Living off the Land attacks have gained traction in recent times, so we can safely extrapolate that hackers are now reemploying old strategies and techniques. The concepts associated with Living off the Land are hardly new. System tools were once commonly used as backdoors, and known vulnerabilities were taken advantage of in systems.

Living off the Land (LotL) attacks are incredibly difficult to defend against since they sometimes include fileless attacks as a subset. Other times, hackers exploit dual-use and memory tools, which is a deadly combination as it gets. In this guide, we intend to tell you as much as you need to know about Living off the Land attacks and how you can protect yourself or your organization from them.

What are Living off the Land attacks?

Living off the Land attacks are attacks where the attackers use already installed or existing tools on victims’ computers to further their means (steal information or money, take over systems, and so on). Such attacks are unique in that the hackers involved do not use malicious programs, which security application programs are programmed to look out for. Since the attackers use regular tools or even simple scripts, threat detection becomes very difficult.

In fileless attacks, for example, cybercriminals are able to operate in volatile memory, in parts corresponding to PowerShell and WMI. In such scenarios, antiviruses and anti-malware applications fail to detect and find the threats – because even their entries are not stored in logs. After all, very few files (or no files at all) get created during the attack.

Attackers have enough reasons to go fileless. They probably figured out that the fewer the number of files that get created, the lower the chances of the threats being detected by security utilities. And for the most part, attackers are correct. Security applications often struggle to detect Living off the Land attacks until it gets too late because they do not know what to watch out for in the first place.

LotL attacks do not involve malware, but attackers (if they succeed with them) get enough time to dwell on compromised computers in areas where they cannot be detected. And over time, the attackers eventually get opportunities to infiltrate sensitive components and destroy data or operations (if they choose to).

Perhaps, you heard of the Petya/NotPetya attacks, which shook the world sometime in 2017. The victims of those attacks (individuals and organizations) never saw them coming because the attackers got into their systems through trusted programs, which did not arouse suspicion, and then injected those applications with malicious code. Traditional protection systems failed; their defenses were not triggered by the unusual use of apparently trusted software.

With Living off the Land techniques, cybercriminals can enter IT systems without complications and spend a lot of time in them while not setting off any alarm or arousing suspicion. Therefore, given the circumstances that define such attacks, security experts find it difficult to identify the source of the attack. Many criminals consider Living off the Land tactics the ideal method for executing attacks.

How to stay safe from Living off the Land attacks (tips for regular users or individuals)

By taking the necessary precautions and being proactive, you get to reduce the chances of your computers or networks being exposed to cybercriminals through LotL tactics.

  1. Always monitor or check the use of dual-use utilities inside your networks.
  1. Use application whitelisting where it is available or applicable.
  1. When you receive unexpected or suspicious emails, you must exercise caution. You are always better off not clicking on anything (links or attachments) in such messages.
  1. Always download and install updates for all your applications (programs) and operating systems (Windows, for example).
  1. Exercise caution while using Microsoft Office attachments that require you to enable macros. You are better off not using such attachments in the first place – if you can afford not to use them.
  1. Configure advanced security features where possible. By advanced security features, we mean two-factor authentication (2FA), login notifications or prompts, and so on.
  1. Use strong unique passwords for all your accounts and profiles (across networks or platforms). Get a password manager – if you need one to help you remember all the passwords.
  1. Always remember to sign your profile or account out of networks when you are done with your session.

How to avoid Living off the Land attacks (tips for organizations and businesses)

Since Living off the Land tactics constitute some of the most sophisticated hacking techniques, they pose a great level of challenge for organizations to identify and ward off. Nevertheless, there are still ways companies can reduce the risks of such attacks (or mitigate the effects of such attacks – if they ever occur).

  1. Maintain good cyber hygiene:

This tip might seem simple or basic when taken at face value, but it is probably the most important of the lot. The majority of cyberattacks in history – including those where LotL tactics were employed – were successful due to negligence or lack of security practices. Many firms do not bother to update or patch the tools or programs that they use. Software typically needs patches and updates to seal vulnerabilities and security holes.

When the patches or updates are not installed, the door is left open for threat actors to find vulnerabilities and take advantage of them. Organizations have a duty to ensure that they keep an inventory of applications. This way, they get to identify outdated and unpatched programs and even operating systems; they also know when they have to perform the essential update tasks and how to stay on schedule.

Furthermore, staff should be trained in security awareness. It goes beyond just teaching an individual not to open phishing emails. Ideally, workers should learn how built-in Windows facilities and code work. This way, they get to spot anomalies or inconsistencies in behavior, malicious activity, and suspicious applications or scripts running in the background and trying to evade detection. Staff with good knowledge of Windows background activities are generally one step ahead of regular cybercriminals.

  1. Configure proper access rights and permissions:

For example, an employee clicking on a malicious link in an email should not necessarily result in the malicious program landing on the employee’s system. Systems should be designed such that in the described scenario, the malicious program travels across the network and lands on some other system. In that case, we can say that the network was segmented well enough to ensure that third-party apps and regular users have strict access protocols.

The importance of the tip deserves as many highlights as possible. Using solid protocols regarding the access rights and privileges provided to workers can go a long way in keeping your systems from being compromised; it can be the difference between a successful LotL attack and one that goes nowhere.

  1. Employ a dedicated threat-hunting strategy:

When you get threat hunters to work together to find different forms of threats, the chances of threat detection increase significantly. The best security practices require firms (especially large organizations) to employ dedicated threat hunters and have them go through different segments of their IT infrastructure to check for even faint signs of the most deadly or sophisticated attacks.

If your business is relatively small or if you cannot afford to have an in-house threat-hunting team, then you will do well to outsource your needs to a threat-hunting firm or similar security management service. You are likely to find other organizations or teams of freelancers that will be interested in filling that critical gap. Either way, as long as the threat-hunting operations get carried out, it is all good.

  1. Configure Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR):

Silent failure is one important term when it comes to warding off cyberattacks. Silent failure refers to a scenario or setup where the dedicated security or defense system fails to identify and defend against a cyberattack and no alarms go off after the attack occurs.

Consider this parallel with the projected event: If fileless malware somehow manages to get past your protection layers and gain access to your network, it may stay in your system for a long time, trying to analyze the entirety of your system in preparation for a bigger attack.

To this end, to overcome the issue in view, you must set up a solid Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) system. With a good EDR system, you will be able to figure out and isolate suspicious items existing at endpoints and even eliminate or get rid of them.

  1. Assess events and scenarios when you get hacked (if you get hacked):

If your machines get hacked or if your network becomes compromised, you will do well to examine the events in the build-up to the attack. We advise that you take a look at the files and programs that played a major role in helping the attackers succeed.

You can employ cybersecurity analysts and ask them to focus on tools and systems they can use to gauge the historical attacks. Most of the scenarios where firms fall victim to attacks are characterized by suspicious registry keys and unusual output files and also the identification of active or still existing threats.

After you discover some of the affected files or other clues, you will do well to analyze them thoroughly. Ideally, you should try to figure out where things went wrong, what should have been done better, and so on. This way, you learn more and gain valuable insights, which means you will be able to fill the gaps in your security strategy to prevent future LotL attacks.


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