What is the Cyber Kill Chain?
The cyber kill chain is an adaptation of the military’s kill chain, which is a step-by-step approach that identifies and stops enemy activity. Originally developed by Lockheed Martin in 2011, the cyber kill chain outlines the various stages of several common cyberattacks and, by extension, the points at which the information security team can prevent, detect or intercept attackers.
The cyber kill chain is intended to defend against sophisticated cyberattacks, also known as advanced persistent threats (APTs), wherein adversaries spend significant time surveilling and planning an attack. Most commonly these attacks involve a combination of malware, ransomware, Trojans, spoofing and social engineering techniques to carry out their plan.
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8 Phases of the Cyber Kill Chain Process
Lockheed Martin’s original cyber kill chain model contained seven sequential steps:
Phase 1: Reconnaissance
During the Reconnaissance phase, a malicious actor identifies a target and explores vulnerabilities and weaknesses that can be exploited within the network. As part of this process, the attacker may harvest login credentials or gather other information, such as email addresses, user IDs, physical locations, software applications and operating system details, all of which may be useful in phishing or spoofing attacks. Generally speaking, the more information the attacker is able to gather during the Reconnaissance phase, the more sophisticated and convincing the attack will be and, hence, the higher the likelihood of success.
Phase 2: Weaponization
During the Weaponization phase, the attacker creates an attack vector, such as remote access malware, ransomware, virus or worm that can exploit a known vulnerability. During this phase, the attacker may also set up back doors so that they can continue to access to the system if their original point of entry is identified and closed by network administrators.
Phase 3: Delivery
In the Delivery step, the intruder launches the attack. The specific steps taken will depend on the type of attack they intend to carry out. For example, the attacker may send email attachments or a malicious link to spur user activity to advance the plan. This activity may be combined with social engineering techniques to increase the effectiveness of the campaign.
Phase 4: Exploitation
In the Exploitation phase, the malicious code is executed within the victim’s system.
Phase 5: Installation
Immediately following the Exploitation phase, the malware or other attack vector will be installed on the victim’s system. This is a turning point in the attack lifecycle, as the threat actor has entered the system and can now assume control.
Phase 6: Command and Control
In Command & Control, the attacker is able to use the malware to assume remote control of a device or identity within the target network. In this stage, the attacker may also work to move laterally throughout the network, expanding their access and establishing more points of entry for the future.
Phase 7: Actions on Objective
In this stage, the attacker takes steps to carry out their intended goals, which may include data theft, destruction, encryption or exfiltration.
Over time, many information security experts have expanded the kill chain to include an eighth step: Monetization. In this phase, the cybercriminal focuses on deriving income from the attack, be it through some form of ransom to be paid by the victim or selling sensitive information, such as personal data or trade secrets, on the dark web.
Generally speaking, the earlier the organization can stop the threat within the cyber attack lifecycle, the less risk the organization will assume. Attacks that reach the Command and Control phase typically require far more advanced remediation efforts, including in-depth sweeps of the network and endpoints to determine the scale and depth of the attack. As such, organizations should take steps to identify and neutralize threats as early in the lifecycle as possible in order to minimize both the risk of an attack and the cost of resolving an event.
Evolution of the Cyber Kill Chain
As noted above, the cyber kill chain continues to evolve as attackers change their techniques. Since the release of the cyber kill chain model in 2011, cybercriminals have become far more sophisticated in their techniques and more brazen in their activity.
While still a helpful tool, the cyberattack lifecycle is far less predictable and clear cut today than it was a decade ago. For example, it is not uncommon for cyber attackers to skip or combine steps, particularly in the first half of the lifecycle. This gives organizations less time and opportunity to discover and neutralize threats early in the lifecycle. In addition, the prevalence of the kill chain model may give cyberattackers some indication of how organizations are structuring their defense, which could inadvertently help them avoid detection at key points within the attack lifecycle.
Critiques and Concerns Related to the Cyber Kill Chain
While the cyber kill chain is a popular and common framework from which organizations can begin to develop a cybersecurity strategy, it contains several important and potentially devastating flaws.
One of the most common critiques of the cyber kill chain model is that is focuses on perimeter security and malware prevention. This is an especially pressing concern as organizations shift away from tradition on-prem networks in favor of the cloud.
Likewise, an acceleration of the remote work trend and a proliferation of personal devices, IoT technology and even advanced applications like robotic process automation (RPA) has exponentially increased the attack surface for many enterprise organizations. This means that cybercriminals have far more points of access to exploit—and companies will have a more difficult time securing each and every endpoint.
Another potential shortcoming of the kill chain is that it is limited in terms of the types of attacks that can be detected. For example, the original framework is not able to detect insider threats, which is among the most serious risks to an organization and one of the attack types that has the highest rates of success. Attacks that leverage compromised credentials by unauthorized parties also cannot be detected within the original kill chain framework.
Web-based attacks may also go undetected by the cyber kill chain framework. Examples of such attacks include Cross Site Scripting (XSS), SQL Injection, DoS/DDoS and some Zero Day Exploits. The massive 2017 Equifax breach, which occurred in part because of a compromised software patch, is a high-profile example of a web attack that went undetected due to insufficient security.
Finally, while the framework is intended to detect sophisticated, highly researched attacks, the cyber kill chain often misses those attackers who do not conduct significant reconnaissance. For example, those who use a “spray and pray” technique often avoid carefully laid detection snares by pure happenstance.
Role of the Cyber Kill Chain in Cybersecurity
Despite some shortcomings, the Cyber Kill Chain plays an important role in helping organizations define their cybersecurity strategy. As part of this model, organizations must adopt services and solutions that allow them to:
- Detect attackers within each stage of the threat lifecycle with threat intelligence techniques
- Prevent access from unauthorized users
- Stop sensitive data from being shared, saved, altered, exfiltrated or encrypted by unauthorized users
- Respond to attacks in real-time
- Stop lateral movement of an attacker within the network