With targeted attacks and advanced persistent threats being very much in the news this year, we thought it would be a good time as the end of the year draws closer to begin our review of targeted attacks and look more closely at what has been described as “advanced persistent threats” or APTs for short. Terms such as APT have been overused and sometimes misused by the media, but APTs are a real threat to some companies and industries.
In November, one in 255 emails was malicious, but approximately one in 8,300 of those were highly targeted. This means that highly targeted attacks, which may be the precursor to an APT, account for approximately one in every two million emails, still a rare incident rate. Targeted malware in general has grown in volume and complexity in recent years, but as it is designed to steal company secrets, it can be very difficult for recipients to recognize, especially when the attacker employs compelling social engineering techniques, as we highlight in this report.
A persistent threat residing inside your company’s network may be the by-product of a successful targeted attack, rather than the targeted email itself containing an APT, it is likely to contain a downloader component for the actual APT. Hence, targeted attacks of this nature can lead to an APT being deployed on your network if you don’t have the right defenses in place.
Targeted attacks have been around for a number of years now, and when they first surfaced back in 2005, Symantec.cloud would identify and block approximately one such attack in a week. Over the course of the following year, this number rose to one or two per day and over the following years it rose still further to approximately 60 per day in 2010 and 80 per day by the end of the first quarter of 2011. By November 2011, the number of attacks blocked rose to approximately 94 per day, almost four times the number in January.
The types of organizations being targeted tended to be large, well-known multi-national organizations, and were often within particular industries, including the public sector, defense, energy and pharmaceutical. In more recent years the scope has widened to include almost any organization, including smaller and medium-sized businesses.
To find out more, the full report can be downloaded here (PDF).
The number of targeted attacks outlined by Symantec are only representative of Symantec E-mail service customers and Symatec.cloud customers, however two general points can be taken from the data. Targeted attacks are happening on a daily basis and the sectors which experience targeted attackers continue to increase and widen.
Whitepaper - Advanced Persistent Threats: A Symantec Perspective
"An APT is always a targeted attack, but a targeted attack is not necessarily an APT."