ATLAS: A Sequence-based Learning Approach for Attack Investigation


Abdulellah Alsaheel and Yuhong Nan, Purdue University; Shiqing Ma, Rutgers University; Le Yu, Gregory Walkup, Z. Berkay Celik, Xiangyu Zhang, and Dongyan Xu, Purdue University


Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) involve multiple attack steps over a long period, and their investigation requires analysis of myriad logs to identify their attack steps, which are a set of activities undertaken to run an APT attack. However, on a daily basis in an enterprise, intrusion detection systems generate many threat alerts of suspicious events (attack symptoms). Cyber analysts must investigate such events to determine whether an event is a part of an attack. With many alerts to investigate, cyber analysts often end up with alert fatigue, causing them to ignore a large number of alerts and miss true attack events. In this paper, we present ATLAS, a framework that constructs an end-to-end attack story from off-the-shelf audit logs. Our key observation is that different attacks may share similar abstract attack strategies, regardless of the vulnerabilities exploited and payloads executed. ATLAS leverages a novel combination of causality analysis, natural language processing, and machine learning techniques to build a sequence-based model, which establishes key patterns of attack and non-attack behaviors from a causal graph. At inference time, given a threat alert event, an attack symptom node in a causal graph is identified. ATLAS then constructs a set of candidate sequences associated with the symptom node, uses the sequence-based model to identify nodes in a sequence that contribute to the attack, and unifies the identified attack nodes to construct an attack story. We evaluated ATLAS with ten real-world APT attacks executed in a realistic virtual environment. ATLAS recovers attack steps and construct attack stories with an average of 91.06% precision, 97.29% recall, and 93.76% F1-score. Through this effort, we provide security investigators with a new means of identifying the attack events that make up the attack story.

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@inproceedings {263852,
author = {Abdulellah Alsaheel and Yuhong Nan and Shiqing Ma and Le Yu and Gregory Walkup and Z. Berkay Celik and Xiangyu Zhang and Dongyan Xu},
title = {{ATLAS}: A Sequence-based Learning Approach for Attack Investigation},
booktitle = {30th {USENIX} Security Symposium ({USENIX} Security 21)},
year = {2021},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},
month = aug,