Guide Types of Attacks

Advanced Persistent Threats (APT): 5 Ways to Identify an APT Attack

Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) Why you should know about them

Advanced Persistent Threats (APT): 5 Ways to Identify an APT Attack

We have seen how Iranian, Chinese, Russian, and North Korean nation-state actors and other sponsored groups have targeted critical infrastructure organizations, causing massive disruption in operations and costing millions of dollars.

They are a testament to how highly complex and dangerous cyber-attacks can be.  All of them share one thing in common. They were all the advanced persistent threats targeted towards organizations that are massive in size.

Since modern organizations deploy highly robust security solutions, cyber attackers spend more time evaluating their targets and use advanced tools to maintain their foothold through automation.

It is what makes advanced persistent threats dangerous.  

What are APT attacks?

APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) attack is a type of cyber-attack, usually undertaken by a highly skilled attacker or a group of highly skilled cyber attackers who are very specific about their targets. They would persistently carry out their attack for a long time without being undetected by the security. It is a kind of attack planned very specifically, occurring in multiple stages. The APT group that engages in an attack is usually sponsored quite well so they never shy away from using highly sophisticated tools and techniques. Let us look at some of the ways through which we can identify an APT attack:   

5 ways to Identify an APT Attack in 

The following are the different characteristics of an APT attack:  

1. APT attacks are always long-term

An APT attack is always highly planned with a very specific target with attackers being very persistent with a proficiency in remaining undetected by the status quo cyber defenses. 

2. APT groups are usually state-sponsored actors 

APT groups always use the most sophisticated tools in their attack because in most cases they are sponsored by state actors to serve a political agenda.

3. They use sophisticated tools  

Since APT attackers and groups are heavily sponsored by the state that is why they can put the most sophisticated and expensive tools in their arsenal.

4. Always utilizes sophisticated social engineering techniques 

APT groups are quite good with social engineering techniques relying on highly specific techniques like spear phishing to lure their victims into giving away their sensitive information. 

5. Planned strategized and carried out in stages 

APT attacks are always meticulously planned from start to finish. They spend a great deal of time studying their targets and plan the entire attack in stages from reconnaissance to data exfiltration.

APT attack examples

The recent state-sponsored Chinese APT group known as BlackTech targeted multiple critical government organizations like defense, electronics, telecom, and others. The attackers targeted Cisco routers and replaced their firmware with malicious ones that were tailored to steal their IP addresses. Once they gained the foothold of their target network, they evaded detection like netcat shells, secure shell protocol, and remote desktop protocols. Then they gained admin-level access privileges obtained from vulnerable network routers. Upon establishing their position, they engaged in data exfiltration, transmitting some of the most sensitive government data.   

Some facts

  • Over 90% of APT groups at the initial access use phishing.   
  • More than 48% of the APT groups use penetration-testing tools  
  • 21.6% of all APT attacks are aimed at the Government sector  
  • Around 59% of cybersecurity teams are understaffed to defend against an APT attack 

Stages of APT attacks 

Now you must be wondering what makes APT attacks more dangerous than any other attacks. The primary answer to this is that What makes them successful? A typical APT attack comprises of the following stages: 

1. Reconnaissance 

In the first stage of an APT attack, attackers spend considerable time studying the way their target has set up security. It includes a collection of all the information available on their targets, publicly on the system’s IT infrastructure. It may include information such as DHP HCP, internal IP address ranges, and other exploitable ports and services to be captured. In short, all information that an attacker needs to orchestrate an attack.   

2. Initial compromise – Access  

Based on the previous step, they try to narrow down their point of entry by studying their defenses in place all the known attack signatures. In most cases, they try to approach the target through social engineering, specifically phishing mail that would distribute a malicious payload to their victim through the exploitation of zero-day vulnerability. The malicious payload is usually a backdoor Trojan to establish long-term access. They engage in multiple attack techniques to gain access such as remote file inclusion, Cross-site scripting, Domain Name System, and the most used attack technique, DDoS.   

3. Persistence, foothold establishment & privilege escalation

Once the attackers gain access to the network, they look for security loopholes like zero-day vulnerabilities and persist to maintain their foothold in the network. They try to gain deeper access and control of the systems, covertly engaging in attacks like brute force to gain admin-level access to key high-value targets. They keep studying the network to establish a strong position while being undetected.  When they gain a better position with more privileged access all the while being undetected, they create more entry and exit points.  They engage in lateral movement across the network executing in multiple covert methods to gain deeper access. 

4. Data exfiltration, disruption and exit  

They remain hidden through stealth and detection prevention mechanisms, fulfilling their primary objective to access sensitive assets like company secrets, personal information of employees, prototypes, access to financial information, political information, etc. Then, they engage in a full-blown attack that causes disruption of operations in organizations that are critical infrastructure organizations. Many APT groups are state-sponsored and aimed at disrupting the operations of critical infrastructure organizations. These attacks are carried out at a national level where cybercriminals engage in data exfiltration of politically sensitive data such as state secrets, war plans, etc. After they are done collecting the data and all the necessary information on their target, they engage in executing their exit strategy, using the backdoor or exits they established.   

What is the main goal of APT attacks?

The main goal of an APT attack is usually getting hold of sensitive data of the target organizations – trade secrets, defense plans, state secrets, and sensitive personal and financial information of its users.  If an APT attacker is state-sponsored, they might aim specifically for data that serves the political objectives.   

How to be secure against APT attacks 

Although there aren’t any sure shot ways through which you can secure yourself from APT attack, here are some proactive measures that you can take to secure your business from an APT attack:  

Know where your data is

The most critical step to secure against an APT attack is to keep track of where your data is stored, processed, and exchanged to secure it. The next thing to do is to implement best practices for data security and round-the-clock security monitoring.   

Periodically assess your cybersecurity posture  

It is always beneficial to proactively assess your cybersecurity posture from time to time to address security vulnerabilities that could be exploitable in a cyber-attack. It also helps in identifying and implementing proactive measures for security.   

Deploy User Entity and Behavior Analytics 

One of the best ways to secure your IT infrastructure against APT attacks is to deploy User Entity and Behavior Analytics which continuously monitors the environment for any suspicious user activity and responds immediately.   

SharkStriker’s solution to defend & prepare against APT attacks 

 STRIEGO – a single-stop solution against APT attacks   

STRIEGO is a unified open-architecture, multi-tenant security platform by SharkStriker. It blends easily with your IT infrastructure, offering a single-stop solution against sophisticated attacks like APT. With features like Extended SIEM, it empowers your security teams with extended visibility and ML-based automated response to suspicious user activity, suspending them before they escalate into something serious.   

It helps you augment your cybersecurity posture with the best practices in security with STRIEGO’s CIS benchmark-based assessments. We offer a round-the-clock team that helps you make most of your existing security solutions through MITRE ATT&CK recommended security configurations and rules optimization against all the reported APT attacker behavior and TTP. With deception technology it helps you catch suspicious perpetrators through real-world breadcrumbs that are made to lure modern-day attackers to honeypot assets, preventing them from getting hold of all your most precious information assets.  There is more to STRIEGO, discover this revolutionary platform here. 

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