Cybersecurity Glossary

Advanced Persistent Threat

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What Is an Advanced Persistent Threat? 

An advanced persistent threat (APT) is a threat (that could transform into a full-scale attack) where a hacker has gained access to a network or system over a period without detection. These kinds of threats are sophisticated in nature and designed to bypass security measures and move throughout a system undetected. 

Think of an APT as a heist — the idea is to get in and complete a task before anyone is the wiser —instead of a traditional bank robbery where attackers go in, weapons in the air, making all kinds of noise and setting off every alarm. With an APT, the access is often the most important element, and they will exploit that access (or lurk within the system) as long as possible. 

Because APT attacks are often complex, they are most often carried about by advanced, well-funded cybercriminals and tend to target high-value organizations. These attacks are focused and take a significant amount of time and resources to attempt.  

The Four Categories of APTs 

When an advanced persistent threat occurs, the threat actors are often working toward one of four goals. 

  • Cyber espionage. This is where a group of nation-state actors is spying on another nation state and often trying to gather valuable information from a given network or system.
  • Financial gain. If the group of bad actors are connected to a cybercrime gang, they could be exploiting the access for financial gain and using the access to obtain financial data, accounts numbers, and more.
  • Hacktivism. Hacktivists often “hack” networks or systems for political or ideological goals. These threat actors could be stealing information to expose an organization, or to wreak havoc. Groups like Anonymous are considered hacktivists.
  • Destruction. In some cases, the cybercriminals who gain access will use that access to destroy files and data. 

While these four categories are not the only reasons for an APT, they are the four most common. As mentioned above, the skills, time, and resources needed to carry out an APT is advanced, so the end goal will be worth the risk and work put in. 

What Are the Stages of an APT? 

It’s critical for organizations to understand what an APT is and how it operates within a system to be able to recognize and remediate one before damage occurs. The stages are:  

  1. Infiltration. This is the first stage where a threat actor gains access. This access can be achieved through social engineering, credential theft, brute-force attacks, or a myriad of other methods.
  2. Escalation. Once a threat actor is within the system, they will start checking digital doors to see what is locked and how they can gain more and more access. This expansion and escalation are often achieved through malware.
  3. Lateral movement. Like escalation, being able to move freely within a system is crucial to success. Access management is important to protect against this lateral movement, and advanced access controls can stop an APT before the threat actors are able to move laterally within a network.
  4. Exfiltration. As the threat actors collect the data they seek — be it confidential files or financial information — they then find a way to move it out of the system without detection. Once this is done, the attack is complete. 

Traits of an APT Attack

The major question for every organization is “how do we know if an APT is occurring?” The answer is not a simple one.

For many organizations, the need for 24×7 monitoring, threat hunting, access management, and more is all needed to both detect and respond to APT attacks.

In addition, every environment is different. What may constitute investigation by one organization may not be flagged as suspicious by another. However, there are a few tell-tale signs that all organizations should be on the lookout for. 

  • Unusual user activity or logins, such as logins late at night or more frequent logins 
  • The presence of malware or trojan horses 
  • Unusual data bundles 
  • Unusual data flows, or data moving in ways it would not normally 
  • Unusual data access by users that do not need that data 

The biggest indicator is unusual activity. If you see users behaving in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, it could indicate that the user is a threat actor moving through the system.  

Examples of Advanced Persistent Threats

Iran Hacks the Federal Government. In mid-June, nation-state actors from Iran were able to use the Log4Shell vulnerability to breach the US Federal Civilian Executive Branch (FCEB) systems and deploy a XMRing cryptominer malware for good measure.

In addition, the group was able to achieve lateral mobility and steal credentials. The FCEB includes the Executive Office of the President, the Cabinet Secretaries, and other high-ranking departments.  

Chinese Espionage Group Accesses a Certificate Authority. Billbug, an espionage group based in China, was able to infiltrate and compromise a digital certificate authority (CA) back in March of 2022.

Because the CA is used by countless organizations to verify software as valid, the access could lead to several follow-up attacks. In this case, the group was utilizing the access to then gain access to others. 

How to Defend Against an APT 

When it comes to these kinds of threats, the best defense is proactive monitoring. As unusual activity is a major indicator that a threat is occurring internally, being able to monitor and detect that activity becomes paramount. Other defenses include: 

  • Access and identity management tools that can limit lateral movement and alert an organization to suspicious access requests or user behavior. 
  • Leveraging threat intelligence to enrich data and better understand your security environment. 
  • Patching vulnerabilities as soon as possible to prevent exploitation. 

How Arctic Wolf Can Help Protect Against APTs 

There are two parts of Arctic Wolf that will help an organization prevent APTs as well as stop them if they do occur. 

Arctic Wolf® Managed Detection and Response (MDR) combines cutting-edge technology, including machine learning, with the human element to monitor an organization’s environment 24×7, detect emerging threats, and then work with the organization to respond, recover, and remediate. MDR catches threats before they become devastating attacks through proactive threat hunting, the use of threat intelligence, and broad visibility and insights.

Arctic Wolf® Managed Risk works to proactively improve an organization’s security posture. Through strategic guidance and vulnerability management. It enables an organization to discover, assess, and harden the environment against digital risks by contextualizing the attack surface coverage across networks, endpoints, and cloud environments.

Arctic Wolf Managed Security Awareness® provides timely content as well as phishing simulations to help your employees understand how they can defend against APTs and how APTs may be targeting them for credentials or access.

Arctic Wolf Incident Response is here is APTS lead to a breach or full-scale attack. Incident Response can enable rapid remediation to any cyber emergency at scale and is the preferred partner of cyber insurance carriers.  

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Sule Tatar

Sule Tatar is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at Arctic Wolf, where she does research on security trends and brings groundbreaking cybersecurity products and services to market. She has extensive experience in the B2B cybersecurity space and holds a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and an MBA.
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