A Beginner’s Guide To Advanced Persistent Threat

In this article let us look at:

  1. What is Advanced Persistent Threat? 
  2. What are the Advanced Persistent Threat Steps and How Does It Work?
  3. What are the Advanced Persistent Threat Characteristics?
  4. How to detect an Advanced Persistent Threat?
  5. How to prevent an Advanced Persistent Threat?
  6. What Are Some of the Advanced Persistent Threat Examples?

1. What is Advanced Persistent Threat

An Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) stands to describe a non-opportunistic breaching of organizations in a strategic, long-term manner with clear objectives. The Advanced Persistent Threat meaning can be simplified further. In other words, it is an attack campaign in which an intruder, or team of intruders, establishes an illicit, long-term presence on a network to mine highly sensitive data. It is a stealthy cyberattack in which the intruder gains unauthorized access to a system and remains undetected for an extended period. 

These assaults’ targets, which are very carefully chosen and researched, typically include large enterprises or governmental networks. The consequences of such intrusions are vast and include:

  • Intellectual property theft (e.g., trade secrets or patents)
  • Compromised sensitive information (e.g., employee and user private data)
  • The sabotaging of critical organizational infrastructures (e.g., database deletion)
  • Total site takeovers

APT attacks are carried by hackers who typically aim at high-value targets, such as nation-states and large corporations, with the ultimate goal of stealing information over a long time rather than to cause damage to the target organization’s network. Most APT attacks aim to gain and maintain ongoing access to the targeted network because a fair amount of training and resources usually go into carrying out APT attacks. 

2. What are the Advanced Persistent Threat Steps and How Does It Work?

An uninterrupted APT, Advanced Persistent Threat, can be apportioned into three main steps:

  1. Network infiltration
  2. Expansion of the attacker’s presence
  3. Amassed data extraction—all without being detected

Step 1: Infiltration

Enterprises are typically infiltrated by compromising one of three surfaces: web assets, network resources, or authorized human users. It is achieved through malicious uploads (e.g., RFI, SQL injection) or social engineering attacks (e.g., spear phishing). These threats are faced by large organizations regularly.

Furthermore, infiltrators may simultaneously execute a DDoS attack against their target. This serves both as a smokescreen to mislead network personnel and use it as a means of minimizing a security perimeter, making it easier to breach.

Once initial access is obtained, attackers quickly install a backdoor shell—a malware that grants network access and allows private, stealth operations. Backdoors can also come as Trojans masked in legitimate pieces of software.

Step 2: Expansion

Once the foothold is established in the second phase of Advanced Persistent Threat attack, hackers proceed to expand their presence within the grid. It involves ascending an organization’s hierarchy, jeopardizing staff members’ access to the most classified information.

In doing so, they can gather sensitive data, including financial accounts, employee credentials, and information regarding the product line. Depending on the attack goal’s nature, the aggregated data can be sold to a competing industry, acquired to subvert a company’s product line, or used to overthrow an entire organization.

Step 3: Extraction

During an APT event, information is stolen from a secure location network. Once enough data is obtained, cyber-criminals need to extract it without being detected. Typically, white noise tactics in the form of DDoS attacks are used to distract security teams and weaken site defenses to facilitate extraction.

3. What are the Advanced Persistent Threat Characteristics?

Advanced Persistent Threats characteristics often exhibit specific traits reflecting a high degree of coordination required to infringe prime targets.

APT, Advanced Persistent Threat, is handled in multiple phases, reflecting the same primary sequence of gaining access, maintaining and expanding access, and attempting to remain undetected in the victim network until all the attack goals are attained.

APTs are recognized for their focus on placing multiple points of compromise. APTs usually attempt to show various entry points to the targeted networks, enabling them to retain access even if the malicious activity is discovered. The incident response is triggered, enabling cybersecurity defenders to close one compromise.

4. How to detect an Advanced Persistent Threat?

Advanced Persistent Threats have warning signs despite typically being very hard to detect. An organization may notice specific traits after it has been preyed upon by an APT, such as:

  • Strange activity on user accounts
  • Unrestricted use of backdoor Trojan horse malware, a method that enables APTs to maintain access
  • Odd or unmatched database activity, such as a sudden increase in database operations involving massive quantities of data
  • Creation of unusual data files, which may suggest data that has been merged into files to assist in exfiltration

To determine if a network has been under an APT attack, detecting anomalies in outbound data is perhaps the best way for Cyber Security professionals.

A few common security flaws can limit detection and response, like focusing too much on prevention, neglecting endpoint security, and emphasizing malware. Nevertheless, there are steps for organizations to fix potential defects in their security presence and better defend themselves from Advanced Persistent Threats.

5. How to prevent an Advanced Persistent Threat?

Ways to troubleshoot:

  • Shifting to an ‘already compromised’ mindset
  • Broadening endpoint visibility
  • Expanding the visibility to reveal the entire attack

To protect against complex APTs, focus on the malicious activity that is going on within the network instead of focusing on preventing infiltration. Security executives realize that guarding the perimeter will not effectively preserve their organization and that regulating users is futile. 

There must be visibility across the entire IT environment, including network and endpoints. Having this clarity allows each action to be viewed holistically instead of as separate events. APT, Advanced Persistent Threat, is often made up of discrete components that can expose an entire operation when connected. Just viewing one action as an independent activity will not help analysts make the connections they need to discover the complete campaign. With full visibility, every step the hacker takes provides an opportunity to reveal the entire attack and shut it down.

6. What Are Some of the Advanced Persistent Threat Examples?

APTs are usually assigned names by their devisers. Since more than one researcher has discovered many Advanced Persistent Threat attacks, some can be known by more than one alias.

Some Advanced Persistent Threats examples include:

  • Sykipot has been an APT malware family since 2006 and is used as a backdoor to control the victim’s machine fully. Once the device is infected, the backdoor communicates with the C&C server to execute several kinds of commands on the affected system. Cyber-criminals have used the Sykipot APT malware family on targeted attacks to steal sensitive information from crucial industries.
  • Stuxnet is the malware co-developed in the 2000s by a joint effort between the US NSA and the Israeli military’s cyber division. Deployed in 2010 in Iran as part of a collaborative effort between the two countries to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program – Stuxnet, which had used four different zero days when it was unleashed, had explicitly been coded to target industrial control systems. Its role was to modify centrifuges’ settings for nuclear enrichment operations by raising and lowering rotor speeds to induce vibrations and destroy the machines. The malware was successful and infected over 200,000 computers, and eventually destroyed nearly 1,000 centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.
  • GhostNet cyberespionage operation was discovered in 2009 and was reported to have infiltrated the computers of political, economic, and media targets in more than 100 countries. The hackers were directed on securing access to the network devices of government ministries and embassies. The attacks enabled the hackers to regulate these compromised devices, turning them into listening and recording devices by remotely switching on their cameras and audio recording capabilities.


Advanced Persistent Threats date back to 2003 when Chinese hackers ran the Titan Rain campaign against the U.S. government targets to steal sensitive state secrets. The attackers focused on military data and launched APT attacks on government agencies’ high-end systems, including NASA and the FBI. 

In such instances, Chief Information Security Officers can empower security teams in the fight against APTs with the adoption of automatic threat detection using endpoint data to reveal complete attacks. 

If you are looking for the best place to learn and become proficient in all offensive Cyber Security technologies and skills, Jigsaw Academy, along with HackerU, offers an online 600-hour Master Certificate In Cyber Security (Red Team), ranked #1 Cyber Security Course In 2020. The course provides online instructor-led classes by experienced faculty and industry experts from HackerU Israel & India. Learners are offered guaranteed placements* and a joint certificate by HackerU and Jigsaw Academy post successful completion.

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