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Cisco's mid-year report looks at the state of cyber security in the 1st half of 2014 (Photo: Cisco)

As companies look to defend themselves against high-profile digital threats, cyber criminals are exploiting other, less obvious weaknesses in companies' IT landscape, according to a new report published by Cisco.

A focus on well-publicized, high-profile vulnerabilities rather than on "high-impact, common and stealthy threats" increases the risk that cyber criminals will be successful using these low-profile approaches, the technology company said in a mid-year security report.

"By proliferating attacks against low-profile legacy applications and infrastructure with known weaknesses, malicious actors are able to escape detection as security teams focus instead on boldface vulnerabilities, such as Heartbleed," the report said. Heartbleed, a security bug identified earlier this year, affects huge numbers of servers.

In its report, Cisco cited an "increasingly dynamic threat landscape" and identified outdated software, bad code, abandoned digital properties and user errors as opportunities for cyber criminals.

Given the importance of connected innovation across all industries, companies need to be aware of cyber risks at the most senior levels, Cisco said. Cybersecurity needs to be a business process, not just a technology," Cisco's chief security officer, John Stewart, said in a press statement. "To cover the entire attack continuum, before, during, and after an attack, organizations today must operate security solutions that operate everywhere a threat can manifest itself,” he said.

Cisco's researchers looked at 16 large multinational organizations with a combined 4 trillion dollars in assets and revenue of more than 300 billion dollars. Among the findings:

  • Almost 94 percent of customer networks have traffic that goes to web sites hosting malware
  • Nearly 70 percent of networks appear to be misused or compromised with so-called botnets
  • Nearly 44 percent of customer networks issue DNS requests for sites and domains with devices providing encrypted channel services. These are often used by malicious actors to cover their tracks
The Java programming language continues to provide the most frequent access point for cyber criminals, Cisco said. The company's researchers found that 93 percent of all so-called indicators of compromise (IOC) exploited Java, up from 91 percent in November, 2013.

Broken down by industry, media and publishing companies were most at risk, followed by pharmaceutical and chemical companies and the aviation industry. In the US, media and publishing topped the list, while in ood and beverage in Africa, Europe and the Middle East food and beverage companies were the top targets. The insurance industry was most at risk in Asia-Pacific, China, Japan and India.

-By Arjen Bongard