​How to spot the difference between targeted attacks and APTs

Author: Raimund Genes, CTO, Trend Micro

With security playing an increasing role in many organisations, the line between targeted attacks and what our competitors called Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) have seemed to have gotten blurred somewhat.

The term “APT” is something that grew out of the US military almost a decade ago. It’s always had a reasonably precise definition: it covers attacks carried out by nation-states. Of course, these attacks don’t exactly advertise who carried them out. The code doesn’t say which intelligence agency or country was responsible. Attributing an attack to a specific country is difficult: after all, the attacker could be using proxies and hide their true origin.

More often than not, when we examine the code behind an APT, what we frequently find is the code is well-designed: i.e., it was not built by a small group of individuals, but by a group of developers. No blueprint of the code is found in the cybercrime underground either: whoever created this code did so on their own.

None of this is cheap. Consider the resources you need to pay those developers. Hacking Team sold their products for hundreds of thousands of dollars to various countries all over the world. Imagine how much more it would cost for countries which keep their own internal “hacking teams”.

However, most people don’t have to worry about APTs unless you’re managing the IT systems of a government agency or a defence contractor, you probably don’t have to worry about APTs. Instead, what you do have to worry about are data breaches and targeted attacks.

Targeted attacks are very different from APTs. They’re not carried out by countries; instead they’re carried out by attackers from all corners of the world. The goals vary: they can be either to steal your information, carry out credit card fraud, or perhaps just to cause trouble within your business. The tools used can be found in any underground marketplace for the right price. The real “sophistication” is in the social engineering behind these attacks.

Trend Micro’s latest security roundup report, A rising tide: new hacks threaten public technologies, reported that CryptoWall ransomware was becoming highly targeted, with Australia ranked ninth in the world for countries where CryptoWall victims were located during June 2015.

The report also found that hackers are taking more strategic approaches, refining their methods and targeting more selective victims to improve their infection rates. This is reflected by the exponential increase in the use of several traditional attack methods, including a 50 percent increase in the integration of the Angler exploit kit across the globe, with Australia ranked third in the world for countries most affected by the Angler Exploit Kit, behind Japan and the U.S.

Targeted attacks are what most organisations need to worry about, not nation-state APTs. It’s not hard to find the information needed to target someone for social engineering: just check their social media accounts, like LinkedIn or Facebook. From there, it’s easy enough to figure out what lure will get victims to click. From there, an attacker can deploy various tools such as remote access tools (RATs) which can compromise an organisation from within completely.

There is also a noticeable shift in the threat landscape with cyber criminals becoming more sophisticated and creative, amplifying existing methods of attack, and using them in new ways. Hackers are also taking more strategic approaches, refining their methods and targeting more selective victims to improve their infection rates.

This is how major data breaches and other security incidents happen. Unfortunately, many organisations are in a this-can’t-happen-to-me state of mind, and as a result they’re simply not ready to handle targeted attacks. They still rely on traditional antivirus solutions, which aren’t effective against many of the tools seen in the wild today. They need to adopt new solutions that come from security vendors to help deal with today’s threats.

The trouble with confusing targeted attacks and APTs is that it encourages a sort of cynical and defeatist attitude on the part of defenders. After all, if you’re defending against an intelligence agency, why bother even trying to defend your network? Why not give up?

Some companies like to talk about APTs because it’s good for the press. However, most people and organisations are not facing that kind of well-funded, super-skilled threat. They’re facing a different kind of threat. It’s not an easy threat to face, not by any means – but that’s not an excuse to simply give up. It’s a threat that can be defended against, with any damage mitigated and dealt with. It’s not easy, but the truth is that nothing dealing with security is easy.

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