Despite rising concern that cyberattacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated, hackers used relatively simple methods 97% of data breaches in 2011, according to a report compiled by Verizon.
The annual Verizon report on data breaches, released Thursday, also found that in a vast majority of attacks (80%), hackers hit victims of opportunity rather than companies they sought out.
The findings suggest that while companies are spending increasing sums of money on sophisticated new security controls, they are also continuing to overlook fundamental security precautions.
The conclusions in the Verizon report are based on the investigations into more than 850 data breaches. The report was compiled with the help of the U.S. Secret Service and law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Ireland and Australia, Verizon said.
Verizon said it found that attacks by so-called "hactivist" groups such as Anonymous for the first time compromised more breached records -- more than 100 million -- than the number of attacks by hackers specifically looking to steal financial or personal data.
Data breach victims and security vendors generally tend to describe attacks as highly sophisticated and involving a great deal of expertise on the part of hackers.
The Verizon report though shows a far more mundane reality.
Most of the breaches didn't require hackers to possess special skills or resources, or to do much customization work. In fact, Verizon said that 96% of the attacks "were not highly difficult" for the hackers.
"Additionally, 97% were avoidable, without the need for organizations to resort to difficult or expensive countermeasures," the report said.
Very often, the companies breached had no firewalls, had ports open to the Internet or used default or easily guessable passwords, said Marc Spitler a Verizon security analyst.
The study found that cybercriminals did not have to work any harder to break into a large organization than into a small one.
Attackers in 2011 generally didn't need new sophisticated tools to break into most organizations, Spitler said.
"We have seen nothing new. Some of the old standbys are continuing to work very well for the people going after information," he said. "Not enough has been done to raise the bar and to force them to spend" significant sums on new tools and exploits.
The most sophistication found by the researchers was in the methods used by attackers to steal data after breaking in to systems, he said.
Attackers typically have installed malware on a victim company's network to escalate privileges, set up backdoors, enable remote control and sniff out sensitive data. Many take steps to remain hidden on the network for a long time and then wipe their tracks when they are done.
Such tasks require moderate to advanced skills and extensive resources on the part of the attackers, according to Spitler. "That is one area where we have raised the bar," he said.
Most of the targeted attacks last year were directed large companies in the finance and insurance industries, according to Verizon.
Hackers, often part of organized groups, used large-scale automated methods to find vulnerable businesses to exploit.
In such cases, more than 85% of victim companies employed less than 1,000 employees and were mostly in the retail, hospitality and food services industries.
The findings once again highlight the need for companies to pay attention to security basics, Spitler said.
"It is about going back to basic security principles. A lot of the same recommendations we have used in past years, we have recommended this year," he said.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.