The Usual Suspects: Understanding the Nuances of Actors’ Motivations and Capabilities

25 April 2017

When it comes to their adversaries, organizations can still fall into the trap of focusing on the ‘usual suspects’. At times, the mainstream media’s coverage of threat actors can result in a highly polarized or stereotyped lens in which actors are unfortunately presented as either highly sophisticated, well-funded state actors; or far less sophisticated hackers who occasionally get a break, aka “400-pound hackers.”

The reality is more nuanced, with actors exhibiting a range of different motivations, intent, capability as well as technical skill sets and operational sophistications which are not mutually exclusive. Some highly technical attackers using customized malware and achieving persistent access to networks have also made simple operational errors which have provided valuable clues to investigators.

Of course, as Rick Holland wrote in a previous blog, “adversaries do what works easily”. This has been best put by the 2013 Verizon DBIR “Would you fire a guided missile at an unlocked screen door?”. It’s not all about zero days; high capability attackers have also leveraged commercial off the shelf tools and common malware to accomplish their mission.

In a similar way, less technically capable threat actors can be highly successfully using simple techniques. Threat actor group Team GhostShell showed evidence of this by using database query tactic SQL injection to successfully gain access to hundreds of public records of alumni from 53 universities across the world.

Digital Shadows maintains a comprehensive intelligence database encompassing a wide range of threat actors and campaigns. Within each profile, motivations and intent of an actor are analyzed and assessed to create a rich understanding of the characteristics of an actor as well as the tactics they typically adopt.

 DS Portal Intel View

Figure 1 Digital Shadows Portal – Intelligence View

 

This well-referenced and ready-made library of threat actor activity provides a resource clients can use to understand the latest threats or to provide detail for intelligence assessments. Clients are also presented with actor profiles most relevant to their organizations. The profiles can also be used as case studies for more strategic assessments looking at a range of actors or sector threats.

For example, from the first identification of an attack, an organization can use the Intelligence tab of the Portal to begin piecing together the perpetrator, their TPPs, recent activity, and credibility, in order to make an assessment of how to move forward.  In addition, known indicators of compromise (IOCs) are included allowing clients to recognize any intrusion attempts on their internal systems.

 DS Portal Actor Profile

Figure 2 Actor Profile

This allows our clients to maintain an understanding of the complex assortment of threat actors out there, including an understanding of their capabilities and intent towards particular targets.  Organizations can then inform their security posture and help manage their risk to achieve business goals.  Finally, organizations can use these threat actor and campaign profiles to manage up the chain of command. SearchLight customers can leverage this robust library to quickly tell a story to their executive team and help them understand the actor’s implications to their business. 

To learn more about how Digital Shadows monitors threat actors, watch our full demo video here