Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) is a prolonged and targeted cyberattack in which an intruder, or team of intruders, gain access to a network using sophisticated hacking techniques, and remain undetected for an extended period of time.

The targets of these APT attacks are chosen by threat actors after thorough research and typically include large enterprises or governmental networks. The consequences of such attacks are vast, and include:

  • Compromised sensitive information (e.g. employee and client confidential data)
  • Theft of intellectual property (e.g. trade secrets or patents)
  • Total site takeovers
  • The sabotaging of critical organizational infrastructures (e.g. database deletion and infrastructure damage)

Stages of an APT

Most APTs follow the same basic life cycle of infiltrating a network, expanding access and achieving the goal of the attack, which is most commonly stealing data by extracting it from the network.

Stage 1: Infiltration

In the first phase, advanced persistent threats often gain access through social engineering techniques. These social engineering attacks usually take the form of a phishing email across all staff or a spear phishing attempt, targeting those executives further up the organization’s hierarchy.

Infiltrators may also simultaneously execute a DDoS attack against their target, creating a distraction for cybersecurity personnel and weakening a security perimeter, making it easier to breach.

Once initial access has been achieved, attackers quickly install a backdoor shell—malware that grants network access and allows for remote, stealth operations. Backdoors can also come in the form of Trojans masked as legitimate pieces of software.

Stage 2: Expansion

Once initial access has been gained, attackers install a backdoor shell malware into an organization’s network to move to the second phase, expansion. They can then map the network and gather credentials such as account names and passwords in order to access critical business information.

Additional entry points are often established to ensure that the attack can continue if a compromised point is discovered and closed.

Stage 3: Exfiltration

During an APT attack, stolen information is typically stored in a secure location inside the victim’s network. Once enough data has been collected, the cybercriminals will extract all of the data collected.

Hackers can attempt to keep this process running for a further period of time, or withdraw once they accomplish a specific goal. They often leave a back door open to access the system again in the future.

How to defend against APTs

Detecting and mitigating APTs requires a combination of advanced threat detection technologies, regular security assessments, employee training, and a proactive and well-coordinated incident response plan.

Here are some strategies to help mitigate APTs:

  • Firewalls and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS): Use firewalls and IPS to monitor and control network traffic.
  • Endpoint Security: Deploy endpoint security solutions including antivirus and behavioral analysis to detect and prevent malicious activities on individual devices.
  • Software Patch Management: Regularly update and patch operating systems, applications, and firmware for known vulnerabilities.
  • Security Awareness Training: Educate employees about cybersecurity best practices, social engineering tactics, and what to do if they receive and/or engage with suspicious communications.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Implement MFA to add an additional layer of security. This makes it harder for attackers to gain unauthorized access even if passwords are compromised.
  • Data Encryption: Use encryption to protect sensitive data both in transit and at rest. This helps prevent unauthorized access even if data is intercepted.
  • Incident Response Plan: Develop and regularly update an incident response plan to ensure a timely and organized response to security incidents. This includes communication plans, roles and responsibilities, and post-incident analysis.
  • Threat Intelligence: Stay informed about the latest threats by subscribing to threat intelligence feeds. This information can help in proactively defending against known APT tactics.
  • Regular Security Audits and Penetration Testing: Conduct regular security audits and penetration tests to identify and address vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them.
  • Vendor Risk Assessments: Assess and manage the cybersecurity risks posed by third-party vendors. Ensure they adhere to security best practices and standards.
  • Anti Data Exfiltration Technology: ADX technology, such as BlackFog, will help stop threat actors from exfiltrating data from your network.