Cyberattacks on Japan soar as hackers target vulnerabilities

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TOKYO – The number of cyberattacks in Japan is surging as hackers try to exploit the country’s weak defenses. Japan has lagged other advanced nations in updating systems to detect attacks and protect data, according to cybersecurity experts.

Japanese businesses, in particular, rely heavily on outside vendors for systems development and have been slow to fix software once vulnerabilities are discovered.

A midsize hospital on the southern island of Shikoku suffered a ransomware attack in 2021. Problems with its security systems were made public in May 2019, but the hospital took little action to correct them.

The hospital used different vendors to develop systems for managing overall business operations and patient data. Neither had taken adequate measures to protect the systems from cyberattacks. A damage report, published in June 2022, pointed out shortcomings in systems oversight and support at the hospital.

The hospital is no exception: Many Japanese companies have been slow to fix systems once weaknesses have been spotted. When vulnerabilities in Pulse Secure virtual private networking devices were reported in August 2019, only 9% of units used in Japan had their software patched within a week of the discovery, compared to 49% in Germany and 31% in the U.S., according to Bad Packets, a cybersecurity research company in the U.S.

Neither is Japan skilled at detecting cyberattacks. In a survey by Tokyo-based cybersecurity company Trend Micro, only 34.5% of IT officials at Japanese companies said they could detect ransomware attacks at an early stage, compared with an overseas average of 42.2%. Businesses are also slow to detect data leaks and digital probes after break-ins. They often recognize cyberattacks only after damage has been done.


Overseas hackers appear well aware of problems with Japan’s cyberdefenses. On average, about 7,800 cases of unauthorized access — nearly all of them from abroad — were detected daily in the first half of 2022, double the number for all of 2019, according to the National Police Agency.

“The Japanese language used to serve as a barrier against cyberattacks,” said Takashi Matsumoto in charge of cybersecurity at Japanese internet company DeNA, “but that shield has been mostly gone due to the advance in translation software.”

Worldwide, ransomware attacks peaked in the summer of 2021, according to U.S. cybersecurity company SonicWall.

Japan’s weak cyberdefense stems from its old practice of outsourcing the development and management of security systems to outside vendors without fostering in-house experts. A survey of 1,000 cybersecurity officials at major Japanese businesses found 80% of the companies have never changed their main vendors, according to DreamArts, a Tokyo-based cloud services provider.

“Many Japanese companies rely on specific vendors for systems development and maintenance, and are short on personnel willing to play an active role in making their systems less vulnerable [to cyberattacks],” said Kensuke Ishida, chief technology officer at DreamArts.

Also on the rise is the number of state-backed cyberattacks designed to steal confidential information about key infrastructure or technology. Even small and midsize companies in supply chains have become targets. A small security breach could cause serious damage to society at large, one expert said.

Outside Japan, countries are quick to act. When a vulnerability in Apache Log4j, a popular software library for logging messages in applications, was discovered in December 2021, the U.S. government urged users to take immediate countermeasures and warned of legal consequences if they did not. Russia actually exploited this vulnerability in its cyberattack on Ukraine.

The Japanese government has begun to build a system to forestall cyberattacks after drawing up a national security strategy to reinforce the country’s cyberdefenses. Businesses should also get serious about their defenses — or risk fresh attacks from hackers.

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