Organizations are stepping up their game against cyber threats

Global median dwell time drops to just over two weeks, reflecting the essential role partnerships and the exchange of information play in building a more resilient cybersecurity ecosystem, according to Mandiant.

modern cyber defense

Modern cyber defense capabilities

The report reveals the progress organizations globally have made in strengthening defenses against increasingly sophisticated adversaries.

“M-Trends 2023 makes it clear that, while our industry is getting better at cybersecurity, we are combating ever evolving and increasingly sophisticated adversaries. Several trends we saw in 2021 continued in 2022, such as an increasing number of new malware families as well as rising cyber espionage from nation-state-backed actors,” said Jurgen Kutscher, VP, Mandiant Consulting at Google Cloud.

“As a result, organizations must remain diligent and continue to enhance their cyber security posture with modern cyber defense capabilities. Ongoing validation of cyber resilience against these latest threats and testing of overall response capabilities are equally critical,” added Kutscher.

Global median dwell time for cyber attacks reaches all-time low in 2022

According to the report, the global median dwell time – which is calculated as the median number of days an attacker is present in a target’s environment before being detected – continues to drop year-over-year down to 16 days in 2022. This is the shortest median global dwell time from all M-Trends reporting periods, with a median dwell time of 21 days in 2021.

When comparing how threats were detected, Mandiant observed a general increase in the number of organizations that were alerted by an external entity of historic or ongoing compromise. Organizations headquartered in the Americas were notified by an external entity in 55% of incidents, compared to 40% of incidents last year.

This is the highest percentage of external notifications the Americas has seen over the past six years. Similarly, organizations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) were alerted of an intrusion by an external entity in 74% of investigations in 2022 compared to 62% in 2021.

Slight drop in ransomware attacks

Mandiant experts noted a decrease in the percentage of their global investigations involving ransomware between 2021 and 2022. In 2022, 18% of investigations involved ransomware compared to 23% in 2021. This represents the smallest percentage of Mandiant investigations related to ransomware since prior to 2020.

“While we don’t have data that suggests there is a single cause for the slight drop in ransomware-related attacks that we observed, there have been multiple shifts in the operating environment that have likely contributed to these lower figures,” said Sandra Joyce, VP, Mandiant Intelligence at Google Cloud.

“These factors include, but are not limited to: ongoing government and law enforcement disruption efforts targeting ransomware services and individuals, which at minimum require actors to retool or develop new partnerships; the conflict in Ukraine; actors needing to adjust their initial access operations to a world where macros may often be disabled by default, as well as organizations potentially getting better at detecting and preventing or recovering from ransomware events at faster rates,” concluded Joyce.

Mandiant identified extensive cyber espionage and information operations leading up to and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Most notably, Mandiant saw activity by UNC2589 and APT28 prior to the invasion of Ukraine, and observed more destructive cyber attacks in Ukraine during the first four months of 2022 than in the previous eight years.

New malware families on the rise

In 2022, researchers began tracking 588 new malware families revealing how adversaries are continuing to expand their toolsets. Of the newly tracked malware families, the top five categories consisted of backdoors (34%), downloaders (14%), droppers (11%), ransomware (7%) and launchers (5%). These categories of malware remain consistent over the years and backdoors continue to represent a little over one third of the newly tracked malware families.

In line with previous years, the most common malware family identified by Mandiant in investigations was BEACON, a multi-function backdoor. In 2022, BEACON was identified in 15% of all intrusions investigated by Mandiant and remains by far the most seen in investigations across regions.

It has been used by a wide variety of threat groups tracked by Mandiant including nation state-backed threat groups attributed to China, Russia and Iran, as well as financial threat groups and over 700 UNC groups. This ubiquity is likely due to the common availability of BEACON combined with the malware’s high customizability and ease of use, according to the report.

Adversaries are becoming increasingly effective

“Mandiant has investigated several intrusions carried out by newer adversaries that are becoming increasingly savvy and effective. They leverage data from underground cybercrime markets, conduct convincing social engineering schemes over voice calls and text messages, and even attempt to bribe employees to obtain access to networks,” said Charles Carmakal, CTO, Mandiant Consulting at Google Cloud.

“These groups pose a significant risk to organizations, even those with robust security programs, as these techniques are challenging to defend against. As organizations continue to build their security teams, infrastructure, and capabilities, protecting against these threat actors should be part of their design goals,” concluded Carmakal.

Additional takeaways from the report include:

Infection vector

For the third year in a row, exploits remained the most leveraged initial infection vector used by adversaries at 32%. While this was a decrease from the 37% of intrusions identified in 2021, exploits remained a critical tool for adversaries to use against their targets. Phishing returned as the second most utilized vector, representing 22% of intrusions as compared to 12% in 2021.

Target industries impacted

Response efforts for government-related organizations captured 25% of all investigations, compared to 9% in 2021. This primarily reflects Mandiant’s investigative support of cyber threat activity which targeted Ukraine. The next four most targeted industries from 2022 are consistent with what Mandiant experts observed in 2021, with business & professional services, financial, high tech, and healthcare industries being favored by adversaries. These industries remain attractive targets for both financially and espionage motivated actors.

Credential theft

Investigations uncovered an increased prevalence in both the use of widespread information stealer malware and credential purchasing in 2022 when compared to previous years. In many cases, investigations identified that credentials were likely stolen outside of the organization’s environment and then used against the organization, potentially due to reused passwords or use of personal accounts on corporate devices.

Data theft

Mandiant experts identified that in 40% of intrusions in 2022, adversaries prioritized data theft. Researchers have observed threat actors attempting to steal, or successfully completing data theft operations more often in 2022 compared to previous years.

North Korea’s use of crypto

Alongside traditional intelligence collection missions and disruptive attacks, in 2022, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea operators showed more interest in stealing and using cryptocurrency. These operations have been highly lucrative and will likely continue unabated throughout 2023.

Don't miss