By Joshua Ivy, Information Security Analyst
What are Advanced Persistent Threats
Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) are sophisticated cyber-attacks directed at specific targets and performed by highly skilled adversaries. These attacks are characterized by their long-term nature and the attackers' ability to breach defenses and maintain a presence within the target's network while secretly exfiltrating valuable data and sensitive information.
APTs often involve state-sponsored threat actors or well-funded criminal groups with the resources and expertise to execute and maintain such attacks. The driving forces behind APTs can range from political agendas and economic espionage to gaining military supremacy or intellectual property theft. These threat actors often aim to compromise critical infrastructure, exfiltrate classified data, or influence public sentiment, ultimately furthering the goals of their nation-state or criminal entities.
The Importance of APT Awareness
Understanding the potential risks and consequences associated with Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) is crucial, as these sophisticated and persistent cyber threats pose significant challenges to organizations of all sizes and industries. APTs can lead to data breaches and theft of sensitive information, disruption of operations, regulatory and legal repercussions, damage to brand reputation, increased costs, and even national security implications. Consequently, it is essential for individuals at all levels of an organization to be aware of these threats and take steps to protect their vital assets.
Below we will explore a few APTs and various incidents related to their group. While we only list a few significant APTs, there is a more expansive list of every known APT at MITRE.
Associated Groups: Comment Crew, Comment Panda
Primary Industries: Defense, Aerospace, and Energy
APT1 is a Chinese state-sponsored group associated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA). They are believed to be behind a long-running cyber espionage campaign called Operation Shady RAT. This operation targeted more than 70 organizations worldwide, including defense contractors, government agencies, and technology companies in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia. The attackers sought to steal sensitive information, intellectual property, and trade secrets to benefit Chinese state-owned enterprises and the Chinese government.
Associated Groups: Gothic Panda, UPS Team, Buckeye
Primary Industries: Critical Infrastructure, Telecommunications, and Healthcare
APT3 is another Chinese state-sponsored group connected to China's Ministry of State Security (MSS). In 2015, they conducted a cyber-espionage campaign called Operation Clandestine Wolf, which targeted organizations in the United States and other countries. The campaign primarily focused on stealing sensitive information from the aerospace, defense, construction, high-tech, and telecommunications industries. APT3 used various tactics, including spear-phishing emails and exploiting zero-day vulnerabilities to access victims' systems.
Associated Groups: Fancy Bear, Sofacy, Sednit, STRONTIUM
Primary Industries: Government Agencies, Military Organizations, and Political Groups
APT28 is a Russian state-sponsored group responsible for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the United States. The group stole and leaked sensitive emails and documents during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. APT28 used spear-phishing emails and malware to infiltrate the DNC's computer network and exfiltrate the data.
Associated Groups: Cozy Bear, The Dukes, Yttrium
Primary Industries: Government Organizations, Think Tanks, and Research Institutions
Another Russian state-sponsored group, APT29, was involved in the massive SolarWinds supply chain attack discovered in 2020. Cozy Bear compromised the SolarWinds Orion software, widely used for network management. They used it as a delivery mechanism to infiltrate the networks of thousands of organizations, including government agencies, private companies, and critical infrastructure providers in the United States and worldwide. The primary goal of this operation was to conduct cyber espionage and gather sensitive information from the affected organizations.
Lazarus Group (North Korea)
Primary Industries: Entertainment, Finance, and Critical Infrastructure
The Lazarus Group is a North Korean state-sponsored hacking group known for its involvement in various cyber-espionage and cybercrime campaigns. The group has targeted multiple industries, including entertainment, finance, and critical infrastructure. Notable attacks include the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, which was politically motivated due to the controversial film "The Interview," the global WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017, and the 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist. In addition, subgroups within the Lazarus Group, such as APT38, have been responsible for numerous high-profile attacks on banks and financial institutions, aiming to steal funds or disrupt the global financial system.
While these are only a few examples of the constant threats APTs pose, organizations must adopt a proactive approach to cybersecurity by implementing robust policies, investing in security technologies, and fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness. Additionally, by continuously monitoring and adapting to the evolving threat landscape while leveraging insights from industry-specific threat intelligence groups and intelligence sharing, organizations can better anticipate and respond to the ever-evolving APT landscape. Thereby ensuring organizations safeguard their assets and mitigate the potential impact of sophisticated and persistent cyber threats.