FireStarter: It’s Time to Talk about APTBy Rich
There’s a lot of hype in the press (and vendor pitches) about APT – the Advanced Persistent Threat. Very little of it is informed, and many parties within the security industry are quickly trying to co-opt the term in order to advance various personal and corporate agendas. In the process they’ve bent, manipulated and largely tarnished what had been a specific description of a class of attacker. I’ve generally tried to limit how much I talk about it – mostly restricting myself to the occasional Summary/Incite comment, or this post when APT first hit the hype stage, and a short post with some high level controls.
I self-censor because I recognize that the information I have on APT all comes either second-hand, or from sources who are severely restricted in what they can share with me.
Why? Because I don’t have a security clearance.
There are groups, primarily within the government and its contractors, with extensive knowledge of APT methods and activities. A lot of it is within the DoD, but also with some law enforcement agencies. These guys seem to know exactly what’s going on, including many of the businesses within private industry being attacked, the technical exploit details, what information is being stolen, and how it’s exfiltrated from organizations.
All of which seems to be classified.
I’ve had two calls over the last couple weeks that illustrate this. In the first, a large organization was asking me for advice on some data protection technologies. Within about 2 minutes I said, “if you are responding to APT we need to move the conversation in X direction”. Which is exactly where we went, and without going into details they were essentially told they’d been compromised and received a list, from “law enforcement”, of what they needed to protect.
The second conversation was with someone involved in APT analysis informing me of a new technique that technically wasn’t classified… yet. Needless to say the information wasn’t being shared outside of the classified community (e.g., not even with the product vendors involved) and even the bit shared with me was extremely generic.
So we have a situation where many of the targets of these attacks (private enterprises) are not provided detailed information by those with the most knowledge of the attack actors, techniques, and incidents. This is an untenable situation – further, the fundamental failure to share information increases the risk to every organization without sufficient clearances to work directly with classified material. I’ve been told that in some cases some larger organizations do get a little information pertinent to them, but the majority of activity is still classified and therefore not accessible to the organizations that need it.
While it’s reasonable to keep details of specific attacks against targets quiet, we need much more public discussion of the attack techniques and possible defenses. Where’s all the “public/private” partnership goodwill we always hear about in political speeches and watered-down policy and strategy documents? From what I can tell there are only two well-informed sources saying anything about APT – Mandiant (who investiages and responds to many incidents, and I believe still has clearances), and Richard Bejtlich (who, you will notice, tends to mostly restrict himself to comments on others’ posts, probably due to his own corporate/government restrictions).
This secrecy isn’t good for the industry, and, in the end, it isn’t good for the government. It doesn’t allow the targets (many of you) to make informed risk decisions because you don’t have the full picture of what’s really happening.
I have some ideas on how those in the know can better share information with those who need to know, but for this FireStarter I’d like to get your opinions. Keep in mind that we should try and focus on practical suggestions that account for the nuances of the defense/intelligence culture being realistic about their restrictions. As much as I’d like the feds to go all New School and make breach details and APT techniques public, I suspect something more moderate – perhaps about generic attack methods and potential defenses – is more viable.
But make no mistake – as much hype as there is around APT, there are real attacks occurring daily, against targets I’ve been told “would surprise you”.
And as much as I wish I knew more, the truth is that those of you working for potential targets need the information, not just some blowhard analysts.
UPDATE Richard Bejtlich also highly recommends Mike Cloppert as a good source on this topic.