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I spy with my beady eye ...

6 Jul 2020

NBlog July 6 - of APTs and RPTs



Do you recall when APTs were A Thing? Advanced Persistent Threats were exemplified by Stuxnet, a species of malware that was stealthy enough to penetrate the defences of an Iranian nuclear fuel processing plant ten years ago, persistent enough to undermine numerous layers of control, and sophisticated enough to over-speed and wreck the centrifuges without alerting the plant operators until the damage was done.  

We seldom hear of weapons-grade APTs these days, suggesting they are no longer newsworthy or effective. Maybe they have gone the way of the trebuchet or musket ... but I believe it's much more likely that APTs have become even more sophisticated, stealthier and more damaging now than ever before, especially given the ascendance of IoT, IIoT and 'cyber-physical systems'. Now, Things are A Thing.

Meanwhile, we are frequently constantly assaulted by ordinary, conventional, old-school malware - Retarded Persistent Threats as it were.

In contrast to APTs, RPTs are relatively crude and commonplace - more blunderbuss than sniper's rifle but every bit as devastating at close range. Despite becoming increasingly sophisticated and capable, they are presumably well behind APTs, especially given governmental investments in cyber capabilities as part of national defence spending.

RPTs 'persist' in the sense that they steadfastly refuse to go away. Bog-standard malware has dogged computer systems, networks and users since the 1980s. It has grown in prevalence at least as fast as IT, and in some ways it has driven advances in IT. The few percent of system resources needed to run today's antivirus packages and firewalls would surely have brought systems from previous decades to their little silicon knees.

Whereas most RPT incidents are, well, incidental in relation to our global society, they threaten the very large number of vulnerable systems, individuals and organisations out there. It has become painfully obvious during COVID-19 that vanishingly few organisations stand alone, immune to the global repercussions. We are all entangled in, and highly dependent upon, a global mesh of information, goods and services. Just as a single COVID case causes knock-on effects, an RPT incident creates ripples.

We're lucky that, so far, neither real-world nor cyber-world viruses have tipped us over the edge, triggering the zombie apocalypse that preppers fear. With their additional stealth and firepower, APTs may one day push things a byte too far - and then what? Perhaps those preppers aren't so loco as they may seem. Perhaps it's not such a crazy idea to build and secure our virtual bunkers to protect the information we'll need when zombies emerge from the forest. I guess I should carve this blog piece onto a rock, an information archival medium proven to last thousands of years. I wonder if these strange hieroglyphics will mean anything when the rock is dug up? 

Come to that, I wonder if they mean anything now! Are these merely the incoherent ramblings of a paranoid infosec geek, or have I struck a chord? Comments are welcome. Chisel away.

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