Vulnerabilities / Threats

3/23/2011
01:05 PM
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Schwartz On Security: Advanced Threats Persist And Annoy

APTs are today's normal threat, and companies such as RSA must do better, even as the odds against them keep increasing.

It was the advanced persistent threat that done it. So said RSA's executive chairman, Art Coviello, describing the security breach that stole some yet-to-be-disclosed aspect of his company's SecurID two-factor authentication system.

Helpfully, in his breach notification letter to RSA's customers, Coviello offers to promulgate "lessons learned" once RSA figures out how it got nailed by an APT. "As appropriate, we will share our experiences from these attacks with our customers, partners, and the rest of the security vendor ecosystem and work in concert with these organizations to develop means to better protect all of us from these growing and ever more sophisticated forms of cyber security threat," he said.

How's that for spin, especially from a company that has so far refused to detail which aspects of its SecurID system were breached, leaving customers to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Will RSA use itself as a case study for selling future, anti-APT products to its own customers?

As Gartner Group analyst John Pescatore titled a recent blog post: "Sorry, The Computer Is Down and The Advanced Persistent Threat Stole Your Data -- But Your Business Is Important to Us!"

Pescatore, among others, questions the usefulness of the "APT" term altogether. For reference, the Ponemon Institute has defined the advanced persistent threat as "a methodology employed to evade an organization's present technical and process countermeasures, which relies on a variety of attack techniques, as opposed to one specific type."

If the definition of APT doesn't sound ultra-precise, you're correct: it's a catch-all term for attacks designed to defeat existing security controls, oftentimes using "long and slow" techniques to help evade detection. But haven't attacks designed to defeat existing defenses through unconventional means been around for years?

Companies, RSA included, need to do better if they want to stay in business. Of course, they're facing difficult odds, given that botnets and spam networks -- for infecting targeted PCs -- are within reach of even the most common criminal.

That fact was highlighted by federal authorities announcing on Monday that they'd busted a penny stock "pump and dump" scheme backed by botnets. That's to say, rather than running a telephone boiler room, the two men arrested allegedly contracted with hackers who rented or ran their own botnets and spamming operations.

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