Nation-State Cyber Threats: Responding to a Coordinated Cyber Attack

Date: 26 March 2024

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Nation State Cyber Threats pose an increasingly significant challenge to the global cybersecurity community. They don’t just jeopardise the digital security of precious assets, they’re also capable of severely impacting national security of countries they’re adversaries of. 

In this blog, we describe the capabilities and damage that Nation State Threat Actors can cause and how to respond to a sophisticated Nation-State Coordinated Cyber Attack. Our own certified course, Cyber Incident Planning & Response, has detailed guidance to ensure you are better prepared to detect and respond to advanced nation-state attackers. 

Topics covered in the blog: 

1. What are Nation State Threat Actors? 
2. What makes Nation State attacks so intimidating?
3. How to Respond to a Coordinated Nation State Cyber Attack?

Before we get into the details, here’s a quick reminder. If you prioritise being prepared for cybersecurity incidents throughout the year and focus on consistently improving your cyber incident response capabilities, you are already a step closer to resilience in the face of Nation-State threats. 

While they can be highly malicious and persistent in nature, with the right cybersecurity protocols, infrastructure, and rigorous staff training, you will be as prepared against them as you can possibly be. The next thing left to be done is to educate yourself about Nation-State actors, who they are and what their tactics and techniques are for easier identification and better response. And that’s precisely what the next section covers. 

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What are Nation-State Cyber Threats?  

The US CISA defines Nation State Cyber Actors as adversaries who pose an elevated threat to national security with their Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) activity. Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) actors are highly funded, organised and sophisticated. 

They carry out complex cyber attacks aimed at specific targets with the intention of maintaining long-term access to networks or systems. The goals of APTs can range from espionage and stealing data to disrupting or even destroying networks and systems. 

Several organisations in the cybersecurity community conduct research on APT actors. However, it doesn’t help when each of these organisations gives different names to the same APT.  One of many examples is of a threat actor group from Iran which has at least eight different names: (The vendor's name are in brackets)

  • Magic Hound (Palo Alto)
  • APT 35 (Mandiant)
  • Cobalt Gypsy (SecureWorks)
  • Charming Kitten (CrowdStrike)
  • TEMP.Beanie (FireEye)
  • Timberworm (Symantec)
  • Tarh Andishan (Cylance)
  • TA453 (Proofpoint)

 For more of these APT listings, you should check out:

  1. MITRE Attack Groups 
  2. Mandiant APT Groups List

Note: Our NCSC Assured Training in Cyber Incident Planning & Response not only lays bare the detailed tactics of advanced attackers but attendees learn the core principles of ensuring you can detect and deny these advanced threat actors effectively.

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What Makes Nation State APT Actors so Dangerous? 

You’ve got an understanding of what Nation State Threat Actors are and what they can do. Now let’s look at some specific reasons that make them so feared. It’s important to remember here that APT actors may be out to damage critical infrastructure and/or government services. However, they can impact you or your business directly if that helps them achieve their larger end-goal. 

Here’s a look at how and why: 

1. Sophistication and Resources: Nation-state actors have access to significant financial, technical, and human resources. This allows them to develop and deploy advanced cyber attack techniques. 

This level of sophistication enables them to create custom malware that is highly malicious in nature. They also often exploit zero-day vulnerabilities and play on recent political or cultural events to lure targets. Essentially, they employ a range of tactics that are difficult to detect and counter.

2. Strategic Objectives: Unlike the regular cybercriminal whose primary motivation is often financial gain, nation-state actors pursue politically-motivated interests. These can include theft of sensitive government or corporate data. 

Disruption of critical infrastructure, influence over other nations' political processes, and preparation for potential cyber warfare are often amongst their main objectives. Their pursuit of these objectives means their coordinated attacks can have far-reaching implications for national security, economic stability, and international relations.

3. Prolonged Operations: Nation-state actors often engage in long-term cyber operations. Their campaigns can last months or years, during which they quietly infiltrate and maintain a presence within a target's networks. They continuously monitor, extract data, or lay the groundwork for future attacks. This persistence allows them to deeply entrench themselves in the target's environment, making detection and removal challenging. 

4. Complexity and Stealth: These threat actors use complex methods to avoid detection. They often use encrypted channels, leveraging legitimate network tools for malicious purposes. Plus, they constantly evolve their tactics to stay ahead of cybersecurity defences. 

5. Global Impact: The actions of nation-state cyber actors can have a global impact, affecting not just targeted organisations or governments but also the general public. Attacks on critical infrastructure, such as power grids, water supply systems, or financial markets, can disrupt lives and economies on a large scale. 

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How to Prepare for a Coordinated Response to an APT Attack? 

As you’ve probably figured by now, APT or Nation State attacks are particularly formidable because of their vast resources and their ability to remain undetected for prolonged periods of time. Responding to an attack by a Nation State cyber threat actor requires extremely high levels of vigilance and preparation. 

If your organisation operates in critical infrastructure or handles sensitive information, you need to develop a highly effective cybersecurity incident response, detection, remediation and recovery process. Below is a structured approach that you must have in place for responding to a coordinated attack by a Nation State actor: 

  • Preparation: In the world of cybersecurity, preparation is the best protection. There is absolutely no way around this if you want to stay resilient in an environment of rising Advanced Persistent Threats. 

    The first step is to train and educate your staff in cybersecurity awareness. This will help prevent inadvertent mistakes and falling for sophisticated phishing scams - a favourite of Nation State actors. 

    Every endeavour must be made to build healthy cyber hygiene practices in the organisation. Staff must be educated on the importance of strong and unique passwords, multi-factor authentication, applying regular software updates etc. 

    The key responders to cyber incidents must be trained in effective Cyber Incident Planning and Response. Our UK NCSC Assured Training course is the perfect way to build the kind of cyber resilience capabilities you need against sophisticated APT actors. 

    The executive and senior management must be engaged in the organisational threat context. Our Cybersecurity Awareness Training for Executives has been especially curated for the busy senior management team. Short, brief and to-the-point, these training sessions help the C-suite and management teams to improve cybersecurity leadership and decision-making. It also helps build awareness on the impact of a Nation State attack and how the executive must respond to it. 
  • Advanced Monitoring Tools: Advanced Monitoring Tools are essential if you suspect your business is vulnerable to cyber crime by Nation State actors. Deploying advanced threat detection and monitoring tools can help identify suspicious activity in the early stages. These may include unusual network traffic or attempts at unauthorised access.

    Based on the alerts generated, you can quickly mobilise your incident response team to investigate the incident. They can then identify the scope of a possible breach and get into action for response.  

    Important: Alerts are NOT the only way to detect advanced threat actors. In fact, you are likely to miss a majority of the advanced and sophisticated cyber criminals simply because they know how to avoid these traps. Our Cyber Incident Planning & Response course teaches you the non-technical but highly effective strategies to detect threat actors before they become a danger to your organisation. 
  • Cyber Incident Response: Naturally, this is the most critical component in managing a coordinated Nation State attack. Apart from the NCSC Assured Training in Cyber Incident Planning & Response, creating a robust Cyber Incident Response Plan is non-negotiable. Complement it with an effective Cyber Incident Response Playbook that details all the steps to be taken based on relevant triggers. This will help in identifying and isolating anomalies even before they become major issues. 

    Don’t forget to regularly test the effectiveness of your incident response plans with Cyber Crisis Tabletop Exercises. These scenario-based simulation drills can help you see where your organisation stands against the threat of Nation State actors. They will also help you identify and plug gaps in your current plans and the training level of your staff. 

    Our Virtual Cybersecurity Consultants can help you create all the necessary cyber security incident response documents and processes you need. They can also assist you in updating these artefacts on a regular basis so they remain relevant in the ever-evolving threat landscape. Most importantly, they work with you to bolster your overall cybersecurity maturity and build relentless business continuity over time. These attributes will always stand you in good stead in the face of any Nation State attack.
  •  Vigilance and Threat Intelligence: Knowing your adversary is critical to building resilience against Advanced Persistent Threats. Take time to understand the Nation State actors who may have a vested interest in disrupting the industry you work in. 

    Learn what their typical tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) are like. Gather threat intelligence through reports, alerts etc. that collate information on the latest APT actors and campaigns.  

    Stay abreast with recent incidents and cybersecurity events in your industry. APTs are constantly evolving so you have to make sure that your knowledge and organisational tools develop at the same pace.  

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Final Word

The fight against nation-state cyber threats isn't just a business concern. It's a global one. International laws and cooperation play a critical role in managing this massive threat. However, organisations like yours can often become easy pawns in a larger political war. 

It is essential, therefore, to stay informed on the latest threats and threat actors and strengthen defences to beat them. Building a culture of continuous vigilance and cybersecurity awareness is critical. Deploying advanced monitoring tools and prioristing cybersecurity incident response protocols are sacrosanct in the fight against Nation-State Cyber Threats.    

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