Unlike traditional cyberattacks, advanced persistent threats are often carried out by well-funded and highly skilled threat actors who use a range of techniques to gain and maintain access to a target’s network and data for an extended period of time. As the number of APT attacks continues to rise, businesses of all sizes need to understand the threat landscape and take steps to protect their networks and data against APTs.
In this blog post, we will explore APTs, how they work, the potential consequences of a successful APT attack, and best practices for preventing APTs.
What Is an Advanced Persistent Threat?
An Advanced Persistent Threat is a type of cyber attack or hacker organization that uses sophisticated attack vectors to launch and maintain long-term attacks against public and private organizations. These are typically carried out by a well-funded, highly skilled, and organized group of hackers with specific targets, often state-sponsored and associated with a government agency (tangentially or otherwise).
APTs are characterized by their ability to persistently and stealthily target a victim over a prolonged period, often to exfiltrate sensitive data or disrupt critical operations. APTs use sophisticated social engineering techniques, targeted malware, and other stealthy methods to access a victim’s network and maintain their presence undetected.
A defining aspect of any APT is the concept of “lateral movement,” where the organization uses access to gain escalated privileges that allow them to move successfully across connected systems. This points to one of the most threatening aspects of an APT–they can spend months, or even years, burrowing into It or cloud systems before they are detected.
What Are the Common Attack Vectors of an Advanced Persistent Threat?
APTs use a variety of attack vectors to gain access to their victims’ networks and maintain persistence over time. Here are some of the most common attack vectors used by APTs:
- Spear-Phishing: An APT isn’t usually interested in small-scale access or attacks. Therefore, they will often use targeted spear-phishing emails to trick high-ranking individuals within an organization into divulging sensitive information or downloading malware. This attack can expand into sophisticated social engineering like watering-hole attacks, Business Email Compromise (BEC), or vishing.
- Zero-day Exploits: Zero-days are vulnerabilities that have just been discovered and made public and have yet to receive a patch. APTs may use previously unknown software or operating system vulnerabilities or use unpatched hardware to access networked systems.
- Malware: APTs often use custom-built malware, such as remote access trojans (RATs) or keyloggers, to access a victim’s network and maintain persistence over time. These forms of malware will often present sophisticated challenges to administrators, using counter-detection mechanisms to hide their activities.
- Vendor Attacks: APTs may compromise a trusted vendor or supplier to gain access to their customers’ networks. Some of the most widely-known APT attacks have threatened cloud application infrastructure in a way that subsequently threatens hundreds, if not thousands, of users.
- Physical Access: In some cases, APTs may use physical access to a victim’s network, such as stealing devices, accessing data storage areas, or using extensive research to determine how to attack hardware connected to on-prem systems.
It’s worth noting that APTs often use a combination of these attack vectors and other techniques to carry out their attacks. This can make them extremely difficult to detect and defend against.
What Are Some Notable Advanced Persistent Threats?
There have been several high-profile examples of APTs in recent years.
- Elderwood Group: This APT was first discovered in 2009 and targeted multiple high-profile companies, including Google and Adobe, through a series of attacks known as Operation Aurora. The attackers used spear-phishing emails to gain initial access to their victims’ networks and then used a combination of custom malware and stolen credentials to move laterally and exfiltrate sensitive data.
- APT10: Also known as MenuPass and Stone Panda, this group is believed to be based in China. APT10, active since 2009, has targeted a wide range of industries, including aerospace, defense, and technology, and has been linked to a number of high-profile data breaches.
- FIN7: This APT group, also known as Blackcat, is believed to be based in Russia and has been active since at least 2015. FIN7 has targeted multiple US-based restaurant and hospitality companies, stealing millions of credit card records and selling them on the black market.
What Are Some of the Consequences of a Successful APT Attack?
APTs are at a different scale than typical hacks. They are purpose-built and organized to threaten large industries, public agencies, and massive tech companies with long-term data breaches.
The consequences of a successful APT attack can be severe and far-reaching. Here are some of the potential products of a successful APT attack:
- Financial Losses: APTs can result in significant financial losses for an organization. This can include direct losses from data theft or destruction, as well as indirect losses from downtime and lost productivity.
- Reputational Damage: A successful APT attack can result in significant reputational damage for an organization. This can include loss of customer trust, negative media coverage, and damage to brand reputation.
- Regulatory Damages: APTs will often come through a security hole that could have been filled with proper compliance. Following this, if an APT breach is due to non-compliance, the penalties can be severe, including heavy fines or loss of certification.
- Disruption: APT attacks can disrupt business operations through damage to IT systems or (as is increasingly common) complete lockout through installed ransomware.
- National Security: The integration of national agencies with private IT and cloud providers offers hackers several high-profile targets that, in turn, lead to access to government information. This is obviously a massive problem for businesses working in high-security environments like the Department of Defense supply chain.
What Are the Best Practices for Preventing APTs?
Preventing APT threats requires a comprehensive and multi-layered approach to security that doesn’t take for granted any threats, specific or general.
Some best practices that organizations can implement to reduce these risks include:
- Strong Access Controls: Use strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, and the principle of least privilege to strengthen security and minimize the damage a compromised account can cause.
- Patch Software and Firmware: Regularly patch software, operating systems, and device firmware to address well-known vulnerabilities and emerging zero-days.
- Implement Network Segmentation: Segregating networks from one another can minimize APT lateral movement, especially between user space and back-end infrastructure.
- Use Endpoint Security: Deploy endpoint security solutions, such as antivirus and endpoint detection and response tools, to detect and prevent malware infections.
- Conduct Regular Training: Educate employees about the risks of APTs and train them to identify and report suspicious activity.
- Follow Zero-Trust Principles: Design and deploy systems that do not, by default, trust users in any case. This means requiring repeated authentication and authorization as an account moves through system resources, monitoring internal and external network connections, and regularly auditing and scanning internal systems.
- Implement Robust Backups: Backups can help organizations impacted by an APT wipe and restore system resources and mitigate issues that arise from ransomware.
It’s important to note that APTs are highly sophisticated and well-funded attackers, so there is no silver bullet solution for preventing them. However, by implementing a multi-layered approach to security and following best practices, organizations can reduce their risk of falling victim to an APT attack.
Stay Ahead of APTs With Lazarus Alliance
APTs are the leading threat to large and small businesses in the twenty-first century. While there isn’t a one-shot prevention method, a commitment to regular security assessments, rigorous compliance adherence, and ongoing development of risk and mitigation strategies can minimize your attack surface.
How can you juggle all those responsibilities while still focusing on your business? Trust Lazarus Alliance.