We're All The APT

XKeyscore, FoxAcid: APT lines are blurring

Tom Parker, Contributor

October 12, 2013

3 Min Read

Despite the original, long-lost, but well-intentioned meaning of the security industry's favorite acronym, lines have become blurred to the extent that "APT" can now be so broadly applied by our adversaries to describe, well, us. Although this makes the term even more useless in conversations intended to characterize the specifics of an attack, it has been something I've argued for quite some time now and was my initial thought when news of Edward Snowden's escapades (and, specifically, XKeyscore, FoxAcid, et al.) broke.

For those of you who are not familiar, XKeyScore is a purported technology platform, publicized by Glenn Greenwald (courtesy of Snowden's whistleblowing antics), that was allegedly developed by the National Security Agency to gather, archive, and search a plethora of data sources, including email, online chats, and social networking data.

FoxAcid, on the other hand, is alleged to be a sophisticated analogy to Metasploit's browser_autopwn, which attempts to fingerprint a Web browser's attack surface and serve up appropriate conditional content to exploit client-side vulnerabilities, whether they be in the browser itself or a plugin (such as Flash, Java etc). OK, that's fairly interesting stuff, but probably not too many surprises so far.

What I found far more telling about the level of thinking going on in the puzzle palace, however, is the disclosures regarding the purported level of targeting against the Tor network and, even more specifically, the Tor browser bundle. This stuff certainly isn't rocket science by any stretch; however, it is likely just the tip of the iceberg and, at the very least, is most certainly a step ahead of the offensive technology that we have come to associate with our friends in the South Pacific, who are most commonly provided with the APT label.

The sophistication of an adversary doesn't stop at the raw technical capabilities at their disposal. The discipline, with which an adversary uses its technical capabilities, also provides significant insights into their overall level of sophistication. The highly overt, shotgun approach used by many groups of Chinese-based adversaries -- attempting to compromise targets in every which way possible -- is surely a world away from the manner in which technologies such as FoxAcid have been deployed in the past. I know, I know, "the Chinese don't care," but there comes a point at which this is no longer true, including (but not limited to) your target acquiring sufficient data on your offensive capabilities, such that they are no longer effective, or, indeed, your engineers appear in a Mandiant marketing plug.

The point of all of this is really that, as an industry, which is largely orientated in and around the United States (or at least the West), we can at times become very one-dimensional about the threat. The fact of the matter is that we're now in an era where we can't possibly deny that the APT doesn't just wear pointy hats; it's coming from all directions and, at times, flies in the face of what we might have thought was a friendly flag. Being sensitive to this fact is especially important when dealing with global clients, whose greatest concern may no longer be Word document attachments from *.cn, but the privacy of transactions with an international customer base, who themselves are growing increasingly more concerned about their own data privacy in "friendly" waters.

Tom Parker is CTO at FusionX

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