Targeted Attacks: Not All Attacks Need To Be Sophisticated

The security industry loves to talk about how “sophisticated” attacks can be. Usually this takes the form of us saying how advanced and sophisticated an attack is, what new methods were used to hide servers or make analysis harder, etcetera. However, it’s easy to forget that not all attacks need to be technically sophisticated; instead it can be in the social engineering used and how the attack is carried out.

For example, a few months ago we talked about the Arid Viper campaign, a sophisticated attack that targeted users in Israel. However, that well-organized attack shared some of its attack infrastructure with Advtravel, which was far less sophisticated. Arid Viper was advanced; Advtravel was less so. How could this be the case? Weren’t targeted attacks supposed to be the work of educated, sophisticated attackers? Weren’t these attackers supposed to have nothing in common with “ordinary” cybercriminals?

Let’s think about it for a moment. Are the skills needed to carry out a “targeted attack” that different from an ordinary cybercriminal attack? Fundamentally, they are not. While cybercriminals generally profit from activities like credit card fraud, they are not above selling their skills to attack specific targets with a planned goal in mind. If that is the case, why shouldn’t they reuse their existing tools? Why shouldn’t they reuse existing infrastructure?

Even “large-scale” attacks that have affect the real world sometimes use surprisingly simple tools. Consider the attack on TV5 Monde: that was carried out using malware created with a VBScript toolkit. Instructions on how to use it could be found on Youtube. It was not a great challenge to get this tool to work properly.

The sophistication of these attacks lies in how the tools are used. What social engineering was used to convince the targets to open malicious attachments/links? No sophisticated “persistent threat” is needed when an ordinary remote access tool (RAT) will do.

These attacks are persistent, and it will be difficult – if not impossible – for an organization to stop all of them. An attacker will not go away merely because he has been stopped once, or twice, or even more times. There is no bulletproof, fool-proof solution that will stop all attacks. So, what can an organization do?

An organization needs to realize that it can’t stop all attacks. What it can do is discover attacks that are in progress so that the damage from any particular one is mitigated. An intrusion detection system is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. This defends against not only common threats like RATs, but against sophisticated targeted attacks as well. There is no silver bullet to dealing with today’s threats; one must constantly keep up with current and future technology – both for offensive and defensive purposes – to understand the constantly changing threat landscape and the available defenses.

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