All companies need to build up cyberdefenses to protect against the most rudimentary threats, such as malware and social engineering schemes. But as companies grow, they become more lucrative targets for cybercrime. This means large companies need to prepare their cyberdefenses for a more dangerous class of threats: advanced persistent threats (APTs). If you traffic in sensitive data, such as information critical to government operations, detecting APTs is essential. Read on to learn about advanced persistent threat detection.
What is Advanced Persistent Threat Detection?
Advanced persistent threats are some of the most complex, challenging, and critical elements for any cyberdefense system to address. Any effective mitigation strategy needs to start with monitoring for and detecting them. So, this guide will break down all you need to know about advanced persistent threats and how to detect and prevent them, including:
- What advanced persistent threats are, with several relevant examples
- Top detection methods for advanced persistent (and general) threats
- How and why to consider methods for prevention, beyond detection
By the end of this blog, you’ll be well equipped to detect and address all APTs impacting your company, whether on your own or with professional assistance.
What Exactly are Advanced Persistent Threats?
The Cybersecurity Model Maturity Certification (CMMC) framework defines an APT as “an adversary that possesses sophisticated levels of expertise and significant resources which allow it to create opportunities to achieve its objectives by using multiple attack vectors.” While this equates the APTs with the threat actors themselves, the security implications apply unilaterally across actors capable of APTs and the specific attack vectors they use to victimize targets.
These threats can be leveraged against any company, but they are most commonly associated with acts of espionage undertaken by governments or state-sponsored agencies. As a result, they are also most often leveraged against government agencies and their contractors. This is why detecting them is a critical component of the CMMC compliance, required for all Department of Defense (DoD) contractors who make up a majority of the broader Defense Industrial Base (DIB) sector.
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Advanced Persistent Threat Examples
Given their highly complex, multifaceted, and customized nature, there is no sufficient template for a single APT. However, some tactics common to many of them include but are not limited to:
- Social engineering attacks, such as spear phishing or whaling, in which attackers train their efforts on high-ranking targets with privileged security clearances or knowledge.
- The exploitation of commonly used, seemingly benevolent or neutral programs or files, such as Microsoft Word, to plant malicious files or programs in otherwise protected systems.
- Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks layered or staggered in such a way as to trigger chain reactions that render a normally secure system momentarily vulnerable.
- Viruses, malware, or other malicious programs written from a trial and error approach, utilizing reconnaissance intelligence from a sequence of attacks on the same systems.
In most cases, these strategies will be used simultaneously, often alongside many others. The biggest challenges in detecting APTs involve both the volume and severity of measures utilized.
Methods for APT and General Threat Detection
The single most effective method for detecting APTs is a robust, all-encompassing threat and vulnerability management program. This needs to include monitoring of all systems at regular intervals, first at a secure baseline and then when any irregularities are noticed. In addition, the system must have a built-in capacity to flag and analyze them to determine the qualities of all threats, which then enables labeling as an APT and appropriate mitigation efforts (see below).
A second quality nearly as critical as identifying the characteristics of an APT is determining the attribution of advanced persistent threats, or the actors who are responsible for them. This can be prohibitively difficult for the same reasons, especially hackers’ attempts at obscuring sources of attacks. However, once a methodology is developed to code individual attacks’ qualities, it can be optimized to assign a signature likely to indicate common authorship — the suspect.
The Managed Detection and Response Approach
A second approach to APT detection involves implementing a targeted managed detection and response (MDR) program. Rather than just passively scanning for risks, MDR should focus on:
- Threat detection – MDR scanners can be optimized with threat intelligence specific to APTs you have experienced or are likely to experience, prioritizing or focusing exclusively on them.
- Incident response – Similarly, MDR scanners can use their privileged position to flag individual threats as APTs swiftly, enabling the immediate deployment of response protocols.
- Root cause analysis – The MDR program can undergo or facilitate detailed research into the APT in real time to determine and exterminate its root causes or vulnerabilities.
- Regulatory compliance – Finally, MDR programs can communicate with regulatory assessment programs, ensuring seamless compliance continuity despite attacks.
Taken together, these focuses are similar in scope to a targeted approach to overall incident management, which we’ll cover below. However, what makes MDR especially apt for APT is that its capacities function simultaneously and continuously, and they can be trained on APT.
Preventing and Responding to APT Attacks
Advanced persistent threat detection is the first and most essential step toward the mitigation and elimination of these threats. But it is far from the last. Companies also need to respond to APT attacks as they occur and prevent them through incident management:
- Incidents must be identified as soon as possible, especially in the event of an APT attack.
- Then, they must be logged and tagged appropriately to facilitate all comparative analysis.
- A thorough investigation of incidents then leads to diagnosis as APT.
- Roles and resources for resolution must be assigned, then adjusted as needed.
- Resolution actions must resume until the APT attack is eradicated and reported on.
- Finally, resources must be assigned for residual compliance and continuity efforts.
APTs are known to have long-term, often obscured or misunderstood effects on a company. All efforts toward addressing an attack as it happens are preventative and reparative.
CMMC Based Best Practices for APT Prevention
As noted above, APTs are particularly common and dangerous for entities within or working with the government, especially the DoD. To that effect, the CMMC framework prescribes controls to prevent and address APTs. These constitute maturity levels four and five within the framework:
- CMMC Level 4 – Focused on shifting organizational focus onto APTs, Level 4 comprises 26 Practices that constitute “proactive” protections, along with a Process Maturity goal guaranteeing institution-wide review of all Practices.
- CMMC Level 5 – Focused on APT near exclusively, Level 5 comprises just 15 new practices, constituting “advanced/progressive” defenses, along with a Process goal that guarantees continuous, institution-wide “optimizing” of Practices.
The best way to integrate these and all other controls required for CMMC certification is to work with a Certified Third-Party Assessor Organization (C3PAO) like RSI Security. We offer a suite of CMMC compliance advisory services that cover even the most complex APT safeguards.
Manage Cybersecurity Threats with RSI Security
Before implementing any kind of APT prevention or mitigation strategy, you’ll need to ensure that you can detect and properly identify APT impacting your systems. As noted above, the best methods for advanced persistent threat detection involve risk management programs trained on APT specifically. Once identified, an incident management program or CMMC-required practices are the best ways to eliminate these threats. Contact RSI Security to get started immediately!
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