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The Changing Face Of Advanced Persistent Threats

APTs and targeted attacks are becoming more mainstream. Is your enterprise ready?

Earlier this year, a small aerospace company asked AccessData, a forensics and security firm, to investigate how its data had ended up on file-sharing service Box.com. The firm, which AccessData declined to identify, had received a call from the file-sharing service's sales team asking if it wanted to upgrade its accounts to Box's enterprise service.

The only problem: The aerospace company had never signed up for Box.

AccessData's investigation revealed that malware had compromised the systems of six employees at the company and created accounts for each of them on the cloud service. From there, the attackers uploaded and downloaded data. "Traffic going to Box.com seems pretty innocuous, so from the attacker's perspective, this is brilliant," says Jordan Cruz, senior forensic consultant for AccessData.

This type of targeted attack, sometimes filed under the heading advanced persistent threats (APTs), is increasingly being used to gain access to proprietary and confidential enterprise data. Attackers are refining their tactics, sometimes using public cloud services to bypass monitoring that flags suspicious traffic. AccessData isn't the only security company to identify such tactics; threat intelligence firm CyberSquared announced last month its discovery that a Chinese espionage group, known as the Comment Crew or APT1, had used Dropbox as an intermediate online cache for delivering malware.

The increasing sophistication of APTs is no surprise. While criminals first used targeted attacks to compromise important or hard-to-breach targets, these low-profile, high-impact operations have become the calling card of attackers targeting intellectual property and nations' top-secret data. In the past five years, targeted attacks have been on the rise, and attackers continue to improve their methods of reconnaissance, exploitation and mining of victims' networks in a variety of ways. Moreover, the number of nations developing cyber operations is expanding beyond the United States, China, Russia and the half-dozen other nations -- such as the United Kingdom and Israel -- that pioneered online intelligence-gathering operations. Operation Hangover, a recently discovered espionage network aimed at Pakistan, Norway, the United States and China, among other nations, appears to come from groups in India. And, a number of attacks on South Korean infrastructure targets have the hallmarks of North Korean cyber attacks. In addition, attackers are refining their techniques and expanding to targets that were previously assumed to be below the radar.

APTs are also becoming more common. Using off-the-shelf attacks and techniques such as Poison Ivy and the Black Hole exploit kit, even less-skilled attackers may successfully penetrate the defenses of most firms they target, says Liam O'Murchu, manager of security response for Symantec's North American operations. "With some of these targeted attacks, even though they are called 'advanced persistent threats,' the tools they are using are not all that sophisticated," O'Murchu says. "The vastly advanced nature of these attacks is the part that allows them to get into the targeted company -- zero-days and the like. Once they get in, they use normal, everyday tools."

chart: The lower costs of cybercrime and espionage

Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
8/20/2013 | 12:37:27 PM
re: The Changing Face Of Advanced Persistent Threats
Great article! You can tighten up the firewall, white list applications, content filter the heck out of anywhere users can go and run email through every filter on the market and attackers can still get through. My best plan is to log everything I can and keep tuning the SIEM. I've also given up on the clients. We need to accept that we lost that battle. The new battle line is between the internal clients and the data. Use terminal clients to access this data. Focus your controls on data moving across this boundary. The footprint is smaller and easier to manage.
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