Advanced persistent threats force IT to rethink security priorities

Security for Business Innovation Council finds highly targeted, thoroughly researched, amply funded, and tailored attacks have become commonplace

The biggest business challenge today, in the minds of many information security officers, is the stealthy online infiltration by attackers to steal valuable proprietary information. The reality, they say, is that these so-called "advanced persistent threats" are so rampant and unrelenting they are forcing IT to rethink network security.

"Tackling advanced persistent threats means giving up the idea that it's possible to protect everything. This is no longer realistic," states the Security for Business Innovation Council, the group of 16 security leaders from companies that include eBay, Coca-Cola Company, SAP, FedEx Corp., Johnson & Johnson and Northrop Grumman. The council today published a report -- "When Advanced Persistent Threats Go Mainstream" -- outlining the problems and challenges facing large organizations.

MORE ON SECURITY: What is an 'Advanced Persistent Threat' anyway?

These advanced persistent threat (APT) infiltrations can emanate from nation-states and their hired-hand attackers as well as industrial competitors, or organized crime and "hactivists" like Anonymous. The term APT is thought to have originated within the U.S. military, primarily the Air Force, which used the phrase as shorthand to describe cyberattacks that seemed to originate from somewhere in mainland China.

The overall sense, according to the report, is that an APT is a "cyberattack that is highly targeted, thoroughly researched, amply funded, and tailored to a particular organization -- employing multiple vectors and using 'low and slow' techniques to evade detection."

This stealthy attack infiltration to steal important data has become widespread, with several companies and government agencies disclosing they've been targets, including Google, EMC's security division RSA, Epsilon, Citigroup, The Washington Post and the Department of Energy research labs Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Lab.

Timothy McKnight, chief information security officer at Northrop Grumman, who is a member of Security for Business Innovation Council, recently discussed how the aerospace and defense firm virtually every day has to defend itself against what it believes are a dozen separate groups of attackers trying to get into its network to steal sensitive data.

In the council report the 16 information security officers are advising security teams to work closely with their business managers to identity the "crown jewels" of the organization and protect these "core assets," while "also moving away from a perimeter-centric view."

"Focusing on fortifying the perimeter is a losing battle," their report bluntly states. "Today's organizations are inherently porous. Change the perspective to protecting data throughout the lifecycle across the enterprise and the entire supply chain." And the report adds: "The definition of successful defense has to change from 'keeping attacks out' to 'sometimes attackers are going to get in; detect them as early as possible and minimize the damage.' Assume that your organization might already be compromised and go from there."

Dave Cullinane, CISO and vice president of global fraud, risk and security at eBay, says there's simply no doubt that the APT problem, which is often likely to be financially motivated cybercrime, is at the top of everybody's list of concerns right now.

The council report makes seven recommendations for improving defense posture that range from "up-level intelligence gathering and analysis," "activate smart monitoring " and "reclaim access control," as well as "get serious about effective user training."

The end user is often targeted through spear-phishing techniques an attacker will use to get the victim to open dangerous malware-filled attachments that can then compromise the machine and provide a jumping-off point to move further into the organizational network.

Cullinane says there's an urgent need for better products that can accurately detect spear-phishing attempts. "Adversaries know what works in spam filtering today," he points out.

Some businesses, including banks, have been developing home-grown approaches to detecting spear-phishing. Some of these analyze email by making use of information gained through network threat-monitoring tools, for instance those from FireEye and Damballa. But Cullinane says he hopes the high-tech industry looks at spear-phishing identification as an area for innovation in security products since businesses don't typically want to keep creating their own home-grown solutions. In addition, businesses need "much better analysis and visibility" in security management, he says.

The rise of cloud computing platforms seems to make the question of APT even more complicated, but IT security managers are going to have to be actively involved in contract negotiations for cloud use to determine if security needs can be met, Cullinane says.

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