Sounds like scary stuff, and it is. According to MANDIANT, these attacks are broken down into seven phases. Paraphrased here: Phase 1, Reconnaissance: Attackers will watch and take notes on who in an organization they need to target, from administrative assistants to executives. Much of this information is gleaned from public Web sites.
Phase 2, The Initial Breach: They will use spear-phishing attacks to send those identified targets an attachment with an exploit that can be used to hijack the target's system. Any personal information the attacker knows about the source will be used to entice the target user to open the attachment.
Phase 3, Get a Network Backdoor: MANDIANT says the attackers will do what they can to get network administrative credentials. And they will also implant malware (that they centrally control) designed to avoid detection. These will be used to gain further access to more of the victim company's infrastructure.
Phase 4, Grab User Credentials: These credentials are used to log-on to end point systems, and siphon data. MANDIANT said the typical victim organization it studied has 40 systems compromised: some had more than 150. Phase 5, install attack utilities: Now the network is being peppered with backdoors, tools to grab passwords, steal emails, and footprint the network. Phase 6, Data Ex-filtration: Continuing to move about the infected network and increasing access rights to more sensitive systems, the attackers are now compressing stolen data - imagine anything from financial data, marketing plans, research and development information - and transferring that information to an external server under the attackers control. Phase 7, Maintain Persistence: The rest is a cat and mouse game: as the organization cleans and updates systems, the attackers establish additional footholds.
MANDIANT's report, M-Trends, gives a fascinating view into the modern attack that enterprises and government agencies face, including detailed, blind case studies. In fact, if you are a small business doing business with big business and the government - you may as well be a target, too.
Anyone interested in IT security should give it a read(registration required). If you are a security manager trying to convince your management how real and sophisticated IT threats are today: the case studies in the report are gold.
APT style attacks are blamed to be behind so-called Operation Aurora. At the time the news broke, I didn't see anything new in the Google attack. I still don't see anything "new" in MANDIANT's report. What we do have are highly-motivated, well trained and funded adversaries using social engineering, attack tools, software flaws, and low-and-slow attack strategies that we've been grappling with for more than a decade now.
But if it takes a flashy new acronym to get peoples' attention focused on the threats we face: APT it is.