More on the RSA Breach and APT


A lot of the discussion I see has revolved around whether the attack “qualifies” as an Advanced Persistent Threat, and therefore whether the term APT has any real meaning or is just some government conspiracy to scare us all into submission.  After all, the critics say, it was just an email with an Excel spreadsheet.  Nothing “advanced” there.  Hardly the insidious espionage we’re all supposed to be worried about.  APT defenders point out that the Flash exploit was sophisticated and therefore that makes it an APT, and we should be afraid – very afraid.

While its true that the term “Advanced Persistent Threat” has been used so much in the press and vendor advertisements that it seems to mean anything you want it to, this debate just clouds the real issue.  The fact is that anyone can be fooled by a phishing attempt.  The attacker’s goal is not to be “advanced,” their goal is to steal information.  The reason the attackers use “simple” attacks is…they work most of the time.  When they don’t, the attackers up their game and use more sophisticated ones.  That’s the “persistent” part:  if at first they don’t succeed, they will try, try again.

My point is that your front-line defenses – firewalls, antivirus, antispam, etc. will eventually fail.  You cannot rely on there being no vulnerabilities in your software or your users never making mistakes.  Your end users will be compromised at some point.   It’s just a matter of time.

So, to effectively defend against attacks, you must be able to detect the compromise when (not if) it happens and respond effectively.  That means building your network so it’s defensible in the first place.  You need to compartmentalize your internal network to slow down attackers and get them to reveal themselves.  You need to monitor your network activity so that you can detect unexpected activity.  And finally, you need to respond effectively to contain and eradicate the attack.

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Nick Kelly

Cybersecurity Engineer, Cisco

Nick has over 20 years of experience in Security Operations and Security Sales. He is an avid student of cybersecurity and regularly engages with the Infosec community at events like BSides, RVASec, Derbycon and more. The son of an FBI forensics director, Nick holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice and is one of Cisco’s Fire Jumper Elite members. When he’s not working, he writes cyberpunk and punches aliens on his Playstation.


Virgilio “BONG” dela Cruz Jr.

CCDP, CCNA V, CCNP, Cisco IPS Express Security for AM/EE
Field Solutions Architect, Tech Data

Virgilio “Bong” has sixteen years of professional experience in IT industry from academe, technical and customer support, pre-sales, post sales, project management, training and enablement. He has worked in Cisco Technical Assistance Center (TAC) as a member of the WAN and LAN Switching team. Bong now works for Tech Data as the Field Solutions Architect with a focus on Cisco Security and holds a few Cisco certifications including Fire Jumper Elite.


John Cavanaugh

CCIE #1066, CCDE #20070002, CCAr
Chief Technology Officer, Practice Lead Security Services, NetCraftsmen

John is our CTO and the practice lead for a talented team of consultants focused on designing and delivering scalable and secure infrastructure solutions to customers across multiple industry verticals and technologies. Previously he has held several positions including Executive Director/Chief Architect for Global Network Services at JPMorgan Chase. In that capacity, he led a team managing network architecture and services.  Prior to his role at JPMorgan Chase, John was a Distinguished Engineer at Cisco working across a number of verticals including Higher Education, Finance, Retail, Government, and Health Care.

He is an expert in working with groups to identify business needs, and align technology strategies to enable business strategies, building in agility and scalability to allow for future changes. John is experienced in the architecture and design of highly available, secure, network infrastructure and data centers, and has worked on projects worldwide. He has worked in both the business and regulatory environments for the design and deployment of complex IT infrastructures.