Incident Response, TDR

Study sheds light on uncertainty of SMBs defining APTs

For many IT workers, the term advanced persistent threat (APT) is a buzzword laden with uncertainty, a recent study highlighted.

According to the global survey released Monday by security firm Sophos and the Ponemon Institute, 33 percent of respondents at small to midsized organizations said they weren't sure how to best describe an APT attack.

The study, called “The Risk of an Uncertain Security Strategy” (PDF) polled more than 2,000 individuals who are tasked with managing IT security functions at SMBs. Individuals in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia, India, China and Singapore participated.

The report also found that 33 percent of respondents defined APTs as “recurrent, low-profile targeted attacks.”

Meanwhile, 16 percent of individuals said APTs were best described as attackers using advanced and zero-day technologies, while 11 percent described the attack category as hacktivism – hacking with ideological or political motivation.

The smallest number of respondents, eight percent, said that nation-state attackers best defined APTs.

On Monday, John Shier, senior security adviser at Sophos, addressed why the media and industry has sometimes been overbroad in using the term APT.

“You get a term that's new and cool, and it can be used in a blanket method,” Shier told “Not to say it's being used maliciously or disingenuously, but sometimes there are just better descriptions.”

Shier said that APTs signify state-sponsored attacks, where perpetrators have immense backing and use exploits for the purpose of infiltration and to maintain a persistent foothold in organizations.

Security practitioners have debated the use of the term APT – with some opting not to use the word at all.

Josh Corman, director of security intelligence at security firm Akamai Technologies, on Monday that he calls perpetrators falling into this category an “adaptive persistent adversary” in hopes of getting across the importance of the “who and how” in these incidents.

Often, other individuals overlook key aspects of perpetrators' mindsets when mislabeling persistent attack campaigns, he explained. Sometimes, a less sophisticated attack is preferred to carry out a complex mission.

“An attacker is only as sophisticated as they need to be, and the sad news is we don't force them to be very talented,” Corman said. “People will look at an unsophisticated attack as proof that the attack isn't sophisticated, when in fact, using common techniques allows them to hide better."

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