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Advanced Persistent Threat (APT), as a term, is perhaps over-used in cybersecurity. Like the Boogie-Man that strikes fear into the minds and hearts of children at night, APTs work just as hard to ensure that CISOs and CIOs never rest easily. But just like the Boogie-Man, the trick to not being afraid of APTs is to understand them. Unfortunately, understanding APTs isn’t as simple as a bed time story.

The first signs of APTs came from targeted, socially-engineered emails dropping Trojans designed for exfiltration of sensitive information. They were identified by UK and US CIRT organizations in 2005. Although the name "APT" was not used, the attackers met the criteria that determines an APT. The term "advanced persistent threat" is cited as originating from the Air Force in 2006 with Colonel Greg Rattray.

Another complexity to understanding APTs are their definition and identifiable characteristics. The internet is filled with different definitions and varying character-traits that can often make this step confusing and ambiguous. One popular definition on the Internet of an APT sums up the definition of an APT nicely is:

“An adversary that possesses sophisticated levels of expertise and significant resources which allow it to create opportunities to achieve its objectives by using multiple attack vectors (e.g., cyber, physical, and deception). These objectives typically include establishing and extending footholds within the information technology infrastructure of the targeted organizations for purposes of exfiltration of information, undermining or impeding critical aspects of a mission, program, or organization; or positioning itself to carry out these objectives in the future. The advanced persistent threat: (i) pursues its objectives repeatedly over an extended period of time; (ii) adapts to defenders’ efforts to resist it; and (iii) is determined to maintain the level of interaction needed to execute its objectives.” –National Institute of Standards and Technology

Within the computer security community, and increasingly within the media, the term is almost always used in reference to a long-term pattern of sophisticated hacking attacks aimed at governments, companies and political activists. The use of the term APT seems to be growing with the rising number of APT-related attacks, which according to a PC World story from a couple of years ago, noted 81 percent increase from 2010 to 2011 of APT attacks.

In a book released a couple of years ago called Reverse Deception: Organized Cyber Threat Counter-Exploitation, the authors define the following APT criteria:

  • Objectives – The end goal of the threat, your adversary
  • Timeliness – The time spent probing and accessing your system 
  • Resources – The level of knowledge and tools used in the event (skills and methods will weigh on this point) 
  • Risk tolerance – The extent the threat will go to remain undetected 
  • Skills and methods – The tools and techniques used throughout the event 
  • Actions – The precise actions of a threat or numerous threats 
  • Attack origination points – The number of points where the event originated
  • Numbers involved in the attack – How many internal and external systems were involved in the event, and how many people's systems have different influence/importance weights
  • Knowledge source – The ability to discern any information regarding any of the specific threats through online information gathering (you might be surprised by what you can find by being a little proactive)

Even though Advanced Persistent Threats play a strong role in cybersecurity planning, especially for large organizations, a lot of the fear and feeling of uncertainty about them can be eliminated by a simple understanding of what they are and what their pattern of attack typically looks like. Although the solution to removing the fear is never as simple as checking your closet, or server, at night before leaving, understanding the threat and partnering with an organization like Lockheed Martin can make your networks more secure.

Angela Heise is President of the Civil Group at Leidos. In this capacity, she is responsible for providing solutions to US Cabinet-level civil agencies and major elements of the public sector across the globe. Focus areas include energy and the environment, utilities, manufacturing and industrial, federal infrastructure, air traffic management, exploration and mission support, cybersecurity and information technology. Prior to this role, Heise served as vice president of Commercial Markets for Lockheed Martin-Commercial Cyber, where she was responsible for delivery of a portfolio of cybersecurity and information technology solutions and services to commercial Global 1000 customers. Heise graduated from Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science in computer science. She was recognized in 2012 as Aviation Week’s Top 40 under 40 and in 2013 was one of Federal Computing Week’s Top 100 Executives.