Attacks/Breaches
2/22/2011
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Hacking The APT

Google, SRA, Mandiant, McAfee execs profile the advanced persistent threat and suggest ways to derail it

Among the lessons learned by Google in the wake of the Aurora attacks last year: You need an "A Team" trained and ready to respond to an attack, and it's time to think about making advanced persistent threat (APT)-type attacks more economically infeasible for the bad guys infiltrating the organization.

Heather Adkins, information security manager for Google, said the first thing the search engine giant learned after being hit by the targeted attacks last year known as Operation Aurora was that it takes a specialized, on-site team to respond: "The first thing we learned was that we need an A Team to respond," said Adkins during a panel discussion on the APT at the RSA Conference in San Francisco last week. "This is not an easy task to give you -- you have to evaluate the talent you have inside, what you need to educate them, and how you build your team. Your adversary [already] has one."

In the short term, she said, it's all about making it harder and more expensive for attackers to target your organization and exfiltrate intellectual property and information after gaining a foothold. "There are things you can do on your network to make it more costly for the adversary. You can change the economies of the game. Right now it's too easy for them and the ROI is too high," Adkins said.

Kevin Mandia, president of Mandiant, echoed that sentiment. "Let's make the cost of doing this so expensive for these folks so they have to earn it. They aren't earning it now," Mandia said.

Among the measures Google's Adkins recommends is keeping systems patched as soon as fixes arrive and using two-factor authentication. "Patch-day released Microsoft [software] should be your goal," she said. "We're big fans of two-factor authentication ... If you can start identifying [users], it's not going to be absolutely perfect, but it will make it that much harder for your adversary to get what they want when they get in."

Adkins said that investing in detection and prevention should be split fairly evenly. "If you have a trained A Team, you can do it quite cheaply. Detection will get you the rest of the way, but you have to pick your technologies very carefully," she said. Whitelisting for endpoints is one option, she said, and monitoring all desktops and servers.

But not all organizations have the resources of a Google to recruit an A Team, and most organizations must assume today that they already have been infiltrated by one of these quiet, targeted, persistent attacks, experts say. "If you've not yet experienced this and want to prepare for it, find someone in your [industry] peer group who has and have them come and brief your executives," Adkins said. "They can give real-life, candid feedback on what it's like."

With an APT, it's not just about the malware, said Adam Meyers, director of cybersecurity intelligence for SRA International. "That's the initial foothold. It's [about] the lateral movement, what tools they are using, and what they are going after. All these data points become the definition of APT," he said.

And the attackers typically behave in similar ways. "The behaviors repeat themselves," said George Kurtz, chief technology officer and executive vice president at McAfee. "If you share [that information] across industries, you can prevent and detect any attacks," he said.

Unlike Stuxnet, an APT-type attack is all about espionage, not destruction. "The threat actors I refer to as APT: I've never seen them be destructive. They aren't changing things yet," Mandia said.

A physically destructive act, such as shutting down the power grid, won't likely be responded with another power shutdown, he said in an interview after the panel session. "If there is one response, it's not going to be cyber ... it's going to be F17s in the air. If you shut off the grid in L.A. ... there's not going to be some nerd in a room trying to hack them," he said. "If they do that, we're already at war."

Meanwhile, Google's Adkins questioned whether today's systems are actually defendable at all from APT-type attacks. "In the long term, we have to evaluate whether our platforms" can be protected, she said during the panel discussion. "In the next five to 10 years, should we evaluate whether we start all over again?"

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Senior Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, ... View Full Bio

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