Blog Post

Anatomy of a Spearphishing Attack

Intrusion Process Cycle Explained w/Video Demo

In blogs past, we have discussed the importance of Cyber Security, and how it is one of the most important pieces of the Information Assurance puzzle.  One of the greatest problems that we continue to face as Network Defenders and Information Assurance professionals is human error. We spend millions of dollars on technologies built to protect, block and alert when our IT systems come under fire, but many times the user is the very reason why we are under attack.

The Target, The User
The user is a soft, fleshy decision-making machine with something our computing systems do not have; free will. It's that very free will that empowers the user to decide whether to open an email and its attachment, or click on a link that appears legitimate or report the email as a potential spearphishing attempt. Easily fooled, caught off guard or simply unaware of the potential threat, the user continues to be the easiest and least difficult control to bypass to gain access to your internal network.

Technical Controls vs. User Awareness
Technical controls can only offer so much protection from and for the user. That means the gaps in protection against social engineering type attacks are not only technical, but also educational and awareness related. Only when your users are more informed and aware of their susceptibility toward socially engineered attacks will they exercise proper caution before opening emails or clicking a web link.  There is no silver bullet in any situation where security is a concern, it must be developed and implemented in layers. Multiple layers can add to the difficulty, security education and awareness training is one layer.

The Attacker
It takes an adversary very little time to craft a believable message that will entice a user to click on a link or open an attachment.  Below is a typical, high level process used by most adversaries before, during and after an attack.  This process is common among attackers of all skill levels, including Advanced Persistent Threats, and is extremely repeatable.

The Processes Defined
The process starts with the attacker identifying a target, and then researching the target to gain as much information as possible.  Generally, all the attacker needs is a name, an email address and some personal information (e.g. company or business, personal interests or hobbies). From there, the adversary creates a believable spearphish email message written in a way to entice the target to open the message and access the link.  The attacker may spoof the sender to appear as a friend or even a family member, increasing the likelihood of compromise

  • Sourcing Information - Is simply the process of choosing a target and performing research on that target.  The information is collected in a way that doesn't alert the target to the research (i.e. search engines, online white pages, social network sites).  Having information about the target provides the means to craft a personal message that is convincing enough to get the target to perform the desired action (open an attachment, or click on a web link within an email).
  • Crafting the Spearphish - Working with the information collected on the target, the spearphishing message should be crafted in such a way that the target believes it to be legitimate.
  • Obtaining Access - Is the initial compromise of the host, either through an infected, malicious attachment or a web link to a malicious website with a browser or java exploit embedded. This initial access is used to give the adversary its vector for follow-on actions after the initial exploitation. Elevating privileges, creating services and registry keys are just a few possible follow-on actions.
  • Stealing Data - Pretty much speaks for itself.  Once in, the attacker begins interrogating the compromised host for anything of interest.  MS Word files, Excel spreadsheets, Adobe PDF files and plain text files are immediate targets for data ex-filtration.  Due to the type of access the attacker may have, the initial action may be akin to a "smash & grab" type robbery.  If the attacker is not concerned about being caught or losing persistence, then they may scrutinize the data they want to steal more heavily.  Every byte that leaves the compromised host potentially puts the attackers at risk of being caught.
  • Moving Laterally - This is a common phrase within the CND community as well as Penetration Testers to describe the movement from the initial compromised host to another host on the same network. The idea behind lateral movement has several benefits to attackers which include removing themselves and their actions from the initial vector of compromise (most likely to be detected), or gaining access to additional information and information systems not available to the initial compromised host.  Another thing worth mentioning about moving laterally within a network is that the deeper the attacker gets, the harder it is to fully remove their access.  If the attacker can spread across the network, there is an increased chance that some access will remain even after the intrusion is detected.
  • Maintaining Access - Although the position in the process varies when the attacker moves to maintain their access beyond their initial attack vector, it is an essential part of the process for long-term access. If the attacker was not able to obtain the information they were seeking during the initial attack, they will need to return to continue looking. They may also have a particular system in mind that they are attempting to gain access to, so persistent backdoors will provide the attacker time to get to their intended destination.
  • Analyzing the Stolen Data - This part of the process is where the attacker can spend time going through the data they were able to remove from the compromised host or hosts network.  If the attacker is satisfied with the information they may have, there is no need to return to the intrusion.  This rarely is the case. More often than not, there is more to steal.  It helps if the victim is completely unaware of the attacker's presence.

Anatomy of a Spearphishing Attack Demonstration
The intrusion process is relatively easy to carry out and highly repeatable.  Cyber Squared has put together a short demonstration that illustrates an intrusion process from a Spearphishing message in action here

More Stories By Cory Marchand

Cory Marchand is a trusted subject matter expert on topics of Cyber Security Threats, Network and Host based Assessment and Computer Forensics. Mr. Marchand has supported several customers over his 10+ years within the field of Computer Security including State, Federal and Military Government as well as the Private sector. Mr. Marchand holds several industry related certificates including CISSP, EnCE, GSEC, GCIA, GCIH, GREM, GSNA and CEH.

Latest Stories
DX World EXPO, LLC, a Lighthouse Point, Florida-based startup trade show producer and the creator of "DXWorldEXPO® - Digital Transformation Conference & Expo" has announced its executive management team. The team is headed by Levent Selamoglu, who has been named CEO. "Now is the time for a truly global DX event, to bring together the leading minds from the technology world in a conversation about Digital Transformation," he said in making the announcement.
"Space Monkey by Vivent Smart Home is a product that is a distributed cloud-based edge storage network. Vivent Smart Home, our parent company, is a smart home provider that places a lot of hard drives across homes in North America," explained JT Olds, Director of Engineering, and Brandon Crowfeather, Product Manager, at Vivint Smart Home, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Conference Guru has been named “Media Sponsor” of the 22nd International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 5-7, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. A valuable conference experience generates new contacts, sales leads, potential strategic partners and potential investors; helps gather competitive intelligence and even provides inspiration for new products and services. Conference Guru works with conference organizers to pass great deals to gre...
DevOps is under attack because developers don’t want to mess with infrastructure. They will happily own their code into production, but want to use platforms instead of raw automation. That’s changing the landscape that we understand as DevOps with both architecture concepts (CloudNative) and process redefinition (SRE). Rob Hirschfeld’s recent work in Kubernetes operations has led to the conclusion that containers and related platforms have changed the way we should be thinking about DevOps and...
The Internet of Things will challenge the status quo of how IT and development organizations operate. Or will it? Certainly the fog layer of IoT requires special insights about data ontology, security and transactional integrity. But the developmental challenges are the same: People, Process and Platform. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Craig Sproule, CEO of Metavine, demonstrated how to move beyond today's coding paradigm and shared the must-have mindsets for removing complexity from the develop...
In his Opening Keynote at 21st Cloud Expo, John Considine, General Manager of IBM Cloud Infrastructure, led attendees through the exciting evolution of the cloud. He looked at this major disruption from the perspective of technology, business models, and what this means for enterprises of all sizes. John Considine is General Manager of Cloud Infrastructure Services at IBM. In that role he is responsible for leading IBM’s public cloud infrastructure including strategy, development, and offering m...
The next XaaS is CICDaaS. Why? Because CICD saves developers a huge amount of time. CD is an especially great option for projects that require multiple and frequent contributions to be integrated. But… securing CICD best practices is an emerging, essential, yet little understood practice for DevOps teams and their Cloud Service Providers. The only way to get CICD to work in a highly secure environment takes collaboration, patience and persistence. Building CICD in the cloud requires rigorous ar...
Companies are harnessing data in ways we once associated with science fiction. Analysts have access to a plethora of visualization and reporting tools, but considering the vast amount of data businesses collect and limitations of CPUs, end users are forced to design their structures and systems with limitations. Until now. As the cloud toolkit to analyze data has evolved, GPUs have stepped in to massively parallel SQL, visualization and machine learning.
"Evatronix provides design services to companies that need to integrate the IoT technology in their products but they don't necessarily have the expertise, knowledge and design team to do so," explained Adam Morawiec, VP of Business Development at Evatronix, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
To get the most out of their data, successful companies are not focusing on queries and data lakes, they are actively integrating analytics into their operations with a data-first application development approach. Real-time adjustments to improve revenues, reduce costs, or mitigate risk rely on applications that minimize latency on a variety of data sources. In his session at @BigDataExpo, Jack Norris, Senior Vice President, Data and Applications at MapR Technologies, reviewed best practices to ...
Widespread fragmentation is stalling the growth of the IIoT and making it difficult for partners to work together. The number of software platforms, apps, hardware and connectivity standards is creating paralysis among businesses that are afraid of being locked into a solution. EdgeX Foundry is unifying the community around a common IoT edge framework and an ecosystem of interoperable components.
"ZeroStack is a startup in Silicon Valley. We're solving a very interesting problem around bringing public cloud convenience with private cloud control for enterprises and mid-size companies," explained Kamesh Pemmaraju, VP of Product Management at ZeroStack, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Large industrial manufacturing organizations are adopting the agile principles of cloud software companies. The industrial manufacturing development process has not scaled over time. Now that design CAD teams are geographically distributed, centralizing their work is key. With large multi-gigabyte projects, outdated tools have stifled industrial team agility, time-to-market milestones, and impacted P&L stakeholders.
"Akvelon is a software development company and we also provide consultancy services to folks who are looking to scale or accelerate their engineering roadmaps," explained Jeremiah Mothersell, Marketing Manager at Akvelon, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Enterprises are adopting Kubernetes to accelerate the development and the delivery of cloud-native applications. However, sharing a Kubernetes cluster between members of the same team can be challenging. And, sharing clusters across multiple teams is even harder. Kubernetes offers several constructs to help implement segmentation and isolation. However, these primitives can be complex to understand and apply. As a result, it’s becoming common for enterprises to end up with several clusters. Thi...