What is an Advanced Evasion Technique (AET)? According to a McAfee survey, an awful lot of CIOs have absolutely no idea, confusing them with the more famous Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) that have become an established term on many large organisations' worry list.
The survey of 800 professionals across the US, UK, Germany, France, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa found that only 70 percent were even sure they understood AETs, with 37 percent of those getting the definition wrong. This means that less than half of CIOs can define the term at all.
In fairness to CIOs, nobody has heard of AETs because they are, whisper it, pretty dull. They can be explained as subtle techniques designed to get around security boxes such as firewalls, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS). Think of them as packet-level probes that aim to spot weakness in these products such as traffic flows they don't understand, get confused about or just don't notice.
Despite being mysterious and bespoke, they are not a new idea, dating back at least as far as IPS systems first appeared more than a decade ago. To the average Chinese APT hacker, they are useful techniques for spot of jobbing firewall pwning but definitely old school.
Opinions are divided on how important they are but the balance of probability is that they are very useful to hackers on occasion. Inconveniently, not many vendors talk about them - Finnish firm Stonesoft being the notable and singular exception to that rule until they were bought by McAfee last year. Since then the mantle has fallen to the Stonesoft tendency within the Intel subsidiary to continue the important work of talking them up at every possibly opportunity.
Those crazy Finnish Stonesoft guys just won't shut up about AETs. Even being bought by McAfee can't silence them.
But McAfee is undoubtedly right about the confusion factor. The survey found that 61 percent believed they had AET protection in place, with half of those thinking their IPS/IDS did this job. Many CIOs also incorrectly identify vendors they believe offer anti-AET protection when they don't.
"The simple truth is that AETs are a fact of life.It's shocking that the majority of CIOs and security professionals severely underestimated that there are 329,246 AETs, when in fact the total of known AETs is approximately 2,500 times that number or more than 800 million AETs and growing," said Professor Andrew Blyth of the University of South Wales, quoted by McAfee.
As it happens, Blyth was commissioned a year ago by Stonesoft to carry out a study on AETs, finding that many IPS are about as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to detecting them.
According to McAfee, the ignorance over AETs comes at a high price in terms of data breaches, an average of $931,000 per incident using its own research to be precise. This climbs to $2 million a pop in financial services.
The company concedes that such attacks aren't caused by AETs alone but sees the attack technique as an important piece of engineering for siphoning data out of networks without security systems detecting what is going on.
McAfee does at least now offer a free tool, Evader, that security teams can use to test their equipment against known AETs probes. CIOs, prepare to be shocked - and enlightened.