Threat actors have shifted their approach from direct attacks on high-value servers or assets, commonly known as “shock and awe,” to a systematic, multi-stage process that involves the utilization of vulnerabilities, malware, stealth techniques, and evasion strategies in a coordinated network assault, sometimes referred to as “low and slow.”
This chapter provides a comprehensive examination of the attack life cycle, elucidating the manner in which extended detection and response (XDR) empowers individuals to impede attacks on their surroundings by effectively disrupting the life cycle. This chapter presents an overview of the typical stages involved in an attack.
The MITRE Adversarial Tactics, Techniques, and Common Knowledge (ATT&CK) framework is widely employed by security teams to monitor and analyze threats throughout all phases of an assault. An authentic Extended Detection and Response (XDR) solution should possess the ability to accurately detect and analyze every action performed by a threat actor, as well as provide a comprehensive visualization of their activities.
An authentic Extended Detection and Response (XDR) solution should possess the capability to identify and monitor every action undertaken by an adversary and afterward correlate each action with the relevant tactics and techniques outlined in the MITRE ATT&CK framework. This correlation serves to streamline the process of conducting investigations.
The assault life cycle delineates the sequential phases undertaken by an assailant in order to infiltrate a network and illicitly extract valuable data. Some of these steps include the initial exploitation of vulnerabilities, the installation of malware, the establishment of command and control, the lateral movement inside a network, and the exfiltration of data.
The identification of early phases in the life cycle of an assault enables the prevention of subsequent stages, hence impeding attackers from executing their intended actions. The subsequent sections provide a more comprehensive analysis of the attack life cycle, along with an examination of how XDR can be leveraged to impede its progression.
Threat actors meticulously plan their attacks. The individuals engaged in research activities to identify and select specific targets, sometimes utilizing publicly accessible information sourced from social media profiles of targeted personnel or company websites. This information can prove advantageous in executing social engineering and phishing strategies. In addition to employing a range of tools, attackers utilize network analyzers, network vulnerability scanners, password crackers, port scanners, and web application vulnerability scanners to identify potential network vulnerabilities, services, and applications that can be exploited.
To effectively detect and mitigate unwanted port and vulnerability scans, host sweeps, and other potentially malicious activities, XDR employs persistent monitoring and examination of network traffic flows during the reconnaissance phase. This step of disruption hinders the attack’s life cycle.
Subsequently, assailants deliberate over the selection of methodologies to utilize with the intention of compromising a specific endpoint. The perpetrators have the ability to embed malevolent software within apparently innocuous files, such as Microsoft Word documents or email communications. Alternatively, in the context of highly focused operations, malicious actors may customize their deliverables to align with the specific interests of an individual within the targeted organization. Subsequently, assailants endeavor to transmit their weaponized payload to a designated endpoint, employing various means such as email, instant messaging (IM), drive-by download (a technique involving the redirection of a user’s web browser to a website that automatically downloads malware to the endpoint without user consent), or infected file sharing.
Breaking the life cycle of an attack at its current level poses challenges due to the frequent occurrence of weaponization within the network of the attacker.
Nevertheless, the study of malware and weaponized artifacts can provide essential insights into potential threats, enabling the implementation of effective preventive measures against zero-day attacks during distribution attempts. XDR provides comprehensive insight into network traffic to effectively enforce bans on websites, programs, and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that pose risks or include hazardous content. Additionally, it aids in the prevention of both known and unknown malware and exploits.
The activation of a weaponized payload is necessary upon reaching its designated terminal. An individual with a malicious purpose has the capability to initiate an exploit from a remote location, targeting a specific server vulnerability within the network of interest. Alternatively, an end user, without deliberate intention, may inadvertently trigger an exploit by engaging with a harmful hyperlink or accessing an infected attachment enclosed within an email.
In the current phase of the offensive, the implementation of Extended Detection and Response (XDR) is important in order to disrupt the progression of the attack’s life cycle.
The efficient XDR agent provides protection against known, zero-day, and unpatched vulnerabilities by effectively countering the exploitation tactics employed by attackers to change applications. Although there exists a multitude of exploits, most of them are dependent on a restricted set of exploitation techniques that undergo infrequent alterations. The prevention of these techniques effectively halts exploitation endeavors prior to the establishment of connections with endpoints, as previously pledged.
Subsequently, the assailant will proceed to elevate privileges on the compromised endpoint, potentially through the establishment of remote shell access and the installation of rootkits or other forms of malicious software. Through the utilization of remote shell access, the perpetrator gains authority over the endpoint and is able to execute commands in a privileged mode via a command-line interface (CLI), mimicking the act of being physically there in front of the endpoint. Subsequently, the assailant will proceed to go horizontally throughout the network of the target, implementing offensive code, discerning potential targets, and compromising supplementary endpoints in order to establish a lasting presence.
In order to disrupt the life cycle during this stage of an attack, it is imperative to proactively hinder the installation process on the endpoint and effectively curtail the lateral movement of the attackers within the network. XDR utilizes the capabilities of endpoint detection and response (EDR) and endpoint protection platform (EPP) technologies in order to proactively mitigate the occurrence of unauthorized installations. In a Zero Trust architecture, XDR effectively oversees and examines all communication between different zones or segments, while also offering meticulous regulation over the permissible applications within the given environment.
Threat actors employ encrypted communication channels to establish connections with command-and-control servers distributed throughout the Internet. This methodology enables the actors to adapt their attack goals and techniques in response to the identification of new potential targets within the targeted network. It also facilitates the evasion of any newly implemented security measures that the organization may employ upon the discovery of attack indicators. Effective communication plays a crucial role in the context of an attack as it facilitates the attacker’s ability to remotely direct and execute the desired objectives of the attack. In order for an attack to be successful, the reselling of command-and-control traffic must be executed with incompetence and a covert approach.
Attackers often possess a range of diverse objectives when engaging in an assault, such as the unauthorized acquisition of data, the manipulation or destruction of critical systems, networks, and data, and the deliberate disruption of service availability (DoS). The final step of the life cycle can be exploited by an attacker to further the initial phases of an assault on a separate target. As an illustration, an assailant may gain unauthorized entry to an organization’s extranet with the intention of compromising a primary target, namely a business partner. The supply chain attacks gained significant media attention in 2020 due to the Solar Winds attack.
At this juncture, the cessation of the life cycle necessitates the use of XDR solutions that possess the capability to autonomously identify and halt data exfiltration as well as other malevolent or illicit activities.
The perpetrator leverages vulnerabilities present in the webserver in order to gain unauthorized access and assume control over the server.
The perpetrator leverages their control over the system to deploy Mimikatz, thereby acquiring administrative privileges.
The perpetrator deploys supplementary malicious software and remote access tools in order to establish a long-term presence and facilitate command-and-control interactions.
The adversary exhibits lateral movement inside the network, compromising numerous endpoints and gaining unauthorized access to both private and public cloud apps.
The perpetrator examines the configuration files residing on the server, identifies the location of the backend database, executes queries against the database, and afterward stores the obtained results in a local file. The data that has been gathered is afterward transferred to a cloud storage site that has been officially permitted or approved. Subsequently, the perpetrator proceeds to eliminate the file housing the data inside the database, eradicates the local logs, and terminates the session.
XDR possesses the distinctive capability to effectively mitigate sophisticated, multifaceted threats by comprehensively gathering data from various sources and exhibiting the ability to identify and counterattack strategies that may elude other conventional security solutions.
The XDR platform is designed to collect and analyze various forms of data in order to identify and mitigate adversary actions throughout the entire attack life cycle.
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