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Since its inception, the cyber kill chain framework has been crucial in identifying and neutralizing sophisticated cyber threats. But now, many cybersecurity experts find the cyber kill chain methodology inadequate to offer protection from cyber attackers in today’s ever-evolving threat landscape.

What is the cyber kill chain framework, how does it work, and what are its limitations? Read on to find out.

What Is a Cyber Kill Chain Framework?

Developed by Lockheed Martin, the cyber kill chain framework incorporates the military’s kill chain model to identify and prevent enemy activity.

It helps security teams understand and combat intrusions by outlining various stages of cyber attacks. It also explains different points of those stages at which cybersecurity professionals can identify, detect, and intercept attackers.

The cyber kill chain helps protect against advanced persistent threats (APTs), where threat actors spend significant time tracking their victims and planning cyber attacks. These attacks often mix malware, Trojans, social engineering attacks, etc.

The cyber kill chain model has seven steps: Reconnaissance, Weaponization, Delivery, Exploitation, Installation, Command and Control, and Actions on Objectives.

Each stage represents a step in the attacker’s journey.

Phases of the Cyber Kill Chain Framework

The cyber kill chain cybersecurity framework helps security teams predict attackers’ moves for quicker interception.

Here are seven steps of the cyber kill chain process.

#1. Reconnaissance

The reconnaissance phase is all about collecting information about the target victim or network.

There are two types of reconnaissance phases.

Passive Reconnaissance

In this phase, hackers try to gather information from publicly available sources. This can include checking WHOIS, JOB listings, LinkedIn, social media profiles, companies’ websites, etc. They can also leverage ARIN, SHODAN, and other tools to find vulnerabilities and potential entry points.

As the passive reconnaissance phase doesn’t involve interacting with organizations, hackers try to collect as much information about their target as possible during this phase.

Active Reconnaissance

In the active reconnaissance phase, threat actors contact your organization at some level to collect information that can help them enter your corporate network. They use tools like NMAP, vulnerability scanners, port scanners, banner grabbing, etc.

The reconnaissance stage plays a crucial role in any cyberattack. The more information a threat actor has about their target’s network, the better they can plan their attacks.

To stop threat actors at passive and active reconnaissance, you can take the following steps:

  • Limit exposure of public information that hackers can use to plan phishing attacks.
  • Make a policy for acceptable social media use.
  • Modify server error messages so they don’t publicly leak crucial information about your network.
  • Disable unused ports and services.
  • Implement a firewall with an instruction prevention system (IPS) capability.

The main goal of the reconnaissance phase is to find a weakness that hackers can exploit to enter your network.

So, setting up honeypots and honeynets is an excellent way to find vulnerabilities in your network and strengthen defenses.

#2. Weaponization

The weaponization stage aims to create an attack tool (attack vector) that can exploit the system or network vulnerability identified in the reconnaissance phase.

The weaponization process can include selecting (or creating) the right remote access malware, ransomware, or malicious code to match the vulnerability.

The attacker wraps the malware in a file format that looks harmless. They might use a Word document or a PDF. The aim is to trick the target into opening it.

Metasploit, SQLMAP, Exploit-DB, and social engineering tool kits are commonly used tools in the weaponization stage.

The weaponization stage is about which attack vector hackers would use to attack systems and networks.

So, amping up your defense is a sound cybersecurity strategy to prevent attack vectors from entering your systems and networks.

Here are some tips to get started.

  • Be aggressive about patch management in your company. This will reduce the attack surface if there are no vulnerabilities in the software and operating systems.
  • Install good antivirus on all endpoints.
  • Disable office macros, JavaScript, and unnecessary browser plugins.
  • Enforce email security tools and use browser isolation in your company.
  • Audit logs to identify any anomaly in the network.

You should also have a good intrusion detection and prevention system in place. And make sure multi-factor authentication is implemented in your company.

#3. Delivery

So, hackers have selected a suitable attack vector to exploit the vulnerabilities. Now comes the time for delivery when attackers will try to infiltrate your network.

The means of delivery can vary, depending on the type of attack vector being used.

Typical examples of delivery can include:

  • Websites—Threat actors can infect third-party websites that potential targets frequently visit.
  • Emails—Attackers can send infected emails loaded with malicious software.
  • USBs—They can leave infected USBs in common areas, hoping that users will plugin those USBs into their systems.
  • Social Media—Cybercriminals can use social media to run phishing attacks that can lure users into clicking infected links.

The most effective defense against the delivery of common attack vectors is to focus on employee training.

Other security measures you can take are implementing a web filtering, DNS filtering solution, and disabling USB ports on devices.

#4. Exploitation

During the exploitation phase in the cyber kill chain framework, attackers utilize the weapon to exploit weaknesses in the target’s system. This marks the onset of the actual attack post-weapon delivery.

Here’s a closer examination:

  • Attackers locate vulnerabilities in the software, system, or network.
  • They introduce the malicious tool or code aimed at exploiting these vulnerabilities.
  • The exploit code is activated, leveraging the vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access or privileges.
  • By penetrating the perimeter, attackers can exploit the target’s systems further by installing malicious tools, executing scripts, or modifying security certificates.

This phase is pivotal as it transitions from a mere threat to a security incident. The objective of the exploitation phase is to gain access to your systems or network.

An actual attack can come in the form of SQL injection, buffer overflow, malware, JavaScript hijack, and more.

They can move laterally within the network, identifying additional entry points as they go.

At this stage, a hacker is inside your network exploiting vulnerabilities. You have limited resources to protect your systems and network.

You can use the data execution prevention (DEP) feature and anti-exploit feature of your antivirus (if it has any) to protect against exploitation.

Some EDR tools can also help detect and respond to cyberattacks quickly.

#5. Installation

Also known as the privilege escalation stage, the installation stage is all about installing malware and deploying other malicious tools so that threat actors can have persistent access to your systems and networks even after you have patched and rebooted the compromised system.

Standard techniques involved in the installation phase include:

  • DLL hijacking
  • Installation of a Remote Access Trojan (RAT)
  • Registry changes so that malicious programs can automatically start

Attackers may also try to create a backdoor to access systems or networks continuously, even when the original point of entry is closed by security experts.

If cybercriminals have successfully reached this stage, you have limited protection. Your system or network has been infected.

Now, you can use post-infection tools like user behavior analytics (UBA) tools or EDR tools to check if there is any unusual activity pertinent to registry and system files. And you should be ready to deploy your incident response plan.

#6. Command and Control

In the Command and Control phase, the attacker establishes a connection with the compromised system. This link allows remote control over the target. The attacker can now send commands, receive data, or even upload additional malware.

Two tactics often used here are Obfuscation and Denial of Service (DoS).

  • Obfuscation helps attackers hide their presence. They might delete files or alter code to avoid detection. In essence, they cover their tracks.
  • Denial of Service distracts the security teams. By causing issues in other systems, they divert your attention away from their primary objective. This could involve network disruptions or shutting down systems.

In this stage, your system is completely compromised. You should focus on limiting what hackers can control and detecting unusual activity.

Network segmentation, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS), and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) can help you limit the damage.

#7. Actions on Objective

The cyber kill chain’s seven steps peak at the “Actions on Objectives” phase. Here, attackers carry out their primary goal. This stage can last weeks or months, based on earlier successes.

Typical end goals include but are not limited to data theft, encryption of sensitive data, supply chain attacks, and many others.

By implementing data security solutions, endpoint security solutions, and zero-trust security, you can limit the damage and prevent hackers from achieving their objectives.

Can Cyber Kill Chain Meet Today’s Security Challenges?

The Cyber Kill Chain model helps in understanding and combating various cyber attacks. But its linear structure may fall short against today’s sophisticated, multi-vector attacks.

Here are the shortcomings of the traditional cyber kill chain framework.

#1. Ignores Insider Threats

Insider threats come from individuals within the organization, like employees or contractors, who have legitimate access to your systems and network. They might misuse their access intentionally or unintentionally, which can lead to data breaches or other security incidents.

In fact, 74% of companies believe that insider threats have become more frequent.

The traditional cyber kill chain model doesn’t account for these internal threats as it is designed to track the activities of external attackers.

In the scenario of insider threats, an attacker does not need to go through many of the stages outlined in the cyber kill chain, like reconnaissance, weaponization, or delivery, as they already have access to the systems and network.

This significant oversight in the framework makes it incapable of detecting or mitigating insider threats. The lack of a mechanism to monitor and analyze the behavior or access patterns of individuals within the organization is a substantial limitation in the cyber kill chain framework.

#2. Have Limited Capability for Attack Detection

The cyber kill chain has a relatively narrow scope when identifying various cyberattacks. This framework primarily revolves around detecting malware activities and malicious payloads, leaving a significant gap in addressing other forms of attacks.

A prime example includes web-based attacks like SQL Injection, Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), various types of Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, and Zero-Day attacks. These types of attacks can easily slip through the cracks as they do not follow the typical patterns the kill chain is designed to detect.

Moreover, the framework falls short in accounting for attacks initiated by unauthorized individuals exploiting compromised credentials.

In such scenarios, there’s a glaring oversight as these attacks can cause substantial damage yet may go unnoticed due to the cyber kill chain’s limited detection capability.

#3. Lacks Flexibility

The cyber kill chain framework, mainly focused on malware and payload-based attacks, lacks flexibility.

The linear model of the cyber kill chain framework doesn’t match the dynamic nature of modern threats, making it less effective.

Additionally, it struggles to adapt to new attack techniques and may overlook crucial post-breach activities, suggesting a need for more adaptive cybersecurity approaches.

#4. Focuses on Perimeter Security Only

The Cyber Kill Chain model is often criticized for its focus on perimeter security and malware prevention, which becomes a concern as organizations move from traditional on-premises networks to cloud-based solutions.

Additionally, the rise of remote work, personal devices, IoT technology, and advanced applications like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) have expanded the attack surface for many enterprises.

This expansion means cybercriminals have more access points to exploit, making it challenging for companies to secure every endpoint, showcasing the model’s limitations in today’s evolving threat landscape.

Alternatives to Cyber Kill Chain Model

Here are some alternatives to the cyber kill chain model you can explore to pick one of the best cybersecurity frameworks for your company.

#1. MITRE ATT&CK Framework

The MITRE ATT&CK framework outlines tactics, techniques, and procedures attackers use. Think of it as a playbook for understanding cyber threats. The Cyber Kill Chain focuses only on attack stages, while ATT&CK gives a detailed view. It even shows what attackers do after they get in, making it more comprehensive.

Security experts often prefer MITRE ATT&CK for its depth. It’s useful for both attacking and defending.

#2. NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework offers guidelines for organizations to manage and mitigate cybersecurity risks. It emphasizes a proactive approach. In contrast, the Cyber Kill Chain focuses on understanding attacker actions during a breach.

The framework outlines five core functions: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. These steps help organizations understand and manage their cybersecurity risks.

The NIST framework’s broader scope helps in enhancing overall cybersecurity posture, while the Cyber Kill Chain mainly aids in analyzing and interrupting attack sequences.

By addressing security holistically, the NIST framework often proves more effective in fostering resilience and continuous improvement.

Conclusion

The cyber kill chain, when launched, was a good cybersecurity framework to identify and mitigate threats. But now, cyberattacks have become trickier due to the use of the cloud, IoTs, and other collaborative technologies. What’s worse, hackers are increasingly perpetrating web-based attacks like SQL injections.

So, a modern security framework like MITRE ATT&CK or NIST will offer better protection in today’s ever-changing threat landscape.

Also, you should regularly use cyber attack simulation tools to asses your network security.

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  • Sandeep Babu
    Author
    Sandeep Babu has an MA in English literature from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has been writing in the cybersecurity domain since 2019. He covers cybersecurity for Geekflare, Make Use Of (MUO), and Small Business Trends.
  • Narendra Mohan Mittal
    Editor

    Narendra Mohan Mittal is a versatile and experienced digital branding strategist and content editor with over 12 years of experience. He is a Gold Medalist in M-Tech and B-Tech in Computer Science & Engineering.


    Currently,…

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