A Quick Introduction to the MITRE ATT&CK Framework

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If you’re an avid reader of threat trends or a fan of red team exercises, you’ve probably come across a reference to the MITRE ATT&CK framework in the last few months. If you have ever wondered what it was all about or if you’ve never heard of it but are interested in how you can improve your security posture, this blog is for you.

To start with, let’s explain what MITRE is. MITRE is a nonprofit organization founded in 1958 (and funded with federal tax dollars) that works on projects for a variety of U.S. government agencies, including the IRS, Department of Defense (DOD), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is not a professional third-party cybersecurity testing agency, which is a common misconception. Its focus is to provide U.S. government agencies with essential deliverables—such as models, technologies and intellectual property—related to U.S. national security, including cybersecurity, healthcare, tax policy, etc. In the cybersecurity landscape, MITRE is mostly known for managing Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) for software vulnerabilities. Note that CVEs are pre-exploitation/defense, whereas the MITRE ATT&CK model is focused on post-exploitation only.

Your next question is probably around what MITRE ATT&CK is and what makes it a model or a framework. The name stands for: Adversarial Tactics, Techniques, and Common Knowledge (ATT&CK). It is a curated knowledgebase and model for cyberadversary behavior, reflecting the various phases of an adversary’s attack lifecycle and the platforms they are known to target. The tactics and techniques looked at in the model are used to classify adversary actions by offense and defense, relating them to specific ways of defending against them. What began as an idea in 2010 during an experiment has since grown into a set of evolving resources for cybersecurity experts to contribute to and apply for red teaming, threat hunting, and other tasks. Security practitioners can harden their endpoint defenses and accurately assess themselves by using the model and the tools to help determine how well they are doing at detecting documented adversary behavior.

If you’ve been in the security realm for a while, this may remind you somewhat of Lockheed Martin’s Cyber Kill Chain. It stated that attacks occur in stages and can be disrupted through controls established at each stage. It was also used to reveal the stages of a cyberattack. To understand the overlap of the two models, take a look at this figure:

In the figure above we see that the MITRE ATT&CK matrix model is essentially a subset of the Cyber Kill Chain, but it goes in depth when describing the techniques used between the Deliver and Maintain stages. The Cyber Kill Chain, including the MITRE ATT&CK model, might look like a linear process, but it actually isn’t. It’s rather a branching and looping chain, but we have shown it in a linear fashion to make it easier to understand.

At McAfee, we embrace the MITRE model as a fabulous and detailed way to think about adversarial activity, especially APTs post-compromise, and are applying it to different levels and purposes in our organization. Specifically, we are engineering our endpoint products using the insights gained from MITRE ATT&CK to significantly enhance our fileless threat defense capabilities. Additionally, we are using it to inform our roadmaps and are actively contributing to the model by sharing newly discovered techniques used by adversaries. We are partnering with MITRE and were recently a core sponsor of the inaugural MITRE ATT&CKcon in the Washington, D.C. area.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll continue to go deeper into how MITRE ATT&CK matrix testing works, how you can use it, how it’s different from other testing methods, and how McAfee is investing in it.

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