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What Is Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)?

LAST UPDATED: July 19, 2023

Picus Labs   By Picus Labs  •  July 19, 2023, 17 min read

In this comprehensive guide, we dive deep into Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), a sophisticated form of cyber threat motivated to infiltrate and stay stealthy in a network over extended periods. 

We uncover some notorious APT groups with different motivations, illustrate their modus operandi, and reveal notable APT groups that have caused significant disruptions in the cyber landscape. Furthermore, we unravel the objectives behind these APT attacks and how they differ from other cyber attacks, such as ransomware or malware campaigns.

What Is Advanced Persistent Threat?

An advanced persistent threat (APT) is a sophisticated adversary that utilizes stealthy attack techniques to maintain an unnoticed and enduring presence within a target network or system, enabling them to persistently accomplish their objectives over an extended period without detection.

It is important to note that an advanced persistent threat (APT) doesn't necessarily imply that the adversaries are extremely advanced in their techniques. The emphasis lies in the persistence of their activities, wherein they secure a lasting presence within a system or network, frequently remaining hidden for prolonged durations. These attacks are generally well-supported, often with state sponsorship, and are motivated by objectives such as political espionage, sabotage, or gaining other strategic advantages.

Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) Examples

Even though it does not necessarily indicate a group, it is commonly observed that advanced persistent threats (APT) form a team of introducers who carefully plan and design to infiltrate a specific organization, evade implemented security controls and stay undetected in the organizational networks and systems.

Here are some notable examples of Advanced Persistent Threats detected.

1. APT28 (a.k.a Fancy Bear)

APT28, also known as Fancy Bear, is a Russian cyber espionage group that has been active since at least 2007.

Here are some of the notable attacks attributed to Fancy Bear APT group:

  • In 2022, the group targeted the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Hillary Clinton campaign in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election [1].

  • In April 2023, the CISA, the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) issued a joint advisory warning about APT28 attacks exploiting a zero-day flaw in Cisco routers to deploy a malware called Jaguar Tooth. Through Jaguar Tooth, Fancy Bear harvested intelligence from U.S. and EU-based targets [2].

  • In June 2023, the group breached the Ukrainian government's Roundcube email servers, using malicious emails to exploit vulnerabilities and redirect incoming emails to addresses under their control, with the objective of harvesting and stealing military intelligence to aid Russia's invasion of Ukraine [3].

2. APT29 (a.k.a Cozy Bear) 

APT29, also known as Cozy Bear, is an adversary of Russian-origin, assessed as likely to be acting on behalf of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation.

Here is a notable attack attributed to Cozy Bear APT:

  • Identified in early March of 2023, Cozy Bear APT targeted diplomatic entities and European Union government agencies, utilizing phishing emails centered on diplomatic relations between Poland and the U.S., and deploying EnvyScout malware to drop malicious files onto computers [4].

3. APT38 (a.k.a Lazarus)

APT38, also known as Lazarus, is a North Korean state-sponsored threat group that specializes in financial cyber operations. It has been attributed to the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which is North Korea's primary intelligence agency.

Here are some of the notable attacks attributed to Lazarus APT:

  • The 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack, attributed to the Lazarus APT group, was a global cyberattack that impacted over 200,000 systems in over 150 countries. Exploiting the EternalBlue vulnerability, the attack swiftly propagated across networks, encrypting data and rendering systems unusable unless a ransom was paid. This attack was particularly devastating due to its wide reach, affecting numerous sectors from healthcare to transportation, causing significant disruption and financial loss.

  • Between February and July 2022, the Lazarus APT targeted energy companies in Canada, the U.S., and Japan [5]. The hackers exploited vulnerabilities in VMWare products to gain entry and deployed their custom malware implants, VSingle, YamaBot, and a newly discovered implant named MagicRAT. The main objective was to establish long-term access to networks for espionage operations and the theft of intellectual property, consistent with the group's history of targeting critical infrastructure.

4. APT41 (a.k.a Wicked Panda) 

APT41 (also known as Wicked Panda, BARIUM, Winnti Group, and Blackfly) is a Chinese state-sponsored threat group that is known for its cyber espionage and financially motivated operations. The group has been active since at least 2012, and has targeted a wide range of industries, including healthcare, telecom, technology, and video games.

Here is a notable attack attributed to APT41:

  • In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against seven hackers, five from China and two from Malaysia, believed to be part of the state-sponsored APT 41 hacking group [6]. These individuals were accused of conducting a global hacking campaign against over 100 companies worldwide, including entities in various sectors like video gaming, software development, telecoms, hardware manufacturing, non-profits, foreign governments, educational institutions, pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, and think tanks.

5. APT34 (a.k.a Helix Kitten)

APT34 (also known as Helix Kitten, OilRig, and IRN2) is a threat group that has been active since at least 2014. The group is believed to be Iranian-backed, and has targeted a wide range of organizations in the Middle East, including government, financial, and energy sectors. APT34 has been linked to a number of high-profile attacks, including the 2017 cyberattack on Saudi Aramco and the 2019 cyberattack on the UAE's National Bank of Ras Al-Khaimah. The group is considered to be one of the most active and sophisticated threat groups in the Middle East.

What Does It Mean to Be a State-sponsored APT Group?

A state-sponsored Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) group refers to a group of cyber attackers who are funded, directed, or supported by a nation-state or a national government. These groups are typically involved in sophisticated and persistent cyber espionage campaigns targeted at entities of interest to the state, which could include foreign governments, multinational corporations, critical infrastructure, or influential individuals.

Being state-sponsored means these APT groups usually have significant resources at their disposal, including advanced tools and technologies, and they can sustain long-term operations. Their objectives often align with the state's strategic interests, such as gaining a competitive advantage, destabilizing adversaries, or gathering intelligence.

Example of such groups include:

  • Charming Kitten APT (An Iranian state-sponsored APT group known for targeting diplomats, foreign policy experts, and government officials.)

  •  APT41 (A Chinese state-sponsored APT group known for directly targeting more than 14 countries. The group uses well-crafted spear phishing, social engineering, and various malware including backdoors, credential stealers and rootkits.)

  • APT38 (A North Korean regime-backed APT group conducts operations in more than 11 countries, often performing aggressive and disruptive attack campaigns on their targets.)

What Is the Main Goal of APT Attack?

The goals of APTs can be categorized into four general areas: cyber espionage, financial gain, hacktivism, and destruction. 

Each category is further elucidated with a concise explanation and is complemented with a concrete historical case for better understanding.

1. Cyber Espionage

In cyber espionage operations, the focus of an APT group is on gathering sensitive data, which can include government secrets, research and development information, manufacturing processes, business strategies, or anything confidential that would provide a competitive edge to the sponsor of the APT. This attack often targets government organizations, defense contractors, high-tech manufacturers, and similar entities.

  • Example Cyber Espionage Campaign Done by APT29

In December 2019, APT29, also known as Fancy Bear, launched a cyber espionage attack against SolarWinds, a software company that provides IT management solutions [7]. The attack was carried out using a supply chain attack, in which the attackers compromised SolarWinds' Orion software, which is used by many government agencies and private companies. Once the attackers had compromised Orion, they were able to gain access to the networks of these organizations.

The SolarWinds hack was one of the most significant cyber attacks in history. It affected thousands of organizations around the world, including the US Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Agency. The full extent of the damage caused by the attack is still unknown, but it is believed that the attackers were able to steal sensitive data from these organizations.

2. Financial Gain

Financially motivated APT groups may engage in activities such as credit card theft, bank fraud, and other forms of cybercrime with the aim of monetary profit.

  • Example Attack Campaign for Monetary Gain Purposes Done by Lazarus APT

In April 2022, the North Korean hacking group Lazarus was accused by the US Treasury Department of orchestrating a cyber attack on Axie Infinity, leading to the theft of $625 million in cryptocurrency from the Ronin network, the blockchain system supporting the crypto game ([8], [9]).

3. Hacktivism

Some APT attacks are motivated by ideological or political beliefs. The aim is often to draw attention to a particular cause by disrupting services or revealing sensitive information.

  • Example Hacktivism Done by NoName057(16)

NoName057(16) is a pro-Russian hacktivist group that has gained notoriety for conducting a series of targeted Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Ukraine and NATO organizations [10]. Here is an example of a DDoS attack performed by NoName057(16) to several Swiss Federal Administration websites [11].

Originating in the early stages of the Ukrainian conflict, the group has expanded its operations to include a diverse set of targets including government organizations, critical infrastructure, financial institutions, and even 2023 Czech presidential election candidates’ websites. They operate largely through public Telegram channels, offering insights into their operations and motivations, while also serving to galvanize and instruct their followers. 

4. Destruction

In the most severe cases, the objective of an APT attack can be to cause direct harm, such as damaging critical infrastructure, disrupting services, or wiping data.

  • Example Destructive Attack Campaign Done by DarkSide APT

In May 2021, a ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, a major fuel pipeline operator in the United States, caused widespread disruption [12]. The attack was carried out by the DarkSide APT group, and it forced Colonial Pipeline to shut down its pipeline for several days. The shutdown of the pipeline caused gasoline shortages in some parts of the United States.

How Do APT Attacks Work?

An advanced persistent threat (APT) is a sophisticated, sustained cyberattack in which an intruder establishes an undetected presence in a network in order to steal sensitive data over a prolonged period of time.

Stage 1: Infiltration

During the infiltration stage, APTs often gain access through social engineering techniques, such as spear-phishing attacks that target specific individuals within an organization, often senior executives or technology leaders.

  • Infiltration Stage Example: Turla APT Group

In the infiltration stage of a Turla attack, a suspected Russia-linked hacking group, remained undetected for an extended period by exploiting the decade-old Andromeda malware [6]. They infiltrated systems at a Ukrainian organization using infected USB drives in December 2021, repurposing old domains associated with Andromeda to distribute their reconnaissance and surveillance tools covertly. The slow spread of Andromeda via these USB devices facilitated their stealthy, long-term presence. It wasn't until September 2022, nearly a year later, that a cybersecurity firm detected their activities, illustrating the sophistication and stealth capabilities of APT attacks.

Stage 2: Escalation and Lateral Movement

Once initial access is obtained, the attacker escalates privileges and moves laterally across the network to gather credentials and map out the system for further access. They may establish a "backdoor" for future access or create additional entry points for redundancy. 

  • Escalation and Lateral Movement Stage Example: Turla APT Group

In the Turla attack, the group repurposed at least three old domains associated with Andromeda, allowing them to distribute their own reconnaissance utility, Kopiluwak, and a backdoor known as QuietCanary, extending their reach within the compromised systems [6]

Stage 3: Exfiltration

In the final stage, cybercriminals store the stolen information within the network until they have accumulated enough data. They then extract, or "exfiltrate," the data without detection, often using various tactics to distract the security team. 

  • Exfiltration Stage Example: Turla APT Group

The Turla APT group attack demonstrated this stage perfectly by keeping their operations mostly under the radar, indicating a planned future exfiltration of data, and maintaining the possibility of the hackers returning at any time due to the persistently compromised state of the network.

What Is the Difference Between APT and Ransomware?

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) and ransomware are two types of cyberattacks, but they differ significantly in their complexity, strategies, and objectives.


Ransomware is considered a medium-complexity attack where malware encrypts the victim's data and demands a ransom for the decryption key. The modus operandi is straightforward: infiltrate, encrypt, demand payment. The process usually happens quickly, and the attackers make their presence known as soon as the encryption is completed. Ransomware attacks can occur through various means, including phishing emails, malicious attachments or links, and exploiting security vulnerabilities.

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

APTs are high-complexity cyberattacks usually orchestrated by state-sponsored groups or highly sophisticated cybercriminals. These attacks are characterized by their prolonged duration and the stealthy approach taken by the attackers. APTs aim to gain unauthorized access to a network and remain undetected for an extended period. The goal is usually data theft, espionage, or network damage, rather than immediate financial gain.

Unlike ransomware attacks, APTs utilize more sophisticated intrusion methods. They often employ traditional malware like Trojans or phishing techniques for initial entry, but then they ensure their activities remain concealed as they navigate through the network. They cover their tracks meticulously and implant their attack software strategically throughout the network for continuous access and control. 

The objective of APTs is to maintain a persistent presence, allowing them to exfiltrate or manipulate data over time, which differs substantially from the rapid hit-and-run approach typical of ransomware attacks.

What Industries Are at Greatest Risk of APT Attacks, Why?

Certain sectors are inherently more vulnerable to Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) due to their strategic importance, sensitive data, and potential for causing widespread disruption. 

  • Government Agencies and Departments

Nation-state actors often use APTs to conduct cyber espionage against foreign governments. These agencies possess a wealth of sensitive information, from national security data to economic and foreign policies, making them highly attractive targets.

  • Defense Industry and Government Contractors 

These entities often handle highly sensitive and classified information related to national security, advanced weaponry, and cutting-edge technology. This information is of significant value to adversaries who wish to gain strategic advantages.

  • Critical Infrastructure Organizations

Entities in sectors like energy, water, transportation, telecommunications, and healthcare hold the potential for causing enormous societal disruption if successfully compromised. APT attacks in these sectors could cripple essential services, cause physical damage, or even pose threats to human lives.

  • High-Tech and Manufacturing Industries

High tech sectors are attractive targets due to their intellectual property, research and development data, and trade secrets. APT attacks can result in significant economic losses and competitive disadvantages for these industries.

  • Financial Services

Banks, insurance companies, and payment processing firms are all juicy targets for APT actors due to the potential for substantial monetary gains from successful intrusions. Not only does the direct theft pose a threat, but these threat actors also seek sensitive data, including client information and transaction histories, that can be used for a wide range of illicit purposes.

  • Healthcare Industry

The healthcare sector is increasingly being targeted due to the vast amounts of personal and medical data it holds. Information such as research on new treatments and patient data can be exploited for multiple purposes, from identity theft to blackmail and commercial espionage.

Furthermore, as these organizations are essential components of a nation's critical infrastructure, any successful cyberattack can substantially damage the healthcare system and the broader community. Another factor rendering them vulnerable is the relatively weaker cybersecurity measures implemented in healthcare compared to other sectors. Finally, their dependence on international supply chains presents an exploitable opportunity for these sophisticated threat actors.

Why Is It Difficult to Detect APT?

Detecting Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) is particularly difficult due to the sophistication, stealth, and long-term nature of these threats. APT actors are typically highly skilled, employing advanced techniques and custom-made malware to infiltrate targeted systems, often circumventing traditional security measures with ease. 

The objective of APT groups is not to cause an immediate disturbance but to gain access to a network and stay unnoticed for extended periods. This allows them to conduct espionage or data theft over a long duration, making their detection even more challenging as they silently blend with the normal network activities.

How to Prevent Advanced Persistent Threat?

Here are four preventative approaches you can take to protect your organization from possible APT attacks.

An adversary emulation plan is designed to aid offensive and defensive security professionals in modeling the behaviors of potential cyber threats that target their industry and/or region. It uses information from publicly available threat reports and the ATT&CK framework developed by the MITRE Corporation. The aim is to improve the security posture of an organization by mimicking the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of specific threat actors or APT groups and test the effectiveness of existing security controls against these cyber threats.

Unlike traditional methods that focus on identifying specific indicators of compromise or tools, these plans work to generate analytics for ATT&CK behaviors. While these plans draw from open threat reports, they can face limitations when trying to detail how adversaries chain techniques together or carry out hands-on keyboard operations. Despite this, micro emulation plans provide a general guide on how operators can mimic a particular adversary's behavior, allowing for a degree of implementation flexibility. This approach encourages thorough product and environment testing and moves cybersecurity defenses towards a more proactive and adversary-focused security stance.

To gain more information on how to conduct an adversary emulation plan for a particular adversary that targets your region and/or sector, visit our blog, which provides a solid and step-by-step example here.

  • Implementing Preventative Security Controls like WAF and NGFW

Web Application Firewalls (WAFs) and Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) are key preventative solutions that help protect organizations from Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs). 

WAFs act as a security barrier for web applications by filtering and monitoring HTTP traffic between the web application and the internet. This helps detect and block common web-based threats, limiting an APT's ability to exploit application-layer vulnerabilities.

NGFWs enhance traditional firewall protections with advanced features such as intrusion prevention and application control. This allows them to detect and block more complex threats, including those posed by APTs. By monitoring network traffic at a granular level, NGFWs can detect unusual patterns or behaviors that could signal an APT infiltration.

  • Implementing a Breach and Attack Simulation with an Up-to-Date Threat Library

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) tools can significantly aid organizations in automating adversary emulation. The high resource demands associated with manually crafting adversary emulation plans can be mitigated by BAS solutions. These tools are supported by continuously updated threat libraries, which are curated through in-depth cyber threat intelligence research performed by experienced red team professionals. The research is centered around the development of adversary emulation plans that accurately replicate the actions of various threat actors, in a controlled, non-disruptive manner.


Figure 2. Breach and Attack Simulation Decreases Residual Risks

BAS tools provide ready-to-use threat templates that simulate the Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) of specific adversaries relevant to your region or sector. These templates essentially serve as adversary emulation plans, designed to mirror the latest attack behaviors of threat actors and Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. By automating this process, BAS tools make regular defense testing and enhancement more accessible for organizations.


Figure 3. APT Groups Threat Templates from the Picus’ Security Control Validation (SCV) Platform.

  • Enforcing User Training 

Given that Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) frequently initiate with a phishing attack, equipping users with the skills to identify and steer clear of potentially harmful emails forms an essential component of the defense strategy.

How to Detect Advanced Persistent Threat?

  • Implementing Detection Layer Solutions

Detecting Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) involves a strategic mix of various security measures. It demands the use of Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions to identify possible malicious activities on individual systems. Network Traffic Analysis (NTA) tools are crucial to identify unusual network behavior indicative of an APT. Integration of Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems aids in efficient log management and quick incident detection. 

  • Implementing a Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) Solution

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) tools play a vital role in maintaining an updated and robust APT detection strategy. The mitigation libraries of BAS platforms provide integration capabilities with security solutions like Splunk, Microfocus ArcSight ESM, IBM QRadar, and VMware Carbon Black EDR. This integration enables the automatic generation and updating of detection rules based on the latest threat simulations. 

Additionally, BAS tools can utilize Sigma, a generic and open signature format, enabling the creation, sharing, and upscaling of analytics across different platforms. Thus, BAS not only facilitates the detection of APTs but also ensures a dynamic and up-to-date detection mechanism, effectively mitigating risks.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Here are the most asked questions about Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs).
What Is Meant by Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)?
An Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) is a prolonged, targeted cyberattack in which an unauthorized user gains access to a network and remains undetected for a significant period. These attacks, typically orchestrated by organized groups, are often aimed at high-value information held by corporations or governments, with the intention of stealing data, disrupting operations, or carrying out espionage. Due to their sophisticated tactics, APTs can be difficult to detect and counteract.
What Are Possible Solutions Against APT Attacks?
Defending against APT attacks involves a multi-layered approach: adopting adversary emulation plans to model potential threats, using preventative security controls like WAF and NGFW to fortify network security, leveraging breach and attack simulation tools with updated threat libraries for continuous defense testing, and enforcing user training to identify potential phishing attempts. This approach ensures comprehensive protection by anticipating adversary behavior, strengthening security systems, automating threat response, and enhancing user awareness, thereby minimizing the risk of APT infiltration.
Is APT a Type of Malware?
No, an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) is not a type of malware. Instead, it's a type of cyber threat tactic used by attackers, often involving the use of various types of malware. In an APT attack, threat actors gain unauthorized access to a network and stay undetected for a prolonged period of time, often for the purpose of stealing data or conducting espionage. The attackers may use a variety of tools and methods, including but not limited to malware, to carry out their objectives.
Please click here to see the references

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[2] L. Abrams, “US, UK warn of govt hackers using custom malware on Cisco routers,” BleepingComputer, Apr. 18, 2023. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 17, 2023]

[3] S. Gatlan, “Russian APT28 hackers breach Ukrainian govt email servers,” BleepingComputer, Jun. 20, 2023. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 17, 2023]

[4] D. Antoniuk, “Kremlin-backed hackers blamed in recent phishing attempts on EU agencies.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 17, 2023]

[5] B. E. Cirt, “The North Korean Lazarus Group Hacked Energy Providers Worldwide,” BGD e-GOV CIRT | Bangladesh e-Government Computer Incident Response Team. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 18, 2023]

[6] I. Arghire, “U.S. Charges Alleged Hackers of Chinese APT41 Group for Attacks on 100 Firms,” SecurityWeek, Sep. 16, 2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 18, 2023]

[7] K. Zetter, “The Untold Story of the Boldest Supply-Chain Hack Ever,” WIRED, May 02, 2023. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 17, 2023]

[8] E. Roth, “US blames North Korean hacker group for $625 million Axie Infinity theft,” The Verge, Apr. 14, 2022. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 18, 2023]

[9] B. Toulas, “US recovers $30 million stolen from Axie Infinity by Lazarus hackers,” BleepingComputer, Sep. 08, 2022. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 18, 2023]

[10] T. Hegel, “NoName057(16) - The Pro-Russian Hacktivist Group Targeting NATO,” SentinelOne, Jan. 12, 2023. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 18, 2023]

[11] The Federal Council, “DDoS attack on Federal Administration: various Federal Administration websites and applications unavailable.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 18, 2023]

[12] A. M. Freed, “Inside the DarkSide Ransomware Attack on Colonial Pipeline.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: Jul. 17, 2023]

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