Big business and government need to invest in data forensics and skills if they intend on fending off targeted attacks, according to analyst firm Gartner.
Beyond perennial vulnerabilities in software and people, the big weakness that determined attackers are currently exploiting are “due diligence” security controls.
These controls included change control and configuration management, vulnerability management, intrusion prevention and incident response and privilege management.
The widespread misuse of the term Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) by vendors and media was having a red-herring effect that caused organisations to focus on the source of the attack rather than the weaknesses exploited, John Pescatore, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner argued in a new research note.
"The reality is that the most important issues are the vulnerabilities and the techniques used to exploit them, not the country that appears to be the source of the attack," said Pescatore.
"The major advance in new threats has been the level of tailoring and targeting — these are not noisy, mass attacks that are easily handled by simple, signature-dependent security approaches."
The real issue at stake was that some organisations were being targeted, regardless of the source, according to Pescatore.
The targeted attack method spear-phishing, which is aimed at acquiring login credentials, was one aspect of targeted attacks were used to compromise both security vendor RSA and US government contractor, HB Gary.
During the period after base-level credentials have been compromised, network defenders needed to discover whether there was a real human behind the attack, HB Gary CEO Greg Hoglund argued recently.
As the attack by LulzSec on it highlighted, hackers -- whether state sponsored or otherwise -- were using stolen email to learn about their targets before crafting convincing emails in order to create a “beachhead” in the organisation that was later exploited more fully. Analyising network log files was critical in determining whether a human was behind the attack, argued Hoglund.
Pescatore recommended defence in depth for those that could afford it, but added that throwing more layers at the perimeter would not necessarily work against determined attackers.
Instead, organisations should invest in network and computer forensics, security information event management (SIEM), data leakage prevention and sandboxing.
"The use of specialised threat detection, network forensics and situational awareness technologies can be very effective in quickly detecting and reacting to the first stages of an advanced targeted threat, but require high levels of skilled resources to be effective," said Pescatore.
But going beyond due diligence and compliance could be costly and would demand real investments that may conflict with the widely held view amongst purse-string holders that security is just a cost.
"A lean-forward approach to security is going beyond the due diligence level of the standard network security and vulnerability assessment controls, and using tools and processes to continuously look for active threats on the internal networks,” said Pescatore.
“IT leaders must be prepared to invest in and staff lean-forward processes — and they must be prepared to take action if they find something."