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APTs or Advanced Persistent Threats are threats in which the threat agent (person or persons responsible) is highly motivated, well resourced, and highly skilled. This modis operendi of these people is to identify high-value target profiles (senior management, financially responsible, and influential) and gain persistent access to sensitive information.
Over the last few months, there has been an increasing number of public reports related to APT incidents:
Athough it has been widely reported in the past that malware writers and the criminal elements funding their research were moving in the direction of smaller, more targeted attacks, it appears that this trend has been accelerated and is catching many organizations and people off-guard in the process.
There are a couple of difficult challenges associated with countering these types of threats:
1) Threat information - with a few exceptions (government and private intelligence) most people and organizations in the commercial world have no idea who the people behind these attacks are, how they are motivated, the techniques they are using, and what type of information they are after. This severely limits our ability to prevent, detect and respond.
Many of the recently reported incidents have fully funded security teams that are quite well trained and I expect very capable, but without a better understanding of the threats (who they are, what they are after, how they operate, how to respond) their efforts are not likely to be focussed appropriately. Encrypted HTTPS sessions to eastern Europe from client browsers probably doesn't raise any alarms for most people today. There are many sources of vulnerability intelligence (adobe has a new 0-day flaw), but very few sources of threat intelligence (criminal gang X in europe are preparing to target CFO's of petro-chemical organizations by hiring malware developers).
We need to start sharing intelligence better. Governments who are funding intelligence research should expand these programs and build partnerships with the organizations being targeted. This serves to inform the community about current threats, and collect information regarding incidents. Targets are in most-cases commercial non-military organizations who don't have the benefit of being briefed by NSA on a regular basis. Those governments who don't collect this type of intelligence need to start. And commercially, private industry needs to serve our clients better by insuring advice being provided is as accurate and actionable as possible.
A good example of this is the Transglobal Secure Collaboration Program (TSCP).
2) Deployed control in-effectiveness - anti-virus, intrusion detection/prevention products have been developed to respond to malware that is reported to them in most cases after the infection has occurred. Keeping anti-virus software updated is important, but so is realizing that it only protects from well known vulnerabilities.
These threats are using custom malware, in some incidents used in only a small number of cases, and developed to be un-noticeable by the target. Exclusive dependence on traditional types of security controls for protection against these threats will only establish a false sense of security.
We also need to adopt a new set of controls and thinking when addressing these threats. We need to start isolating sensitive information and processing away from other less trustable activities (web browsing, email, etc), and we need to be vigilant in protecting them. We should start reintroducing the basic security concepts of fail-close, and whitelisting rather than signature matching into more of our sensitive processes and educating our clients on reasons they are not permitted to update their facebook profile from the online-banking terminal.