Five Eyes Agencies Exposes Russian APT29 Cloud Attack Tactis

In a groundbreaking advisory, cybersecurity agencies from the Five Eyes intelligence alliance have detailed the sophisticated tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) employed by APT29, a notorious cyber espionage group linked to Russia’s SVR intelligence services.

Known by various monikers such as Midnight Blizzard, the Dukes, or Cozy Bear, APT29 has been implicated in a series of high-profile cyber espionage activities targeting cloud-based infrastructure across a wide range of sectors, including government, healthcare, and military organizations.

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A Global Threat

The advisory, a collaborative effort by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and its US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand counterparts, underscores the global threat posed by APT29.

The group’s activities have been a significant concern for intelligence and cybersecurity communities worldwide, with their operations demonstrating a high level of sophistication and a clear focus on intelligence-gathering.

APT29’s evolution in cyber espionage tactics reflects the changing landscape of global cybersecurity. As organizations increasingly migrate to cloud-based systems, APT29 has adapted its strategies to exploit these environments.

The advisory highlights the group’s shift from traditional on-premise network attacks to more complex cloud service attacks, indicating a strategic pivot to leverage the vulnerabilities inherent in cloud infrastructure.

Sophisticated Tactics Unveiled

The advisory provides an in-depth analysis of APT29’s modus operandi, revealing several key tactics used by the group to infiltrate cloud environments:

  • Service and Dormant Account Exploitation: APT29 has successfully used brute force and password spraying attacks to gain access to service accounts, which are often less protected and highly privileged. Additionally, the group targets dormant accounts, exploiting the lack of regular monitoring and maintenance to gain unauthorized access1.
  • Cloud-Based Token Authentication: The actors use stolen access tokens, bypassing the need for passwords, to authenticate and access victims’ accounts. This technique highlights the importance of securing and monitoring token-based authentication mechanisms within cloud environments1.
  • MFA Bypass and Device Registration: APT29 employs tactics such as ‘MFA bombing’ to overwhelm victims with multiple authentication requests, eventually bypassing multi-factor authentication. They also register their devices on compromised cloud tenants, embedding themselves within the victim’s infrastructure1.
  • Use of Residential Proxies: To avoid detection, APT29 utilizes residential proxies, making their malicious traffic appear to originate from legitimate residential IP addresses. This tactic complicates identifying and blocking malicious activities based on IP reputation.

This report was made using the MITRE ATT&CKĀ® framework, a knowledge base of enemy tactics and methods based on real-life observations that anyone can access.

Credential AccessT1110Brute forcingThe SVR use password spraying and brute forcing as an initial infection vector.
Initial AccessT1078.004Valid Accounts: Cloud AccountsThe SVR uses compromised credentials to access cloud service accounts, including system and dormant accounts.
Credential AccessT1528Steal Application Access TokenThe SVR attempts to register their device on the cloud tenant after acquiring account access.
Credential AccessT1621Multi-Factor Authentication Request GenerationThe SVR uses open proxies in residential IP ranges to blend in with expected IP address pools in access logs.
Command and ControlT1090.002Proxy: External ProxyThe SVR uses stolen access tokens to log in to accounts without passwords.
PersistenceT1098.005Account Manipulation: Device RegistrationAfter acquiring account access, the SVR attempts to register their device on the cloud tenant.

Mitigation and Defense Strategies

The advisory emphasizes the critical importance of robust cybersecurity fundamentals in thwarting APT29’s advanced tactics.

Organizations are urged to implement multi-factor authentication, enforce strong password policies, and regularly review and disable inactive accounts.

Additionally, the adoption of least privilege principles for service accounts and the monitoring of session tokens are recommended to minimize the risk of unauthorized access

The Five Eyes’ collective attribution of these sophisticated cloud attack tactics to APT29 is a stark reminder of the persistent and evolving threat that state-sponsored cyber espionage groups pose.

By sharing detailed insights into APT29’s TTPs, the advisory aims to bolster global cybersecurity defenses and prevent future compromises.

In conclusion, the advisory sheds light on the advanced techniques employed by APT29 and provides actionable guidance for organizations to strengthen their cloud security posture.

As cyber threats evolve, international collaboration and information sharing remain critical to effectively countering sophisticated adversaries like APT29.

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Gurubaran is a co-founder of Cyber Security News and GBHackers On Security. He has 10+ years of experience as a Security Consultant, Editor, and Analyst in cybersecurity, technology, and communications.