Cyber Attack Lifecycle Stages – Chain That We Need to Breakdown

Cyber Attack Lifecycle Stages

Our blog has repeatedly mentioned the officially confirmed growth of cyber attacks on various government, social, industrial, and commercial sectors. We discussed some separate tools, prevention methods, and ways to fight each time. However, it is also essential to look at the strategy and cyber attack lifecycle stages from the attackers' perspective to understand their goals and system vulnerabilities better.

The best defense is based on a thorough knowledge of the tools and techniques of attack, so today, we will talk about it.

Cyber-Kill Chain Model and Cyber Attack Lifecycle Stages

There are many theoretical methods and advanced visualizations for cybersecurity lifecycle monitoring and management. MITER ATT&CK achieved particular success with their matrices describing the tactics, techniques, and strategies of attackers. However, the well-known Cyber Kill-Chain model proposed by Lockheed Martin is still a classic example for identifying cyber attack lifecycle stages and preventing intrusion processes.

The Cyber-Kill Chain model indicates that hackers must always go through cyber attack lifecycle stages to access valuable data on workstations and servers. The great news is that blocking malicious actions at any stage allows you to break the entire attack chain.

In addition, every intrusion, and the trail it leaves on the endpoints, is a chance to learn more about current harmful actions and use them to your advantage. The better we understand hackers' behavior and their ways of carrying out attacks, the more effectively we can organize the cybersecurity lifecycle.

Stage 1. Foreign Intelligence (Reconnaissance)

This stage is the phase of choosing a goal and methods through:

  • familiarizing with organization characteristics; 
  • identifying the specific industry requirements and technologies used; 
  • studying the activity of the company on social networks or through mailing lists.

Essentially, the attacker is trying to answer the questions – "Which attack methods will work with the greatest success rate?" or "Which would be the easiest to implement in terms of investment and resources?"

Stage 2. Weaponization and Packaging

The choice of tools and techniques for the attack occurs at this stage – web applications, standard or specially manufactured malware, searching for vulnerabilities in various documents (PDF, DOCX, or other document formats), or watering hole attacks.

Stage 3. Delivery

Transmission of malicious tools is either victim-initiated (for example, the user visits a malicious site or opens an infected PDF file) or attacker-initiated (SQL injection or network service compromise).

Stage 4. Infection And Exploitation

The required malicious content is deployed and installed in the environment after being delivered to the user's computer or device. Typically, this happens when exploiting a known vulnerability for which a patch was previously available. In most cases, and depending on the target, attackers do not need to incur additional costs for finding and exploiting unknown vulnerabilities.

Stage 5. Installation

Often the installation occurs against the background of some external connections. Typically, the malware hides in these operations, infiltrating unnoticed endpoints that attackers can access. They can then control this application without the victim's knowledge.

Stage 6. Getting Control

At this stage, control over the victim's assets occurs through control methods (usually remote) such as DNS, Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP), websites, and social networks. It allows the attacker to send commands through infected sources – what to do next and what information to collect, for example:

  • screenshots,
  • keystroke control,
  • password hacking,
  • network monitoring for credentials,
  • critical data & documents.

There is often an intermediate host for information copying, which compresses and encrypts data for further sending.

Stage 7. Performing Actions 

In the final step, attackers send the collected data and/or disable IT assets on the victim's network. Then, they can do something else to identify other targets, expand their presence within the organization, and (most importantly) extract data.

Features of Сyber Attack Lifecycle Stages and Practical Application

It is noteworthy that Cyber-Kill Chain is a circular model, not a linear one. Once an attacker accesses the network, the cybersecurity lifecycle closes and starts again. In addition, despite the methodology uniformity, repeated cyber attacks occur using other techniques and tools. After penetrating the network, attackers turn from an external threat into an insider one, which makes it more difficult to detect and eliminate. Thus, the main goal of internal specialists is thorough cybersecurity lifecycle monitoring and management to break the Cyber-Kill Chain promptly and intervene at the early stages.

What to Do With This Knowledge?

In one of the articles on cyber threat intelligence, we discussed the importance of a theoretical approach to detecting and eliminating threats. However, the practical application of knowledge of cyber attack lifecycle stages extends this list due to:

  • acceleration of the detection of primary signs of an attack and compromise – recognition of a potential hack, which requires prompt detection and localization of the compromise fact;
  • improvement of the detection of illegitimate behavior by studying the attacker's activity;
  • possibility to model a list of current threats and an attacker’s profile, based on which security specialists can create and customize dynamic protection tools;
  • implementation of the basis for developing an effective defense system designed around a realistic environment that adapts to the ever-changing threat landscape.

Like all first-class security professionals, the MBS Tech Services team are excellent practitioners who can both tweak pre-made software products and create new solutions. Nevertheless, a thorough knowledge of the theory allows us to act purposefully, systematizing the chaos of modern methodologies and requirements into a single system. In this case, a deep understanding of the cybersecurity lifecycle is the key to providing comprehensive and thoughtful data protection that allows you to respond to threats, prevent them, and minimize their consequences in the shortest possible time.

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