M-Trends #1: Malware Only Tells Half the Story

When I joined Mandiant earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to help write our annual M-Trends report. This is the third year Mandiant has published the report, which is a summary of the trends we've observed in our investigations over the last twelve months.

I remember reading Mandiant's first M-Trends report when it came out in 2010 and recall being surprised that Mandiant didn't pull any punches. They talked about the advanced persistent threat or APT (they had been using that term for several years...long before it was considered a cool marketing, buzz word), and they were open about the origin of the attacks. The report summarized what I'd been seeing in industry, and offered useful insights for detection and response. Needless to say, I enjoyed the opportunity to work on the latest version.

In this year's report it details six trends we identified in 2011. We developed the six trends for the report very organically. That is, I spent quite a few days and nights reading all of the reports from our outstanding incident response team and wrote about what we saw-we didn't start with trends and then look for evidence to support them.

If you haven't picked up a copy of the report yet, you can do so here. I will be blogging on each of the six trends over the next two weeks; you can even view the videos we've developed for each trend as each blog post is published:

Malware Only Tells Half the Story.

Of the many systems compromised in each investigation, about half of them were never touched by attacker malware.

In so many cases, the intruders logged into systems and took data from them (or used them as a staging point for exfiltration), but didn't install tools. It is ironic that the very systems that hold the data targeted by an attacker are probably the least likely to have malware installed on them. While finding the malware used in an intrusion is important, it is impossible to understand the full scope of an intrusion if this is the focal point of the investigation. We illustrate actual examples of this in the graphical spread on pages 6-7 of the report.

What does this mean for victim organizations?

You could start by looking for malware, but don't end there! A smart incident response process will seek to fully understand the scope of compromise and find all impacted systems in the environment. This could mean finding the registry entries that identify lateral movement, traces of deleted .rar files in unallocated space, or use of a known compromised account. It turns out that Mandiant has a product that does all of this, but the footnote on page 5 is the only mention you'll see in the entire report (and even that was an afterthought).

Thoughts and questions about this trend or the M-Trends report?