One of the most significant threats to businesses today is the advanced persistent threat (APT). An APT is a sophisticated, targeted attack designed to compromise an organization’s data, networks, or systems. Sensitive content and the channels used to share it with trusted partners are particularly vulnerable to APTs. Therefore, protecting them is critical to ensuring the integrity and long-term success of the business. This article explores the nature of APTs, the risks they pose to sensitive content communications, and the steps you can take to protect your business and the confidential information you share with trusted parties via email, file sharing, managed file transfer (MFT), and secure file transfer protocol (SFTP).


What Is an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)?

An APT is a targeted attack designed to gain access to an organization’s network, systems, or data. The attackers behind APTs are typically well-funded and highly skilled, using various techniques to evade detection and remain undetected for extended periods, lasting months or even years. These attacks are usually very sophisticated and often involve social engineering tactics like spear phishing to gain access to an organization’s network. Once inside, the attackers move laterally through the victim’s ecosystem, seeking valuable data like intellectual property and personally identifiable information and protected health information (PII/PHI).

Why Are Sensitive Content Communications Vulnerable to APTs?

APTs are designed for extracting valuable information. Communication channels are a prime source of this information. Emails, documents, and files, for example, are particularly vulnerable to APTs. These attacks can result in the theft of trade secrets, financial data, contracts, customer data, and other private, confidential information, all which can be used for competitive advantage or sold on the black market.

How Does an ATP Attack Work?

The APT attack process involves multiple stages, which are explained in detail below.

Reconnaissance Phase (APT-1)

The first stage of an APT attack is reconnaissance, also known as APT-1. In this phase, the attacker gathers intelligence about the target organization, including its network architecture, systems, and security protocols. The attacker may use various methods, including social engineering techniques, network scans, and open-source intelligence (OSINT), to gather critical information about an organization, its ecosystem, its supply chain, and its people.

Initial Compromise (APT-2)

The second stage of an APT attack is the initial compromise, also known as APT-2. In this phase, the attacker gains access to the target organization’s network or system. The attacker may use various methods, including spear phishing, drive-by downloads, or exploiting vulnerabilities in software or systems.

Establish Foothold (APT-3)

The third stage of an APT attack is the establishment of a foothold, also known as APT-3. In this phase, the attacker creates a persistent presence on the target organization’s network or system. The attacker may use various methods to maintain a foothold, including installing backdoors or creating new user accounts, while avoiding detection.

Escalate Privileges (APT-4)

The fourth stage of an APT attack is privilege escalation, in short, APT-4. In this phase, the attacker gains elevated privileges on the target organization’s network or system, allowing them to access sensitive data or systems. The attacker may use various methods to escalate privileges, including exploiting vulnerabilities in software or systems or using stolen credentials.

Internal Reconnaissance (APT-5)

The fifth stage of an APT attack is internal reconnaissance, also known as APT-5. In this phase, the attacker gathers further intelligence on the target organization’s network or systems. The attacker may use various methods to conduct internal reconnaissance, including scanning for vulnerabilities or identifying potential targets for further attacks.

Lateral Movement (APT-6)

The sixth stage of an APT attack is lateral movement, also known as APT-6. In this phase, the attacker moves laterally through the target organization’s network or systems, seeking out sensitive data or designs to access. The attacker may use various methods to move laterally, exploiting vulnerabilities or using stolen credentials, while trying not to be detected.

Maintain Presence (APT-7)

The seventh stage of an APT attack is maintaining a presence, also known as APT-7. In this phase, the attacker maintains a persistent presence on the target organization’s network or system while seeking access to sensitive data that enters, moves through, and exits the organization. The attacker may use various methods to maintain their presence, including installing rootkits, backdoors, or other malware.

Complete Mission (APT-8)

The final stage of an APT attack is completing the mission, also known as APT-8. In this phase, the attacker achieves their primary objective, namely stealing sensitive data. Attackers may also attempt to cover their tracks and remove all traces of the APT attack.

Different Examples of Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

Advanced persistent threats (APTs) vary in size and scope, each with unique characteristics and targeting specific industries or objectives. Here are some real-world examples of APT attacks:

Operation Aurora

Operation Aurora is attributed to a Chinese state-sponsored group known as APT10. This APT was discovered in 2009 and targeted Google and other high-profile tech companies. The attackers gained access to the companies’ networks by exploiting a vulnerability in Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer.


This APT targeted banks and financial institutions worldwide, stealing millions of dollars over several years. Carbanak operated by sending spear-phishing emails to bank employees, allowing attackers to access the target’s network. The APT was discovered in 2014, and the attackers are believed to be based in Russia.

Lazarus Group

This APT is known for its involvement in the 2014 Sony Pictures hack and the 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack. Lazarus Group is a North Korean state-sponsored group that targets various industries, including financial institutions and defense contractors.


This APT is attributed to a Chinese state-sponsored group and primarily targets Southeast Asian countries’ government and military organizations. Naikon uses spear-phishing emails and malware to access the targets’ networks.


This APT is a financially motivated criminal syndicate that targets the hospitality industry, including restaurants. FIN7 is known for its sophisticated phishing campaigns and the use of Carbanak malware to steal credit card data.


This APT is attributed to a Russian state-sponsored group and targets various industries, but also government agencies and government embassies. Turla uses spear-phishing emails and watering hole attacks to access target networks.


Detecting and Mitigating Advanced Persistent Threat Attacks

Detecting advanced persistent threats (APTs) can be challenging because they are designed to evade detection and stay undetected for an extended period. There are, however, several strategies that organizations can use to identify APTs. Here is a snapshot of some strategies businesses can use to detect and mitigate the damage created by APTs:

Network Monitoring

APTs often rely on command-and-control (C&C) servers to communicate with their operators and download additional malware. Network monitoring tools can identify traffic to and from suspicious domains, IP addresses, or ports associated with C&C servers.

Anomaly Detection

APTs often exhibit unusual behavior that differs from regular network traffic. Anomaly detection tools can monitor for unique data transfer patterns or unusual logins and alert security teams to potential threats.

Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR)

EDR tools are designed to detect and respond to malicious activities on endpoints. They monitor system behavior, identify suspicious files, and see and block known malware.

Threat Intelligence

Security teams can use threat intelligence to identify known APTs, their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), and the indicators of compromise (IOCs) associated with them. By continuously monitoring threat intelligence feeds, security teams can identify and respond to potential threats early.

User Behavior Analytics (UBA)

UBA tools monitor user behavior and can identify suspicious activities like failed login attempts or logins from unusual IP addresses or access to sensitive data by an employee who doesn’t have a business need for that data.

Penetration Testing

Regular penetration testing can help organizations identify weaknesses in their defenses and potential vulnerabilities that APTs could exploit.

It’s important to note that no single detection method is foolproof, and security teams should use a combination of tools and techniques to identify APTs. Early detection and response are crucial in mitigating damage caused by APT attacks, so organizations should have a robust incident response plan to contain and remediate threats quickly.

How Kiteworks Protects Your Business From APT Attacks

The Kiteworks Private Content Network provides organizations with critical tools to mitigate the risk of APTs and safeguard their most sensitive content, particularly as it’s shared with trusted external parties. These capabilities include:

  1. ATP Scanning, Quarantine, and Visibility: Advanced threat protection (ATP) scanning, quarantine, and visibility are critical components of a zero-day threat protection strategy. The Kiteworks platform feeds incoming files through your ATP system to check for zero-day and known threats. It quarantines failing files and notifies appropriate security personnel. All activity is fully logged and visible via reporting and the CISO Dashboard, and is exportable to your audit log and SIEM.
  2. Native Support for Check Point SandBlast ATP: The Kiteworks platform supports Check Point SandBlast ATP natively, allowing businesses to leverage their existing ATP investments and provide an additional layer of protection against zero-day threats.
  3. FireEye Malware Analysis (AX) ATP Integration: The platform also supports FireEye Malware Analysis (AX) ATP and exports log entries to the FireEye Helix SIEM to add full context to the event, allowing businesses to detect and respond to zero-day threats more effectively.
  4. ICAP-compatible ATP Systems: In addition to native ATP support, the platform also supports ICAP-compatible ATP systems, ensuring that businesses have a range of options to choose from when protecting against zero-day threats.

Additional capabilities, like a virtual hardened appliance, embedded antivirus protection and intrusion detection system (IDS), TLS 1.2 encryption in transit and AES-256 at rest, on-premises, private cloud, hybrid or FedRAMP deployment options, and much more all serve to protect the sensitive information you share from APTs and other cyber threats.

To learn more, schedule a custom demo.


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