Top tips for fighting targeted cyber threats

Advanced security threats are increasing, but simply adding more layers of defence does not necessarily increase security against targeted threats.

Targeted attacks are penetrating standard levels of security controls and causing significant business damage to enterprises that do not evolve their security controls, according to Gartner vice president and analyst, John Pescatore.

“For the average enterprise, 4 - 8 per cent of executables that pass through antivirus and other common defences are malicious,” he warned.

“Enterprises need to focus on reducing vulnerabilities and increasing monitoring capabilities to deter or more quickly react to evolving threats. There are existing security technologies that can greatly reduce vulnerability to targeted attacks.”

However, he also said the term ‘advanced persistent threat’ (APT) has been overhyped, and is distracting organisations from a very real problem.

APT was coined by the US military to refer to a specific threat from another country. It was expanded to include other aggressive nation states, but has been co-opted by the media and by security vendors to hype the source of an attack which, Pescatore maintained, distracts from the real issue — focusing on the vulnerabilities that attackers are exploiting.

“The reality is that the most important issues are the vulnerabilities and the techniques used to exploit them, not the country that appears to be the source of the attack,” he said.

“The major advance in new threats has been the level of tailoring and targeting, and these are not noisy, mass attacks that are easily handled by simple, signature-dependent security approaches.”

Targeted attacks aim to achieve a specific impact against specific enterprises, and have three major goals: Disrupting business operations (denial of service); obtaining use of the business product or service without paying for it (theft of service); and stealing, destroying or modifying business-critical information (information compromise).

The motivation for advanced targeted threats is usually financial gain, such as through extortion during a denial of service attack, trying to obtain a ‘ransom’ for stolen information, or selling stolen identity information to criminal groups.

According to Pescatore, through year-end 2015 financially motivated attacks will continue to be the source of more than 70 per cent of the most damaging cyberthreats. Most politically motivated attacks actually re-use techniques first seen in cybercrime attacks.

Strategies companies can implement to deal with advanced targeted threats include:

Own the vulnerability — don't blame the threat

There are no unstoppable forces in cyberattacks. If CIOs close the vulnerability, they stop the curious teenager, the experimental hacker, the cybercriminal and the information warrior. Many attacks that include zero-day exploits often use well-known vulnerabilities as part of the overall attacks.

“Businesses and government agencies involved in critical infrastructure, high-tech or financial operations that are constant targets of cybercrime and other advanced threats need to add 'lean-forward' capabilities to have continual visibility into potential attacks and compromises,” Pescatore said.

“The use of specialised threat detection, network forensics and situational awareness technologies can be very effective in quickly detecting and reacting to the first stages of an advanced targeted threat, but require high levels of skilled resources to be effective.”

Evolve defences — don't just add layers

The best approach to reducing the risk of compromise is always ‘security in depth, providing the enterprise can afford it. However, affording it means not just having the money to buy increasing numbers of security products, but also the staff and operations support to use and integrate everything. Having more security layers does not automatically mean more security.

Focus on security — not compliance

There is a big difference between compliance and security. Due diligence from a compliance perspective is simply limiting the company's liability from legal action. Pescatore said it is never the answer to dealing with advanced threats or living up to customers’ trust.

“A lean-forward approach to security is going beyond the due diligence level of the standard network security and vulnerability assessment controls, and using tools and processes to continuously look for active threats on the internal networks,” he said.

“However, IT leaders must be prepared to invest in and staff lean-forward processes. Most importantly, they must be prepared to take action if they find something.”

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