Security

Cybersecurity: Understanding the attack kill chain and adversary ecosystem

Security expert Art Gilliland explains what companies can learn from how hackers infiltrate systems, swipe sensitive information, and profit from your company's data.

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Image: iStock / Shivendu Jauhari

The summer is over. Winter is coming. And so are more cyber attacks.

The hacks and subsequent embarrassing data leaks of the DNC and Clinton Foundation this summer demonstrated the high stakes and fragile cybersecurity ecosystem of political campaigns. As the general election heats up, The Takeaway, a news program produced by WNYC in New York reported that Julian Assange and Wikileaks are preparing to release another batch of hacked data.

Though attacks can be sophisticated, it's likely the DNC attacks were the result of simple spearfishing, a tactic that involves tricking an employee to open or click a link inside an email that appears to be from a trusted source. "[Spearfishing] is a relatively easy trick, and anyone, from the CEO to an entry level employee, can be duped," said Skyport Systems CEO Art Gilliland.

READ: Cybersecurity spotlight: The ransomware battle (Tech Pro Research report)

The campaign leaks should serve as a cautionary tale for companies big and small, Gilliland said. Many businesses, he explained, are as vulnerable as the DNC and should learn from this summer's hack attacks. "In building an effective program to protect the enterprise, companies should consider the reality of the adversary marketplace." Meaning, hackers often behave like rational actors within traditional markets.

To defend your company against complex and simple attacks alike, Gilliland said, think like a hacker. "[Kill chain] is taken from military parlance. The attack lifecycle enumerates the steps that an attacker follows to steal or damage a target asset inside a company." Although much more sophisticated attack lifecycles exist, he said, the basic kill chain process is easy to understand.

Think like an attacker and focus on adversary disruption.

Most attacks follow these steps, Gilliland said:

  1. Recon - The attacker researches, profiles, and tests the environment and its people.
  2. Infiltrate - Breaks in and takes positions inside the organization.
  3. Discover - Uses the internal position to understand more about the environment and the surrounding systems.
  4. Capture - Works to take control of the asset, typically information, that is valuable.
  5. Exfiltrate - Moves the asset out, or in some cases damages the asset.
  6. Monetize - Sells or uses the asset to make money or gain advantage.

Create identity-based perimeters for cloud services.

As more organizations consume services or infrastructure from SaaS and cloud providers, the need for a different model of security becomes important. The challenge isn't that they don't deliver security, the challenge often is that they don't deliver all of the security that an organization requires. Create what Gartner calls the Cloud Access Broker. These are gateways that implement policies on the interactions between users and the cloud.

Develop individual trust zones in the cloud.

The most promising new architectural approach is in the creation of individual security perimeters around every workload that runs in the data center. This approach is often referred to as micro-segmentation and represents the separation of the network trust zones into units of a single zone of trust for each application or workload.

Encrypt sensitive data.

Broad use of encryption can help ensure that the data that is stolen is useless. Find technologies that can encrypt data without breaking applications. Approaches like tokenization and format preserving encryption can help to protect without breaking the existing environment. Finally, start with the stuff that really matters and work from there. It is not necessary to encrypt everything all at once. Start small, reduce risk, and move on.

READ: FBI has found hackers accessed two states' election databases (CBS News)

"The hardest part of cybersecurity is that many of the tools used by adversaries are also used by the good guys," Gilliland said. The best way to improve defensive posture is to focus more on adversary disruption tactics and less on technical architecture. "If the adversary is profit motivated, they will likely just move on. Remember that old adage: If you are in a group chased by a bear you don't need to be faster than the bear, you only need to be faster than the others with you," he said.

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Note: This interview has been edited for length.

About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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