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Where Advanced Cyberttackers Are Heading Next: Disruptive Hits, New Tech

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In November, Ukraine’s president revealed that the country’s IT defenses fended off more than 1,300 Russian cyberattacks, including attacks on satellite communications infrastructure.

The onslaught of cyberattacks highlights one of the shifts in advanced persistent threat (APT) attacks seen in the past year: In 2022, geopolitical tensions ratcheted up, and along with them, cyber operations became the go-to strategy for national governments. While Russia and other nations have used cyberattacks to support military actions in the past, the ongoing war represents the most sustained cyber operation to date and one that will undoubtedly continue in the coming year, experts say.

Military conflict will join cybercrime as a driving force behind APT groups in the coming year, John Lambert, corporate vice president and distinguished engineer at Microsoft’s Threat Intelligence Center, stated in the company’s Digital Defense Report 2022 released last month.

“The conflict in Ukraine has provided an all-too-poignant example of how cyberattacks evolve to impact the world in parallel with military conflict on the ground,” he said. “Power systems, telecommunication systems, media, and other critical infrastructure all became targets of both physical attacks and cyberattacks.”

While the increased use of APT attacks by Russia is the most visible change that occurred in the past year, APTs are evolving. More are moving onto critical infrastructure, adopting dual-use tools and living-off-the-land techniques, and pinpointing the software supply chain to gain access to targeted companies.

Cybercriminals are using increasingly sophisticated tools, but APT techniques are typically attributed to nation-state operations, meaning that companies need to become more aware of the techniques used by advanced actors and how they may be motivated by geopolitical concerns, says Adam Meyers, senior vice president of intelligence for cybersecurity services firm CrowdStrike.

“You don’t have one uniform threat — it changes by business vertical and geo-location,” he says. “You — and this has been our mantra for many years — don’t have a malware problem, you have an adversary problem, and if you think about who those adversaries are, what they are after, and how they operate, then you will be in a much better position to defend against them.”

Critical Infrastructure, Satellites Increasingly Targeted

In 2021, the attack on oil-and-gas distributor Colonial Pipeline highlighted the impact that cybersecurity weakness could have on the US economy. Similarly, this year’s attack on the Viasat satellite communication system — likely by Russia — showed that APT threat actors have continued to focus on disrupting critical infrastructure through cyberattacks. The trend has gained momentum over the past year, with Microsoft warning that the number of nation-state notifications (NSNs) the company issued as alerts to customers more than doubled, with 40% of the attacks targeting critical infrastructure, compared to 20% in the prior year.

Critical infrastructure is not just a target of nation-state actors. Cybercriminals focused on ransomware are also targeting critical infrastructure companies, as well as pursuing a hack-and-leak strategy, Kaspersky stated in its recently published APT predictions.

“We believe that in 2023 we will see a record number of disruptive and destructive cyberattacks, affecting government, industry, and critical civilian infrastructure — perhaps energy grids or public broadcasting, for instance,” says David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky. “This year, it became clear just how vulnerable physical infrastructure can be, so it’s possible we might see targeting of underwater cables and fibre distribution hubs.”

Not Just Cobalt Strike

Cobalt Strike has become a popular tool among APT groups, because it provides attackers — and when used for its legitimate purposes, red teams and penetration testers — post-exploitation capabilities, covert communications channels, and the ability to collaborate. The red-team tool has “crop[ped] up in a myriad of campaigns from state-sponsored APTs to politically motivated threat groups,” says Leandro Velasco, a security researcher with cybersecurity firm Trellix.

Yet, as defenders have increasingly focused on detecting both Cobalt Strike and the popular Metasploit Framework, threat actors have moved toward alternatives, including the commercial attack simulation tool Brute Ratel C4 and the open source tool Sliver.

“Brute Ratel C4 … is especially dangerous since it has been designed to avoid detection by antivirus and EDR protection,” Kaspersky’s Emm says. Other up-and-coming tools include Manjusaka, which has implants written in Rust for both Windows and Linux, and Ninja, a remote exploitation and control package for post exploitation, he says.

Identity Under Attack

Following the coronavirus pandemic, remote work — and the cloud services to support such work — have increased in importance, leading attackers to target those services with identity attacks. Microsoft, for example, saw 921 attacks every second, a 74% increase in volume over the past year, the company stated in its report.

In fact, identity has become a critical component to securing the infrastructure and enterprise, while at the same time becoming a major target of APT groups. Every breach and compromise investigated by CrowdStrike in the past year has had an identity component, CrowdStrike’s Meyers says.

“We used to say trust, but verify, but the new mantra is verify and then trust,” he says. “These attackers have started targeting that soft underbelly of identity … that is a complex part of the system.”

IT Supply Chains Under Attack

The attack on SolarWinds and the widely exploited vulnerability in Log4J2 demonstrated the opportunities that vulnerabilities in the software supply offer to attackers, and companies should expect APT groups to create their own vulnerabilities through attacks on the software supply chain.

While there has been no major event yet, attackers have targeted Python ecosystems with dependency confusion attacks against open source repositories and phishing attacks targeting Python developers. Overall, the number of attacks targeting developers and companies increased by more than 650% over the past year.

In addition, APT actors are finding the weak points in vendor and supplier relationships and exploiting them. In January, for example, the Iran-linked DEV-0198 group compromised an Israeli cloud provider by using a compromised credential from a third-party logistics company, according to Microsoft’s report.

“This past year of activity demonstrates that threat actors … are getting to know the landscape of an organization’s trusted relationships better than the organizations themselves,” the report stated. “This increased threat emphasizes the need for organizations to understand and harden the borders and entry points of their digital estates.”

To harden their defenses against APT groups and advanced attacks, companies should regularly verify their cybersecurity hygiene, develop and deploy incident response strategies, and integrate actionable threat intelligence feeds into their processes, says Trellix’s Velasco. To make identity attacks more difficult, multifactor authentication should be routine, he says.

“In 2023, simple security planning is not enough to deter or prevent attackers,” Velasco says. “System defenders need to implement a more proactive defensive approach.”

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