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Advanced Persistent Threat: Examples, Detection, Prevention

15th Sep, 2023
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    Advanced Persistent Threat: Examples, Detection, Prevention

    Organizations must be aware of advanced threat tactics, as cyber-attacks have become more sophisticated and covert. The term persistent threat describes a series of cyber-attacks over time. These well-researched attacks can be used to gain access to sensitive data, steal intellectual property and test computer networks without being detected.  

    In this article, we will explain what an APT — advanced persistent threat is, what organizations need to know about APT attacks, how it works, and how you can protect yourself from it. Explore the Best CEH Course and improve your cyberskills! 

    What is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) in Cyber Security?

    The advanced persistent threat (APT) has been the bane of cybersecurity for years now. This has become a major issue as cybercriminals and nation-states have started taking advantage of this new and emerging threat vector. The primary function of APT cyber security is to penetrate the perimeter security systems of your organization so that they can access internal resources. Here are five common stages of an APT attack: 

    Main Goals of APT Attacks and their Category

    • Unauthorized access to classified information such as credit cards, bank accounts, passport details, etc. 
    • Sabotage the entire system, including the cloud, by deleting the complete database. 
    • Taking over the critical website and making major changes such as the stock market or hospital. 
    • Accessing essential systems with the credentials of the people. 
    • Access to sensitive or incriminating information through communication. 

    How Does Advance Persistent Threats Work?

    APTs generally take place over time and involve the following steps: 

    1. Hackers infiltrate networks. The malware is usually planted into the network via phishing emails, malicious attachments, or application vulnerabilities. 
    2. An external command-and-control server may be used to provide additional instructions or code to the malicious software. 
    3. As a result, malware will often create other points of compromise to ensure that an attack can continue. Although a specific entry point or vulnerability has been closed or strengthened. 
    4. After successfully gaining access to a network, a cybercriminal begins working. It might involve stealing confidential information, deleting data, or stealing account names. 
    5. A staging server is used by the malware to collect data. This data is exfiltrated using an external server controlled by the hacker. As soon as the hacker breaches the network in this way, he will attempt to cover his tracks, erase all evidence, and repeat the process indefinitely. 

    Key Characteristics of an APT Attack

    Several characteristics distinguish advanced persistent threat cyber security attacks from others. 

    1. They are advanced

    Costs for customizing APTs can range from thousands to millions of dollars. A team of highly skilled and intelligent cyber criminals created them. In the hacker’s view, APTs are the most resource-intensive form of crime because they require many months of development and launch. 

    2. They are persistent

    The types of hackers involved in APT usually have a lower risk tolerance than those who engage in “script kiddies” or other types of hacking that cast a wide net to attract a single target. These attacks aim to evade detection for as long as possible by planning and designing them carefully with knowledge of the target’s vulnerabilities. 

    3. They are stealthy

    An APT attack is not shallow when it comes to skills and methodologies. It is typical for these threats to be characterized by highly sophisticated social engineering activities, detection, and prevention, as well as persistence once they have gained access. 

    4. They are non-obvious

    It is pertinent to note that, in addition to the tools listed above, there are an endless array of potential advanced persistent threat tools, including the deadliest Trojan virus. 

    5. They are tailored

    Semi-technical script kiddies rarely run advanced persistent threats. Their development takes your organization’s vulnerabilities into account, and they’re highly targeted at you. Zero-day malware attacks falling within the APT category may require millions or even millions of dollars to develop. 

    6. They have a specific purpose

    Using an APT, criminals can repeatedly gather sensitive information over time and maximize their earnings. There are also times when the objective is politically, strategically, or espionage-related. This period of time also involves repeated pursuit of APT goals. 

    7. They establish multiple through multiple weak points

    Multiple attempts may be launched for an initial presence in a network, although first attempts are generally sufficiently well-researched to succeed. Your organization’s human gatekeepers as well as your network’s vulnerabilities, can be discovered through months of research. 

    8. They occur in multiple stages

    An APT’s multiphase nature is one of its most defining characteristics. Social Engineering, phishing, exploit kits, etc., are among the phases in which they attempt to enter a system. The process involves: 

    • Mapping an organization’s network. 
    • Developing a precise approach. 
    • Capturing data. 
    • Repeating the exfiltration process as often as possible. 

    9. They have particular signs of detection

    The following symptoms may be observed by organizations following a compromise, although APTs are almost universally incredibly difficult to detect: 

    • Activity on user accounts that seems odd 
    • A widespread method of securing access is the use of backdoor trojans 
    • Increasing database operations suddenly, which can involve enormous amounts of data, is unusual database activity 
    • Exfiltration may be facilitated by combining collected data into files 

    10. They have knowledge sources

    Businesses everywhere should be aware of APT attacks. These attacks should not be ignored by small and medium enterprises, however. In order to gain access to large organizations, APT attackers increasingly use smaller companies that are part of the supply chain. 

    Types of Advanced Persistent Threats

    It's hard to imagine a situation worse than being hacked by a sophisticated APT. Malware that performs APT attacks over a prolonged period of time is referred to as APT malware. Instead of causing damage to a computer or network, APT malware repeatedly steals data over a long period of time. Although there are many types of advanced persistent threats, the following are the most common: 

    1. Social engineering

    By exploiting social engineering techniques, systems, networks, and physical locations can be accessed by unauthorized individuals without their knowledge. Hackers conceal their identities and motives by posing as trusted individuals or sources of information. It is possible to influence, manipulate, or trick an organization into revealing sensitive information. 

    2. Phishing

    APT phishing attack is when a website pretends to be legitimate but actually contains someone trying to steal your credit card number, bank account information, or password. Cybercriminals typically send a fake message that contains a phishing website link that appears to come from a reputable company, a friend, or an acquaintance. 

    3. Spear phishing

    Emailing or using electronic communications to target an individual, company, or organization is called spear phishing. Malware can also be installed on a targeted user's computer by cybercriminals, even though they usually intend to steal data for malicious purposes. 

    4. Rootkits

    Hackers can take control of a target device with malware, such as rootkits. The hardware and software on your computer can be infected by some rootkits and the operating system and software.  

    5. Exploit Kits

    Exploits exploit software vulnerabilities. When hackers find outdated systems with critical vulnerabilities, they deploy targeted malware to exploit them. Malware payloads commonly include shellcode, a small piece of malware that downloads additional malware from attacker-controlled networks. Organizations and devices can be infiltrated and infected with shellcodes. 

    6. Other methods

    Other APT attack examples are computer worms, bots, spyware, adware, ransomware, remote execution, spear phishing, web shell, rootkits, keylogger, and many more.  

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    Five Stages of Advanced Persistent Threat Attack (APT)

    1. Initial access

    Cybercriminals gather information about their targets during the initial access phase of an APT attack. The primary targets of the initial stage are the employees of the organization, their workstations, exploiting application vulnerabilities, vulnerabilities in security tools, and malicious uploads, spear phishing commonly targets employees with privileged accounts. The attackers hope to gain control over the target by infecting it with malicious software. 

    2. First penetration and malware deployment

    The development phase of an APT attack is when the cybercriminals and nation-states focus on finding vulnerabilities in the networked resources of the organization. They will then attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities and gain access to internal resources they didn’t initially intend to access. An attacker installs backdoor shells and trojans disguised as legitimate software to access the network and control the compromised system. By encrypting, obfuscating, or rewriting code, advanced malware techniques the attacker can conceal an APT’s activity. 

    3. Expand access and move laterally

    In an expanded access phase of an APT attack is the process where the cybercriminals install their malicious code onto endpoints. The installation process varies from case to case. Their goal is to gain deeper access and control over more sensitive systems by using brute force attacks or exploiting other vulnerabilities. It could be as easy as getting an employee to open an infected attachment and thus an attacker can bypass firewalls and create tunnels as well as install additional backdoors. 

    4. Stage the attack

    This stage is where the cybercriminals attempt to remain under the radar of the network security systems. During this phase, the cybercriminals and nation-states employ techniques such as watering-down activity to lower their risk.  

    This stage can take time as the common practice of attackers is to encrypt and compress data to prevent it from being easily accessed. The primary goal of this stage is to let the APT attacks run while keeping a low profile. 

    5. Exfiltration or damage infliction

    The exfiltration or damage infliction phase of an APT attack is when the cybercriminals attempt to damage or destroy as many resources as possible. The hacker can fully exploit a system's vulnerabilities from within, giving a complete control of the system. 

    To distract security teams, hackers frequently use a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack when transferring data outside a network perimeter. 

    Once hackers achieve a particular goal, they may withdraw or continue to run this process indefinitely. It is common for hackers to leave a backdoor open to regain access to the system later.

    APT Security Measures

    1. Traffic monitoring

    Communication and information technologies will never cease to evolve, and data in motion will always exist. Because hackers always target the main arteries and thoroughfares of data flow, monitoring network traffic is crucial for organizations of all sizes. A network traffic monitoring system safeguards against potential problems and is also used to maintain network performance and speed. 

    2. Application and domain whitelisting

    Whitelisting applications help protect your computer system against malware, spam, ransomware, and other threats, like email whitelisting. The application whitelist works oppositely to approve email addresses, allowing only approved applications to run. Unwhitelisted items are blocked and considered unsafe. 

    3. Access control

    Access control is one of the most effective defenses against advanced persistent threats, such as using strong passwords, two-factor authentication, or Google Authentication, because it mitigates the threat of compromised passwords. Without approval from the second factor, a password alone won’t provide access if hacked, guessed, or even phished. 

    4. Keeping Security Patches Updated

    Whenever software is vulnerable, security patches are issued to fix the issue. The term vulnerability refers to a weakness in software that malicious individuals can exploit. 

    These vulnerabilities may have a theoretical aspect, but they can have serious consequences. Someone with physical access could steal all your files if your operating system has a flaw that allows anyone to gain administrative privileges. Your private information could be exposed by a flaw in an app that leaks data. 

    5. Avoid Phishing Attempts

    Ensure your computer is protected from malicious messages by installing anti-phishing and anti-spam software. Other types of threats are prevented by antivirus malware. Security researchers program anti-malware software to detect even the stealthiest malware, just as they do with anti-spam software. 

    6. Perform Regular Scans for Backdoors

    Backdoors are one of the widespread problems. Security measures govern access to internet-facing services or infrastructure behind them, which are all protected by security measures. As well as supporting various parameters and configurations that enable the security mechanisms to function, they are also supported by the various security implementations.  

    Backdoor conditions may occur if such parameters are not configured correctly. It is possible for IT admins to accidentally or intentionally enable anonymous access for specific purposes without thinking about the security implications and then forget to disable it afterwards.

    Advanced Persistent Threat Examples

    The first step in detecting persistent threats is to know how these attackers operate. They are usually well-educated on the organization they are targeting, which allows them to change tactics quickly and evade detection.

    New tactics and techniques are created to stay a step ahead of detection. While detecting a persistent threat and having a quick APT solution is difficult, it’s not impossible. The next step is to understand how attackers operate to identify the best ways to detect their activities. Two primary methods of detecting persistent threats are tracking and analysis.

    An APT is usually sponsored by a nation or a very large organization. Examples of APTs include Iran's nuclear program and Hydraq, which Stuxnet brought to an end. Iran's ability to enrich uranium was slowed in 2010 by cyberattacks by the United States and Israel. In comparison to other viruses or worms, Stuxnet was unique. Centrifuges that enrich uranium are destroyed instead of hijacked or stolen by malware. To accomplish this, one required intricate programming. Stuxnet targeted industrial control systems and CPUs from Siemens.

    As part of Operation Aurora in 2009, Hydraq was used to attack Google and other U.S. companies. The malicious Trojan horse Hydraq was installed using a zero-day exploit, reportedly from China, as part of Operation Aurora. A Google spokesperson revealed the attack in January 2010. Rackspace, Juniper Networks, and Adobe Systems were among the victims. Even though various banks, defence contractors, security vendors, oil and gas companies, technology companies, and others were attacked, they didn't publicize the incident.

    APT Detection and Protection

    The first step in detecting persistent threats is to be aware of how these attackers operate. They are usually well-educated on the organization they are targeting, which gives them the ability to change tactics quickly and evade detection. 

    New tactics and techniques are created to stay a step ahead of detection. While it’s difficult to detect a persistent threat and have a quick APT solution, it’s not impossible. The next step is to understand how attackers operate to identify the best ways to detect their activities. Two primary methods of detecting persistent threats are tracking and analysis. 

    1. Email filtering

    During email filtering, the software automatically moves unwanted emails to a separate folder after analyzing them for red flags that signal phishing. You are more likely to lose your personal sensitive information such as banking or identity number when you click on a phishing email. The sole purpose of phishing emails is to steal your personal information. 

    2. Endpoint protection

    Data and workflows associated with individual devices on your network are protected through endpoint security. Endpoint protection platforms examine files as they enter the network. With endpoint security, you'll not only be protected from malicious software, you'll also be protected against evolving zero-day threats. 

    3. Access control

    Providing access to and using company information and resources is a fundamental component of data security. By authenticating and authorizing users, access control policies ensure they have access to company data in accordance with their claims.  

    4. Monitoring of traffic, user and entity behavior 

    Monitoring network events generated each day by users, users, and entities is the process of gathering insight into their behavior. By collecting and analyzing this data, you can identify compromised credentials, lateral movement, and other malicious activity.

    Most Common Tactics Used by APTs

    In order to fully understand APTs, it is essential to understand their flexibility. In addition to launching sophisticated attacks, they also launch very basic attacks. Sometimes, a simple attack works for an adversary just as much as it does for anyone else. Here are the common advanced persistent threat list that are used by the hackers: 

    1. Spear phishing

    Phishing is the primary attack vector of most attacks, including advanced persistent threats. APTs sometimes use phishing attacks to spread their malicious influence widely, while spear phishing is sometimes used to target specific individuals or businesses. By engaging in phishing scams, users' login credentials are commonly exposed or malware is installed on their machines. 

    2. Watering hole attack

    Similar to phishing attacks, watering holes use legitimate websites infected with malware to deliver malicious payloads or steal credentials. Watering holes are targeted by attackers who corrupt websites that people are likely to visit. 

    3. Privilege escalation

    As the name implies, privilege escalation is an attack where users are granted elevated rights or privileges beyond what is provided. The attacker may be an outsider or an insider. An important part of the cyberattack chain involves privilege escalation vulnerabilities, such as system bugs, misconfigurations, or inadequate access controls. 

    4. Credential harvesting

    In Credential Harvesting (or Account Harvesting), large amounts of credentials are obtained via MITM attacks, DNS poisoning, phishing, and other methods. Assailants aggregate large quantities of credentials for sale on the dark web and in other covert channels. 

    5. Data exfiltration

    Several different terms are used to describe data exfiltration, including data exportation and data theft. These terms refer to data transfer from a computer or other device without authorization. A person with physical access to a computer can perform data exfiltration manually, but a malicious computer program can also achieve it over the network. 

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    Advanced persistent threat attacks pose a serious risk to organizations and can result in the loss of critical information. To prevent these attacks, you must understand the hackers and what they are trying to do on your network. The best way to prevent an advanced persistent threat attack is to secure your systems and prevent unauthorized access. Many APT protection tools are available that can help you do this, and many are free.  

    One of the best advanced persistent threat prevention is you need to protect your systems and prevent unauthorized access. These hackers often use legitimate tools and methods to achieve their goals and the best way to prevent them is to secure your systems and prevent unauthorized access. Take a look at the KnowledgeHut’s Best CEH Course and enroll yourself today!

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    1What is the difference between APT and malware?

    An APT takes a more strategic and stealthy approach than most malware. By using traditional malware such as Trojans and phishing, attackers gain access to networks, but they then move around secretly and install their attack software throughout. 

    2What are APTs what are they used for?

    When an APT achieves multiple points of entry into the targeted network, the attacker can retain access even if a cybersecurity defender discovers the malicious activity. This will enable defenders to close one breach. 

    3What is the goal of an APT attack?

    Usually, APT attacks target monitoring, stealing data, or embedding themselves deeply in an organization to make them tougher to detect and prevent in the future. APT attacks can hide and lurk in their victims' network for weeks, months, or even years. 

    4How do most advanced persistent threats begin?

    It is a type of attack that stealthily gains unauthorized access to network data with advanced persistent threats. An ATP breach is a sophisticated attack that can remain undetected for a considerable period of time once it passes security barriers.


    Shweta Lakhwani


    Shweta Lakhwani runs a travel business - "Voyage Planner" based in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), India. In addition, she is a freelance writer and wins her clients with her creative writing skill. She creates content on various topics such as travel, entertainment, self-help, science, education, information technology (IT), cryptocurrency, insurance, medical, real estate, personal growth, business development, health care, and lifestyle. She is also a Brand Ambassador at the Isla Ida Bracelet and a partner at the Eden Reforestation Projects. She advocates free and life-changing travel experiences while positively influencing the planet.

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