In an instant, an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) can destroy a company by gaining access to vulnerable corporate and client information. It may take years to build a company from the ground up. But it will only require a minute to bring it crashing to the ground.
Advanced Persistent Threats are incessant, secretive, and sophisticated hacking attacks that target vital digital information and data. Cybersecurity professionals have to be on top of these threats because they continually improve, improvise and evolve.
Profile of an Advanced Persistent Threat
An Advanced Persistent Threat attempts to infiltrate a target computer network and remain undetected for a long time. They have specific goals and specified targets.
It is essential to study the etymology of APT to understand its dangers fully.
They are not minor leaguers. Most APT attackers have professional pedigrees and capabilities. They also have an arsenal of intelligence-gathering weapons at their fingertips.
These technologies include open-source computer intrusion techniques, malware from improvised construction kits, and other exploit materials. Depending on their digital prey’s complexity, they can combine multiple targeting methods to breach computer defenses as they see fit.
As advanced attackers, they have a specific focus on operational security. They mean business in their shadowy pursuits and must receive countermeasures that are of the utmost urgency.
These attackers do not back down easily. They have the intense focus to achieve their goals to access vital information. Their targeting measures run through continuous monitoring. Contrary to usual perceptions of cybercriminals, the APT perpetrators don’t typically employ a barrage of attacks. They have preferred the low and slow approach. They intend to have long-term access to the target instead of a single event hacking.
If the attackers lose access to the digital prey, they do not quit, and they persist by reattempting access.
These attackers are not playing around. They not only have the capability; they also have the most critical aspect of causing harm: intent.
More than their dangerous strings of automated code, APT perpetrators have coordinated actions to accomplish their objectives. The danger is great because of their ill combination of motivation, skill, and funding.
Stages of an Advanced Persistent Threat
Stage One: Access Establishment
It all starts with the entry attempt. Like traditional burglars who use crowbars to pry open locked doors, APT attackers begin by finding cracks in digital defenses to gain access. The typical means include an infected trojan horse file, junk email, or a vulnerability that malware can exploit.
This is the phase of compromise, but at this point, the target network has no breach yet.
Stage Two: Foothold Strengthening
Once there is an entry within the network, APT attackers intend to stay there. They work on establishing their unwelcome presence by implanting malware within the system, creating a complicated web of tunnels and backdoors so that they can move around undetected.
The malware rewrites codes to help the APT attackers cover their footprints and tracks. It probes additional vulnerable routes or communicates with command-and-control (CnC) servers to receive additional malicious codes.
Stage Three: Presence Deepening
Moving stealthily within the network is not enough for APT attackers. For maximum longevity, they strive to gain access to administrator rights by using password cracking techniques. These moves help them gain more control of the system for a more comprehensive level of access.
Once they have reliable network access, they gather their target data which usually comprise passwords and account names. Encryption is not sufficient protection once they have deep access similar to this.
Stage Four: Lateral Movement
When the APT attackers can move at will, they will move to other compartments and departments to access different servers and secure databases. With the help of malware, they collect data on a staging server then exfiltrate the data off the network. The APT attacker has complete control of the data, and the network is suffering a breach at this point.
Stage Five: Deep Penetration
With complete control of their network infestation, APT attackers seek more understanding of the system they are in by harvesting more information at will. They keep this process on an indefinite loop or once they accomplish their objectives.
But APT attackers do not become content with this breach. They remove evidence of the APT attack and leave a backdoor for future access.
A Similar Kill Chain
An Advanced Persistent Threat from China became the topic of research by Mandiant in 2013. It followed the same life cycle as previous iterations. It was able to keep up its illegal activities between 2004 and 2013.
To compare the integrity of these attacks with previous instances of APT, we will break down the findings of the research as to the life cycle of the attacks:
The APT attackers performed devious methods of spear-phishing over email and social engineering. They also used malware planted on websites that target employees are likely to visit.
The APT perpetrators planted remote administration software within the victim’s network that created tunnels and backdoors for stealth access to the digital infrastructure.
The digital suspects used password cracking mechanisms and exploits to gain administrator privileges over the victim’s computer. It expanded to domain administrator accounts in Microsoft Windows.
The cybercriminals collected information on trust relationships and surrounding infrastructure within the Windows domain structure.
The APT attackers expanded their reach by controlling other servers, workstations, and infrastructure elements. They also performed data harvesting.
The attackers ensured that they would retain control of access channels and the credentials for these unauthorized entries.
With the vital information in their possession, they exfiltrated the stolen data from the victim’s network.
The Human Aspect of APT
Corporate cyber defenses improved the sophistication of their countermeasures against Advanced Persistent Threats. But there is an essential aspect of a system that cannot fall under predictive planning — the human element.
One of the most effective tactics of the APT attackers is to involve someone working from inside the system. It doesn’t mean that the insider is knowingly participating. Using a wide variety of devious strategies, attackers acquire the participation of target personnel. The importance of training is most apparent in this aspect.
Dubious strategies that APT attackers use typically revolve around two options: phishing and whaling.
In phishing, cybercriminals weaponize a disguised email to trick the recipient that the message is essential. The email content has a call to action that tries to convince the victim that it is urgent. It can come in the form of a bank request or a memorandum from the company itself.
The email will contain a link to click or an attachment to download. Without the presence of mind or critical thinking, an unknowing victim can fall for their deception. The email messaging takes on a reliable tool and may even contain images and logos that appear legitimate.
Phishing is one of the oldest varieties of cyberattacks hailing from the 1990s. But it can still fool people, and its overall effectiveness prompted cybercriminals to integrate it with more modern cyber attacks.
Whaling takes on a similar tone to phishing, but the significant difference is that the messaging makes it appear that the source is a senior leader in an organization.
Dubbed as CEO fraud, whaling is a tactic of stealing sensitive information and gaining unauthorized access to computer networks for criminal gain.
How to Prevent Advanced Persistent Threat
There are no surefire solutions, but advanced persistent threats are not unbeatable. With comprehensive planning and multiple security layers, there are ways to mitigate and prevent their cybercriminal activities.
As the first layer of defense against cybercriminals, firewalls can protect software, hardware, and even cloud infrastructure. There are even firewalls for web applications that can inspect HTTP traffic.
Antivirus programs are not the all-encompassing shield that companies may want them to be. But they are efficiently effective when combined with other mitigation measures against Advanced Persistent Threats. When an antivirus program has access to its real-time online database, it can detect, chart, and eliminate new threats, malware, viruses, and trojans.
Intrusion Prevention Systems
Intrusion prevention systems (IPS) are essential IT services that can monitor a digital environment for unusual behavior or malicious code. Countermeasures such as these can recognize network compromises before they can evolve into a breach. Prevention is better than cure.
Before an unknown program finds integration within a network, it is best to check how it will fare in a sandbox. A secure virtual environment such as a sandbox is a safe place to try a program or set of codes without any unnecessary risks to the operating system.
If the program or file turns out to be infected, it is easier to quarantine and remove it before it can cause any further infections.
Virtual Private Network
There are access points within a vulnerable network, and APT attackers can detect how a shark can smell blood in the water. A virtual private network (VPN) can provide additional protection for personnel in an organization.
Remote access risks such as a wifi hotspot can provide an opening for APT hackers. A VPN helps secure a safe and restricted space for authorized personnel to access vital data without fear of an Advanced Persistent Threat.
As one of the most vulnerable platforms that APT attackers exploit, an organization’s email service must receive effective defense and protection. With cybercriminals employing tried and tested infiltration methods such as phishing, there is much urgency to use malware and spam protection for email applications.
More than securing the hardware and software, personnel education should take precedence. The lack of training of employees in the face of an Advanced Persistent Threat can prove very harmful in the long run. Awareness against email attacks and phishing will go a long way to maintain the digital environment’s integrity.
Typical Targets of APT
With such intent for sustained espionage and sabotage of vital corporate data, APT attackers are not looking for slim pickings. They want to acquire significant gains with the sensitive information that they are stealing. These high stakes lead them to go for high-value targets such as the following:
- The Nation States and vital information that can cause destabilization
- Large Corporations with access to specific intellectual property such as trade secrets, designs, patents, and processes
- Personally Identifiable Information (PII) that can be used for identity theft
- Access credentials for highly significant agencies, operations, and infrastructure
However, it doesn’t mean APT attackers are limited to big-game hunting only. They can also feast on lower-level targets such as small and medium-sized businesses, especially on entities that are emerging as success stories.
These cybercriminals can also use these smaller companies as a gateway to reach larger organizations if these small companies form a vital supply chain. In a way, they can be targets that are stepping stones.
Professional Assistance to Offset Advanced Persistent Threats
RSI Security offers a comprehensive roadmap of success to intervene, manage and neutralize Advanced Persistent Threats successfully. Our extensive track record of assisting companies to protect their vital information from dangerous security risks speaks for itself. We can help combat APT attackers and bolster the defense of your organization.
For this purpose, RSI Security is a CMMC-AB Registered Provider Organization with a sterling team of CMMC-AB Registered Practitioners. The Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) is a new cybersecurity compliance stipulation for existing Department of Defense (DoD) contractors, replacing the existing self-assessment model. Third-party certification is a crucial component of compliance already.
With so much at stake, the protection of vital corporate data and strengthening of organizational cyber defense must be a priority. Partner with RSI Security, and we will help chart the best practices that will guide your organization to a successful defense.