Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) ?

The Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) is a sophisticated and organized cyber attack to access and steal information from compromised computers.

Advanced means the adversary can operate in the full spectrum of computer intrusion. They can use the most pedestrian publicly available exploit against a well-known vulnerability, or they can elevate their game to research new vulnerabilities and develop custom exploits, depending on the target's posture.

Persistent means the adversary is formally tasked to accomplish a mission. They are not opportunistic intruders. Like an intelligence unit they receive directives and work to satisfy their masters. Persistent does not necessarily mean they need to constantly execute malicious code on victim computers. Rather, they maintain the level of interaction needed to execute their objectives.

Threat means the adversary is not a piece of mindless code. This point is crucial. Some people throw around the term "threat" with reference to malware. If malware had no human attached to it (someone to control the victim, read the stolen data, etc.), then most malware would be of little worry (as long as it didn't degrade or deny data). Rather, the adversary here is a threat because it is organized and funded and motivated. Some people speak of multiple "groups" consisting of dedicated "crews" with various missions.

Looking at the target list, we can perceive several potential objectives. Most likely, the APT supports:

• Political objectives that include continuing to suppress its own population in the name of "stability."

• Economic objectives that rely on stealing intellectual property from victims. Such IP can be cloned and sold, studied and underbid in competitive dealings, or fused with local research to produce new products and services more cheaply than the victims.

• Technical objectives that further their ability to accomplish their mission. These include gaining access to source code for further exploit development, or learning how defenses work in order to better evade or disrupt them. Most worringly is the thought that intruders could make changes to improve their position and weaken the victim.

•Military objectives that include identifying weaknesses that allow inferior military forces to defeat superior military forces. The Report on Chinese Government Sponsored Cyber Activities addresses issues like these.

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