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Cybersecurity professionals fear a persistent cyberattack that uses a variety of sophisticated techniques with the goal of stealing a company's valuable data. An advanced persistent attack, or APT for short, is a hidden and complicated series of hacking techniques. It allows the attacker to gain access to a secure system, stay inside the system for a long time, and wreak havoc on the system.

Who Do APTs Target?

An APT attack is complicated and requires effort and resources. The targets chosen for these attacks have high-value. These include large corporations and governments. The goal is to steal information over a long period as opposed to simply breaking in, stealing information, and then leaving as lower-level hackers do.

Large corporations should be wary of APT attacks. This does not mean that small and medium-sized businesses won't be targeted. Small and medium-sized businesses may be used as a gateway to gain access to large corporations. Hackers target small and medium-sized businesses because they are not well defended and serve as great steppingstones for future attacks.

An APT attack is not designed to destroy a company's local networks or their machines. The primary goal is data theft.

The Makeup of an APT Attack

Advanced persistent threats have multiple phases. First up is to attack a network. The second is to avoid detection. The third is to map a company's data with the goal of identifying the location of the company's valuable data and how to get access to said data. The fourth step is to gather sensitive data. Finally, there is an exfiltration of the data.

Advanced persistent threats lead to expensive breaches. They are favored by cybercriminals because of their ability to stay undetected for a long period. Traditional security measures have difficulty identifying the attack.

  • During the first stage of the attack, cybercriminals gain entry to the network using infected files or junk email. They may pinpoint a vulnerability and use this to put malware into the network.
  • Next, the malware establishes a foothold by creating network backdoors and tunnels. This allows for free movement around the system without detection. The malware may rewrite codes, making it easier for hackers to hide their tracks.
  • In the next stage of the attack, hackers use techniques like password cracking to get administrator rights. This allows them to control more of the system, getting access to higher levels of secure data.
  • Once this access is gained, hackers begin lateral movement. They will try to gain access to other servers and other secure parts of the network.
  • Now that they are inside the system, hackers can build a full understanding of how the system works, including its vulnerabilities. This lets them gather the data they want at their leisure. The goal is to keep this process going indefinitely. If hackers withdraw from the system, they will leave a backdoor, giving them access to the system again in the future.

Factors That Make Advanced Persistent Threats Different from Other Cyber Attacks

The opening stages of an advanced persistent threat are like the opening stages of most other cyber attacks. Malware is delivered via the Internet, physical infection, or using internal exploitation to get access to protected networks.

After gaining entry, advanced persistent threats take on unique characteristics. Traditional viruses and malware show the same behavior throughout the attack. Viruses and malware are just re-purposed to attack different systems or companies.

Advanced persistent threats are narrow in their focus. They are made to attack a specific company or organization. They are characterized by being sophisticated and uniquely designed to get around the specific security measures used by the company that is being attacked.

Phishing attacks and attacks pinpointing specific employees or business partners are used to gain initial access. Using trusted connections makes it easier for the attack to go undetected. Advanced persistent threats need time to map an enterprise's system, find sensitive data, and then harvest the company's data.

Malware is at the heart of an advanced persistent threat. Once the malware has made its way into the network, it can hide from security and detection programs as it navigates from one system to the next. Attackers must be able to control an advanced persistent threat remotely. This allows criminals free rein to navigate through the organization's network, identifying critical data. They need to get access to the data and safely remove the data.

What Are the Warning Signs of an Advanced Persistent Threat?

Advanced persistent threats are difficult to detect. There are symptoms that may show you are dealing with an advanced persistent threat attack. These can include:

  • Unusual login activity, especially late at night by employees who usually would not be accessing the network at this time.
  • Finding backdoor Trojans. This is the tool used by hackers to make sure that they can maintain access to a system, even when the user whose credentials they have stolen learns of the breach and changes their credentials.
  • Unexpected flows of data. Check for flows of data that originate from inside your network to external computers. These flows of data differ from your company's typical data transfer.
  • Finding unexpected data bundles. Attackers in an advanced persistent threat will often compile data in one place in your network before they try to move it out of your network. You may find data bundles in places where your company rarely stores data. The data may be packaged in formats that your company rarely uses.
  • Pass-the-hash attacks steal password hashes from password hash storage databases. While these are not always used in advanced persistent threats, finding them in your company's network is a sign that further investigation is required.

Discovering an APT attack does not mean that the immediate threat is gone. Hackers leave backdoors that let them come back whenever they choose. Popular forms of cyber defenses, such as antiviruses and firewalls, may not protect you against these types of cyberattacks.

APT attacks work because they are sophisticated and use multiple techniques to reach their goal. To mount a successful defense against these attacks, your security system must create a multi-pronged defense that uses multiple security measures.

The human factor cannot be ignored in successful APT attacks. Your workforce needs to be trained to identify social engineering techniques. This includes identifying and properly handling phishing emails. When this multi-pronged approach is properly initiated, there is a greater chance of a successful, long-term defense against advanced persistent threat attacks.