Anatomy of the attack on RSA

A sophisticated attack last spring on cybersecurity vendor RSA and other defense contractors highlighted techniques that are the calling card of advanced persistent threat, an increasingly common type of hacking that targets information rather than financial theft.

This graphic illustrates the steps that were likely involved in the RSA breach, based on RSA’s accounts of the incident. However, experts note that APT attack methods are constantly evolving, so future probes might vary from the one depicted here.

Stage 1: Perform reconnaissance and attack preparation

Perpetrators probably used publicly available records from social media sites and other sources to gather information about the company’s systems and operations and identify employees to target. They also prepared the malware that would be used to exploit known vulnerabilities, take control of systems and extract data.

Stage 2: Launch a phishing campaign and penetrate defenses

Using a technique called spear phishing, the attackers sent official-looking but phony e-mail messages with the subject line “2011 Recruitment Plan” to selected RSA employees. One of them opened the message and an attached Excel spreadsheet file, which contained a zero-day exploit of an Adobe Flash vulnerability to create a backdoor the attackers would use to bypass RSA’s network security.

Stage 3: Plant malware and explore the target

The attackers then planted a customized variant of a remote system administration tool called Poison Ivy, which they used as a platform to snoop around RSA’s network and look for paths to the resources they wanted. They also used undisclosed techniques to gain access to users with higher privileges and to specific systems for later use.

Stage 4: Gather and steal information

The attackers operated in stealth mode as long as possible to avoid detection as they gathered the desired data and moved it to staging servers they selected at key locations inside RSA. There they aggregated, compressed and encrypted the data for extraction. They then transferred the files to an outside server, which acted as an electronic drop box for the stolen files.

Stage 5: Exploit the stolen information

Defense secrets and intellectual property are often the target of APT intrusions. In the case of the RSA breach, the attackers pilfered information related to the company’s SecurID product, which enables corporate and government customers to authenticate user access to their secure systems. Weeks later, Lockheed Martin defended itself against an attack that used information obtained in the RSA breach. Shortly after that, a leaked memo from an official at L-3 Communications said a recent attack against that company also involved compromised RSA information.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.


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