What is an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)?

Although advanced persistent threats (APTs) are less common than other malicious cybersecurity dangers, they are critical to understand and are becoming widespread. APTs also have the potential to have a greater long-term detrimental impact on an organization. So what is an APT exactly? How does this particular type of threat surface? And, what can you do to protect your company?

APT Defined

In an APT attack, a group of attackers works to gain unauthorized access to your network and attempts to maintain their presence, undetected, for an extended time period. These attacks are targeted and carried out with specific goals, such as malicious code placement, acquisition of personally identifiable information and proprietary data, and long-term access to internal resources.

The Life Cycle of an APT

Because of the level of sophistication of both the attack group and the attack, APTs are difficult to detect and therefore pose a long-term threat to victim organizations. An APT quietly and slowly gains initial (and then increased) access to a company’s protected network, reaching financials, intellectual property, and personal data.

The basic stages of an APT include:

  1. Determine target and set goals

  2. Find vulnerabilities and gain access to some part of the targeted environment, often through phishing emails

  3. Apply compromised access to gain greater network access

  4. Deploy any necessary tools to acquire sought-after data

  5. Consciously hide malicious presence so that future access remains available

The second part of the process then repeats to meet the ongoing acquisition goals of the attack group.

Secure Your Network from APTs

According to Security Magazine, the following network vulnerabilities give APT attackers an advantage:

  • Phishing emails. This attack vector comes up over and over in cybersecurity news because it is such a dangerous and successful way for attackers to gain unauthorized network access.

  • Legacy and hidden systems. These outdated apps, platforms, and PCs and servers remain on the network, sometimes undetected or existent on personal devices that have network access.

  • Third parties. The companies you work with that have access to your systems represent a potential security weak point that will not go unnoticed by malicious parties.

  • Rogue IT processes. When employees become fed up with corporate IT processes, they will sometimes develop their own, which aren’t monitored or protected.

An effective method to protect your organization is to conduct a thorough network penetration test either in-house or by a trusted third-party expert. Through this process, penetration testers work to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in your network that allow unauthorized access. With this data, you can take steps to fill those gaps and fortify your security posture.