The Threat Emulation Problem

February 17, 2016

There are a lot of people who talk about threat emulation. Use our super-duper-elitesy-neatsy-malware to emulate these tactics in your network. I say stuff like that too. It’s cool. In this post, I’d like to write about what threat emulation means to me, really.

I see a red teams as offensive operators capable of executing attacks as an advanced representative actor. By representative actor, I mean one that may have similar sophistication to what their customer faces day-to-day, but the actions of the red team are solely theirs. The red team has their own tradecraft, their own process, and their own way of doing things. They’re not really emulating anyone else [although, like all good offensive actors, they’re happy to blatantly borrow what works from others].

What is the value of these red team operations? I covered this topic in Models for Red Team Operations. I see red teams provide a lot of value when they work to exercise a security process in a comprehensive way.

So far, we’ve established: a red team is a representative actor. Fine. What’s a threat emulator then? A threat emulator is an offensive operator who emulates a specific threat in a network. What is the value of a specific threat over a representative threat? Analysis. As a representative actor, there’s little room to exercise and evaluate a training audience’s ability to analyze the incident, tie it to threat intelligence, and possibly cross-share it with others. If a team emulates a specific actor, ideally, there’s a wealth of information for incident response teams to draw on to better inform their actions and drive their process.

If threat emulation is emulating a specific threat AND the purpose behind this is to exercise analysis, then what is the threat emulation problem?

The threat emulation problem is fooling an analyst into believing they’re dealing with a real-world actor during a simulated incident.

There are a lot of approaches to this problem. One approach is to use the actor’s malware when it’s available. Another approach is to dress up a payload to have indicators that are similar to the emulated actor’s malware. This is the approach Cobalt Strike takes with its Malleable C2 technology.

I’ve had an interest in the Threat Emulation problem for a while. Here are a few resources on it:

If you’d like to learn more about Threat Emulation with Cobalt Strike, take a look at Puttering my Panda and Other Threat Replication Case Studies. This blog post shows how to dissect a threat intelligence report and use Cobalt Strike to emulate targeted attacks and indicators from three actors.

If you’d like to learn more about the Threat Emulation problem set, watch 2014’s Hacking to Get Caught. In this talk I discuss what it means to emulate a threat during a red team assessment. I go through approaches other than my own. I then discuss my thoughts on the Threat Emulation problem and potential solutions. This talk pre-dates the release of Malleable C2.

If you’d like thoughts on how Threat Emulation fits into the broader shifts taking place in our industry, watch 2015’s Hacking to Get Caught talk. The content of this talk is different from the 2014 talk. Hacking to Get Caught discusses Adversary Simulations, Cyber Security Exercises, and a trend towards using offensive assets to test and evaluate security operations. I see Threat Emulation as a way to exercise analysis (when that’s the goal). You may also want to look at Raphael’s Magic Quadrant. This blog post summarizes my thoughts on these broad shifts.

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