NEW YORK: Iconic US brands are at risk from online attack by hackers sponsored by belligerent foreign governments according to security experts, who warn that brands rather than federal agencies are increasingly the focus of such aggression.

Robert Herjavec, founder of IT security firm The Herjavec Group, told AdWeek that companies which symbolised the US on the global stage were most at risk. "The higher profile your brand, the more value it carries and the bigger a target it is," he said.

"In the last 24 months, we've been seeing an absolute surge of state-sponsored cyber attacks," he added. "We're no longer dealing with individuals who want to steal your money, we're dealing with foreign national governments that want to hurt America." On his figures, just 40% of computer attacks are financially motivated.

The hands of China and Russia have been seen behind cyber attacks – one of the reasons Congress was reluctant to allow Chinese telecoms business Huawei to build digital networks in the US. FBI director James Comey recently said there were two kinds of big companies in the US: "those who've been hacked by the Chinese and those who don't know they've been hacked by the Chinese".

A list of brands which have experienced high-profile security breaches of some sort in recent months includes Neiman Marcus, Home Depot, Dairy Queen, Target and Kmart. And research from cyber security firm Trustwave suggests that large retail brands account for almost half of hacking targets.

With brand reputation on the line, and consumers more aware of the value of their personal information, marketers have no option but to factor security issues into their strategy.

Home Depot, for example, took a $34m hit from a data breach in September that affected 56m credit and debit cards, and while it did not expect profits to be significantly affected, it was facing potential costs in the form of liabilities to payment card networks for reimbursements of credit card fraud and card reissuance costs, as well as liabilities from current and future civil litigation, governmental investigations and enforcement proceedings. 

Data sourced from AdWeek, CBS News, ABC News; additional content by Warc staff