In the line of cybersecurity, Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) are among the most feared attacks. They are the closest you could get to the worst-case scenario. You are perhaps wondering what an Advanced Persistent Threat is.

Well, they are cyber-attacks conducted by hackers to compromise and steal data over an extended period. With APTs, attackers access a network and establish a long-term presence within the network as they mine data.

Very skilled hackers conduct most APTs with the aim of financial gain or political espionage. The hackers have a specific goal. They spend their time and resources looking for vulnerabilities that they can explore to design attacks and compromise the network- while remaining undetected for a long time.

Advanced Persistent attacks can cause huge damages such as loss of intellectual property, Exposure of sensitive information, and sabotage of crucial organization infrastructures. APT are targeted attacks, and some of the popular targets are:

  • Finance Industry. There are immense volumes of wealth that financial institutions are involved with, making them a lucrative target for hackers.
  • Telecommunication sectors.
  • Manufacturing industry. Manufacturers are custodians of valuable intellectual property, hence making them a target for threat actors.
  • National Defence.

Successful accomplishment of an APT attack requires way more resources compared to regular web application attacks.

The hackers executing APT tend to be knowledgeable cybercriminals with significant financial resources. Some governments use APT as cyber warfare arsenals.

  • Characteristics of APTs

APTs are pretty different from other regular threats. These are some of the main distinguishing characteristics of APT:

  • After infiltration, the hackers linger in the network to obtain as much information as possible. They are not hit-and-run threats.
  • They have a narrow focus, targeting specific organizations and looking for any vulnerabilities to exploit. And sometimes, using custom malware in their attacks.
  • They intrude on the entire network, not just specific sectors.
  • They are large in scale and are mostly done by large groups of criminal organizations.
  • APT attacks are costly. They could even cost millions to execute. Most of them are backed by well-funded organizations.
  • The techniques employed to gain entry to networks are usually sophisticated, making them undetectable as they gather information.
  • How Does an APT Attack Work?

APT attacks are advanced threats. They, therefore, usually require in-depth research, planning, and a great deal of patience. The typical steps that an ATP attack follows are:

  • Network infiltration. The first thing that hackers do is find an access point to the targeted network.
  • Installing Malware. After gaining access, hackers then install the malware in the network.
  • Expanding presence. The malware looks for other present vulnerabilities in the network that can be exploited. Exploiting more areas ensures that the hackers always have a point of entry. Even in the event of one entry being compromised.
  • The attackers then hunt for valuable information like admin passwords and email addresses that they can use to obtain confidential data.
  • Extraction of data.
  • After they have successfully exfiltrated the data needed, they then remove evidence of their presence, making sure to leave compromised entry points that they can use to perform more attacks.
  • Some of the Most Prominent APT attacks
  • Deep Panda. This APT was aimed at the Government Office of Personnel Management and resulted in the loss of more than a million US personnel records.
  • Stuxnet. This is sophisticated malware that infected software of tens of Iranian sites, more so the ones in the uranium-enriched plant. Stuxnet infected the target SCADA systems using infected USB devices.
  • Operation GhostNet. It was an espionage attack that was aimed at obtaining access to government embassies and ministries. This operation enabled the attackers to control devices and use them for listening and recording by controlling them remotely. The command and control infrastructure for the operation was based in China, and it infiltrated computers in more than 100 countries.
  • APT29. It has been associated with several attacks, including a 2016 attack on the Democratic National Committee. A spear-phishing attack on the Pentagon in 2015.
  • APT Attack Vector: APT attacks manifest themselves in several ways. First, they are flexible, and sometimes, hackers can use basic avenues that give them a significant ROI to conduct their attacks. Some of the primary avenues that hackers could employ in APT are:
  • Social Engineering Attacks. These involve manipulating people to surrender sensitive information. It could take the form of phishing attacks where attackers send emails masquerading as reputable institutions or trusted entities to trick victims into revealing personal information. This form of attack has been around since the nineties and is still popularly used.
  • Domain Name Server (DNS) Hijacking. DNS redirection or hijacking involves having DNS queries resolved wrongly, thereby making it possible to redirect users to malicious sites.
  • Vulnerability exploits. Vulnerabilities are system weaknesses that attackers can use to get unauthorized access to otherwise confidential information. Zero-day attacks are a good example. In zero-day attacks, hackers leverage software weaknesses that are unknown to the software developers.
  • Pirated Software. Downloading pirated software may place one at risk of interacting with malicious websites which could infect a computer. The malware then transfers confidential information to third parties.
  • Supply chain attacks. This form of attack targets software suppliers and developers. The main idea is that the suppliers and vendors could be the weakest link in a target’s network. Attackers infect legit apps and use them to transfer malware.
  • Best Practices for Advanced Persistent Threats Protection

APT can cause irreparable damage to an institution. One may wonder, how do you solve APT? It is essential to ensure that APTs are blocked from your IT infrastructure.

Any attempted attacks are mitigated before they spread to other areas in the network. Below are some ways on how to solve APT issues.

  • They are installing a firewall. Having robust perimeter defense mechanisms prevents the installation of APT malware in organizations’ computer systems. Firewalls offer the first line of defense against any APT attempts. The different types of firewalls to use are software firewalls, cloud firewalls, and hardware firewalls.
  • Web Application Firewalls (WAF). Enabling a WAF helps to protect institutions’ web apps. WAFs inspect and filter traffic between the internet and the web app. This protects web apps from attacks like XSS attacks, CSRF, and SQL injection attacks.
  • They were switching to SSL (Secure Socket Layer) Certificates. SSL certificates are excellent for ensuring secure communications between a server and a client. The SSL protocol encrypts communication across the internet.
  • Thus, hackers trying to hijack communication within the network are met with encrypted information undecipherable without a private key. SSL certificates are available in different kinds and at varying validation levels.
  • If you need to secure multiple wildcard domains along with their subdomains, we suggest going for a multi-domain wildcard cert. A multi-domain wildcard certificate secures multiple wildcard domains and their first-level subdomains under the same certificate. SSL can also be used to secure emails, VoIP across unsecured networks.
  • Endpoint Protection. APT attacks generally entail the takeover of endpoint devices. Having endpoint detection and response as well as antimalware protection helps in recognizing any compromised endpoints.
  • They are monitoring incoming/outgoing traffic. Therefore, it is essential to be keen on spotting any APT in the system. Monitoring outgoing and incoming data traffic and requests help pick out any APTs in their early stages before more damage is done. In addition, be suspicious of any abnormal activities in the databases to avoid widespread attacks.
  • Email Filtering. Some APT attacks utilize phishing to get initial access. Filtering and blocking any suspicious links and email attachments helps stop the hackers at the initial penetration stage.
  • Access control/ Proper authentication measures and strong password use in users, and most importantly, privileged accounts can minimize risks of APT.

Bottom Line

Advanced Persistent Threats are among the most severe threats any company could face. They are hard to detect and seeing that the hackers hide in the networks for long periods-even months, the damages are dreadful. So, securing the perimeters of systems and blocking any initial entry comes in handy.

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