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Government slow to mount defense against APTs

Government slow to mount defense against APTs

That advanced persistent threats are now the biggest cybersecurity problem government agencies face will not be news to many people. What may still be surprising, however, is just how long this problem has existed. The FBI believes at least one group of hackers has been using APTs against government agencies for at least the past five years -- and possibly much longer.

An alert posted online warned that the FBI “has obtained and validated information regarding a group of malicious cyber actors who have compromised and stolen sensitive information from various government and commercial networks,” and posted a list of domains the group had used to infiltrate networks and systems in the United States and abroad “since at least 2011.”

The domains have also been used to host malicious files, the FBI said, often through embedded links in spearphishing emails, and any activity related to the listed domains should be considered an indication of a compromise that needs mitigation.

The group identified by the FBI is thought to be a hacking unit called APT6, which various sources think is likely a nation-state-sponsored group based in China. It was a Chinese-sponsored group that was thought to have breached the systems at the Office of Personnel Management last year and compromised millions of government worker records.

The FBI alert highlights the still-yawning gap between the sophistication of those who want to get into government systems, and the government’s ability to defend against these APT attacks. The Department of Homeland Security’s Einstein and Continuous Diagnosis and Mitigation (CDM) programs, for example, have been touted as government’s main efforts to get effective security tools into agencies, but until now they’ve been based on known-signature detection, which is useless against APTs.

It was only this year that the DHS said Einstein would soon include tools that could track unknown threats, while the still-deploying CDM contract also only recently added behavior-based, non-signature tools to its product list.

Meanwhile, major government agencies continue to struggle to harden their network protection, even in the face of fallout from breaches. A recent internal review at the State Department, for example, found that the U.S. passport and visa Consular Consolidated Database was vulnerable to cyberattacks. That’s ranked as an unclassified but sensitive system that contains hundreds of millions of U.S. citizen passport and visa records that, if compromised, could threaten national security.

The potential danger of APTs is even greater considering the expansion of enterprise network boundaries. It used to be those were fairly well known and could therefore be well protected, but with the advent of mobile technology it’s become increasingly difficult to know just what network endpoints, and potential points of attack, exist at any time.

Now add the fact that organizations, particularly government agencies, are expanding the use of outside contractors, who themselves sub-contract to other companies, all of whom at some point might have access to agency networks. If that access is not well tracked, hackers could steal contractors’ access credentials and get access to agency networks.

The security company Bomgar has looked at the risk posed by third-party suppliers and found it to be quite high. While organizations tend to have a fairly high level of trust in their vendors, Bomgar said, only a third of those surveyed knew the number of logins to their networks made by third parties. Two-thirds admitted to having been breached in the past year because that vendor access was somehow compromised.

The inability to ’trust-but-verify’ is caused by the fact that so few organizations have the right technology in place. As Bomgar’s chief executive Matt Dircks pointed out, without the capacity to “granularly control access and establish an audit trail of who is doing what on your network,” you can’t protect yourself from those third-party security holes.

The APT threat, already large, will only grow. A recent report by the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology, a security think tank, pointed out that “at least” 100 APT groups are currently operational worldwide -- some state sponsored like APT6, but others run by criminals and mercenaries. It lists many of those groups, along with their histories, targets and methods of operation.

The conglomeration of hacktivists, state-sponsored hackers and for-hire cyber attackers are continuously targeting American corporations, organizations, universities and government networks, ICIT said, and are winning “because the United States lacks proper cyber hygiene and has yet to expedite a path to a cybersecurity-centric culture.”

That mindset could change, with the Obama Administration’s long-term strategy laid out earlier this year in its comprehensive Cybersecurity National Action Plan. How quickly that and other efforts will actually make a difference isn’t clear, however. Meanwhile, as the FBI APT6 alert shows, bad stuff has been (and probably still is) working away inside government networks, and there’s more on the way.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Apr 11, 2016 at 11:49 AM


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Reader Comments

Tue, Apr 19, 2016

Too many traditional PC's and systems in the federal government allow this particular attack vector. Modern devices should not allow persistent malware or executables to begin with. Federal government should rethink buying traditional PC's and operating systems and start moving to more modern ones that use verified boot, don't allowbinaries to change on persistent basis, or malicious executables even from USB's. These types of devices are now commercially available with better built in security at substantially lower TCO.

Tue, Apr 12, 2016 Mark Goldfain

I guess it is time to coin the term "cyber mercenary". Hacking-expertise-for-hire by governments. That would cover this group, and the group the FBI hired to hack iPhones, for just a couple.

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