While advanced persistent threats (APTs) have been relegated to buzzword status, the adversaries that make up the core of such threats are still around. And now, companies are focusing on selling services to analyze and identify the attackers so companies can determine the level of risk they represent.
Security firm CrowdStrike, which launched earlier this year, has made adversary assessment a core part of its services. The goal is to give defenders a better idea of what threats they need to worry about, says George Kurtz, president and CEO of security start-up CrowdStrike. With information on the adversaries and their intent, not just the programs used to attack, defenders with limited resources can deploy their defenses in much more effective ways, he says.
"Adversary assessment is not about finding some guy in China," Kurtz says. "It is linking all the [threat] information together with the end goal of being able to marshal the limited resources that you have to face the adversary coming at you, rather than sitting in the center of your castle, putting up a bigger wall, and not knowing what side the attackers are going to come from."
While perhaps 70 or 80 percent of attackers are cybercriminals, espionage is a greater worry for many companies. For those firms, finding out more about the motivations and capabilities of the groups attacking their networks and systems is important. Stopping any individual attack is meaningless because the attackers will keep trying, says Greg Hoglund, chief technology officer for ManTech CSI, a forensics and incident response firm.
"They never go away because they are the 'P' in APT," he says. "There are technical things that you can do to block them today that won't work tomorrow. The more you know about them, the more you can do to prevent their next attacks."
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Attackers seem to have the run of companies in certain industries. When Mandiant does a threat assessment in a company, it always find that an attacker has taken control of one or more systems.
"We may go in and the company thinks they have a Chinese problem, and they don't," says Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer for Mandiant. "But we always find something."
Different firms have different ways of measuring the groups that are targeting corporate intellectual property: Mandiant, for example, divides its known groups into 20 different profiles, while ManTech CSI identifies 18 different groups. Each group has different techniques, methods of operation, or industry targets. In both cases, the threats tracked by the companies overwhelmingly appear to be Chinese.
Yet adversary assessment is not about identifying the people behind attacks, but their motivations and their capabilities, ManTech CSI's Hoglund says.
"We have pictures of the attackers hanging on our wall; we know their names. We know were they live, and they are in China," he says. "We have a picture of the guy and there is nothing anyone can do to go get him. ... Does it really add anything to your defense? Not really."
Once a group is identified, companies can respond in different ways. The most important goal is to make the cost of attacking your company more expensive, says Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chief technology officer with CrowdStrike. Companies can take legal action, pursue takedowns of the attackers' infrastructure, approach the government in the attacker's country, and -- if the adversary is working for a competitor in another country -- report the incident to the World Trade Organization.
"Once you identify the threat, then you can think about how do I raise the cost to the adversary and bring pain to the adversary," Alperovitch says.
Knowing the adversary can inform technical defenses as well, ManTech CSI's Hoglund says. The best information to have is how they are infiltrating your network, what the best intrusion-detection signatures are to detect them next time, and how to prevent them from succeeding, he says.
"You cannot think of the threat as an MD5 checksum," Hoglund says. "[CIOs] have to stop thinking of the threat as an object that they can swat away. The threat is the person making those objects."
In the end, security firms that know the rogues gallery of adversaries will be best-situated to help defend the customers, CrowdStrike's Kurtz says.
"I believe that adversary assessment is going to be the next vulnerability assessment or penetration test," he says. "People today say, 'Of course I need a pen test.' Yeah, it's fine to know all your vulnerabilities, but what you really want to know is who's in your network, what are they doing, and how do I get them out?"
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