Cyber kill chain

Cyber Kill Chain: The 7 Important Steps of a Cyberattack

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In modern warfare (20th to 21st century), the kill chain is a critical concept focusing on the entire sequence of an attack. Used by militaries across the globe, especially the U.S armed forces, the kill chain is a five-step process that focuses on:

  • Target identification
  • Ascertain force deployment to the target
  • Attack execution decision
  • Attack commencement
  • Target destruction

While the kill chain method is still a vital part of physical attack plans, the advent of the cyber kill chain model gave cybersecurity experts a new framework to understand and tackle cyber threats/attacks with a new perspective.

Piggybacking on the traditional kill chain concept, Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest defense contractors in the U.S., developed the cyber kill chain framework for enhanced cyber defense. The cyber kill chain analysis enables you to break down the different steps of a cyberattack, thus enabling you to protect your assets and counter future attacks. A deep dive into understanding the stages of an attack will help you better identify the attackers and prevent cyberattacks in their respective stages.

The cyber kill chain model is made up of seven steps of an attack process that hackers make use of. Let’s take an in-depth look into these steps.

1. Reconnaissance


The first phase of any attack in the cyber kill chain, reconnaissance is where the attacker searches for information about the intended target. The information can be gleaned from a variety of sources, such as social networks, interaction with employees (calls and emails), and dumpster diving. The attackers focus on “Who” (individuals with access to classified information) or “Network” (compromised access points, unpatched vulnerabilities, etc.).

Although the recon phase can’t be entirely neutralized, the effects of the reconnaissance phase can be minimized by taking elementary precautions. Employees that might be vulnerable to cyberattacks can minimize their social media footprint by reducing the amount of information shared publicly. An aware workforce can easily detect phishing emails and counter fake calls, thus minimizing sensitive information leaks and protecting the organization’s assets.

2. Weaponization


The weaponization phase entails the use of a multitude of daily-use internet-connected devices that the attackers weaponize by utilizing a variety of malware to infect and compromise a targeted system or network. Weaponization is an entirely non-contact step, wherein the attackers prepare payloads for the attack using common office tools, such as a Microsoft Word document, Excel or spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and Adobe PDF. The malicious payload is injected into these vectors and distributed via emails or USB drives.

3. Delivery


As the name suggests, this cyber kill chain phase is where the attackers send the malicious payload to its intended target. While the most common delivery vector is a phishing email, the use of USB drives and websites are also quite prevalent, especially in organizations where the workforce is not aware of cybersecurity. The delivery phase is one where human awareness is much more effective than mere technical safeguards. A well-informed and aware workforce would be quick to identify phishing emails and will avoid the use of USB drives on their work systems.

4. Exploitation


The exploitation phase triggers the attacker’s malicious code, which is intended to infect the targeted systems. The exploitation step involves the “dropping” or infiltration of the malware on to the target system, which in turn gives command executions to the attacker.

A famous example of this is the Stuxnet virus was planted in the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility in 2010. Once the enrichment process began, Stuxnet wormed its way into the mechanical systems and caused a cascade failure across the enrichment line, bringing the Iranian nuclear program to a grinding halt.

5. Installation


In this phase, the attacker installs malware on the target system in the form of remote access trojans or backdoors. A successfully installation phase provides the attacker with a persistent presence inside the infiltrated system.

6. Command & Control (C2C)


The Command & Control (C2C) phase of the cyber kills chain is where the malware or the injected infection calls back home to the attacker to grant control of the compromised system. The potent counterattack to the C2C phase is the “hunting” protocol, where the network defenders scan for suspicious outgoing activities to find the infected systems.

7. Action on Objectives


The final phase of the cyber kill chain is the attacker’s successful infiltration of the targeted system and completion of the goals, i.e., accessing and exfiltrating critical data from the compromised system/network. The final phase can be countered successfully with the use of strong passwords, user authentication for sensitive data, and login audits.

The cyber kill chain is an essential element of cyber threat intelligence and plays a crucial role in understanding the motives and attack vectors behind a cyberattack. Mastering threat intelligence is the difference between a robust cyber defense and a catastrophic breach of sensitive information leading to massive losses.

Now that you have an overview of the cyber kill chain, it’s time to learn how to implement it in your organization. EC-Council’s Certified Threat Intelligence Analyst (CTIA) program prepares you to become the vanguard of your organization’s cyber defense mechanism. The course provides you with a hands-on threat intelligence curriculum, enabling you to better understand the cyber kill chain and use this framework for top-notch cyber defense strategies.

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