What is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)?

What is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)

APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats) are long-term cyber attacks carried out by nation states and corporate-backed groups which involve sophisticated hackers using sophisticated software to gain entry to IT systems and steal private information for theft or disruption – sometimes for months at a time, undetected.

To detect an APT attack, watch for unusually large data flows that move quickly throughout your network and unexpected employee log-ins late at night – this may indicate attempts by cyber criminals to gain entry.

What is an Advanced Persistent Threat?

An advanced persistent threat (APT) is a type of cyberattack which allows attackers to gain entry to a company network and remain inside for extended periods. Such attacks often feature human decision makers with specific objectives in mind such as gathering information for financial, political or other purposes.

An Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) attack aims to steal data, which they do by infiltrating company networks without detection and hacking into different systems – often without being detected until after some time has passed – then extracting it continuously. An APT is much harder to spot due to remaining hidden for longer; one telltale sign could be finding large, unexpected flows of data – like discovering bundles that should never exist there in places they wouldn’t usually appear.

Attacks by advanced persistent threats (APTs) can have various motivations, from nation states seeking intelligence for strategic purposes to organized crime groups seeking data for financial gains. No matter their intent, companies of all sizes must implement robust security measures against these threats in order to keep themselves secure from these dangers.

APT Detection and Protection Measures

APTs differ from traditional malware and phishing attacks in that they are carefully tailored to infiltrate specific companies or organizations, often going undetected for months or even years before becoming known to anyone.

To identify APTs, cybersecurity teams require visibility across their entire IT environment – networks, endpoints and internal traffic – in order to monitor behavior over time and detect subtle shifts that indicate potential attacks. They must correlate activities that take place simultaneously in order to uncover an attack’s full plan and block it immediately.

APT attacks employ numerous tactics to gain initial access, such as spear phishing, DDoS attacks, social engineering techniques and others. Once inside, APT attackers use backdoor shells or remote access trojans to install backdoor shells within penetrated systems and make outbound connections back to their command-and-control servers.

To protect against APTs, security professionals must employ network segmentation, implement tight access control measures and conduct regular security audits and assessments. They should also keep abreast of threat intelligence updates by participating in information-sharing initiatives; another effective defense may include application whitelisting which only allows certain apps to run on user systems while blocking others – particularly useful if combined with a strict update policy as older software products often fall prey to APTs.

Five APT Attack Stages

APTs operate under a predictable lifecycle that begins with reconnaissance and progresses through several stages, including reconnaissance, deployment and execution.

APT attackers employ backdoor shells or trojans masked as legitimate software to gain entry and take control of compromised systems, hiding their activity with encryption, obfuscation, code rewriting techniques. While good cyber hygiene and vulnerability scanning practices may help decrease the chances of an APT attack occurring, no guarantee can be given against all attacks.

1. Initial access

Traditional hacks can typically be identified and blocked with powerful security tools, while APT attacks often go undetected for extended periods. To better prepare your organization against APT threats, it’s essential that you understand how hackers operate and the steps they take in infiltrating networks and stealing data.

Initial access consists of finding an entryway into your network using malware uploads, application vulnerabilities or spear-phishing attacks. Once inside, attackers can use customer malware and zero-day exploits to bypass defenses.

At this stage, attackers often launch DDoS attacks as part of an infiltration plan to weaken security teams and make data theft easier without being detected.

2. First penetration and malware deployment

Once attackers gain entry to their target environment and begin exploring its assets, they begin mapping out its layout and exploring its assets before creating additional cyber threats such as DDoS attacks to distract security teams and conceal their movements.

Once installed, malware begins probing for network vulnerabilities and communicating with command and control servers to find new entryways if security measures close down existing ones. Hackers then attempt to gain entry by creating backdoors or tunnels into networks while searching for sensitive information.

Phase one may last months or years while bad actors pursue their objectives, which may include financial, political or espionage-related goals. Monitor ingress/egress traffic closely as well as having a web application firewall (WAF) present at your perimeter can help identify this stage of an APT attack and help detect it sooner.

3. Expand access and move laterally

Once an attacker gains initial access, they move laterally across their target network to map its entirety. They may use customer malware, zero-day exploits or stolen credentials to bypass robust security measures; alternatively they could create other cyber threats such as DDoS attacks to distract security teams while they transfer data outside of its perimeter.

Attackers then identify valuable databases they discovered during reconnaissance and move them to a safe location on the network. They usually encrypt and compress this data prior to transfer in order to reduce their chance of detection.

APT attacks require time and resources. A comprehensive incident response plan, combined with multifactor authentication, encrypted data at rest and monitoring for suspicious activities can significantly lower your risk of an APT attack.

4. Stage the attack

APT attacks require highly skilled teams of hackers with both the means and time to execute a comprehensive attack strategy. This gives APT attacks an edge over more common threats such as ransomware, BEC and phishing; moreover they often remain undetected for months, with median dwell-times in America of 71 days and in EMEA being 177.

As soon as they’re ready to steal data or cause damage, attackers often launch “white noise” attacks such as DDoS to distract security teams and conceal data transfers. This allows attackers to remain undetected in your system while continuing stealing intellectual property while your organization experiences outages and data losses. You might notice an unusually large increase in logins outside office hours or abnormally high threat alerts coming through from SIEM/EDR systems or subscription services such as rThreat.

5. Exfiltration or damage infliction

APT attackers are known for staying inside of systems for extended periods, and taking extensive amounts of information over time. Furthermore, APT attackers often sabotage systems – as evidenced by Stuxnet crippling industrial equipment and forcing several companies to shut down, as well as recent NotPetya attack that caused $10 billion worth of damages globally.

Data theft or damage infliction often relies on sophisticated malware techniques like encryption, obfuscation and rewriting code in order to cover up their activity and conceal their tracks from security teams – making these attacks harder for them to detect than traditional threats.

Even with these challenges, businesses should remain mindful of the threat posed by APTs and ensure they have sufficient controls in place to mitigate them. By adopting a Zero Trust approach and investing in employee cybersecurity training programs, organizations can mitigate such advanced threats.

Detecting advanced persistent

As APT attacks usually involve long-term disruption, cybersecurity teams must remain alert in detecting and responding quickly to any suspicious activities that might surface.

Threat actors carrying out APT attacks typically have extensive knowledge about the organizations they target, giving them the edge they need to quickly shift tactics and evade detection. Furthermore, they tend to create multiple points of access in order to retain access even if one of their compromises is discovered and closed by security defenders.

To detect an APT attack, look out for large flows of data that differ significantly from your organization’s typical baseline. Also search for backdoor Trojans used by APT attackers to maintain access into your organization and remain undetected for extended periods. Identify any signs of lateral movement within your system such as unusual process handle requests or data stored into files used for exfiltration – these anomalies are often missed by traditional threat detection tools but Cynet 360 recognizes them with near zero false positives.

APT security measures

Attackers frequently target specific systems or organizations with cyberattacks. As part of their preparation, attackers take great pains in understanding their target in depth so their malware can bypass security measures. They use various tactics – spear phishing attacks, physical malware infection, external exploitation, DNS tunneling and others – to gain initial entry.

Once hackers gain entry to a network, they often install backdoor shells or trojans disguised as legitimate software to gain remote access and take control of it even after passwords have been changed for security purposes. Once they have collected their desired data, hackers often open multiple connections back to their servers at home while creating multiple points of entry while remaining undetected through obfuscation or code rewriting techniques.

One effective method for detecting an APT attack is monitoring outgoing traffic and searching for large, unexpected bundles of gigabytes that indicate someone may be trying to move the data out of the network and eliminate evidence of their activities.

Characteristics of an APT Attack

While APT attacks typically come from nation-states or large corporations, hacker groups have also been known to initiate these long-term assaults. Over the past decade, however, APT threats have grown more widespread as smaller companies gain access to valuable data that cybercriminals could exploit for profit.

APTs are deceitful and persistent when it comes to attacking networks, gaining entry through web-based systems, network resources, phishing emails or authorized human users with privileged accounts. Once inside they establish remote administration tools, backdoors and tunnels that give them a foothold in victim networks.

FireEye reports an average “dwell-time” of 71 days for Americas networks and 177 for EMEA networks – this allows attackers to continue the cycle of reconnaissance, mapping and avoidance, exfiltrating once inside your organization’s network and then exfiltration once breached.

Based on its motives, data exfiltration could result in stolen information being sold to competitors or industrial sabotage or deletion of key files. To minimize these harmful outcomes, cyber defenders need to understand what distinguishes an APT attack, so they know what signs to look out for and can detect one more easily.

Examples of advanced persistent threats

People tend to imagine cyber attacks in terms of hackers breaking into company systems and downloading information; however, APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats) can often go undetected for months or even years as attackers hide within systems and collect data before extracting it later on.

APTs are typically run by teams of highly skilled and sophisticated cybercriminals who utilize malware and other advanced techniques to gain entry to computer networks and gain access to sensitive data or disrupt IT systems – for business, political or military objectives.

Targets of APT attacks typically include large technology companies, oil and gas firms, telecom providers, banks and financial institutions as well as governments and defence contractors. Hydraq was widely known to hackers based in China for attacking Google, Rackspace and Juniper Networks with it before moving onto Iran-linked APT34 and North Korean-linked APT37 attacks.

How do you Protect Against APT Attacks?

As opposed to script kiddies, hackers behind APT attacks are highly skilled, using custom malware tailored specifically for your organization’s vulnerabilities and with an extremely low risk tolerance; often remaining undetected for months or even years without detection.

Network monitoring is key in protecting against APT attacks; this can identify any individual or account accessing files or servers they shouldn’t, which could indicate they’re trying to steal sensitive information. Furthermore, installing a web application firewall (WAF) at the edge of your network will protect one of its most vulnerable attack surfaces.

Consider investing in security tools, such as penetration testing and vulnerability assessments, along with conducting regular security audits and assessments to detect vulnerabilities before APT attackers take advantage of them. Furthermore, network segmentation may limit attacker movement should an attack take place; and domain whitelisting might reduce potential attack surfaces within your environment.

Application and domain whitelisting

Advanced persistent threats (APTs), unlike regular cyberattacks that can be stopped with antivirus software or firewalls, are created specifically to evade these defenses. They are stealthy, highly targeted attacks designed to go undetected for extended periods and adapt quickly in pursuit of their objectives while adapting quickly against attempts by defenders to stop them.

Once hackers establish themselves within a network, they can move laterally across it to discover and exploit other vulnerabilities. Furthermore, they may use a staging server to collect data from target systems before exfiltrating it remotely through remote connections; this makes APT attacks especially hard to detect and stop.

APTs use various means to breach computer systems of companies, from phishing emails and exploiting vulnerabilities in software or hardware to gain entry. Once inside, APTs may steal sensitive information and use it to disrupt operations – leading to either lost revenue or even the closure of businesses altogether. Therefore, cybersecurity best practices require taking an integrated approach.

Who would launch an APT attack?

APT attacks may be carried out by nation-states, cybercriminal gangs or individual hackers with significant resources and capabilities to fund, execute and sustain an attack against their target network.

To gain initial entry, APTs use social engineering techniques, software vulnerabilities exploitation and malware development techniques that conceal activities by encrypting, obfuscating or rewriting code. Once inside, threat actors expand their foothold by building tunnels and backdoors that facilitate horizontal movement throughout a network.

Once attackers obtain the data they require, they seek to exfiltrate it from a compromised network undetected using techniques like Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks to increase network traffic and misdirect security teams. If necessary data isn’t required immediately, attackers can also remain within it while creating difficult-to-detect backdoors to regain entry at a later time.

Why would someone launch an APT?

Cybercriminals and nation-states use APT attacks to steal sensitive information for espionage purposes, disrupt the economy of rival nations or damage critical infrastructure. APT attackers employ sophisticated tools and techniques in order to remain undetected as they launch their attacks.

These hackers use various techniques to gain initial entry, such as spear phishing, software vulnerability exploits and uploads that contain malicious code. Once inside an organization’s network they use techniques such as encryption, obfuscation and code rewriting to remain undetected – often moving laterally across it while hiding their activities with techniques such as “encrypting”, obfuscating or rewriting code to cover up their tracks and move laterally within it.

Once inside their network, attackers wait for further opportunities for attack. They might use tactics such as denial-of-service attacks and other forms of white noise to distract security teams while quietly moving data off-network onto external servers.

Sam is an experienced information security specialist who works with enterprises to mature and improve their enterprise security programs. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.