APT (Advanced Persistent Threat)

What is APT

Even though an increasing number of organizations are taking preventative measures against cybercrime, many individuals remain unaware of the importance of these precautions. Furthermore, some people think that they only need to protect themselves from viruses and worms when, in reality, hacktivists present a much more significant threat. Many companies know how to defend themselves against traditional social media threats; however, the same old techniques will not work against today’s sophisticated dangers. The bottom line is that ‘the way we’ve always done things is no longer effective.

The APT is unlike any other problem. If a company isn’t conscious of the issue, it will be unable to resolve it. We’ll go through the issue and how a company must use a comprehensive, adaptable approach to address it.

It’s interesting to note that although organizations spend more money than ever on security, they’re still being compromised. In the past, increased security budgets led to fewer compromises, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

The problem is that the threat has changed, yet the company’s security plan has not. While traditional threats must be dealt with, companies now face a new adversary: the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT).

The APT is a well-resourced, highly motivated group that has attacked government and commercial targets. The term was coined to identify Chinese-related assaults on US military bases.

Advanced persistent threats (APTs) are secretive, targeted, and data-focused. Advanced threats, sometimes known as advanced persistent threats, are concerned with sensitive data that is illicitly extracted. APT is a specific attack that aims to establish a long-term network presence by being covert, targeted, and data-focused. Because traditional worms or viruses are noisy and random, they are not considered APTs.

APT1 and APT2 are two of the most sophisticated computer-based attacks against businesses, according to Kaspersky. They’re organized teams with a clear objective: to acquire a specific piece of data right now and maintain long-term access so they can steal data at will in the future. Because they adapt their strategies on the fly, targeting people as entry points and covering tracks meticulously, many standard security techniques fail to work against them.

Advanced persistent threat (APT)

How does an APT attack work?

The stages of a typical APT attack are:

  1. Intelligence Gathering: An APT campaign aims to get access to a network so you can install malware. Phishing emails, malware attachments, and software bugs are all used to do this. Even though the network has been compromised at this stage, it hasn’t been broken into yet.
  2. Point of Entry: The next stage is to find a way into the system so the malware can be installed. Once again, this is done using phishing emails and software vulnerabilities.
  3. C & C Server: The attackers need a way to communicate with the malware they’ve installed, so they set up a command and control server. It is usually done using an IP address registered in another country.
  4. Lateral Movement: Once the attackers have access to one machine on the network, they’ll try to move laterally to others. They do this by exploiting software vulnerabilities and using stolen credentials.
  5. Data Transfer:  This is the stage where data is exfiltrated. The attackers will try to avoid detection by compressing and encrypting the data before sending it out.
  6. Cover-Up: The last stage is to cover their tracks so they can’t be traced. The attackers might delete files, disable logging, or use other means to make it challenging to find out what happened.

How to execute effective security against the advanced threats

We’ve come to a turning point in security when organizations must accept that they will be hacked. It’s also fair to suppose that any critical systems linked to a network and then exposed to the Internet have already been compromised.

There are no assurances that any organization is free from the threat. It’s good for an organization to hope they won’t be hacked, but it makes sense to have detection precautions in place just in case. And when a breach occurs, it can be detected as soon as possible.

It is crucial to find the problem quickly, so it does not happen again.

Our top priority is to keep our company floating, and the best way to do that is by detecting data breaches early on and reacting quickly to minimize the damage. Unfortunately, recent events have shown that companies are not doing enough to detect these compromises.

Understanding the risks

Businesses should maintain the same level of caution regarding security as we do in our everyday lives. Would you eat a candy bar off the ground that someone else had already taken a bite of? Of course not! In the same way, businesses shouldn’t take unnecessary risks where they don’t know what could happen or how things could end up.

Unfortunately, when it comes to cyber security, those same common sense concepts haven’t been instilled. It is just as risky to pick up and use a USB stick dropped on the ground as it is to eat food off the floor. However, most people have not been taught not to do the latter since childhood.

There is a significant gap between how people regard physical injury and cyber threats. And it is essential to educate people about the dangers in the digital world.

Focus on the organization’s vulnerabilities

We naturally focus on those threats that have the best chance of being exploited and inflicting a significant impact. Ten major vulnerabilities are easier to fix than 100 minor ones. Instead of concentrating on fixing one vulnerability at a time until it’s gone, many organizations make this mistake and hyperfocus on repairing one until it’s fixed, rather than reducing many risks simultaneously.

This myopic vision creates a false sense of security and gives CISOs the impression that they’re doing their jobs when, in reality, they’re only making marginal improvements.

Additionally, when an organization’s security is breached, it’s not just the CISO’s job on the line. The whole company’s reputation is at stake. So, everyone in the organization needs to be up-to-date on the latest security threats.

And finally, even if a company has cyber security insurance, it’s still not enough. The average data breach cost is $3.86 million, and that’s just the average! The total cost could be much higher depending on the size of the company and the type of data stolen.

Cyber security insurance only covers a fraction of the total cost, and it doesn’t contribute to improving the company’s security posture. So, even if a company has insurance, it’s still in its best interest to do everything it can to prevent a breach from happening in the first place.

Reduce attack surface

One of the critical areas of preventing APT threats is reducing the attack surface or removing extraneous components that are not being used. Good hardening procedures and solid configuration management is the key to success.

Open ports and scripts can make an organization vulnerable to security breaches. If these services are hacked, the consequences might be disastrous. However, if an organization is using services, not for legitimate purposes and those services are compromised, you have every right to be concerned.

Many successful APT assaults have taken advantage of enabled capabilities but are not used for practical purposes.

Organizations can improve their security by reducing the number of software, applications, and systems features. Fewer features mean fewer opportunities for attackers to find a way in.

Be aware of HTML-embedded email content

Organizations that use HTML-embedded content in their email are more susceptible to spear phishing attacks from APTs. While some people take advantage of the HTML features in the email to play with colors and backgrounds or embed content, most businesses don’t require HTML for their day-to-day operations.

Sometimes people send you emails with links in them. People might click on the link, thinking it will take them where they want to go. But cybercriminals have found a way to hide the real destination in the code of the email. 

If organizations turned off HTML email, many spear phishing attacks would be stopped.

Raise awareness of users

The usual rule is that you can’t stop stupid but can influence. Many dangers enter a network by fraudulent means, such as enticing the user to open an attachment or click a link they should not. Sessions may go a long way toward lowering overall exposure by restricting the actions a user is allowed to perform with appropriate awareness.

Conduct behavior ranking

Often, sophisticated attackers use common tactics to figure out whether something is secure or not. Even though this method isn’t very reliable, it’s still widely used by innumerable assailants.

Attackers want to go undetected, so you need to be careful about what actions they take. Many attackers try to look like normal traffic. They do this so they can get past security without being noticed. But once they’re inside, they show their true intentions. So you need to watch out for certain types of behavior and figure out if it looks more like a regular user or someone with evil motives.

Create a sandboxing environment

A sandbox is an isolated testing environment that enables users to run programs or execute files without affecting the rest of the system.

A typical business environment has many users who need access to different applications and data. However, not all users require access to all applications and data. Most users only need access to a small subset of the applications and data.

By creating a sandbox environment, businesses can limit the amount of data and applications users can access. This will minimize the chances of a data breach and reduce the impact if a breach does occur.

In addition, sandboxing can also help to prevent malware from spreading. If a user opens a file that contains malware, the malware will be isolated in the sandbox and will not be able to infect the rest of the system.

Implement least privilege

The least privilege is a security principle that states that users should only be given the minimum level of access necessary to perform their job.

For example, users should not be given editing access if they only need to read data from a database. By restricting users to the minimum necessary access level, businesses can reduce the chances of a data breach.

In addition, businesses should also consider implementing the least privilege for applications. If an application only needs to read data from a database, it should not be given write access. By restricting applications to the minimum necessary access level, businesses can further reduce the chances of a data breach.

Secure network’s outbound traffic

Since outbound traffic is more likely to contain data stolen from a network, monitoring it is even more critical. By looking at outbound traffic, you can identify any unusual activity and take steps to prevent your company from being harmed.

Understand how the offense operates

To protect your organization from APT attacks, you must understand how the attacks work. To prepare your defences, you must also stay up-to-date on the latest attack methods.

Control the endpoint

Attackers may enter a network through an endpoint, but their goal is usually to steal data. If you want to protect your data and minimize the impact of an attack, focus on securing and monitoring the endpoint.

Organizations can use many different techniques to control the endpoint. One common method is to require two-factor authentication for all users. TFA ensures that only authorized users can access the data.

Another method is to use application whitelisting. This technique allows only approved applications to run on an endpoint. By controlling what applications are allowed to run, you can reduce the risk of an attack.

Monitoring tools can also be used to control the endpoint. These tools can help you detect and respond to suspicious activity.

Implement a data classification system

You must have a suitable data classification procedure to protect your company from APTs. This means knowing which information is sensitive enough to require protection. One of the problems with APTs is that they constantly try to steal data from your organization. You can’t stop everything from leaving your company, but having a good data classification procedure will help you defend yourself against these attacks.

The best way to store your data is on an Internet-based storage network. This storage network is very secure and will help keep your data safe. It is also important to only allow necessary information to leave the company so that sensitive data does not leak.

If you have two files, one public knowledge and the other confidential, the confidential file is at a greater risk because people might not know it is secret. An organization can now regulate and manage the flow of information with a data loss prevention (DLP) solution that is closely linked with digital rights management (DRM).

There are several steps in a good data classification procedure:

1. Determinate the administrator

2. Specify the types of data

3. Categorize the data

4. Set security controls

5. Train employees on the procedure

6. Monitor and review the procedure

3. Determine the value of the data

4. Classify the data

5. Create a policy

6. Train employees

7. Enforce the policy

8. Monitor compliance

A data classification procedure is an essential part of any security plan. By implementing a classification procedure, you can help protect your company from APTs.

Cyber security is crucial. Organizations will keep getting hacked, but that doesn’t mean we lose the fight. 

We can’t always stop every attack, but by being prepared and diligent, we can limit the amount of damage that can be done.

Natalie Werner
Natalie Werner is a freelance writer, CISSP & CCSK Certified Cybersecurity specialist with over 20 years of experience in the banking industry. She's also co-founder and CEO at The Alliance for Cyber Security Excellence (The ACE), an international not -for profit organization that provides cyber security solutions to reduce risk exposure from threats like hacks or malware infections by bringing together trusted experts across various fields, including information technology (IT). As well as providing specialized operational courses on how to maintain your digital assets within IT domains such data protection, Natalie offers strategic training designed help organizations better understand their own business needs when it comes down to protecting against external risks brought about through technological advances

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