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APTs: Description, Key Threats, and Best Management Practices

An Advances Persistent Threat (APT) is a sophisticated, multiple staged cyberattack, in which the threat actor covertly creates and maintain its presence within an organization’s network, undetected, over a period of time. 

A government agency or a business could be the target, and the information could be stolen or used to do additional harm. When attempting to penetrate a high-value target, an APT may be launched against the systems of one entity. APTs have been reported to be carried out by both state actors and private criminals. 

Several organizations closely monitor the threat actor groups that pose these APTs. CrowdStrike, a security company that monitors over 170 APT groups, claims to have witnessed a nearly 45% rise in interactive infiltration efforts between year 2020 and 2021. Nation-state espionage activities are now a strong second in frequency, although (financial) e-crime is still the most frequently identified motive.

An APT comprises of mainly three main reasons: 

  1. Network infiltration 
  2. The expansion of the attacker’s presence 
  3. The extraction of amassed data (or, in some instances, the launch of sabotage within the system)

Since the threat is established to both evade detection and acquire sensitive information, each of these steps may entail several steps and be patiently carried out over an extended period of time.

Successful breaches may operate covertly for years; yet, some acts, including jumping from a third-party provider to the ultimate target or carrying out a financial exfiltration, may be carried out very rapidly. 

APTs have a reputation for using deception to avoid giving proper, direct credit for their work. An APT for one country could incorporate language from another country into its code to confuse investigators. 

Investigating teams may as well have close relationships with state-intelligence agencies, leading some to raise questions pertaining to the objectivity of their findings. 

Amidst this, the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of APTs are up for constant updates, in response to the continuously changing environment and countermeasures. “This past year, there was a dramatic uptick in APT attacks on critical infrastructure such as the transportation and financial sectors,” says Trellix’s Head of Threat Intelligence. 

List of key threats

New APTs based on advanced techniques are, by nature, generally operating yet being undetected. Additionally, quite challenging attacks continue to be carried out against organizations, long after they were first detected (for instance, SolarWinds). 

Moreover, fresh common trends and patterns are constantly being identified and duplicated, unless a means is discovered in order to render them ineffective. Listed below are some of the major trends in APTs, identified by a Russian internet security firm ‘Kaspersky’: 

The private sector supporting an influx of new APT players: It is anticipated that more and more APTs will use commercially available products like the Pegasus software from the Israeli company NSO Group, which is marketed to government agencies for its zero-click surveillance capabilities. 

Mobile devices exposed to wide, sophisticated attacks: Although Apple's new Lockdown Mode for the iOS 16 iPhone software update is meant to address the exploitation of spyware by NSO Group, its phones still stand with Android and other mobile devices as the top targets of APTs. 

More supply-chain attacks: Supply-chain attacks should continue to be a particularly effective strategy for reaching high-value government and private targets, as demonstrated by SolarWinds. 

Continued exploitation of work-from-home (WFH): With the emerging WFH arrangements since the year 2020, hacker groups will continue targeting employees’ remote systems, until those systems are potent enough to combat exploitation. 

Increase in APT intrusions in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa (META) region, (especially in Africa): With the constantly diminishing geopolitical situation, globally, espionage is emerging rapidly in areas where systems and communications are the most vulnerable. 

APT Identification and Management Practices: 

Since APTs are designed to be covert, facilitated, backed by constant advancement, and illicit traffic in zero-day exploits, it becomes intrinsically challenging to detect them. Attacks, however, frequently follow a pattern, going for predictable targets like admin credentials and privileged data repositories that represent important company assets. 

Following are 5 recommendations for avoiding and identifying APT intrusion: 

1. Threat modeling and instrumentation: According to Igor Volovich, Vice President of Compliance for Omulos “Threat modeling is a useful practice that helps defenders understand their risk posture from an attacker’s perspective, informing architecture and design decisions around security controls […] Instrumenting the environment with effective controls capable of detecting malicious activity based on intent rather than specific technique is a strategic direction that enterprises should pursue.” 

2. Stay alert: Pay closer attention to the operation of security analyst and security community posting, which keeps a check on the APT groups, since they look for activities pertaining to indications of threat group actions, or that of an activity group and threat actors; as well as activities that indicate a potential intrusion or cyber-campaigns. 

3. Baseline: It is crucial to understand your own environment and establish a common baseline in order to identify anomalous behavior in the environment and, consequently, spot the tell-tale signs of the presence of APTs. It is easier to identify odd traffic patterns and unusual behavior by using this baseline. 

4. Use your tools: In order to identify APTs, one may as well use existing security tools like endpoint protection, network prevention systems, firewalls, and email protection. 

5. Threat Intelligence: Threat intelligence sources should be evaluated against data from security tools and information on potentially unusual traffic. Organizations that use threat feeds can describe the threat and what it can signify for the target organisation. These technologies can help a management team identify potential attackers and determine their possible objectives.  

Chinese APT Utilizes Ransomware to Cover Cyberespionage


A China-based advanced persistent threat (APT) group called Bronze Starlight has been active since the start of 2021. It appears to be using double-extortion attacks and ransomware as cover for routine, state-sponsored cyberespionage and intellectual property theft. 

The distribution of post-intrusion ransomware, including LockFile, Atom Silo, Rook, Night Sky, Pandora, and LockBit 2.0, is a feature of Bronze Starlight. Microsoft also labeled it as part of the DEV-0401 emerging threat cluster, highlighting its involvement in all phases of the ransomware attack cycle, from initial access to the payload dissemination.

China's Correlation

The threat actor has always loaded Cobalt Strike Beacon and then released ransomware on compromised computers using a malware loader known as the HUI Loader, which is solely utilized by  Chinese-based organizations. This method has not been noticed by other threat actors, according to Secureworks researchers.

Researchers from Secureworks believe that Bronze Starlight is more likely motivated by cyberespionage and intellectual property (IP) theft than financial gain due to the short lifespan of each ransomware family, victimology, and access to tools used by Chinese state hacktivists (including known vulnerabilities and the HUI Loader). HUI Loader has been used to distribute malware such as Cobalt Strike, QuasarRAT, PlugX, and SodaMaster as well as remote access trojans (RATs) at least since 2015.

Attacks carried out by the actor are distinguished by the use of vulnerabilities influencing Exchange Server, Zoho ManageEngine ADSelfService Plus, Atlassian Confluence, and Apache Log4j. This contrasts with other RaaS groups that obtain access from initial access brokers (IABs) to enter a network. 

The similarity between Ransomware 

Additionally, a familiar actor is apparent from the similarities found between LockFile, Atom Silo, Rook, Night Sky, and Pandora, the latter three of which were developed from the Babuk ransomware, the source code of which was leaked in September 2021. 

The researchers write that the use of HUI Loader to load Cobalt Strike Beacon, the configuration data for Cobalt Strike Beacon, the C2 network, and the code overlap "indicate that the same threat group is linked with these 5 ransomware families."

The use of the HUI Loader to launch next-stage encrypted payloads like PlugX and Cobalt Strike Beacons, which are used to disseminate the ransomware, is another instance of detected tradecraft. However, this technique requires first getting privileged Domain Administrator credentials. 

The main victims are American and Brazilian pharmaceutical firms, a U.S. media outlet with branches in China and Hong Kong, Lithuanian and Japanese electronic component designers and manufacturers, a U.S. legal company, and the aerospace & defense unit of an Indian conglomerate. 

To achieve this, ransomware operations not only give the threat actor a way to phish data as a result of the double extortion, but they also give them a chance to erase forensic proof of its destructive actions and distract them from data theft.

SideWinder Launched Nearly 1000 Assaults in Two Years


The South Asian APT organization SideWinder has been on a tear for the past two years gone, launching nearly 1,000 raids and deploying increasingly sophisticated assault techniques. 

Earlier this week, Noushin Shaba, a senior security researcher at Kaspersky shared her findings at the Black Hat Asia conference regarding SideWinders’ attacking methodologies. The APT group primarily targets military and law enforcement agencies in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries.

SideWinder has been active since at least 2012 and primarily targets military and law enforcement agencies in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other South Asian countries. In recent years, they have also targeted departments of Foreign Affairs, Scientific and Defence organizations, Aviation, IT industry, and Legal firms. Some of their newly registered domains and spear-phishing documents indicate this threat actor is expanding the geography of its targets to other countries and regions. 

SideWinder has become one of the planet's most prolific hacking groups by expanding the geography of its targets to other countries and regions. However, the reason behind its expansion remains unknown. 

Last year, the group deployed new obfuscation techniques for the JavaScript it drops into .RTF files, .LNK files, and Open Office documents. Kaspersky has observed unique encryption keys deployed across over 1,000 malware samples sourced from the group.

Threat actors even ran two versions of its obfuscation techniques over several months, and appear to have shifted from an older and less stealthy version to its current malware. SideWinder also exchanges domains regularly for its command-and-control servers as well as for its download servers. That's mostly to ensure that if a domain gets detected, it still has a way to get to its targets, Shabab explains. Spreading activity across different domains in the attacks is less likely to raise suspicion as well. 

In January 2020, Trend Micro researchers revealed that they had unearthed SideWinder exploiting a zero-day local privilege-escalation vulnerability (CVE-2019-2215) that affected hundreds of millions of Android users when it was first published. 

“I think what really makes them stand out among other APTs [advanced persistent threat] actors are the big toolkit they have with many different malware families, lots of new spear-phishing documents, and a very large infrastructure. I have not seen 1,000 attacks from a single APT from another group until further,” Shaba stated.

US has Offered a $10 Million Bounty on Data About Russian Sandworm Hackers


The United States announced a reward of up to $10 million for information on six Russian military intelligence service hackers. According to the State Department's Rewards for Justice Program, "these people engaged in hostile cyber actions on behalf of the Russian government against U.S. vital infrastructure in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act."

The US Department of State has issued a request for information on six Russian officers (also known as Voodoo Bear or Iron Viking) from the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation's Armed Forces (GRU) regarding their alleged involvement in malicious cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in the United States. The linkages attributed are as follows : 

  • Artem Valeryevich Ochichenko has been linked to technical reconnaissance and spear-phishing efforts aimed at gaining illegal access to critical infrastructure sites' IT networks around the world. 
  • Petr Nikolayevich Pliskin, Sergey Vladimirovich Detistov, Pavel Valeryevich Frolov, and Yuriy Sergeyevich Andrienko, are accused of developing components of the NotPetya and Olympic Destroyer malware used by the Russian government to infect computer systems on June 27, 2017, and Yuriy Sergeyevich Andrienko, who are accused of developing components of the NotPetya and Olympic De.
  • Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev is accused of inventing spear-phishing techniques and communications which were utilized by the Russian government to hack into critical infrastructure computer systems. 

On October 15, 2020, the US Justice Department charged the mentioned officials with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft for carrying out damaging malware assaults to disrupt and destabilize other countries and cause monetary damages. 

According to the indictment, GRU officers were involved in attacks on Ukraine, including the BlackEnergy and Industroyer malware-based attacks on the country's power grid in 2015 and 2016. The folks are accused of causing damage to protected computers, conspiring to commit computer fraud and abuse, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft by the US Department of Justice. According to the US Department of State, the APT group's cyber actions resulted in roughly $1 billion in losses for US firms.

The Rewards of Justice has established a Tor website at "he5dybnt7sr6cm32xt77pazmtm65flqy6irivtflruqfc5ep7eiodiad[.]onion" as part of the project, which may be used to anonymously submit reports on these threat actors or to communicate the information using Signal, Telegram, or WhatsApp. 

Recently, the Sandworm collective was linked to Cyclops Blink, a sophisticated botnet malware that snagged internet-connected firewall devices and routers from WatchGuard and ASUS. Other recent hacking efforts linked to the gang include the use of an improved version of the Industroyer virus against high-voltage electrical substations in Ukraine amid Russia's continuing invasion.

Chinese Hackers Target Betting Firms in South East Asia


An unknown Chinese-speaking advanced persistent threat (APT) has been associated to a new campaign targeting betting firms in South East Asia, specifically Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. 

The campaign, which Avast dubs Operation Dragon Castling (ODC), is exploiting a security loophole (CVE-2022-24934) in WPS Office to deploy a backdoor on the targeted systems. The vulnerability has since been addressed by Kingsoft Office, the developers of the office software. However, with 1.2 billion WPS Office downloads around the globe, there are likely a high number of systems open to compromise. 

According to Avast researchers, the bug was exploited to deploy a malicious binary from a fake update server with the domain update.wps[.]cn that triggers a multi-stage infection chain that leads to the deployment of intermediate payloads and allows for privilege escalation before finally deploying the Proto8 module. 

"The core module is a single DLL that is responsible for setting up the malware's working directory, loading configuration files, updating its code, loading plugins, beaconing to [command-and-control] servers, and waiting for commands," Avast researchers Luigino Camastra, Igor Morgenstern, Jan Holman explained. 

Proto8’s plugin-based technique applied to prolong its functionality permits the malware to achieve persistence, bypass user account control (UAC) mechanisms, develop new backdoor accounts, and even execute arbitrary commands on the infected program. 

While researchers haven’t linked this malicious campaign to any known actors, they believe it is the work of a Chinese APT either looking to gather intelligence or achieve financial gains. Considering the nature of the targets, which is betting companies, the motive of the threat actors may have been to steal financial credentials or take over accounts and cash out escrow balances. 

The techniques and the powerful toolset employed in the campaign reflect a skillful adversary, so not being able to make attributions with high confidence is somewhat expected. However, this isn’t the first instance that China-sponsored hackers have targeted betting firms. 

Last year in January 2021, Chinese hackers targeted gambling firms that have been promoting their products to Chinese nationals without authorization. Attackers demanded at least $100 million be paid in Bitcoin to restore access to gambling operators’ servers, but companies remained adamant in the face of the threat and never paid a penny.

Threat Actors Modified Open-Source Tool to Target organizations


Cybersecurity researchers have unearthed an interesting ransomware campaign in which the malicious actors employed custom tools commonly used by APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) groups.

Earlier this week, Security Joes' researchers published a report highlighting attackers' modus operandi to target one of its clients in the gambling industry. During the attack, the ransomware operators used custom open-source tools. 

The operational strategies, methodology of targeting victims, and malware customization capabilities signify a potential link between APT and ransomware operators, explained the report from Security Joes. However, no concrete evidence has been uncovered till now. 

The attackers employed a modified version of the Ligolo, a reverse tunneling utility available for pentesters on GitHub, and a custom tool to dump credentials from LSASS. According to the Security Joes team, the ransomware campaign showcased excellent ransomware training and knowledge of threat actors. The stolen SSLVPN credentials of one of the employees helped attackers to penetrate the victim's systems, followed by admin scans and RDP brute-force, and then credential harvesting efforts.

At the final stage of the campaign, threat actors deployed proxy tunneling for a secure connection and installed the famous Cobalt Strike. Security Joes' team believes that the attackers would launch the ransomware as the next step since the methods followed match those of typical ransomware gang operations. However, it did not come to this, so it is impossible to say with certainty.

The attackers employed multiple off-the-shelve open-source tools typically used by numerous adversaries, like Mimikatz, SoftPerfect, and Cobalt Strike. One notable differentiation was the installation of ‘Sockbot’, a GoLang-written utility based on the Ligolo open-source reverse tunneling tool. The attackers modified Ligolo with meaningful additions that removed the need to use command-line parameters and included several execution checks to avoid running multiple processes.

Additionally, the malicious actors took into their arsenal a custom tool "lsassDumper", also written in GoLang. It was used to automatically steal data from the LSASS process. As experts noted, they observed lsassDumper in real attacks for the first time. 

"Comparing the new variant (Sockbot) to the original source code available online, the threat actors added several execution checks to avoid multiple instances running at the same time, defined the value of the Local Relay as a hard-coded string to avoid the need of passing command line parameters when executing the attack and set the persistence via a scheduled task," researchers concluded.

UNC1151 Targets Ukrainian Armed Forces Personnel with Spear Phishing Campaign


The Ukrainian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-UA) has issued a warning about an ongoing spear-phishing campaign targeting private email accounts belonging to Ukrainian military personnel. The Ukrainian agency attributes the campaign to the UNC1151 cyber espionage gang, which is linked to Belarus. In mid-January, the Kyiv administration blamed Belarusian APT group UNC1151 for the defacement of tens of Ukrainian government websites. 

“We believe preliminarily that the group UNC1151 may be involved in this attack,” Serhiy Demedyuk, deputy secretary of the national security and defence council, told Reuters. “This is a cyber-espionage group affiliated with the special services of the Republic of Belarus. The defacement of the sites was just a cover for more destructive actions that were taking place behind the scenes and the consequences of which we will feel in the near future.”

The following message was shown on defaced websites in Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish. “Ukrainian! All your personal data has been sent to a public network. All data on your computer is destroyed and cannot be recovered. All information about you stab public, fairy tale and wait for the worst. It is for you for your past, the future, and the future. For Volhynia, OUN UPA, Galicia, Poland, and historical areas.” read a translation of the message. 

Mandiant Threat Intelligence researchers attributed the Ghostwriter disinformation campaign (aka UNC1151) to the government of Belarus in November 2021. FireEye security analysts discovered a misinformation campaign aimed at discrediting NATO in August 2020 by circulating fake news articles on compromised news websites. According to FireEye, the GhostWriter campaign has been running since at least March 2017 and is aligned with Russian security interests. 

GhostWriter, unlike other disinformation campaigns, did not propagate via social media; instead, threat actors behind this campaign employed compromised content management systems (CMS) of news websites or forged email accounts to disseminate bogus news. The attackers were disseminating false content, such as forged news articles, quotations, correspondence, and other documents purporting to be from military authorities and political people in some targeted countries. According to researchers, the campaign particularly targeted people in specific alliance member states such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. 

The phishing messages employed a typical social engineering method to deceive victims into submitting their information in order to prevent having their email accounts permanently suspended. According to Ukraine's State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection (SSSCIP), phishing assaults are also targeting Ukrainian citizens.

Iranian Hackers Employs PowerShell Backdoor to Bypass Security Products


Security researchers from Cybereason have discovered that an advanced persistent threat organization with inbounds links to Iran has modified its malware toolset to incorporate a unique PowerShell-based implant named PowerLess Backdoor. 

The Boston-headquartered cybersecurity firm identified a new toolkit used by the Phosphorus group, also known as Charming Kitten and APT35, that installs malicious Microsoft PowerShell code to operate as a remote access backdoor to download further malware payloads.

"The PowerShell code runs in the context of a .NET application, thus not launching 'powershell.exe' which enables it to evade security products," Daniel Frank, a senior malware researcher at Cybereason, explained. "The toolset analyzed includes extremely modular, multi-staged malware that decrypts and deploys additional payloads in several stages for the sake of both stealth and efficacy." 

The hacking group that was first identified in 2017, has employed many attacks in recent years, including ones in which the adversary pretended to be journalists or academicians to trick targets into downloading malware and collecting confidential material. 

Last month, Check Point Research disclosed specifics of an espionage operation that concerned the hacking team abusing the Log4Shell vulnerabilities to install a modular backdoor dubbed CharmPower for follow-on attacks. 

Cybereason discovered that the latest additions to its arsenal form an entirely new toolset that includes the PowerLess Backdoor, which can download and run other modules like a browser info-stealer and a keylogger. Also potentially linked to the same developer of the backdoor are a number of other malware artifacts, counting an audio recorder, an earlier variant of the information stealer, and what the researchers suspect to be an unfinished ransomware variant coded in .NET. 

Additionally, infrastructure overlaps have been noticed between the Phosphorus group and a new ransomware strain named Memento, which initially emerged in November 2021 and took the unusual step of locking files into password-protected archives, then encrypting the password and erasing the original files after their attempts to encrypt the data directly were stopped by endpoint protection. 

"The activity of Phosphorus with regard to ProxyShell took place in about the same time frame as Memento. Iranian threat actors were also reported to be turning to ransomware during that period, which strengthens the hypothesis that Memento is operated by an Iranian threat actor,” Frank added.

Threat Actors Targeting Vaccine Manufacturing Facility with Tardigrade Malware


Biomanufacturing facilities in the US are being actively targeted by an anonymous hacking group leveraging a new custom malware called ‘Tardigrade’. 

In a new threat advisory, the Bioeconomy Information Sharing and Analysis Center (BIO-ISAC) claimed this week that the first attack was launched using this new malware in spring 2021, followed by the second assault in October.

 New malware strain

According to BIO-ISAC, Tardigrade possesses advanced features and is supposedly the work of an advanced threat detection group or a nation-state intelligence service. The malware is primarily used for espionage though it can also cause other issues including network outages. The recent assaults are also believed to be linked to Covid-19 research as the pandemic has shown just how crucial biomanufacturing research is when creating vaccines and other drugs. 

Tardigrade’s functionality includes a Trojan, keylogger, data theft, and also establishes a backdoor into targeted systems. There is some debate regarding the origins of the code used in Tardigrade as BIO-ISAC believes the malware is based on Smoke Loader, a Windows-based backdoor operated by a hacking group called Smoky Spider. However, security researchers that spoke with Bleeping Computer believe that it is a form of the Cobalt Strike HTTP. 

“The biomanufacturing industry along with other verticals are so far behind in cybersecurity, making them a prime target for bad actors. Cyberattacks mostly happen to those that provide easy access or least path of resistance,” George Gerchow, chief security officer of machine data analytics company Sumo Logic Inc., told SiliconANGLE. 

“This is a blatant example of how attackers are focusing on human health during a time of high anxiety, and bioscience is an easy target. The industry is going to have to move quickly to put proper cyber security controls in place. It is going to be a huge mountain for them to climb as some of the companies in the industry have antiquated technology, lacked the proper skill sets, and relied too much on legacy security tools,” Gerchow added. 

The BIO-ISAC report recommends the following steps for biomanufacturing sites that will enhance the security and response postures (i) Scan your biomanufacturing network segmentation, (ii)  Collaborate with biologists and automation experts to design a full-proof analysis for your firm, (iii) Employ antivirus with behavioral analysis capabilities, (iv) Participate in phishing detection training (v) Stay vigilant.