What is an Advanced Persistent Threat? Targets, Stages & Signs to Know

Written By Sambita Panigrahy  
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh 
Published On August 31st, 2023
Reading Time 7 Minutes Reading

An advanced persistent threat or simply APT attack is different than traditional cyber attacks. It’s a sophisticated and sustained cyberattack in which an intruder cleverly invades into organization’s network undetected and steals sensitive data over a prolonged period of time.

This type of attack is carefully planned and executed to penetrate the networks of a specific industry while avoiding the existing security measures. The invaders are not ordinary hackers but are well-funded and experienced teams/groups of cybercriminals.

Advanced Persistent Threat Groups Examples

Let’s now understand who is responsible for such attacks.

Operators who lead APT attacks have a clear vision/goal in their minds and they are capable and determined to achieve that goal. Notable groups are engaged in carrying out such sophisticated attacks to gather intelligence. If you ask how many advanced persistent threat groups are there? Then, here are a few examples of advanced persistent threat groups;

  1. GOBLIN PANDA (APT 27): It’s a China-based invader that uses two Microsoft documents with training-related themes to drop malicious files.
  2. FANCY BEAR (APT 28): This is a Russia-based adversary that uses phishing messages and spoofed websites (which nearly look like legitimate ones) as a weapon to gain access to traditional computers and mobile devices.
  3. OCEAN BUFFALO (APT 32): The 3rd example of APT is a Vietnam-based intruder that is famous for employing a wide range of TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) to distribute malware via Strategic Web Compromise (SWC) operations.
  4. HELIX KITTEN (APT 34): It’s an Iran-based adversary that targets organizations in aerospace, energy, financial, government, hospitality, and telecommunications. It uses well-researched spear phishing messages relevant to the target company.
  5. WICKED PANDA (APT 41): It’s another China-based intruder that consists of a superset of groups involving several contractors working in the interests of the Chinese state. At the same time, they continue to engage in illegal and lucrative activities.
  6. BLUENOROFF (APT 38): It is another Advanced Persistent Threat Example that is the North Korean Invader. It is basically a state-sponsored threat group that specializes in financial cyber operations. Banks, financial institutions, casinos, cryptocurrency exchanges, SWIFT system endpoints, and ATMs have been its target since 2014 for nearly 38 countries around the globe.

What’s The Motive Behind APT Attacks?

APT attacks target high-value organizations and are mostly regulated by nation-states or rival corporations. Professional hackers spend a significant amount of time researching to identify vulnerabilities within the target organization. Then, they carry out a well-planned attack in the form of Cyber Espionage, eCrime, Hacvitism, and Data Destruction.

Their main target is to collect confidential and sensitive data which includes; 

  • Intellectual Properties (Source code, inventions, trade secrets, patents, designs, processes, etc)
  • Classified Data
  • Personal Identifiable Information (PII)
  • Reconnaissance data
  • Crucial Credentials
  • Incriminating Communication

advanced persistent threat

Three Stages of Advanced Persistent Threat Lifecycle

If you’re curious to know, how advanced persistent threat works, then here is the process. Intruders execute the attack in three very carefully structured stages. Nearly all APTs follow the core lifecycle of invading a network, expanding access, and achieving the goal i.e. extracting sensitive information without being noticed.

1. Infiltration

The target audience of Sophisticated hackers is high-level individuals like senior executives or technology leaders. So, in the first stage, they do thorough research, then identify loopholes in the target organization, and finally invade the security perimeter using different tactics. Such as;

  • Social Engineering: This is one of the oldest and most successful of all infiltration methods used by hackers. Here, they manipulate the target individuals and convince them to provide the access they (hackers) need.
  • Spear Phishing: It is the common fraudulent practice of high-level hackers to send emails to the target individual pretending themselves as a trusted sender. And, often individuals believe this activity that those emails came from a known or genuine sender and fall victim to the cyberattack.
  • Rootkits: This is a collection of software developed to enable access to a computer. Also, it often masks its existence or the existence of other software making it difficult to detect. Once it’s installed in the target system, hackers can access the company through the rootkit.
  • Exploits: It’s commonly known as zero-day bugs or security exploits. These take advantage of an unpatched security flaw which allows Advanced Persistent Threat to go on for several months undetected.

2. Lateral Movement

Once hackers gain initial access and implant malware into the target company’s network, they turn to the next stage i.e. widespread. They start to move laterally by mapping the networks. And, simultaneously collect credentials such as account names and passwords for accessing confidential business information.

Moreover, in this stage, the intruders may leave a backdoor open to sneak into the network later to conduct operations in stealth mode.

3. Exfiltration

This is the stage where cyber criminals usually extract stolen information without being noticed. But, before that, they store those data in a secure location until enough data has been gathered. So, once they have collected a fair amount of data, they use DoS (Denial of Service) attacks to distract the security team while the data is being extorted.

Know The Signs of Advanced Persistent Threat

Though tactics used for APT attacks are different from ordinary attacks, they certainly leave behind some sort of digital footprints. So, you can recognize an APT attack by observing signs, such as,

  • Unusual activity on user accounts like high-level logins at late night.
  • Widespread presence of Trojans
  • Unexpected data bundles accumulated for exfiltration
  • Unreasonable increase in database operations 

How to Protect Against APT Attacks? – Learn Different Prevention Methods?

Organizations can better protect themselves from Advanced Persistent Threats by adopting various cybersecurity and intelligence solutions. 

  1. Organizations must deploy sensor coverage that provides full visibility across their infrastructure to identify security blind spots.
  2. Technical Intelligence such as Indicators of Compromise (IOC) can act as an added weapon in identifying potentially undetected events on the network.
  3. Service Provider. Organizations may need assistance responding to a sophisticated cyber-attack. Hence, they can partner with highly experienced cybersecurity firms such as SysTools. Because these professional firms offer Managed Cybersecurity Solutions that cover almost all security needs. Besides, a managed, human-based approach can think of the unthinkable situation and prove to be helpful in threat hunting with their 24/7 assistance.


Q. What are the characteristics of Advanced Persistent Threat?

APT has several key characteristics that justify the fact that these attacks are not ordinary attacks. In other words, some of the characteristics involve Advanced Techniques the adversaries use, Long-term focus, Customized targeting, Sponsored and well-funded, Quiet and Stealthy approaches, Responsive to Defenses (the threat actors can adjust their tactics to bypass the security measures to maintain their access), Focus on High-Value targets, etc. 

Q. How does Advanced Persistent Threat Work?

The hackers who carry out these attacks are well-funded and highly skilled, that’s why they execute the attack in a structured manner. It goes like this. Initiate compromise process >> Deliver Payloads >> Establish Foothold >> Move Laterally within the compromised network >> Maintain Persistent >> Exfiltrate Data >> Cover their Tracks >> Exit.

Q. How to detect APT attacks?

Adversaries may be smart but security experts can also outsmart them by observing the warning signs. For instance, unusual user accounts, extensive use of backdoors, uncharacteristic database activity, unusual-looking data files, etc.

Q. What is breakout time?

In every sophisticated attack including APT, breakout time plays a crucial role for the security specialists. It refers to the duration an attacker takes to move laterally within a network after gaining access. Hence, it is a critical metric for tracking how quickly adversaries can operate and for evaluating a security team’s detection and response times.