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Agile Computing: Article

A New Generation of Cybercrime: Advanced Persistent Threats

Cybercrime has taken a dangerous turn heralding the emergence of a new generation of attacks

Cybercrime has taken a dangerous turn heralding the emergence of a new generation of attacks focused on corporate and government espionage. These attacks are targeted and persistent leading to leakage of vital state secrets and critical corporate data. These threats have been labeled as Advanced Persistent Threats (APT).

A number of recent high profile attacks such as the Google Aurora, Stuxnet, RSA hack and attacks on many defense contractors and enterprises have been traced to APTs. The modus operandi has been similar – a targeted email containing malware infiltrates a PC and hides its tracks using a rootkit. Later it contacts a Command and Control (C&C) server and downloads modules which perform the intended objective – stealing user credentials, burrowing deeper into the network, stealing vital data and ex-filtrating it to the cybercriminals.

The defenses against APTs are usually based on anti-virus software to look for malware signatures, Intrusion Detection Systems to look for suspicious network activity, Data Loss Prevention software to identify confidential data and content-aware firewalls to block the ex-filtration.

Unfortunately, these defenses have not prevented the brazen attacks.

An APT attack typically follows the following sequence of events –

  • Target profiling – This involves getting intelligence on the target to be compromised. There is a lot of publicly available information using social networks and other sources to facilitate this.
  • Attack and compromise – This is typically via spear phishing wherein a specially crafted email with a malicious attachment is sent to the user. The attachment will compromise the victim’s computer using a zero day flaw and install malware. This is usually in two parts. The first part is a self-extracting installer which hides its tracks and deletes itself after installing the second part….the actual malware which uses rootkit technology to hide itself and communicate with its command and control (C&C) server. The malware may also propagate itself within the network using network shares.
  • Download attack modules – After communicating with the C&C server, the malware downloads attack modules such as a keylogger and screen scraper.
  • Steal user credentials – The keylogger and screen scraper capture a user’s credentials when they login to other servers or access software and websites that have proprietary information that the attacker is interested in.
  • Steal proprietary information – Once the attacker has access to the user’s credentials, they can steal the proprietary data, encrypt it and prepare it to be ex-filtrated.
  • Data ex-filtration – The packaged data can be sent to the C&C server or other drop sites such as compromised computers and public email folders.
  • Maintain persistence.

To prevent yourself from being the next victim, focus on securing the user credentials rather than trying to detect the malware. This can be accomplished by following a two-pronged strategy:

  1. Prevent keyloggers and screen scrapers from grabbing the user credentials.
  2. Strengthen the password scheme by using out-of-band two factor authentication.

One solution is StrikeForce’s GuardedID anti-keylogging technology. It uses a different approach to defend against keyloggers. Rather than trying to detect keyloggers, it takes a preventive approach. It takes control of the keyboard at the lowest possible layer in the kernel. The keystrokes are then encrypted and sent to the browser via an “Out-of-Band” channel bypassing the Windows messaging queue. GuardedID has a built in self-monitoring capability. This prevents it from being bypassed by other software. If GuardedID is tampered with in any way, it will warn the user of the breach.

OOB methodologies

True “Out-of-Band” Authentication, wherein the PIN/OTP is entered in a second channel

  • Entering a fixed PIN in a phone
  1. The user enters their username and password into the application.
  2. Their phone rings and they are prompted to enter a PIN into their phone.
  • Entering an OTP in a phone
  1. The user enters their username into the application.
  2. Their phone rings and they are prompted to enter an OTP into their phone. The OTP is typically displayed to the user in the application.

“Out-of-Band” credential passing, wherein the PIN/OTP is sent to the user via a second channel.

Sending an OTP to a phone via SMS

  1. The user enters their username into the application.
  2. An OTP is sent to their phone as a text message.
  3. The user then enters the OTP into the application.

Sending an OTP to a phone via text to speech

  1. The user enters their username into the application.
  2. Their phone rings and they hear an OTP spoken via text to speech.
  3. The user then enters the OTP into the application.

Sending an OTP via email

  1. The user enters their username into the application.
  2. An OTP is sent to their email address.
  3. The user then enters the OTP into the application.

Token methodologies

Hard Token (key fob that displays OTP when a button is pressed).

  • Soft Token (OATH compliant software) that can reside on a PC or mobile devices such as a Black Berry, iPhone, Android or J2ME compliant cell phones.

StrikeForce holds the patent for Out-of-Band two factor authentication with its ProtectID platform. The solution is designed to authenticate individuals and employees and/or authorize transactions in real-time. ProtectID can be integrated into many remote access (VPN), domain access, website access, risk-mitigation, transaction based systems and other environments. The premise, cloud or hybrid service minimizes password/device related help desk calls by providing users a backup authentication method.

More Stories By Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the host of Fox Television’s "Shelly Palmer Digital Living" television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.

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