that hackers can create seemingly legitimate apps, complete with backdoors. Bad actors encourage people to download the app that allows them to spy and steal indefinitely.

Insider Attacks

America’s most determined enemies will go as far as to plant moles in government and private businesses. These real-life spies pose as trusted employees. They may copy sensitive information to thumb drives, provide login credentials to awaiting hackers, or install malicious software.

Social Engineering

A 2020 Cyber Espionage report published by Verizon indicates that social engineering has been a go-to tactic for spy groups. The now textbook example of a social engineering faux pas is Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, responding to a fake Google email alert. Podesta reportedly used a phishing email to change his password, giving foreign entities unfettered access to the campaign.

How to Prevent Cyber Espionage Attacks

Whether a foreign entity or industry rival has designs to spy on your organization, it’s essential to enlist the support of a third-party cyber security consulting firm. Having new eyes review your defenses eliminates what staff members sometimes take for granted. The process begins by conducting a thorough risk assessment that includes checking for the slightest anomalies and vetting the user activities of all employees. These are ways a consultant elevates your defensive strategies against cyber espionage.

  • Provide cyber security awareness training to staff members
  • Patch and secure software
  • Encrypt transmissions from remote workforce devices
  • Implement zero-trust user profiles
  • Implement two-factor authentication
  • Monitor system activities 24-7
  • Vet all software and apps before installation

A cyber security consultant also looks at an organization’s infrastructure to ensure in-house hardware and data stored in the cloud enjoy advanced defenses.  

What a Cybersecurity Consultant Can Do for Your IT Security

At CyberTeam, our managed IT and cybersecurity consulting experts have the experience and technology to protect your company from cyber espionage attacks. We work diligently with industry leaders to harden defenses and develop a comprehensive cybersecurity plan. Contact us today and let’s get the process started.

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