Many security professionals would like to know what is the motivation behind cyberattacks? How much do hackers earn? What actually motivates hackers to attack a particular organization? How long do hackers try before giving up and moving on, and how profitable is cybercrime for the average hacker?

A recent survey commissioned by Palo Alto Networks provides some answers to these questions and offers some insight into the minds of hackers. The results of the survey suggest that cybercrime is not as profitable as many people think. In fact, “the big payday” is actually something of a myth, certainly for the majority of hackers.

There is a common misconception that cyber attackers are tirelessly working to breach the defenses of organizations and are raking in millions from successful attacks; however, the survey results indicate otherwise.

The Ponemon Institute asked 304 threat experts their opinions on the motivation behind cyberattacks, the money that can be made, the time invested by hackers, and how attackers choose their targets.

The respondents, based in Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, were all involved in the threat community to varying degrees. 79% of respondents claimed to be involved in the threat community, with 21% of respondents saying they were “very involved.”

What is the motivation behind cyberattacks?

The study cast some light on what is the motivation behind cyberattacks, as well as offering some important insights into the minds of hackers. There is a threat from hacktivists and saboteurs but, in the majority of cases, attackers are not intent on causing harm to organizations. The majority of cybercriminals are in it for the money. The motivation behind 67% of cybercrime is money.

However, in the majority of cases, it would appear that there is not actually that much money to be made. If hackers were to find employment as security professionals and use their skills to protect networks from hackers, they would likely earn a salary four times as high, and they would get sick pay, holiday pay, and medical/dental insurance.

How much do hackers earn?

Anyone interested in how much hackers earn may be surprised to find out it is not actually that much. The study determined that a technically proficient hacker would be able to conduct just over 8 cyberattacks per year, and an average of 41% of those attacks would not result in the attacker receiving any compensation.

The profits from cybercrime were found to be fairly constant regardless of where the criminals were based. In the United States a single cyberattack netted the perpetrator an average of $15,638. In the United Kingdom attackers earned an average of $12,324, and in Germany it was $14,983.

So how much to hackers earn? Take away the cost of the toolkits they purchase – an average of $1,367 – and the Ponemon institute calculated the average earnings for a cyber attacker to be in the region of $28,744 per year. That figure was based on 705 hours spent “on the job” – around 13.5 hours per week. While it is clear that some hackers earn considerably more, the average hacker would be better off getting a real job. IT security practitioners earn 38.8% more per hour.

How can the survey data be used to prevent cyberattacks?

The survey probed respondents to find out how determined hackers were at breaching the defenses of companies. Surprisingly, it would appear that even if the potential prize is big, hackers tend not to spend a great deal of their time on attacks before moving on to easier targets.

72% of hackers are opportunistic and 69% of hackers would quit an attack if a company’s defenses were discovered to be strong. Ponemon determined that an attack on a typical IT security infrastructure took around 70 hours to plan and execute, whereas a company with an excellent infrastructure would take around 147 hours.

However, if a company can resist an attack for 40 hours (less than two days) 60% of attackers would move on to an easier target. Cybercriminals will not waste their time attacking organizations that make it particularly difficult to obtain data. There are plenty of much easier targets to attack.

Install complex, multi-layered defenses and use honeypots to waste hackers’ time. Make it unprofitable for attackers and in the majority of cases attackers will give up and move on to easier targets.