Industry Observations-Vulnerabilities-Web Application Security

5 Characteristics of a ‘Sophisticated’ Attack

When news breaks about a cyber-attack, often the affected company will [ab]use the word ‘sophisticated’ to describe the attack. Immediately upon hearing the word ‘sophisticated,’ many in the InfoSec community roll their eyes because the characterization is viewed as nothing more than hyperbole. The skepticism stems from a long history of incidents in which breach details show that the attacker gained entry using painfully common, even routine, and ultimately defensible methods (e.g. SQL Injection, brute-force, phishing, password reuse, old and well-known vulnerability, etc).

In cases of spin, the PR team of the breached company uses the word ‘sophisticated’ in an to attempt convey that the company did nothing wrong, that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the breach because the attack was not foreseeable or preventable by traditional means, and that they “take security seriously,” — so please don’t sue, stop shopping, or close your accounts.

One factor that allows this deflection to continue is the lack of a documented consensus across InfoSec of what constitutes a ‘sophisticated’ attack. Clearly, some attacks are actually sophisticated – Stuxnet comes to mind in that regard. Not too long ago I took up the cause and asked my Twitter followers, many tens of thousands largely in the InfoSec community, what they considered to be a ‘sophisticated’ attack. The tweets received were fairly consistent. I distilled the thoughts down to set of attack characteristics and have listed them below.

5 Characteristics of a ‘Sophisticated’ Attack:

  1. The adversary knew specifically what application they were going to attack and collected intelligence about their target.
  2. The adversary used the gathered intelligence to attack specific points in their target, and not just a random system on the network.
  3. The adversary bypassed multiple layers of strong defense mechanisms, which may include intrusion prevention systems, encryption, multi-factor authentication, anti-virus software, air-gapped networks, and on and on.
  4. The adversary chained multiple exploits to achieve their full compromise. A zero-day may have been used during the attack, but this alone does not denote sophistication. There must be some clever or unique technique that was used.
  5. If malware was used in the attack, then it had to be malware that would not have been detectable using up-to-date anti-virus, payload recognition, or other endpoint security software.

While improvements can and will be made here, if an attack exhibits most or all of these characteristics, it can be safely considered ‘sophisticated.’ If it does not display these characteristics and your PR team still [ab]uses the word ‘sophisticated,’ then we reserve the right to roll our eyes and call you out.