cyber kill chain

The term “kill chain” is a term used originally by the military to define the steps the enemy uses to attack a target.  In 2011 Lockheed Martin released a paper defining a “Cyber Kill Chain”.  Similar in concept to the military, this paper defines the steps used by cyber attackers in today’s cyber based attacks.  The theory is that by understanding each of these stages, defenders can better identify and stop attacks at each of the stages.  The more points you intercept the bad guys at, the more likely you can deny them their objective. Since 2011 numerous versions of the “Cyber Kill Chain” have been released, I’m going to address how the human element addresses the original Lockheed Martin cyber kill chain.  First, remember that security awareness is nothing more than a control, a control like encryption, passwords, firewalls, DLP or anti-virus.  What makes security awareness unique is that it applies to and manages human risk.  As security awareness addresses the human element, people often feel it does not apply to the Cyber Kill Chain. They could not be more wrong.  Below are the seven stages to the Cyber Kill Chain and how a secure workforce can help neutralize a cyber attack at each of the stages. 

  1. Reconnaissance: The attacker gathers information on the target before the actual attack starts.  Many security professionals feel that there is nothing that can be done about this stage, they could not be more wrong.  Quite often cyber attackers collect information on their intended targets by searching the Internet, sites such as LinkedIn or Instagram.  In addition they may try to gather intel through techniques such as calling employees, email interactions, or dumpster diving.  This is where strong behaviors can have a big impact.  An aware workforce will know they are a target and limit what they publicly share.  They will authenticate people on the phone before they share any sensitive information.  They safely dispose of and shred sensitive documents.  Does this totally neutralize this stage?  Absolutely not, but then again no control does.  However, this can put a big dent in the attacker’s capabilities.
  2. Weaponization: The cyber attacker does not interact with the intended victim, instead they create their attack.  For example, the attacker may create an infected Microsoft Office document paired with a customized phishing email, or perhaps they create a new strain of self-replicating malware to be distributed via USB drive.  There are few security controls, to include security awareness, that impact or neutralize this stage, unless the cyber attacker does some limited testing on the intended target.
  3. Delivery: Transmission of the attack to the intended victim(s).  For example, this would be sending the actual phishing email or distributing the infected USB drives at a local coffee shop / cafe.  While there is an entire technical industry dedicated to stopping this stage, people play a critical role also.   While people are bad at remembering lots of new information, they are very good at being adaptable, at going “this does just not seem right”.  As such, it is people and not technology that are the first in detecting and stopping many of today’s attacks, to include new or custom attacks such as CEO Fraud or Spear Phishing.  In addition, people can identify and stop attacks that most technologies cannot even filter, such as social engineering attacks over the phone. Many of today’s attacks work on looking for making mistakes.  A trained workforce greatly reduces that attack surface area.
  4. Exploitation:  This implies actual ‘dentonation’ of the attack, such as the exploit running on the system.  Trained people ensure the systems they are running are updated and current.  They ensure they have anti-virus running and enabled.  They ensure that any sensitive data they are working with is on secured systems, making them far more secure against exploitation.
  5. Installation: The attacker installs malware on the victim.  Not all attacks require malware, such as a CEO Fraud Attack or harvesting login credentials.  However, just like exploitation when malware is involved a trained and secure workforce can help ensure they are using secure devices that are updated, current and have anti-virus enabled which would stop many malware installation attempts.  In addition, this is where we begin to go beyond just the “Human Firewall” and leverage the “Human Sensor”.   A key step in detecting an infected system is looking for abnormal behavior. Who better to detect abnormal behavior than the people that use the system every day?
  6. Command & Control:  This implies that once a system is compromised and/or infected, the system has to call home to a C&C, a Command and Control system for the cyber attacker to gain control.  This is why ‘hunting’ has become so popular, looking for abnormal outbound activities like this.  You do know that the Verizon DBIR for the past two years has found that employees, and not technology, were the most common internal discovery method for an incident?
  7. Actions On Objectives: Once the cyber attacker establishes access to the organization they then execute actions to achieve their objectives/goal.  Motivations greatly vary depending on the threat actor, to include political, financial or military gain, so it is very difficult to define what those actions will be.  However, once again this is where a trained workforce of Human Sensors embedded throughout your organization can vastly improve your ability to detect and respond to an incident, vastly improving your resilience capabilities.  In addition, secure behaviors will make it far more difficult for a successful adversary to pivot throughout the organization and achieve their objectives.  Behaviors such as the use of strong, unique passwords, authenticating people before sharing sensitive data, or securely disposing sensitive data are just some of the many behaviors that make the attacker’s life far more difficult and result in them being far more likely to be detected.

We have to stop perceiving cyber security in just technical terms.  To me it seems almost criminal that we have an amazing resource to assist in that job, and yet so many organizations fail to invest in that resource - people. As long as we continue to ignore the human element and focus on just technology for all of our security defenses, we will continue to lose the cyber battle.