Advanced Persistent Threat - A nightmare for corporate cybersecurity professionals

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Focusing solely on common cyber attacks is one of the most costly mistakes many corporate cybersecurity teams make. This is because there is a higher threat capable of inflicting long-term and significantly more damage to the company's systems and network. This is to introduce Advanced Persistent Threat — a recurring nightmare for organizations. 

This article discusses advanced persistent threats, their modus operandi, and the damage they can cause to large and small organizations. Here, you will also find solutions that you can adopt to strengthen your company's APT cybersecurity.


What is Advanced Persistent Threat? 

An advanced persistent threat (APT) is a sophisticated cyber attack that intends to gain access to a system or network for a long time. APT cyber criminals are usually highly skilled and well-funded. APT attackers possess advanced expertise to launch attacks that are difficult to prevent and, once active in your company's system, hard to detect.

Over the years, lots of organizations have suffered massive and, in many cases, irreparable damage due to APT attacks. APT attacks may lead to losses and theft of sensitive data, such as intellectual property and company databases. APT attacks may also expose sensitive company data belonging to clients and employees.

APT attacks are launched manually and are thorough. These malicious actors may invest months of careful research and planning, identifying security loopholes for access to the whole network rather than a section.

Ultimately, APT attackers can be malicious enough to gain complete control of a company's system. With this control, attackers have a blank check of crazy ideas to implement using the company's network/system.


3 Main Stages of APT Attacks

APT attacks occur in three major stages:

  1. Infiltration: APT attackers gain entrance to systems and networks primarily by social engineering. Most likely, spear-phishing emails that target C-level executives of the victim organization. 
  2. Escalation and lateral movements: APT attackers introduce malware to glean company info after gaining initial access. At this stage, the threat actors implement backdoors to ensure continuous access. In addition, APT attackers also perform lateral movements inside the different sections of the victim network.
  3. Exfiltration: At this stage, the attackers round off an operation by exporting stolen info from the breached system.


Examples of APT Attacks 

To provide a broader and more robust understanding of APT attacks, let's examine a few recent APT attacks.

The Group-IB Attacks

In early 2023, a Singaporean-based cybersecurity company, Group-IB, was targeted by APT attackers. According to the company, the latest attack in June 2022 was only the latest in a series of assaults on the company. 

In a blog post, Group-IB identified several APT attack groups named Earth Akhlut, CactusPete, Bronze Huntley, Karma Panda, and most notoriously, Tonto Team. In particular, Tonto Team initiated their attacks by baiting the company through malicious email attachments sent to company staff. 

Group-IB believes that the intentions of Tonto Team, a Chinese APT attack group, are within the scope of theft of intellectual property and espionage. 

APT Attack Group Targets U.S Engineering, Business Services, and Telecoms Sectors

An APT attack group, popularly called the Newscaster Team, has gained a reputation for attacking U.S. organizations. Most of these target companies belong to the Engineering, Business Services, and Telecoms Sectors. Worst of it all, intelligence reports have traced the group to Iran. 

Dating back to 2014, the group has received the backing of the Iranian government to undergo espionage-related attacks. The group utilizes advanced penetration testing tools and publicly available web shells.

The group relies on spear phishing using job postings, password policies, and resumes to access target companies. The group has also targeted energy, media, and defense sector organizations.


Small and Medium Scale Businesses Are the Most Likely APT Targets

Large corporations and businesses are the most likely targets of APT attackers. However, small and medium-scale businesses are the main focus of these bad actors. The reasons are simple. 

Small and medium-scale businesses are significantly more vulnerable and, due to limited funds, are less likely to deploy advanced cybersecurity solutions. In addition, most SMBs feel unworthy of such attacks. While true, SMBs can be one step on a ladder to reach the end target.

APT attackers may target SMBs to infiltrate larger impenetrable companies through their links, commonly known as supply chain attacks. For this reason, no section of the corporate world must feel exempted from the war against APTs. 


APT Camouflage — You Should Look for Warning Signs

APT attacks do not announce themselves. APTs thrive on their strictly progressive and clandestine nature. Here are some warning signs you should look out for.

  • A spike in database operations especially involving large volumes of data
  • An accumulation of data bundles that could be intended for massive exfiltration operations
  • Unusual user account behaviours such as suspiciously frequent late-night or out-of-office hours logins
  • The presence of backdoor trojans
  • Unusual movement of data emanating from sources within the system to foreign destinations


Time to Action for Cybersecurity Professionals 

Now is the best time to fortify your systems and networks against high-level threats like APTs. Traditional and widespread cybersecurity tools such as firewalls and antivirus software aren't sufficient to get the job done. Advanced threats require advanced responses. 

Besides improving threat monitoring infrastructure, implementing multi-factor authentication, and heightening vigilance, Extended Detection and Response (XDR) is the way to go. XDR will continually monitor your system's endpoints to spot any indicators of compromise (IOC) instead of merely scanning for risks. Once these threats are exposed, XDR will neutralize and notify the SOC team or initiate other response protocols.

XDR will offer advanced protection against APTs through APT-dedicated threat intelligence. These solutions will update you with the latest direction and new modes of operation of APT attackers, keeping you one step ahead. Read more about Extended Detection and Response.



No cyber threats are more menacing than sophisticated, targeted, and long-term ones. APT attackers aim to feel at home in your company's network and do as much damage as possible without being detected. Organizations of any size must build a practical roadmap to detect and protect against advanced persistent threats and ensure their security teams are sufficiently equipped for this fight against APTs.