The Cyber Kill Chain Gets A Makeover


A new report demonstrates how the cyber kill chain is consolidating as criminals find ways to accelerate the spread of their targeted cyberattacks.

The early phases of the traditional cyber kill chain are merging as criminals seek out faster ways to launch targeted attacks, a new report explains.

As part of the “2018 Critical Watch Report,” researchers at Alert Logic reviewed 254,274 total verified security incidents, 7.2 million events linked to those incidents, and 1.2 billion anomalies between April 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018. They surfaced five key insights, top of which was the realization that the traditional cyber kill chain is transforming for different types of attacks.

Since 2011, they report, the typical kill chain has comprised seven steps: reconnaissance (harvesting credentials, email addresses, etc.), weaponization (bundling exploits with backdoors into deliverable payloads), delivery of weaponized bundles to victims, exploitation to execute code on a target system, installation of malware, command and control, and acting on objectives.

In this model, each phase has a corresponding stage to interrupt and contain the attack. The earlier in the kill chain the threat is addressed, the less potential it has to do damage. Companies can detect attackers as they poke around during recon, deny access to data, stop data going to attackers, counterattack command and control, and contain network segmentation.

The traditional attack method is typical of advanced persistent threat (APT) attacks and was common in cybercrime from the mid- to late 2000s, explains Matt Downing, principal threat researcher at Alert Logic.

“It’s an explicit set of steps where the kill chain really made sense,” he says. “An attacker is interested in you because of what you possess or who you are. They do reconnaissance to figure out your attack surface … this is your typical targeted attack scenario.”

Depending on what they found during the recon phase, attackers would match a victim’s vulnerabilities against the exploits they had, bundle them up, and pass them on.

What researchers found is attackers now have modified this kill chain to consolidate the first five phases into a single action, accelerating the process of identifying vulnerable systems and launching attacks. The phases of recon, weaponization, delivery, exploitation, and installation are compressed as attackers leverage predefined, weaponized packages against targets. This merged kill chain was used in 88% of attack cases, researchers report.

Its use case is evident in cryptojacking, which researchers found to be the driving motivation for many attacks showing the condensed cyber kill chain. Most (88%) WebLogic attacks were cryptojacking attempts, and while this type of cybercrime doesn’t steal data or hold systems hostage, it is a sign that target systems are vulnerable to the placement of other malware.

“In the context of cryptojacking, it makes every single host on the Internet valuable,” Downing says. Attackers armed with cryptominers don’t need to conduct recon. They can simply send off their preweaponized payload, and the contained sequence of events plays out. Ransomware is similar; however, a few factors are boosting the appeal of cryptojacking.

For starters, many view cryptomining as a more benign activity. “There’s a lower ethical bar for some,” points out Christine Meyers, director of product marketing at Alert Logic. “[Attackers] just feel as though this is a victimless attack, whereas ransomware isn’t.”

Operationally, cryptojacking is easy, Downing says. Morally, it’s “a bit ambiguous” but growing among financially motivated cybercriminals who want direct access to digital currencies.

On a broader level, researchers noticed an uptick in automated attacks and “spray and pray” techniques. Web applications remain the primary attack vector across industries, including retail and hospitality (85%), nonprofits (82%), media and entertainment (80%), information technology and services (77%), education (74%), and financial services (71%).

To mitigate risk, researchers advise going back to basics. Vulnerability scanning, especially for low-level vulnerabilities, is essential to learn how an attacker can gain easy access to an environment. “It’s a fundamental hygiene issue,” says Downing, noting that “knowing and patching” is the key to defending against the consolidated cyber kill chain.

Meyers advises regularly assessing security posture – and doing so often. “It’s not a one-and-done thing where you address risk once and it never changes,” she says. “You need to continuously assess it.”

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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial … View Full Bio

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