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7/20/2018
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What the Incident Responders Saw

New report on IR professionals' experiences reveals just how advanced attackers, such as nation-state hackers, dig in even after they're detected.

When incident response teams shut down an advanced attack, most of them then find a backup command-and-control infrastructure lying in wait to trigger after the first one gets taken down. Overall, nearly half end up battling attackers who try to thwart incident response and remediation efforts.

That's just some of the activity IR professionals say they experience, according to a new Carbon Black study of 37 large incident response teams running Carbon Black's next-generation endpoint security tool. The new Quarterly Incident Response Threat Report is based on surveys and interviews with large IR partners - such as Kroll and Rapid7 - who on average conducted one IR engagement per day in 2017, and handle 300-400 IR engagements per quarter.

"Sixty-four percent found a secondary C2 on sleep cycle," says Tom Kellermann, chief security officer at Carbon Black. "This highlights how the adversary has gone from burglary to home invasion: they intend on staying and will take counter attempts ... and could get destructive."

Russia and China, not surprisingly, are the main sources of attacks: 81% of IR pros say Russia is the number one offender, and 76% say China. But that doesn't mean all of the security incidents they investigated were cyber spying: just a third of responders say the cases were cyber espionage. Nearly 80% say the financial sector is the most targeted industry, followed by healthcare (73%) and government (43%).

Close to 60% of attacks involve lateral movement, or where the attacker travels from its initial victim machine to other machines in a targeted organization. PowerShell is one of the most popular tools for moving about the victim's network: 100% of IR pros say they've seen the Microsoft Windows automation and configuration management tool employed by attackers, and 84% see Windows Management Interface (WMI) as a key tool weaponized by attackers.

This so-called "living off the land" approach of running legitimate tools to remain under the radar is classic behavior of persistent hacker teams such as nation-states. Some 54% of IR pros say legit operating system applications like these are being abused by attackers. In addition, 16% have spotted attackers running Dropbox to assist in their movements.

"The uptick of WMI is concerning," notes Kellermann, as well as the use of process-hollowing and unsigned digital certificates. "It speaks to the level of sophistication [being used] to colonize that infrastructure."

Meanwhile, 36% say victim organizations are mainly hacked for the purpose of reaching their supply chain members (think customers and partners).

A key technique for defending against attackers who are burrowing in for the long haul is to quietly investigate and hunt them so they don't have time to switch gears and retool their attack, according to Kellermann. "The number one thing we need to evolve in as defenders is to become more quiet and clandestine in how we hunt," he says.

That means, for example, not immediately shutting off a C2 you discover if you can further study its activity with deception or other advanced techniques, he says.

According to Carbon Black's report, "Deciding when to reveal oneself is critical, as counter-incident response measures as destructive attacks are becoming the norm."

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive 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 ... View Full Bio

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