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Unmasking the Cyber Threat Within: Federal Government and DOD Grapple with Sleeper Cells

Ed Zaleski
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The federal government and the Department of Defense (DOD) wage a constant battle against an elusive enemy. Behind the scenes, sleeper cells of adversaries lurk inside the wire, within the digital shadows, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. 

As guardians of national security, defenders have to address the pressing issues of cyber hygiene, focusing on vulnerability remediation, patching efficacy and the need to navigate the unknown. The challenges faced by the federal government and DOD in securing their digital domains shed light on the importance of proactive cybersecurity measures.

Patient Adversaries Scanning for Weakness

When it comes to sleeper cells, adversaries position themselves within DOD networks, waiting for an opportunity to execute a devastating cyberattack. The anonymity afforded by the digital realm allows these cells to operate in stealth, making detection and attribution a real challenge. According to recent reports, the DOD grapples with the persistent presence of these sleeper cells, highlighting the urgency of bolstering cyber hygiene practices. 

These adversaries exploit unaddressed vulnerabilities and take advantage of lapses in patching efficacy and the delayed remediation of known weaknesses.

Various reports and studies also highlight the persistence and prevalence of cyber threats and potential adversaries within other government networks. These reports typically emphasize the sophistication and persistence of threat actors rather than providing specific counts of sleeper cells. For example:

Reports by commercial intelligence firms
Cybersecurity firms often release annual or periodic reports detailing advanced persistent threats (APTs) and cyber espionage activities

Government agencies and intelligence reports
Government agencies, particularly intelligence and cybersecurity organizations, may publish reports or assessments on the current cyber threat landscape. For instance, reports from U.S. Cyber Command, NSA or the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency might contain information on observed cyber threats.

Publicly disclosed incidents
Information about specific cyber incidents and breaches, including those attributed to state-sponsored actors or advanced threat groups, can be found in public disclosures.

For the most current and accurate information on the cyber threat landscape and the presence of potential adversaries within government networks, refer to official government reports, intelligence briefings and updates from reputable cybersecurity organizations. Keep in mind that specific details about the operations of adversaries are often classified to protect national security interests.

The Patching Paradox: A Vulnerable Frontier

One of the critical issues facing defenders is the lack of effective patching. Patch management is the front line of defense against cyber threats, yet the statistics reveal a troubling reality. The delay in implementing critical patches poses a severe risk that leaves systems susceptible to exploitation by adversaries. As the federal government and DOD fortify their cyber defenses, a comprehensive approach to patch management becomes paramount. It is essential to bridge the gap between identifying and prioritizing vulnerabilities and applying patches promptly to thwart potential cyber threats.

Some recent (and rather unnerving) patch management statistics include:  

  • The average time to detect a breach is 204 days
  • Cyber incidents caused by unpatched systems cost the business more than successful phishing attacks.
  • More than 80% of ransomware attacks were caused by exploitations of common configuration errors in software and devices.

Patching Challenges

Many organizations face difficulty in maintaining an effective and timely patching process. Factors such as the complexity of IT environments, the sheer volume of software and systems and the need for thorough testing before deploying patches contribute to delays in the patching lifecycle. Other challenges include: 

Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs)
CVEs are publicly disclosed security vulnerabilities, and their identification often leads to the release of patches. However, not all organizations are equally efficient in applying the patch.

Third-Party Software Patching
Patching efficacy also depends on how well organizations manage updates for third-party software. Many cyber-attacks target vulnerabilities in widely used applications, making it crucial for organizations to stay current with patches released by third-party vendors.

Impact of Insider Threats
Insider threats, either intentional or unintentional, can also impact patching efficacy. For instance, a lack of awareness or adherence to security policies by internal personnel may lead to delays in patching critical vulnerabilities.

Industry-Specific Variances
Different industries may have varying levels of patching efficacy. Even within the DOD, certain areas, such as finance and healthcare, are often under stringent regulatory frameworks that necessitate more rigorous patching practices.

Organizations need to prioritize effective patch management as part of their overall cybersecurity strategy to minimize the risk of exploitation by malicious actors. Regularly applying security patches helps close known vulnerabilities and strengthen the overall security posture.

Overcoming Fear of the Unseen Vulnerabilities

According to CISA, “The exploitation of zero-day vulnerabilities is on the rise globally and directly impacting federal agencies[.]”

Fear of the unknown can paralyze organizations, hindering their ability to proactively address potential threats. However, embracing the challenge of navigating the unknown is crucial for enhancing cyber resilience.

Federal agencies and the DOD must adopt a mindset that encourages walking through the unknown, acknowledging the existence of undiscovered vulnerabilities and actively seeking to uncover them. 

Assistance from Cybersecurity Companies: Navigating the Unknown Together

In the quest to address unknown vulnerabilities, federal agencies and the DOD regularly turn to cybersecurity vendors for support. Vendors play a pivotal role in this process, offering continuous testing and monitoring, threat intelligence and ethical hacking services to augment existing teams and technology. By adopting a proactive vulnerability management strategy, federal entities can reduce the likelihood of successful cyberattacks.  

Identifying and reporting on potential cyber sleeper cells within the federal government involves a combination of proactive cybersecurity measures, vigilant monitoring and collaboration. Here are some key steps and best practices:

Continuous Monitoring
Implement continuous monitoring systems that actively track network activity, anomalies, and potential indicators of compromise (IoCs). Use advanced threat detection tools to identify unusual patterns, unauthorized access or suspicious behavior within the network.

Threat Intelligence Sharing
Engage in collaborative efforts to share threat intelligence. Collaboration between government agencies, defense contractors, and cybersecurity organizations can enhance the collective ability to detect and respond to advanced persistent threats (APTs) and sleeper cell activities.

Behavioral Analytics
Employ advanced behavioral analytics to analyze user activities and network behaviors. Unusual patterns, such as escalated privilege usage, off-hour logins or data access deviations, may indicate malicious activities associated with sleeper cells.

Employee Awareness and Training
Foster a culture of cybersecurity awareness among employees. Regular training sessions can educate staff on recognizing phishing attempts, social engineering tactics, and other methods employed by adversaries to establish sleeper cells.

Red Team Exercises
Conduct red team exercises to simulate realistic cyber-attack scenarios. Red teaming helps identify potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses in existing security measures, providing insights into the organization’s ability to detect and respond to sophisticated threats.

Incident Response Planning
Develop and regularly update incident response plans to ensure a coordinated and timely response to security incidents. Having well-defined procedures in place enables rapid containment and mitigation of threats associated with sleeper cells.

Regular Audits and Assessments
Conduct regular cybersecurity audits and assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of security controls. Identifying and addressing weaknesses proactively can help prevent sleeper cells from exploiting vulnerabilities.

Reporting suspected sleeper cell activities should follow established protocols within the organization. Depending on the severity and nature of the threat, this may involve notifying internal cybersecurity teams, contacting law enforcement or collaborating with intelligence agencies. 

Organizations that prioritize transparency, communication and swift action can mitigate potential risks associated with sleeper cells found in government.

Strengthening Defenses Against the Unseen Threats

As federal agencies and the DOD navigate the complex landscape of cybersecurity, the presence of sleeper cells within their networks serves as a stark reminder of the importance of robust cyber hygiene practices. Addressing the issues of vulnerability remediation, patching efficacy and the fear of the unknown is paramount for enhancing national security in the digital age.

Federal entities can leverage expertise, technologies and methodologies that go beyond conventional approaches by collaborating with cybersecurity companies. Together, they can uncover and address the lurking threats within networks, ultimately fortifying the defenses that safeguard the nation’s most critical assets.  

In the face of the unseen and the unknown, the federal government and the DOD must embrace the challenge and commit to proactive cybersecurity measures. By pursuing a collective mission, they will strengthen their resilience against cyber threats and better ensure the security of the nation’s digital frontier.

Ed Zaleski is Synack’s Director of Federal Sales for the Department of Defense.