Understanding Targeted Attacks – What You Need to Know

The first step in a targeted attack involves gathering strategic information about the target. It can include information on business applications and software the company uses.

It differs from opportunistic cyberattacks that look for vulnerabilities and distribute malware indiscriminately. Targeted attackers are specific about their aims and objectives. They also conduct campaigns that persist over long periods.

Security Measures

To avoid a targeted attack, preventative measures and the implementation of the appropriate security software are crucial. Companies should also look for warning signs like network slowdowns and intermittent website shutdowns. The first step is preventing unauthorized access to the system by encrypting communication protocols such as email and web browsing.

Threat actors survey the initial attack phase to gather information about the target IT infrastructure, organizational structure, computers, and vulnerable systems. This process, or intelligence gathering, leverages publicly available information on social media and domain management services.

The next phase is identifying exploitable vulnerabilities to breach the system. This process can include leveraging a tool such as Ladon, a popular hacking utility from China that combines the functionality of network scanning, vulnerability search and exploitation, password attacks, and more to simplify malware exploitation.

Once an attacker successfully breaches a system, they can use the malware to lateralize on other machines within the organization. Using tools such as Remote Access Toolkits (RATs) and stolen user credentials, they can gain complete control of the system and steal confidential data.

To prevent a drive-by download attack, users should remove all unnecessary browser plug-ins and install an ad blocker. An encrypted web browser such as Brave can also help protect against this attack.


Unlike untargeted attacks, targeted attacks are carried out over long periods and can be conducted for different reasons, including political gain, monetary profit, or business data theft. As a result, they are more challenging to detect and contain than untargeted attacks.

It means it’s crucial to implement adequate security measures and stay up-to-date with the latest best practices. It includes performing regular vulnerability scans and keeping software and systems updated, as doing so can close known vulnerabilities that attackers might exploit.

Once an attacker gains access to a system, they work to identify what data is of interest and how to extract it. They might use remote access Trojans or other customized and legitimate tools to gather information about a target’s internal networks and servers. It can help them determine what is valuable to the target and plan for future attacks.

At the same time, they try to cover their tracks and evade detection by deleting log files, using anti-forensic tools or other techniques. In addition, they may also employ social engineering based on recent events or common themes in the news to design enticing phishing attacks.

Attackers will then move toward the attack phase by planning to breach the target’s defenses. It could include a targeted phishing campaign, watering hole attacks, or other methods such as exploiting vulnerabilities in the target’s systems.


When a business is hit with a targeted attack, it’s usually because the attacker has high-value information they are after. It is crucial to have cybersecurity features to prevent this type of attack.

Attackers may use various infection models to engage the target and initiate the infection process. These models often use spear phishing techniques, watering hole attacks, and tailor-made malware. Once the attacker has a foothold, they can use remote access tools to steal data and install additional malware on infected machines. Then the attacker can hide exfiltration traffic and make it less detectable by network security solutions.

Targeted attackers will typically take their time finding a way to breach your system, study your technology stack, and try different methods outside the typical ones. It is because they want to be sure that breaching your system will bring them value and will not be detected quickly by existing detection systems.

In some cases, attackers use publicly available remote access tools to exploit browsers and gain control of infected systems. For example, the Flame [1] and Taidoor [2] targeted attacks used public RATs such as Poison Ivy. This type of attack is more sophisticated than opportunistic attacks but can penetrate deeper into the organization and cause more significant damage.


A targeted attack aims to infiltrate a specific company, system, or software to extract information, disturb operations or infect machines. Unlike opportunistic attacks, perpetrators of targeted attacks take the time to study the technology stack of their targets and try various methods outside of well-known breaches to breach systems. It gives the attackers higher chances of success.

In the first phase of a targeted attack, threat actors gather publicly available data about the target to customize their attacks. It can range from business applications and software that an organization utilizes to its organizational structure, including roles, responsibilities, and relationships. Threat actors may also employ social engineering techniques to gain further information about the targets.

Once the attackers understand the target’s technology, they use their findings to customize attacks and exploit vulnerabilities. They can also leverage automated frameworks to ease the burden of exploitation. For example, attackers can rely on an Automated Exploit Kit (AET) to detect and exploit websites and software components with known vulnerabilities. They can also deploy Remote Access Tools (RATs) on infected browsers to facilitate data theft and command execution.

They can also deploy a DoS attack against the target. This type of attack floods the target site with illegitimate requests to consume its resources and cause it to shut down. Alternatively, they can infect USB devices that plug into critical systems such as Industrial Control Systems (ICSs). It is how Stuxnet was able to infect and spread across many ICSs in Iran.

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