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What is an advanced persistent threat (APT)? Definition, list, examples and management best practices

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What is an advanced persistent threat (APT)? Definition, list, examples and management best practices

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An advanced persistent threat (APT) is defined as a sophisticated, multi-staged cyberattack whereby an intruder establishes and maintains an undetected presence within an organization’s network over an extended period of time. 

The target may be a government or a private organization and the purpose may be to extract information for theft or to cause other harm. An APT may be launched against one entity’s systems to gain access to another high-value target. Both private criminals and state actors are known to carry out APTs. 

The groups of threat actors that pose these APTs are carefully tracked by multiple organizations. Security firm CrowdStrike tracks over 170 APT groups, and reports having observed a nearly 45% increase in interactive intrusion campaigns from 2020 to 2021. While (financial) e-crime is still the most common motive identified, nation-state espionage actions are growing more rapidly and now a strong second in frequency.

An APT is comprised of three main stages:

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

Because the threat is designed to both avoid detection and reach very sensitive information or processes, each of these stages may involve multiple steps and be patiently conducted over an extended period of time. Successful breaches may operate undetected over years; but some actions, such as jumping from a third-party provider to the ultimate target or executing a financial exfiltration, may be done very rapidly.

APTs are known for using misdirection to avoid correct, direct attribution of its work. To throw off investigators, an APT for one country might embed language from another country within their code. Investigating firms may have close relationships with a government’s intelligence agencies, leading some to question the objectivity of their findings. But especially with widespread attacks, consensus may be found.

Perhaps the best-known recent APT is the SolarWinds Sunburst attack that was discovered in 2020, but problematic well into 2021. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides a timeline of its discovery and the private and public sector response. Another recently discovered APT is Aquatic Panda, which is believed to be a Chinese group. As listed in MITRE’s ATT&CK database, it is believed to have been active since at least May 2020, conducting both intelligence collection and industrial espionage primarily in technology and telecom markets and the government sector.

The tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of APTs are regularly updated in response to constantly evolving environments and countermeasures. Trellix’s Head of Threat Intelligence reports, “This past year, there was a dramatic uptick in APT attacks on critical infrastructure such as the transportation and financial sectors.”

As Gartner analyst Ruggero Contu has noted, “The pandemic accelerated hybrid work and the shift to the cloud, challenging the CISO to secure an increasingly distributed enterprise. The modern CISO needs to focus on an expanding attack surface created by digital transformation initiatives such as cloud adoption, IT/OT-IoT convergence, remote working, and third-party infrastructure integration.”

Threat actors employ continuous and often complex hacking techniques. They typically perform a thorough analysis of a company, review its leadership team, profile its users and obtain other in-depth details about what it takes to run the business. Based on this assessment, attackers attempt to install one or more backdoors so that they can gain access to an environment without being detected.

The lifecycle of an advanced persistent threat

Lockheed Martin’s cyber kill chain framework serves as a helpful reference for the lifecycle of advanced persistent threats. The process consists of seven steps, beginning with reconnaissance. 

The basic cyber kill chain model steps are the following:

1.           Reconnaissance

2.           Weaponization

3.           Delivery

4.           Exploitation

5.           Installation

6.           Command and Control

7.           Actions on Objective

8.           Monetization: This eighth step has been added by some to the original model.

Attackers will analyze the leadership team, they will analyze the type of business, and they will understand exactly what type of target it is. As the attack evolves from reconnaissance to weaponization, attackers will determine the most efficient method for exploiting vulnerabilities. 

The attacker may exploit vulnerabilities in systems and cloud services, or they may exploit employees through phishing-style attacks. Having selected the approach or approaches that they wish to take, they will deliver malware or exploit vulnerabilities that will allow them access to the environment. An attacker will then install a remote-access Trojan or a backdoor mechanism to maintain persistent access to the system. 

It is common for a command-and-control system to be set up where the environment sends out heartbeats to an external server or service so that the attacker may execute or download malicious files to the environment, or exfiltrate data out of the environment.

This is a useful model, but cyber-attackers have adapted to it. They sometimes skip steps or combine several of them into one action to reduce the time needed to infiltrate and infect. As part of the process, bad actors will develop customized tools (or acquire them on the dark web) to attack a specific organization or type of organization. 

In some cases, cybercriminals have become deft at covering their tracks. By remaining undetected, they have the opportunity to use back doors over and over for additional raids.

As well as there being a lifecycle for one advanced persistent threat, there is also the lifecycle of the attackers to consider. Carric Dooley, managing director of incident response at Cerberus Sentinel, notes that the groups tend to evolve as well as come and go over time.

He gives the example of DarkSide, which became DarkMatter, and has now spun off into the BlackCat criminal group.

 “They evolve their approach, [their] tooling, how they define and select targets, and business models based on staying ahead of the good guys using ‘what works today’,” he said. “Some take a break after making a pile of cash and some retire or let the heat from law enforcement die down.”  

Thus, some APT groups remain active over the long term. Others that have been dormant for many years suddenly get back into business. But it is hard for the defending organizations or nations to accurately categorize who or what is attacking them. Apart from the obfuscation techniques delivered by nation state-sponsored actors, it may be that APT groups perceived as different are actually one entity but the individuals that compose them and their malware tools are changing and evolving.

List of key threats

By their nature, new advanced persistent threats based on novel techniques are commonly operating without yet having been detected. Moreover, especially challenging attacks may still be perpetrated on organizations long after they were initially identified (e.g. SolarWinds). 

However, new common trends and patterns are regularly recognized and replicated until the means are found to render them ineffective. Kaspersky, a Russian internet security firm, has identified the following major trends in APTs:

  • The private sector supporting an influx of new APT players: Commercially available products such as the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus software, which is marketed to government agencies for its zero-click surveillance capabilities, are expected to find their way into an increasing number of APTs.
  • Mobile devices exposed to wide, sophisticated attacks: Apple’s new Lockdown Mode for its iOS 16 iPhone software update is intended to address the exploitation of NSO Group’s spyware that was discovered in 2021, but its phones still join Android and other mobile products as prime targets of APTs.
  • More supply-chain attacks: As exemplified by Solar Winds, supply chain attacks should continue to provide an especially fruitful approach to reaching high-value government and private targets.
  • Continued exploitation of work-from-home (WFH): With the rise of WFH arrangements since 2020, threat actors will continue to exploit employees’ remote systems until those systems are sufficiently hardened to discourage exploitation.
  • Increase in APT intrusions in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa (META) region, especially in Africa: With a deteriorating global geopolitical situation, espionage is rising where relevant systems and communications are most vulnerable.
  • Explosion of attacks against cloud security and outsourced services: With the trend toward using an initial breech via a third-party system to reach an ultimate target, cloud and outsourcing services are more often being challenged.
  • The return of low-level attacks: With the increased use of Secure Boot closing down more straightforward options, attackers are returning to rootkits as an alternative path into systems. 
  • States clarify their acceptable cyber-offense practices: With national governments increasingly both targets and perpetrators of cyber intrusions, they are increasingly formalizing their positions as to what they officially consider to be acceptable.

10 examples of advanced persistent threat groups

APTs can’t be thought of in the same way as the latest strain of malware. They should be considered to be threat groups that use a variety of different techniques. Once an APT gains success, it tends to operate for quite some time. Here are some examples from MITRE’s database: 

  1. APT29: Thought to be connected to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). It has been around since at least 2008. Targets have included governments, political parties, think tanks and industrial/commercial entities in Europe, North America, Asia and the Middle East. Sometimes called Cozy Bear, CloudLook, Grizzly Steppe, Minidionis and Yttrium.
  2. APT38: Also known as Lazarus Group, Gods Apostles, Gods Disciples, Guardians of Peace, ZINC, Whois Team and Hidden Cobra. It tends to target Bitcoin exchanges, cryptocurrency, and most famously Sony Corp. Believed to be North Korean in origin.
  3. APT28: Also known as Fancy Bear, Sofacy and Sednit. This group has gained notoriety for attacking political groups, particularly in the U.S., but also in Germany and Ukraine.
  4.  APT27: Also known as LuckyMouse, Emissary Panda and Iron Tiger. Successes have included aerospace, education and government targets around the world. Thought to be based in China.
  5. REvil: Also known as Sodinokibi, Sodin Targets, GandCrab, Oracle and Golden Gardens. It gained prominence a few years back via REvil ransomware attacks.
  6. Evil Corp: Also known as Indirk Spider. This group specializes in the financial, government and healthcare sectors. The BitPaymer ransomware, for example, paralyzed IT systems around the U.S. The group originated in Russia and has been the subject of investigation and sanctions by the U.S Justice Department.
  7. APT1: Also known as Comment Crew, Byzantine Hades, Comment Panda and Shanghai Group. Operating out of China, it targets aerospace, chemical, construction, education, energy, engineering, entertainment, financial and IT around the world.
  8. APT12: Also known as Numbered Panda, Calc Team and Crimson Iron. It primarily goes after East Asian targets but has enjoyed success against media outlets including the New York Times.
  9. APT33: Also known as Elfin and Magnallium. It obtains support from the government of Iran and focuses on the aerospace and energy sectors in Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the U.S.
  10. APT32: Also known as OceanLotus, Ocean Buffalo and SeaLotus. Primary targets have been in Australia and Asia including the breach of Toyota. The group is based in Vietnam.

10 best practices for advanced persistent threat identification and management 

It is inherently difficult to identify APTs. They are designed to be stealthy, facilitated by the development and illicit traffic in zero-day exploits. By definition, zero-day exploits cannot be directly detected. However, attacks tend to follow certain patterns, pursuing predictable targets such as administrative credentials and privileged data repositories representing critical enterprise assets. Here are 10 tips and best practices for avoiding and identifying APT intrusion:  

 1.           Threat modeling and instrumentation: “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,” according to Igor Volovich, vice president of compliance for Qmulos. “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 vigilant: Pay attention to security analyst and security community postings that keep track of APT groups. They look for related activities that indicate the actions of threat groups, activity groups and threat actors, as well as signs of activities such as new intrusion sets and cyber-campaigns. Organizations can gain intelligence from these sources and use it to analyze their own assets to see if they overlap with any known group motivations or attack methods. They can then take appropriate action to safeguard their organizations.

 3.           Baseline: In order to detect anomalous behavior in the environment and thereby spot the tell-tale signs of the presence of APTs, it is important to know your own environment and establish a common baseline. By referring to this baseline, it becomes easier to spot odd traffic patterns and unusual behavior.

4.           Use your tools: It may be possible to identify APTs using existing security tools such as endpoint protection, network intrusion prevention systems, firewalls and email protections. Additionally, consistent vulnerability management and the use of observability tools along with quarterly audits can be helpful in deterring an advanced persistent threat. With full log visibility from multiple layers of security technology, it may be possible to isolate actions associated with known malicious traffic.

 5.           Threat Intelligence: Data from security tools and information on potentially anomalous traffic should be reviewed against threat intelligence sources. Threat feeds can help organizations clearly articulate the threat and what it can potentially mean to the affected organization. Such tools can assist a management team in understanding who might have attacked them and what their motives might have been.

 6.           Expect an attack: Advanced persistent threats are generally associated with state-sponsored cyberattacks. But public and private sector organizations have also been hit. Financial and tech companies are considered at greater risk, but these days no one should assume they will never receive such an attack, even SMBs. “Any organization that stores or transmits sensitive personal data can be a target,” says Lou Fiorello, vice president and general manager of security products at ServiceNow. “It stems, in part, from the rise of commodity malware: We are seeing some crime groups gaining large amounts of wealth from their nefarious activities that enable them to purchase and exploit zero-day vulnerabilities.”

 7.           Focus on intent: Volovich recommends that organizations adopt controls capable of detecting malicious activity based on intent rather than a specific technique as a strategic direction that enterprises should pursue in thwarting APTs. This can be looked upon as an outcomes-based risk management strategy that informs tactical decisions about tool portfolios and investment priorities, as well as architecture and design direction for critical applications and workflows.

 8.           Compliance: As part of ongoing compliance initiatives, organizations should establish a solid foundation of security controls aligned to a common framework such as NIST 800-53 or ISO 27001. Map current and planned technology investments to the chosen framework’s control objectives to identify any gaps to be filled or mitigated.

 9.           Know your tools and frameworks: Some organizations go to great lengths to comply with every line item in one security or compliance framework or another. However, this can take on the color of achieving compliance for its own sake (which may be required in some industries). Various compliance and security frameworks should serve as useful guides as well as models for consistent management of risk, but they are not the ultimate objective of a program that will stop APTs in their tracks. Focus on assessing and improving the maturity of the controls and tools themselves and your overall capacity for managing risk.

Vendors and service providers tasked with helping organizations respond to an incident know this well: The victims are often guilty of not even covering security program hygiene at a basic level. Some have little or no detection and response capability, so they miss obvious signs of APT activity. This boils down to implementing standards, frameworks and tools superficially. These organizations did not take the extra steps of ensuring that IT and security personnel become skilled (and certified) in their use.

“Having a tool isn’t the same as knowing how to use it and achieving mastery,” Dooley observes. “I can go buy a combo table saw, router and lathe, but with no experience, what do you think my furniture will look like?” 

10.        Simple fundamentals: There are so many security systems out there, and so many new ones appearing every month, that it is easy to lose track of the fundamentals. Despite all the complexity and sophistication behind the APT, malicious actors often make their initial forays using the simplest attack vectors. They use all manner of phishing techniques to trick users into installing applications or letting them into systems. Two actions that should now be regarded as essential are security awareness training of all employees to guard against social engineering, and two-factor authentication.

“A key component of reducing risk is training your users on how to identify and respond to phishing attempts,” offers Brad Wolf, senior vice president, IT operations at NeoSystems. “A password alone is insufficient to protect yourself against today’s threat landscape; enable two-factor authentication if you haven’t done so yet.”

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The best mini dash cam is still down to its record-low Cyber Monday price

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The best mini dash cam is still down to its record-low Cyber Monday price
The Garmin Dash Cam Mini 2 on a green background



(Image credit: Garmin)

One of Cyber Monday’s best dash cam deals was a lowest-ever price on the Garmin Dash Cam Mini 2 – and that offer is still available at Amazon, for now.

We rate the Dash Cam Mini 2 as the best compact dash cam you can buy and it’s also one of the best-value ones around thanks to Amazon’s 15% off deal, which takes it down to $109.99 (from its usual $129.99) (opens in new tab).

We’d expected the Cyber Monday deal to have gone by now, but it’s still going strong today. It isn’t clear how long it’ll be available for, though, so if you need a dash cam that just does the basics and shoots good-quality 1080p video, we’d suggest picking it up sooner rather than later.

In our review of Garmin’s tiny dash cam, which is about the size of a key fob, we praised its “focus on simplicity”, along with its “high-quality HD footage and useful set of voice control commands”.

Today’s best dash cam deal

While the Garmin Dash Cam Mini 2 lacks premium features like 4K video recording or a rear screen, we think it nails the basics and offers great value, particularly in this post-Cyber Monday deal.

Because it’s tiny and weighs only 35g, it can hide away discreetly behind your rear-view mirror, which makes it particularly suitable for small cars. In our tests, we were also impressed with the quality of its 1080p video and 140-degree field of view, plus the handy voice controls.

And while the Dash Cam Mini 2 does also lack GPS, we found the Garmin Drive app – which is an important part of the dash cam experience – to be very polished and user-friendly. We had no issues with connecting it to the dash cam, which is where some models can slip up, and it’s free for iOS and Android phones.

Looking for a more traditional camera to help shoot photos and video outside your car? Check out our broader round-up of the best Cyber Monday camera deals that are still going. 

More dash cam deals

No matter where you live, you’ll find all the lowest prices for dash cams from around the web right here, with offers available in your region.

More US Cyber Monday deals

Mark is the Cameras Editor at TechRadar. Having worked in tech journalism for a ludicrous 17 years, Mark is now attempting to break the world record for the number of camera bags hoarded by one person. He was previously Cameras Editor at Trusted Reviews, Acting editor on Stuff.tv, as well as Features editor and Reviews editor on Stuff magazine. As a freelancer, he’s contributed to titles including The Sunday Times, FourFourTwo and Arena. And in a former life, he also won The Daily Telegraph’s Young Sportswriter of the Year. But that was before he discovered the strange joys of getting up at 4am for a photo shoot in London’s Square Mile. 

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Apple’s App Store Awards 2022 brings surprises and VR hype for next year

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Apple’s App Store Awards 2022 brings surprises and VR hype for next year
App Store Awards 2022



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Apple has announced the winners of the App Store Awards 2022, with BeReal – the new social platform that has you snapping and sharing a pair of photos (one from your phone’s front and one from the back camera) each day, took the App of the Year award this year.

The App Store Awards (opens in new tab) is a yearly event where Apple recognizes developers and the apps they’ve created that have made the biggest impact on its users and the company. Whether that’s in social media, games or sport, they take advantage of the hardware and software that Apple’s recently brought out.

There were a bunch of games that were highlighted this year, such as Wilde Flowers (opens in new tab) and Inua (opens in new tab) winning the Apple Arcade game of the year and Cultural Impact award respectively, while GoodNotes 5 (opens in new tab), developed Time Base Technology Limited, took the iPad App of the Year award.

It’s interesting to spot that there’s 16 winners here, rather than 15 of the previous years – that’s because there’s a new ‘China Game of the Year’ added to the roster, which only shows the breadth of how one country is making an impact on the App Store.

With this in mind, TechRadar reached out to the developers of Wylde Flowers, Gentler Streak and Inua about plans for their apps in the near future, after winning these awards from Apple.

Apple’s App Store shows no sign of slowing down

WildeFlowers on iPhone 14 Pro

(Image credit: Apple)

Available on Apple Arcade (opens in new tab), Wylde Flowers is a game reminiscent of Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, where you control the protagonist – Tara, building and running a farm during the day while also moonlighting as a witch during the night.

Developed by Studio Drydock, the developers told us that they were proud to receive the Apple Arcade game of the year, but that there’s also an upcoming update called ‘Endless Seasons and Romance’ – due for a December release – which will feature different weather effects and new content that players will be able to enjoy.

We asked the team if they would also include the ability to finally customize Tara, and while they said that they were aware of this request from many players, it wasn’t something that they were considering for the time being.

Gentler Streak on iOS and watchOS

(Image credit: Apple)

Inua (opens in new tab) is a time-traveling adventure game that makes for an immersive time on iPhone and iPad, and while developers Arte Experience told us that a version of the game appearing on Apple TV would make for a good next step when we suggested it, they didn’t confirm whether this is expansion would be in the game’s future.

Alongside this, Gentler Streak (opens in new tab) achieves the unique task of encouraging you to work out in a calm and concise way, with useful information inside a well-designed app. The team also confirmed that Live Activities – a feature from iOS 16.1 that allows widgets to show live updates on the Lock Screen – is coming to a future update of the app, alongside adding photos to workouts and more complications to the watchOS app.

Overall, it’s encouraging to see so many varied apps earning awards this year, although it would be nice to see another award that highlights accessibility; either as a separate award or included as a mention as part of other awards.

Regardless, with rumors of an Apple VR headset allegedly debuting in 2023, we could see a completely different App Store Awards next year. It’s a good time to be an Apple user, with the innovation that these independent developers are still bringing to the table, almost 15 years since the App Store debuted, alongside the iPhone 3G, back in 2008.

Daryl had been freelancing for 3 years before joining TechRadar, now reporting on everything software-related. In his spare time he’s written a book, ‘The Making of Tomb Raider’, alongside podcasting and usually found playing games old and new on his PC and MacBook Pro. If you have a story about an updated app, one that’s about to launch, or just anything Software-related, drop him a line.

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PwC report: 81% of executives anticipate a recession within the next six months

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PwC report: 81% of executives anticipate a recession within the next six months

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A crashing market.

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Leading through turbulent times has become far too familiar for leaders; PwC’s new report found 90% of executives are concerned about macroeconomic conditions, including the Federal Reserve’s tightening cycle, higher cost of capital, and wages not keeping up with inflation. However, 82% remain confident about their ability to execute on digital transformation initiatives and 77% are confident they can achieve near-term growth goals.

Inflation is a looming threat, but large budget cuts can formulate the exact precarious situation companies hope to avoid. Rather than acting swiftly, the survey found executives are focused on planning for the potential timing and severity of a recession.

Executives are thinking about how to cut costs without reducing headcount, such as using automation and managed services for efficiency. CIOs still plan to invest in digital transformation.

Image source: PwC.

Implementing strategies for recession-proofing

Along with inflation fears, executives are worried about wage growth not keeping up with rising costs, and plan to reduce the number of full-time employees as a result. In fact, 81% of CHROs plan to implement at least one tactic to reduce their workforce, such as layoffs, voluntary retirement or not replacing people who leave on hiring freezes.

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The state of hybrid work remains a topic among executives. Two-thirds are concerned with a slower-than-expected returns to work. Many seek to implement on-site training, coaching and mentoring opportunities to attract employees. Executives are challenged to rethink the role of the office by creating a culture that fosters in-office participation.

While fears of a recession loom, not all hope is lost. Leaders are focused on growth and looking to enter a possible recession healthy and exit healthier. While conscious of their cost structure, it’s part of a bigger conversation about how they will transform their businesses for the future, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to current economic conditions. How well and how quickly they are able to execute will determine the outcome.

Effective strategic planning, investment in growth and continuous flexibility will see companies through growing concerns.

PwC’s report surveyed more than 650 business executives, including 91 CFOs and 94 CHROs.

Read the full report by PwC.

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