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Attackers innovate, adapt to achieve mission - report

By Shannon Williams
Fri 22 Apr 2022

While significant progress has been made in threat detection and response, adversaries are continuing to innovate and adapt to achieve their mission in targeted environments, according to a new report from Mandiant.

Mandiant has released the findings of Mandiant M-Trends 2022, an annual report that provides timely data and insights based on Mandiant frontline investigations and remediations of high-impact cyber attacks worldwide.

"This year's M-Trends report reveals fresh insight into how threat actors are evolving and using new techniques to gain access into target environments," says Jurgen Kutscher, executive vice president, service delivery, Mandiant. 

"While exploits continue to gain traction and remain the most frequently identified infection vector, the report notes a significant increase in supply chain attacks," he says. 

"Conversely, there was a noticeable drop in phishing this year, reflecting organisations improved awareness and ability to better detect and block these attempts," says Kutscher. 

"In light of the continued increased use of exploits as an initial compromise vector, organisations need to maintain focus on executing on security fundamentals, such as asset, risk and patch management.

"Multifaceted extortion and ransomware continue to pose huge challenges for organisations of all sizes and across all industries, with this year's M-Trends report noting a specific rise in attacks targeting virtualisation infrastructure," he says. 

"The key to building resilience lies in preparation. Developing a robust preparedness plan and well-documented and tested recovery process can help organisations successfully navigate an attack and quickly return to normal business operations."

Global Median Dwell Time Drops to Three Weeks

According to the report, the global median dwell time, which is calculated as the median number of days an attacker is present in a targets environment before being detected, decreased from 24 days in 2020 to 21 days in 2021. Digging deeper, the report notes that the APAC region saw the biggest decline in median dwell time, dropping to just 21 days in 2021 compared to 76 days in 2020. Median dwell time also fell in EMEA, down to 48 days in 2021 compared to 66 days the year before. In the Americas, median dwell time stayed steady at 17 days.

When comparing how threats were detected across different regions, the report found that in EMEA and APAC, the majority of intrusions in 2021 were identified by external third parties (62% and 76%, respectively), a reversal of what was observed in 2020. In the Americas, the detection by source remained constant with most intrusions detected internally by organisations themselves (60%).

Organisations improved threat visibility and response as well as the pervasiveness of ransomware, which has a significantly lower median dwell time than non-ransomware intrusions, are likely driving factors behind reduced median dwell time, per the report.

New Threats Emerge as China Ramps Up Espionage Activity

Mandiant continues to expand its extensive threat knowledge base through frontline investigations, access to the criminal marketplace, security telemetry and the use of proprietary research methods and datasets, analysed by more than 300 intelligence professionals across 26 countries. As a result of relentless information gathering and analysis, Mandiant experts began tracking 1,100+ new threat groups during this M-Trends reporting period. Mandiant also began tracking 733 new malware families, of which 86% were not publicly available, continuing the trend of availability of new malware families being restricted or likely privately developed, according to the report.

M-Trends 2022 also notes a realignment and retooling of China cyber espionage operations to align with the implementation of Chinas 14th Five-Year Plan in 2021. The report warns that the national-level priorities included in the plan signal an upcoming increase in China-nexus actors conducting intrusion attempts against intellectual property or other strategically important economic concerns, as well as defense industry products and other dual-use technologies over the next few years.

Strengthening Security Posture

Mandiant remains committed to helping organisations remain secure from cyber threats and build confidence in their cyber defense readiness. To support this mission, Mandiant provides risk reduction tips throughout the M-Trends report, including mitigating common misconfigurations when using on-premises Active Directory, certificate services, virtualisation platforms and cloud-based infrastructure. The report also reinforces considerations to support proactive security programs, reiterating the importance of long-standing security initiatives such as asset management, log retention policies and vulnerability and patching management.

To further support community and industry efforts, Mandiant continuously maps its findings to the MITRE ATTACK framework, mapping an additional 300+ Mandiant techniques to the framework in 2021. The M-Trends report notes that organisations should prioritise which security measures to implement based on the likelihood of specific techniques being used during an intrusion. According to the report, by examining the prevalence of technique usage during recent intrusions, organisations are better equipped to make intelligent security decisions.

Charles Carmakal, senior vice president and chief technology officer, Mandiant, adds, "Chinese cyber espionage activity ramped up significantly in recent years, with Asia and the U.S. remaining the most targeted regions. 

"This year's M-Trends report notes a specific focus on government organisations as well as the use of the same malware families among multiple cyber espionage actor sets, likely due to resource and tool sharing by disparate groups," he says. 

"Further, with the implementation of Chinas 14th Five-Year Plan in 2021, we expect to see cyber espionage activity continue to accelerate in support of Chinas national security and economic interests over the next few years."

Sandra Joyce, executive vice president, Mandiant Intelligence, Mandiant, adds, "Several trends from previous years continued into 2021. 

"Mandiant encountered more threat groups than any previous period, to include newly discovered groups. In a parallel trend, in this period we began tracking more new malware families than ever before," she says. 

"Overall, this speaks to a threat landscape that continues to trend upward in volume and threat diversity. We also continue to witness financial gain be a primary motivation for observed attackers, as case studies this year on FIN12 and FIN13 highlight. 

"If we pivot to the defender perspective, we see several improvements despite an incredibly challenging threat landscape. As one example, this M-Trends report has the lowest global media dwell time on record. 

Additionally, APAC and EMEA showed the largest improvements in several threat detection categories compared to previous years." 

Additional takeaways from M-Trends 2022 Report include:

  • Infection Vector: For the second year in a row, exploits remained the most frequently identified initial infection vector. In fact, of the incidents that Mandiant responded to during the reporting period, 37% started with the exploitation of a security vulnerability, as opposed to phishing, which accounted for only 11%. Supply chain compromises increased dramatically, from less than 1% in 2020 to 17% in 2021.
  • Target industries impacted: Business and professional services and financial were the top two industries targeted by adversaries (14%, respectively), followed by healthcare (11%), retail and hospitality (10%) and tech and government (both at 9%).
  • New Multifaceted Extortion and Ransomware TTPs: Mandiant observed multifaceted extortion and ransomware attackers using new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to deploy ransomware rapidly and efficiently throughout business environments, noting that the pervasive usage of virtualisation infrastructure in corporate environments has made it a prime target for ransomware attackers.
     
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