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Targeted Attacks: A Defender's Playbook

Cyberthreat actors are increasingly going after a single victim. Here are some tips to help your organization get ready.

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Most cyber attacks today are random, automatically generated exploits that prey on vulnerable systems. But security experts now say there's a small but growing percentage of online attacks that are carefully targeted to compromise a single victim.

Advanced attackers are picking targets deliberately in order to steal very specific intellectual property, collect trade secrets, and scoop up troves of customer data.

To achieve these goals, these criminals are not only homing in on certain industries but also specific organizations and even particular individuals whom they hope to trick into helping them infect company machines.

When these crooks choose a target, they persist until they get in -- changing tactics or targeting different individuals if they don't succeed the first time. And when the criminals achieve success with these attacks, they aren't content to infect PCs; they try to dig deep into the network and find ways to gain administrative access to the organization's most sensitive systems and data.

These targeted attacks often rely on human nature and simple online research as much as technical hacking ability. And because most enterprises still model their security practices around generic malware and automated exploits, they're easy prey for these sophisticated, targeted attacks. Clearly, some new defenses are needed.

Who's doing the targeting?
Understanding the kinds of attackers doing the targeting offers an important first step in diagnosing targeted attacks. By coming to terms with the motivations these bad guys have for stealing specific data or gathering certain technical information, security teams can do a better job assessing risk and developing a stronger defense.

Most attackers fall into one of three buckets: hacktivists, nation-state-sponsored hackers, and organized cyber criminals.

Hacktivists are seeking to harm an organization or an industry because its operations conflict with the hacktivists' beliefs.

"Hacktivists are a real fear for organizations, especially in the energy sector or companies that do work overseas and might have practices that are not well received," says Jeff Horne, VP of emerging solutions for security consulting firm Accuvant. Hacktivists just want to disrupt a business. "They're the ones trying to do things like release email spools and cause havoc on the network."

State-sponsored attackers are usually employed by or associated with foreign spy agencies. They're trying to advance their country's military or economic interests by stealing intellectual property or gathering intelligence about an organization's operations. This could mean breaking into a defense contractor to steal blueprints, or into a government contractor to pilfer information about employees that could be used for future spy operations. These cyber-espionage operators often extend their operations beyond defense and other government targets and into commercial suppliers and contractors. In some cases, they seek intellectual property to help their country's commercial interests.

"It may not be how it works here, but other countries use their intelligence apparatus to benefit their domestic companies against US companies," says Anup Ghosh, CEO and founder of Invincea, an advanced malware detection and response vendor. "The spy agencies work hand in hand with their industry to get that kind of competitive intel."

Meanwhile, organized cyber criminals may also be on the hunt for specific intellectual property or information on how a company operates. They're hired to steal information for a company's competitor, or they look to profit by selling information on the black market or even engaging in insider trading.

For example, a go-to-market plan for a technology company or information on drilling sites scouted by an oil-and-gas company may be sellable insights. Cyber criminals will also target companies if they think they can steal valuable customer information for identity theft and credit card fraud. Over the past year, Home Depot and Target were among many companies specifically targeted by attackers to steal details about customers.

"These are organized groups, well funded, well resourced," says Michael Sutton, VP of security research for Zscaler. "The ultimate goal is almost always financial gain."

Keeping these three targeted attack motivations in mind can help a company assess which assets a persistent attacker may want to steal. "For instance, if you are in a retail organization, and you have customer information -- that's a value to certain Eastern European groups," says Ghosh.

Types of targeted attacks
While different attack groups may target different types of data and information, the overall operational framework for their attacks tend to look alike.

The majority of targeted attacks start with a spear-phishing campaign. These are not the poorly spelled, mass-emailed phishing attempts of yesteryear. Instead, advanced attackers do online research to find out email naming conventions and then find people they can email with a phony, but convincing, message.

"As an attacker, I'm able to do research about the company to find things like, 'Hey, I know this particular person is speaking at this particular conference at this particular time,'" says Alex Cox, senior manager of RSA FirstWatch. By guessing at that person's email address using the company naming convention and using the knowledge that someone

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Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
12/16/2014 | 3:38:38 PM
Re: Vendors
I kinda want to agree, but only if it's a vendor(s) that only want to sell\upgrade everything, and everyone may not have that luxury, or talent. I think before you invest in anything you really do need to do your homework. Just don't look at the the stuff all of the cool kids are buying (the "Magic Quadrant") or something that someone saw at a vendor sponsored conference.

Whatever you decide I recommend:
  • Think very hard before buying that thing that does "everything", and nothing particularly well
  • Make a list of requirements
  • Features that you'd like to see
  • Possible Trade-offs if a feature isn't available
  • Prioritize you list in order of how well it meets your requirements, not cost
  • Narrow your list down to two maybe three in-house POC's
  • Determine what you want to see from a POC
    • Setup and training
    • Operations
    • Support\Maintenance
    • Talk to other organizations using the product

 Most importantly, stick to YOUR priorities, not those of the guy trying to sell you that thing you need.

The Internet is your friend.
User Rank: Ninja
12/15/2014 | 1:40:47 PM
Re: Vendors
As much as I would love to be able to build a vendor free shop, it is not a reality for us and many other organizations I work with.

Many vendor products do work well, but the challenge that everyone is facing is finding enough talented people to keep solutions, vendor or open source, running as effectively as they should AND sort through all of the events that the solutions encounter.  False positives are a constant issue even in a mature solution.  This activity can take up more manhours to address than actual incidents.
Managing security solutions effectively is a particular set of skills that many people are just not getting into for various reasons.  Thus the entire world of organizations out there are willing to pay extra for vendor solutions that reduce the amount of talent requirements and manhours to implement and maintain.  If you think about it, that is the only reason many vendors exist: to provide "easier to maintain" products that do the same thing that many standard tools already are capable of providing.

I will be honest in that I do NOT rely on one tool for a single task.  Where possible, I have "second eyes" solutions in place to double check things.  Sometimes one tool is more commonly used, but in other cases the combinations of solutions seeem to cast a wider net that one way or another snags those odd fish that end up in our part of the ocean.

This article is more about the targeted, well planned and well executed attack on a specific person. 
If the attack is very well planned and the attacker is patient and has done their homework, very few security solutions will likely prevent the initial compromise. 
It will be the mature, well maintained defense-in-depth security program that will capture an interloper after that initial compromise.  Of course, not all organizations have a mature and effective security program to catch that activity in a timely manner...  if at all.  This all goes back to what I said earlier...  having the talent on hand to do the job right.

User Rank: Strategist
12/15/2014 | 12:50:16 PM
Kick your vendors out! They provide increasingly negative value -- they are the sources of your problems.

Vet your own internally-developed SIEM, firewall management, HIPS, and DLP solutions, e.g., OSSEC.

The article mentions a high signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio -- don't you mean low? The newest snort++ offers quite a lot of interesting functionality -- combine with a Passive DNS solution such as FarSight Security and/or internal solution such as Bro. Another way to raise SNR would be to implement STIX sharing (e.g., via TAXII-enabled solutions such as CRITs or Soltra Edge) with organization partners as well as other collaborators in your industry.

A comprehensive and constantly-maturing program built on a foundation such as the Cyber Operations Maturity Framework is the way to go given the increasing targeted-threat landscape. ISO 27000 or IT COBIT aren't going to cut it. Old frameworks just don't make the grade, so it's time to replace them.
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