In the current cybercrime environment, hackers are utilizing new and increasingly advanced ways of infiltrating systems and stealing sensitive data. A rising number of cyberthieves are leveraging the advanced persistent targeted attack style, creating a heightened need to specifically protect against this security incident. APTs are different from other attack techniques, and therefore certain considerations must be made in order to ensure that the system is not infiltrated in this manner and sensitive data is continually safeguarded.
What is an advanced persistent threat attack and who is at risk?
Before examining the protection measures that should be taken to prevent APTs, users and decision-makers should understand what this style of attack entails. The process connected with APTs differs from other hacking techniques, especially due to the number of steps this kind of infiltration requires.
According to Trend Micro, there are six phases involved with APT attacks, the first of which being intelligence gathering. During this step, cybercriminals leverage public information from well-known resources like social media sites to identify specific targets and get some background on the individual or company. They will then utilize this information to develop a customized attack, aiming at the specific weaknesses of the victim.
Next, attackers create a point of entry from which they can launch the advanced persistent threat and steal sensitive data. More often than not, a zero-day malware sample is used to initially compromise the system. This infection can come through email, instant message or drive-by download, but the result is the same: Hackers create a backdoor for network infiltration.
Once cybercriminals have broken into the system, they utilize command and control communication to direct the malware infection. This allows the hackers to further exploit infected machines and move throughout the network. Through C&C communication, attackers can move laterally to establish and maintain persistent control of the network.
Then, the cyberthieves leverage a range of different approaches, including port scanning, to highlight the servers with the most sensitive data, thereby establishing their theft blueprint. From here, the hackers can gather this information and send it to an internal staging server where the stolen content is compressed and encrypted. It can then be transmitted to other, more secure locations under the cybercriminals’ control.
Fire Eye noted that APTs have affected organizations in several industries, including federal governments, healthcare groups, financial service providers and utility companies. Hackers also target those in the telecommunications, manufacturing and technology sectors.
How can APTs be prevented?
Although APT attacks can seem impossible to prevent due to their detailed, multi-phase nature, Computer Weekly contributor Warwick Ashford noted that when each infiltration technique is examined by itself, organizations can better prepare to defend against each one.
“Although some APTs…target zero-day vulnerabilities and most are highly targeted, what usually makes these threats ‘advanced’ is that they combine a raft of infiltration techniques,” Ashford wrote. “But taken individually, these technique are typically well-known and easy to defend against.”
Many experts, including Betfair’s head of threat management Ionut Ionescu, advise the use of security best practices to guard against APTs. This includes ensuring that all security patches are installed and systems are as up to date as possible. Companies should regularly test their existing protection measures to make sure they function as they should. Additionally, organizations should have a vulnerability management system in place to guarantee a quick response and immediate mitigation of any system attacks.
However, one of the best ways to ensure a defense against APTs is to understand what content is top priority for protection. During the infection process, attackers take considerable time to cherry-pick the information that will be the most rewarding for the infiltration. Therefore, business leaders should also take time to identify the most sensitive and profitable data and put safeguards in place to protect these materials specifically.
“Without that, the security controls will concentrate on the easy picks, rather than where it actually matters,” said Vladimir Jirasek, Cloud Security Alliance UK and Ireland communications director. “Good documentation, impact assessments and risk assessments are rather important here.”
Overall, TechTarget enterprise compliance contributor Mike Chapple noted that a multi-level security program is first-rate for prevent APT infiltration.
“The tried-and-true approach of implementing a layered series of controls to achieve defense-in-depth network security is the best way to protect an enterprise network against APTs,” Chapple wrote.