FireStarter: It’s Time to Talk about APT

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. Share:

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Monitoring up the Stack: Threats

In our introductory post we discussed how customers are looking to derive additional value form their SIEM and log management investments by looking at additional data types to climb the stack. Part of the dissatisfaction we hear from customers is the challenge of turning collected data into actionable information for operational efficiency and compliance requirements. This challenge is compounded by the clear focus on application-oriented attacks. For the most part, our detection only pays attention to the network and servers, while the attackers are flying above that. It’s kind of like repeatedly missing the bad guys because they are flying at 45,000 feet, but you cannot get above 20,000 feet. You aren’t looking where the attacks are actually happening, which obviously presents problems. At its core SIEM can fly at 45,000’ and monitor application components looking for attacks, but it will take work to get there. Though given the evolution of the attack space, we don’t believe keeping monitoring focused on infrastructure is an option, even over the middle term. What kind of application threats are we talking about? It’s not brain surgery and you’ve seen all of these examples before, but they warrant another mention because we continue to miss opportunities to focus on detecting these attacks. For example: Email: You click a link in a ‘joke-of-the-day’ email your spouse forwarded, which installs malware on your system, and then tries to infect every machine on your corporate network. A number of devices get compromised and become latent zombies waiting to blast your network and others. Databases: Your database vendor offers a new data replication feature to address failover requirements for your financial applications, but it’s installed with public credentials. Any hacker can now replicate your database, without logging in, just by issuing a database command. Total awesomeness! Web Browsers: Your marketing team launches a new campaign, but the third party content provider site was hacked. As your customers visit your site, they are unknowingly attacked using cross-site request forgery and then download malware. The customer’s credentials and browsing history leak to Eastern Europe, and fraudulent transactions get submitted from customer machines without their knowledge. Yes, that’s a happy day for your customers and also for you, since you cannot just blame the third party content provider. It’s your problem. Web Applications: Your web application development team, in a hurry to launch a new feature on time, fails to validate some incoming parameters. Hackers exploit the database through a common SQL injection vulnerability to add new administrative users, copy sensitive data, and alter database configuration – all through normal SQL queries. By the way, as simple as this attack is, a typical SIEM won’t catch it because all the requests look normal and are authorized. It’s an application failure that causes security failure. Ad-hoc applications: The video game your kid installed on your laptop has a keystroke logger that records your activity and periodically sends an encrypted copy to the hackers who bought the exploit. They replay your last session, logging into your corporate VPN remotely to extract files and data under your credentials. So it’s fun when the corporate investigators show up in your office to ask why you sent the formula for your company’s most important product to China. The power of distributed multi-app systems to deliver services quickly and inexpensively cannot be denied, which means we security folks will not be able to stop the trend – no matter what the risk. But we do have both a capability and responsibility to ensure these services are delivered as securely as possible, and we watch for bad behavior. Many of the events we discussed are not logged by traditional network security tools, and to casual inspection the transactions look legitimate. Logic flaws, architectural flaws, and misused privileges look like normal operation to a router or an IPS. Browser exploits and SQL injection are difficult to detect without understanding the application functionality. More problematic is that damage from these exploits occurs quickly, requiring a shift from after-the-fact forensic analysis to real-time monitoring to give you a chance to interrupt the attack. Yes, we’re really reiterating that application threats are likely to get “under the radar” and past network-level tools. Customers complain the SIEM techniques they have are too slow to keep up with remote multi-stage attacks, code substitution, etc.; ill-suited to stopping SQL injection, rogue applications, data leakage, etc.; or simply effective against cross-site scripting, hijacked privileges, etc. – we keep hearing that current tools to have no chance against these new attacks. We believe the answer involves broader monitoring capabilities at the application layer, and related technologies. But reality dictates the tools and techniques used for application monitoring do not always fit SIEM architectures. Unfortunately this means some of the existing technologies you may have, and more importantly the way you’ve deployed them – may not fit into this new reality. We believe all organizations need to continue broadening how they monitor their IT resources and incorporate technologies that are designed to look at the application layer, providing detection of application attacks in near real time. But to be clear, adoption is still very early and the tools are largely immature. The following is an an overview of the technologies designed to monitor at the application layer, and these are what we will focus on in this series: File Integrity Monitoring: This is real-time verification of applications, libraries, and patches on a given platform. It’s designed to detect replacement of files and executables, code injection, and the introduction of new and unapproved applications. Identity Monitoring: Designed to identify users and user activity across multiple applications, or when using generic group or service accounts. Employs a combination of location, credential, activity, and data comparisons to ‘de-anonymize’ user identity. Database Monitoring: Designed to detect abnormal operation, statements, or user behavior; including both end users and database administrators. Monitoring systems review database activity for SQL injection, code injection, escalation of privilege, data theft, account hijacking, and misuse. Application Monitoring: Protects applications, web applications, and web-based clients from man-in-the-middle attacks, cross site scripting (XSS), cross site request forgery (CSRF), SQL

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