Avoiding APT Attacks: The MDR Advantage

In the digital world, it’s rare to see a crime of passion. Most cyberattacks fall into the crimes of opportunity category, taking advantage of a situation that presents itself unexpectedly. They are usually launched by individuals or groups using readily available automated tools to target and exploit known vulnerabilities. Often referred to as “script kiddies,” these hackers are like smash-and-grab robbers targeting a convenience store, looking for a quick score with minimal effort. They want a ransom paid within days; some do it just for the online clout. 

As if it wasn’t already hard enough for organizations to defend against these common threats, there is another more nefarious type of organizations need to be aware of: Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs). 

Think of an APT attack as a meticulously planned bank heist, requiring extensive research and planning, people with highly specialized skills, and significant resources to bankroll the job. As the name suggests, these threats are persistent, and attackers leverage highly sophisticated tools and techniques to avoid  

detection and maintain their foothold within the target’s network for as long as possible. 

While APTs are less common than other types of threats, their catastrophic results demand that organizations are not only cognizant of them but have the right solutions implemented to defend against them. 

Understanding the APT Threat

APTs are unlike common attacks in several ways, and those unique characteristics make them hard to identify and remediate. 

The Perpetrators: APTs are orchestrated by well-funded and skilled threat actors, often state-sponsored entities or large criminal enterprises, who are highly organized and have extensive resources, including financial and human capital. Examples include Russian-based CozyBear (APT29), Wicked Panda (APT41), and Helix Kitten (APT34).

The Victims: APT victims are often government entities, critical infrastructure, and major enterprises. These organizations are targeted not just for the immediate gain but for the long-term strategic advantages that come with accessing their sensitive data or intellectual property or disrupting their operations.

The Resources: Besides the human resources needed to plan, execute, and maintain a presence, the attacks require purchasing or developing advanced tools and techniques that can evade detection, steal credentials, and move through networks to reach high-value assets. According to one report, the tools alone could cost at least $55,000 to launch an APT attack against a bank and upwards of $500,000 to launch a cyber espionage APT campaign. 

The Timeline: An APT attack is a long game, taking months or even years. This extended timeline allows threat actors to avoid immediate detection, exfiltrate more data, gather more intelligence, cause more damage, and even adapt to changing security postures to increase the chances of success.

The Motives: The motives can range from espionage, where the goal is to gather intelligence or undermine the capabilities of a target, to stealing intellectual property, classified data, personally identifiable information (PII), infrastructure data, access credentials, and sensitive communications.

The Stages of an APT Attack

The APT attack process is painstakingly planned and executed in stages designed to maximize success while minimizing the risk of detection. The process looks like this:

  1. Reconnaissance: In the initial phase, attackers gather information about the target in various ways, such as using social engineering techniques, open-source intelligence (OSINT), and CVE scanners to identify vulnerabilities in the network.
  2. Infiltration: This phase involves exploiting vulnerabilities to gain initial access to the target’s network through spear-phishing emails or deploying customized malware.
  3. Establishing Persistence: Once inside, attackers can install backdoors, deploy rootkits, or leverage Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH) to establish a stable, ongoing connection or maintain access to the network by blending in with legitimate traffic.
  4. Lateral Movement: Attackers move through the network, exploiting internal systems or stolen credentials to gain further access to sensitive areas.
  5. Data Exfiltration: In the final stage, attackers use encrypted channels or tunneling techniques to exfiltrate collected data, often in small batches to help avoid detection.

Know Thy Enemy: How APTs Exploit Defenses 

One of the key advantages APTs possess is their detailed knowledge of the defender’s landscape, which allows them to map network infrastructure, identify security controls, and exploit vulnerabilities. With that information, they can tailor their attacks and turn a company’s security tools against them by disabling antivirus and antimalware software, VPNs, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems or reconfiguring security software and altering log files. 

The Role of SIEM-backed MDR in APT Detection

While no security solution is foolproof, a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) backed Managed Detection and Response (MDR) solution, like that offered by CYREBRO, provides a significant advantage by leveraging the strengths of both systems. SIEM systems excel in collecting and analyzing security-related data from multiple sources within an organization’s network, offering visibility across the network and identifying anomalies that could indicate a potential breach. 

An MDR builds upon the visibility provided by a SIEM by offering 24/7 monitoring and response from experienced security analysts. The best MDR solutions incorporate threat hunting, combining automated tools with human analysts to track unknown threats, and are supported by the cybersecurity juggernauts, the Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR) team that can analyze compromised systems, examining system logs, memory dumps, and other relevant data to understand the attacker’s tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), which is crucial for developing countermeasures. 

Together, these capabilities leave little room for any threat, including an APT, to do anything without being detected. 

Combating the Enemies: APTs and Common Attacks

While APTs represent a formidable threat, it’s important to maintain perspective. The vast majority of organizations, and especially SMBs, are more likely to encounter common cyberattacks exploiting known vulnerabilities. 

Regardless of the attacker type, having a robust security posture is crucial. Given that the biggest security concern SMBs have is a lack of time to manage security, outsourcing to a third-party partner makes sense. However, ensuring that that partner offers the right combination of tech tools and human experts is essential. A SIEM-powered MDR solution provides the comprehensive monitoring, detection, and response capabilities needed to combat any and all threats. It is the only logical choice for organizations looking to bolster their security posture and improve their resilience against the ever-evolving cyber threat landscape. 

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