What Is the Lifecycle of an Advanced Persistent Threat? 

APT lifecycle featured

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) are some of the most dangerous and persistent cyberattacks that organizations face today. Understanding the APT lifecycle is crucial for organizations looking to protect their sensitive data and networks against these attacks. 

The APT lifecycle consists of several stages: reconnaissance, initial compromise, establishing persistence, escalation of privileges, lateral movement, data exfiltration, and maintaining access. In this article, we will explore each stage of the APT lifecycle and discuss the techniques used by threat actors.


What Are the Potential Repercussions of an Advanced Persistent Threat?

Advanced persistent threats are dangerous specifically because of their unique nature as compared against traditional malware or attacks. As such, APTs are often used to attack prime targets in industrial, infrastructural, or government contexts. 

APTs pose several major threats to these organizations, including:

  • Data Theft and Espionage: APTs are often designed to steal sensitive data, such as PII, PHI, and trade secrets–which, no matter how you slice it, is a significant problem for the organization.
  • Operational Disruption: APTs can disrupt an organization’s operations by causing downtime, productivity loss, or damage to critical systems. This can be particularly damaging for organizations that rely heavily on their IT systems and data.
  • Financial Loss: APTs can result in direct economic losses for an organization, such as through the previously-mentioned theft of funds or loss of revenue due to disrupted operations.
  • Reputation Damage: Getting hit with an APT can damage an organization’s standing with their clients (current and potential). Additionally, it can put your brand in front of regulators and security experts, and not in a good way. No one wants their company listed on the common database for vulnerabilities. 
    • Legal and Regulatory Repercussions: An APT will likely result in violations of regulatory or compliance frameworks your organization must meet. Furthermore, these breaches can become exponential when considering all the different avenues an APT can follow.
    • Industry and National Secrets: In some cases, APT attacks can pose a national security risk. For example, an APT group targeting critical infrastructure or government agencies could compromise sensitive information or disrupt essential services.


      What Is the APT Lifecycle?

      APT lifecycle

      The lifecycle of an APT typically consists of several stages, each designed to further the expansion and operations of that threat. The exact stages can vary depending on the specific APT and the threat actor behind it.

      The general stages of an APT include:



      In this stage, the hacker conducts reconnaissance to gather information about the target and their vulnerabilities. This can include technical and social engineering attacks focused on developing an understanding of that system and its operators. 

      Some common techniques will include:

      • Defining and Researching Target Systems: At this stage, an attacker will do their best to understand the target system. This can include the development of a profile of the victim, including their hardware and software profiles as well as key administrators. 
      • Performing Reconnaissance: Research will also include some forms of reconnaissance, including low-cover hacks into peripheral systems or phishing attacks. These actions help the attacker better understand the precise infrastructure in play while filling in gaps in their knowledge base. 
      • Building Tools: The attacker will then build the tools necessary to enter the system. Most attacks aren’t built on established software–instead, the attacker will either combine several different agencies or build their own to exploit any vulnerabilities they find. 


      Deployment and Intrusion

      Once the threat actor has gathered enough information, they will attempt to gain a foothold in the target’s network. This can involve using social engineering techniques to trick employees into downloading malware or exploiting a vulnerability in a system.


      Establishing Persistence

      After gaining initial access, the threat actor will try to establish persistence in the target’s network. This can include installing backdoors or creating user accounts to maintain access even if the initial point of compromise is discovered and remediated.

      • Establishing Outbound Connections: The attacker will begin communicating to servers outside the infected system. Typically, this outbound communication will be hidden within packets on the network. 
      • Escalation of Privileges: Once the threat actor has established persistence, they will attempt to escalate their privileges within the target’s network. This can involve exploiting vulnerabilities in software or systems to gain administrative access.
      • Lateral Movement: With escalated privileges, the threat actor will attempt to move laterally within the target’s network to gain access to sensitive data or systems. This can involve compromising additional systems or accounts to access critical data or systems.


        Data Exfiltration

        After gaining access to sensitive data, the threat actor will attempt to exfiltrate the data from the target’s network. This can involve using various techniques to conceal data exfiltration, such as using encryption or hiding data within seemingly innocuous files.

        • Exfiltrating Data: Critically, the APT will attempt to pull data from the infected system. This can mean dumping database content, pulling configuration files, or listening to network traffic to gather more information about an organization. 
        • Maintaining Access: Even after exfiltrating data, the threat actor may attempt to maintain access to the target’s network for future attacks. This can involve establishing new backdoors or user accounts or leaving behind malware or other tools to allow remote network access.

        Overall, the lifecycle of an APT is designed to be a stealthy and persistent attack that can last for weeks, months, or years with the ultimate goal of stealing sensitive data or causing damage to the target’s operations. At some point, however, the attacker may levy a full attack on the system for financial gain. This typically comes as ransomware that holds critical systems hostage for ransom.


        What Is “Lateral Movement” and How Do APTs Accomplish it?

        In this (and our previous) article, we’ve mentioned lateral movement, or the ability of an APT to enter other systems without detection. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of an APT’s success. 

        There are several ways an APT may move laterally through a system, including:

        • Exploiting Existing Vulnerabilities: APTs can exploit vulnerabilities in software, authentication systems, or hardware to move from one system to another.
        • Credential Theft: APTs can steal credentials, such as usernames and passwords, to access other network systems.
        • Privilege Escalation: By exploiting system flaws or weak authentication, the attacker can expand their reach into privileged accounts, like administrator accounts. This is a very bad thing.
        • Remote Administration Tools: APTs can use remote administration tools, such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), to access and control other systems in the network. This can allow them to move laterally within the network and access sensitive data.
        • Exploiting Trust Relationships: APTs can exploit trust relationships between systems or users to gain access to other systems in the network. This threat is particularly challenging when the organization does not adhere to zero-trust principles.


        Count on Lazarus Alliance to Secure Against APTs

        Advanced persistent threats are the new norm in cybersecurity. Even small businesses could find themselves affected by an APT, either directly targeting their IT systems or targeting one of their managed service providers. Don’t wait to react after a disaster hits. Get your security and compliance in order with Lazarus Alliance.

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