The crucial role of persistence in red teaming

What’s up cybersecurity fam? Your guy TheToySec is back again with another interesting topic and in this topic, we are gonna discuss the various techniques and strategies used by red teams to achieve persistence, along with real-world scenarios and examples.


In the world of cybersecurity, red teams play a vital role in testing an organization’s defenses against real-world threats. One of the most critical aspects of a successful red team operation is persistence, which is the ability to maintain a long-term presence within the target environment.

Understanding Persistence

Persistence refers to the capability of an intruder to sustain access to a system/ network that he has already breached over time. This is a very important thing in the life cycle of a cyber-attack as it enables an attacker to go beyond the initial compromise and do malicious activities such as data theft or lateral movement and even disrupt services.

Persistence may be achieved through various methods including simple ones like scheduled tasks or startup folder entries, or more advanced techniques such as rootkits, backdoors, or even kernel-level implants.

Common Persistence Techniques

Red teams employ a wide range of persistence techniques to maintain their presence within the target environment. Here are some common methods that can be used to maintain persistence:

  1. Scheduled Tasks and Startup Folders: Scheduled tasks allow the attacker to run their malicious code or payloads at predefined intervals or system events, while startup folder entries ensure that the attacker’s code runs automatically when the system boots up or a user logs in.
  2. DLL Hijacking and Process Injection: DLL hijacking involves replacing legitimate DLLs with malicious ones, which are loaded by running processes. Process injection involves injecting malicious code into a running process, leveraging its permissions and resources.
  3. Rootkits and Kernel-level Persistence: Rootkits are malicious programs that modify the operating system kernel or other low-level components to hide their presence and activities. Kernel-level persistence techniques involve modifying the kernel itself or loading malicious kernel modules.
  4. Web Shells and Remote Access Tools (RATs): Web shells are scripts or applications that provide remote access to a web server, allowing attackers to execute commands and upload or download files. Remote Access Tools (RATs) are malicious programs that allow attackers to control and monitor a compromised system remotely.
  5. Backdoors and Covert Channels: Backdoors are malicious programs or modifications that provide unauthorized remote access to a system or application. Covert channels are hidden communication paths that allow data to be transmitted outside the target environment, often evading detection by firewalls or security monitoring tools.
  6. Legitimate System Tools and Living off the Land: Attackers often leverage legitimate system tools and utilities already present in the compromised system to achieve persistence and evade detection. This technique, known as “living off the land,” takes advantage of trusted and whitelisted applications, making it harder for security solutions to detect malicious activities.

Real-World Scenarios

To better understand the impact and importance of persistence in red teaming, let’s explore some real-world scenarios:

  1. APT Group Emulation: In a red team exercise aimed at emulating an advanced persistent threat (APT) group, the team developed a custom kernel-level rootkit for Windows systems, providing them with a persistent backdoor and the ability to evade detection by most security products.
  2. Cloud Infrastructure Security Assessment: During an engagement focused on assessing the security of an organization’s cloud infrastructure, the red team exploited a vulnerability in a cloud-based application to establish a persistent backdoor, enabling them to move laterally and compromise additional resources.
  3. Insider Threat Simulation: In a red team exercise simulating an insider threat scenario, the team gained initial access through social engineering techniques and maintained persistence using scheduled tasks, startup folder entries, and process injection, even after system reboots or user logouts.
  4. Supply Chain Attack Simulation: In a red team engagement simulating a supply chain attack, the team targeted a third-party software vendor and injected a malicious backdoor into the software’s installer or update package, providing them with persistent access to the systems running the infected software.
  5. Critical Infrastructure Security Assessment: In an exercise focused on assessing the security of critical infrastructure systems, the red team exploited vulnerabilities in legacy systems or insecure remote access solutions to gain initial access and establish persistence, employing techniques like modifying firmware and injecting malicious code into programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

Persistence and Evasion

Additionally, red teams employ a variety of ways to avoid detection by security solutions as well as blend with lawful activities carried out within the system i.e. evasion techniques. Some of these evasion techniques include code encryption and obfuscation, fileless persistence, bypassing User Account Control (UAC), hiding in plain sight; anti-forensics, and artifact removal.

Impact of Persistence

There can be many consequences of an attacker or red team maintaining a long-term presence in an organization’s systems and networks. The following are some potential impacts of successful persistence:

  1. Data Breach and Exfiltration: With persistent access, attackers can continuously exfiltrate sensitive data, such as intellectual property, customer information, or financial records, over an extended period, leading to significant financial and reputational damage.
  2. Lateral Movement and Network Compromise: Persistent access allows attackers to move laterally within the network, compromising additional systems and escalating their privileges, potentially leading to a complete network takeover.
  3. Disruption of Operations: Persistent access can be leveraged to disrupt critical systems, applications, or infrastructure, resulting in operational downtime, loss of productivity, and potential financial losses.
  4. Sabotage and Destructive Attacks: In some cases, persistent access may be used to conduct sabotage or destructive attacks, such as corrupting data, deleting files, or rendering systems inoperable.
  5. Reputational Damage and Loss of Trust: Organizations that suffer from persistent attacks or breaches can face significant reputational damage, loss of customer trust, and potential regulatory fines or legal actions.
  6. Extended Incident Response and Recovery: Persistent threats can prolong the incident response and recovery process, as eradicating the attacker’s foothold and ensuring complete remediation can be challenging, leading to additional costs and resources.

Mitigation Steps for Persistence

Organizations should apply multi-layered protection systems to address the risks of persistence tactics and reduce potential damage from successful invasions. The following measures can be taken to mitigate its impact:

  1. Robust Access Controls and Least Privilege: Implement strong access controls, including multi-factor authentication, least privilege principles, and role-based access management. This can help limit the potential impact of compromised accounts and reduce the attack surface for persistence techniques.
  2. Endpoint Protection and Hardening: Deploy advanced endpoint protection solutions that can detect and prevent known and unknown persistence techniques, such as rootkits, DLL hijacking, and process injection. Additionally, implement endpoint hardening measures, including application whitelisting, privilege elevation controls, and regular patching.
  3. Network Segmentation and Monitoring: Segment the network into logical zones and implement strict access controls between them. Monitor network traffic for suspicious activity, including unauthorized connections, data exfiltration attempts, and lateral movement indicators.
  4. Incident Response and Forensics Capabilities: Develop robust incident response and forensics capabilities to quickly detect, contain, and eradicate persistent threats. This includes maintaining comprehensive logging, deploying security information and event management (SIEM) solutions, and training incident response teams.
  5. Vulnerability Management and Patching: Establish a comprehensive vulnerability management program to identify and remediate vulnerabilities that could be exploited for initial access or persistence. Ensure timely patching of operating systems, applications, and firmware.
  6. Security Awareness and Training: Implement regular security awareness and training programs for employees, emphasizing the importance of identifying and reporting suspicious activities, as well as best practices for cybersecurity hygiene.
  7. Penetration Testing and Red Teaming: Regularly conduct penetration testing and red team exercises to identify potential persistence vectors and validate the effectiveness of security controls and incident response processes.
  8. Third-Party Risk Management: Implement robust third-party risk management processes to assess and mitigate the risks associated with vendors, suppliers, and third-party software or services, which could potentially introduce persistent threats through supply chain attacks.
  9. Threat Intelligence and Information Sharing: Leverage threat intelligence and participate in information-sharing communities to stay informed about the latest persistence techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) used by threat actors, enabling proactive defense measures.
  10. Continuous Monitoring and Improvement: Continuously monitor and improve security controls, processes, and technologies to adapt to evolving persistence techniques and maintain an effective defense against persistent threats.

Thank you for reading this and have a nice stay there!