More than six in 10 organisations hit by data breaches take longer than three months to notice what has happened - with a few not uncovering attacks for years, a comprehensive analysis of global incidents by security firm Trustwave has found.

During 2012, this meant that the average time to discover a data breach for the 450 attacks looked at was 210 days, 35 more than for 2011, the company reported in its 2013 Global Security Report.

Incredibly, 14% of attacks aren’t detected for up to two years, with one in 20 taking even longer than that.

Almost half – 45% – of breaches happened in retailers with cardholder data the main target. The food and beverage sector accounted for another 24%, hospitality 9%, and financial services 7%.

Questions arise from this; how are attackers getting into organisations so easily and why do IT staff not notice until at least weeks after the event?

Pa55w0rd discipline

The ‘how’ is probably the easiest bit to explain, mainly centred around the frightening complexity of the supply and support  chains companies in sectors such as retail are tied to.

Password discipline on infrastructure such as remote access (used by third-parties and partners, say) remains especially woeful, with up to half of businesses still securing access using easy-to-guess passwords.

Trustwave also puts it finger on a seeming paradox; investigators seem more than able to spot breaches that admins didn’t. Why?

The part-answer seems to be that too many organisations rely on automated protection such as antivirus or a firewall that don't fail gracefully. If attackers beat that security layer there is no other system to notice that something unusual has happened.

“All developers, particularly in the e-commerce industry, should implement a full lifecycle security plan that includes thoroughly educating themselves and their employees, equipping themselves with the best tools to protect themselves against attacks and making sure they are using the most reliable resources for zero day detection,” said Trustwave CEO, Robert J McCullen.

Blackhole Exploit Kit

Firms should unify the logs used to monitor systems rather than relying on a fragmented patchwork dedicated to different parts, he said.

The report also found that it’s not only dodgy horsemeat that comes out of Romania these days either; the country is the top source of criminal attacks, or at least the IP addresses that appear to be associated with them.

Some 70% of all client-side attacks were connected to the Blackhole Exploit Kit, the leviathan of the cybercrime world. Six in 10 attacks targeted software flaws in Adobe’s PDF Reader.

Seeing what’s leaving the networks isn’t; necessarily going to be easy as a quarter of data was exfiltrated (i.e. stolen) using an encrypted channel designed to hide this activity.

In addition to analysing 450 data breaches, the report crunched data from 2,500 penetration tests, nine million web application attacks, two million network scans and five million malicious websites.

A year ago, Trustwave itself became embroiled in a controversy with Mozilla around the issuing of a digital certificate that some developers believed breached the terms of its certificate policy.