Corporate cybersecurity professionals must be on constant alert to avoid the wide range of cyberattacks that can be thrown at them today: malware, ransomware, trojan horses, social engineering, and spear-phishing attacks, to name just a few. 

Among the most serious of attacks is the advanced persistent threat (APT). 

An APT is an attack that uses sophisticated methods to gain access to information systems and sensitive information. Typically this attack seems so inconspicuous that it goes undetected — and therefore remains, and continues to cause harm. for an extended period of time. 

Unlike malware, which is a common cybersecurity issue, APTs are relatively rare. They might even incorporate malware as one among numerous tactics, all part of the attackers’ pursuit of high-value or high-profile targets. 

Examples of APTs

There are, unfortunately, numerous historical examples of APTs from the last several years. Let’s take a look at a few of them now.


One example of an APT was a group known as GhostNet. It used spear-phishing emails containing malware to compromise government and embassy computers in more than 100 countries. The attackers were able to turn on the cameras and microphones of these computers remotely, and use them for cyber espionage. 


Another group, Stuxnet, used a malware worm to attack Iran’s nuclear program through an infected USB device. 

The Stuxnet was designed to target Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) industrial systems to disrupt uranium centrifuges without their operators being any the wiser.


APT34, an Iranian group, targeted financial institutions, telecommunications companies, government organizations, and energy companies in the Middle East by exploiting a known Microsoft vulnerability. Through this vulnerability, the group was able to conduct cyber espionage. They were later discovered by FireEye threat intelligence researchers.


Hacker group APT37 (also known as StarCruft and Reaper) was believed to have originated in North Korea. Similar to GhostNet, this group used spear-phishing attacks to exploit a zero-day vulnerability in Adobe Flash software and use it to gain access to military systems in rival countries and could conduct cyber espionage.

How Does an APT Attack Progress?

As previously mentioned, an APT attack is a cybercrime intended to achieve ongoing access to the system and then remain undetected, so it can cause more damage over a longer period of time. This unfolds in several stages.

Step 1: Gain Initial Access to the Target Organization’s Systems

In this phase, cybercriminals will attempt to gain access to a target network, typically through an insecure endpoint or through malware.

Step 2: Maintain Access

The threat actors will embed malicious software that can create a number of backdoors. Those backdoors allow hackers to move around the IT system without alerting security teams or software. (These programs can use tactics like rewriting code to hide their presence and activity.)

Step 3: Extend Access

After access has been established and a path to facilitate movement has been created, the malware used will continue to facilitate the attack. 

At this point, the attack is working towards increased access. For example, the attackers might employ password-cracking tactics to circumvent security measures and obtain administrative privileges that will allow them free rein of the network and potentially access to additional systems. 

Step 4: Remain and Cause Harm

At this point, the hackers know they have bypassed network security, and have the ability to keep doing as much damage or stealing as much information as they can. They will also leave back doors behind them during exfiltration so they can attempt to gain access again at a later date.

Who Are the Main Targets of Advanced Persistent Threats?

APTs require a significant amount of time, effort, and sophisticated tools. For that reason, they aren’t used for your everyday cybercrime. Instead, they are targeted toward high-value, high-profile organizations such as nation-states, government entities, and enterprise corporations. 

That doesn’t mean small businesses and SMBs can take a cavalier attitude toward prevention, monitoring, and incident response planning. In fact, cyberattackers are getting smarter and using unsuspecting, smaller companies that make up the supply chain for larger companies as a means to gain access to their systems. 

In other words, your small business can be the preliminary target, so attackers can use you as the path toward larger targets. 

How Can GRC Software Mitigate the Risks of an APT?

APT attacks are only one of many risks facing organizations in a variety of industries including healthcare, IT, finance, and government. 

In the past, traditional cyber defense mechanisms like antivirus programs and firewalls might have been enough, but today’s cybercriminals have become smarter and capable of circumventing these mechanisms. 

To protect your organization in today’s threat landscape, a cybersecurity program coupled with ongoing risk management is vital. 

ZenGRC is a governance, risk management, and compliance platform that equips your security team with a single, centralized dashboard that identifies information security risk across your entire business.

Along with a risk assessment checklist, ZenGRC provides templates for compliance standards and enterprise risk management (ERM) frameworks that can help you quickly identify where your gaps are and how you can quickly fill them. 

ZenGRC is able to map your existing and future security controls across all relevant frameworks, whether they be HIPAA, CMMC, PCI, or otherwise; so you can avoid duplicate work and meet multiple requirements with a single effort.

Our user-friendly dashboards show you which risks need mitigating, how to do it while also tracking workflows, collecting and storing all your documentation in the event of a risk audit. 

To learn more about how ZenGRC can support your risk management efforts, schedule a free consultation today.