What is Moving Target Defense in Cybersecurity?

15 March 2023 | by Xavier Bellekens

moving target defense

Moving Target Defense

Moving Target Defense (MTD) is a dynamic cybersecurity strategy that aims to proactively protect computer systems, networks, and data by constantly changing their attack surface.

By employing techniques such as randomization, diversification, and adaptation, MTD confounds attackers by making it difficult for them to gain a foothold and exploit system vulnerabilities.

This approach is in stark contrast to the traditional, static nature of security measures that rely on fixed configurations and predictable patterns.

MTD disrupts the asymmetric advantage that attackers often hold, as it forces them to deal with a constantly evolving and compromised target, increasing the complexity and cost of an attack, and ultimately enhancing the overall security of the operating system and the defended system.

Automated Moving Target Defense

Automated Moving Target Defense (AMTD) is an advanced form of Moving Target Defense (MTD) that leverages automation to dynamically and intelligently modify the attack surface of computer systems, networks, and data.

By incorporating machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other automated decision-making techniques, AMTD can rapidly adapt and reconfigure the target environment in real-time, without human intervention.

This makes it even more challenging for attackers to predict or exploit vulnerabilities, as the system continuously evolves and adapts to potential threats.

By automating key part of the MTD process, organizations can achieve a higher level of cybersecurity resilience, with reduced operational overhead, low cost, and improved response times to emerging threats (mean time to detect).

How can MTD strategies and AMTD tactics help?

MTD helps mitigate probing and efforts from adversaries in several ways:

  1. Increased unpredictability: By constantly changing the attack surface through automated processes, MTD makes it difficult for adversaries to predict the system’s configuration or behavior. This unpredictability hinders an attacker’s ability to gather information about the system through probing, as the gathered information may become obsolete quickly.
  2. Disrupting attack planning: MTD complicates the attack planning process for adversaries, as the dynamic nature of the defense makes it challenging to identify and exploit vulnerabilities. Attackers have to deal with a constantly evolving target, which increases the complexity and time required to execute a successful attack.
  3. Faster response times: The automation in MTD allows for real-time adaptation and reconfiguration of the target environment, making it more difficult for adversaries to establish a foothold in the system. This rapid response capability can help identify and mitigate probing attempts before they escalate into full-scale attacks.
  4. Resource exhaustion: MTD forces adversaries to invest more time, effort, and resources in reconnaissance, as the changing attack surface requires continuous monitoring and adaptation. This increased resource expenditure can act as a deterrent for potential attackers, making the target system less appealing.
  5. Reducing dwell time: In the event that an attacker gains a foothold within the system, the continuous changes in the attack surface may disrupt the attacker’s operations, forcing them to constantly adapt and potentially exposing their presence. By reducing the dwell time of an adversary, MTD can minimize the damage caused by a breach.

Where can Moving Target Defense be used?

MTD strategy and AMTD can be utilized across various domains of computing and networking to enhance security and resilience against various cyber security threats. Some common areas of application include:

  1. Network Infrastructure: MTD and AMTD can be employed to dynamically change network configurations, such as IP addresses, routing tables, and DNS mappings. This makes it difficult for attackers to perform network reconnaissance and maintain a stable connection to their target. Furthermore, changing network attributes, network paths and via network randomization is key.
  2. Cloud Computing: In cloud environments, MTD strategy and AMTD can be used to periodically alter virtual machine configurations, container orchestrations, and storage setups. This can help protect cloud-based assets from targeted attacks and reduce the risk of unauthorized access.
  3. Web Applications: MTD and AMTD can be applied to web applications by changing their exposed interfaces, URLs, or even the underlying code. This can help prevent attackers from exploiting known vulnerabilities or launching successful attacks against the application.
  4. Endpoint Security: MTD and AMTD can be integrated into endpoint security solutions to provide dynamic protection for devices such as computers, mobile phones, and IoT devices. This can include varying the software configurations, encryption schemes, and access controls on these devices.
  5. Data Protection: Data can be protected using MTD and AMTD strategies by dynamically changing encryption keys, storage locations, or access controls. This can make it more difficult for attackers to exfiltrate, decrypt, or tamper with sensitive data.
  6. Identity and Access Management: MTD and AMTD can be applied to identity and access management systems to enhance security. This may involve periodically changing user credentials, access policies, and authentication mechanisms, making it harder for attackers to compromise accounts or gain unauthorized access to resources.
  7. Software-Defined Networking (SDN): MTD and AMTD can be integrated into SDN environments, where network configurations can be dynamically changed through software. This enables rapid adaptation to threats and increased network security.
  8. Critical Infrastructure: MTD and AMTD can be used to secure critical infrastructure systems, such as power grids, water treatment facilities, and transportation networks, by making it difficult for adversaries to maintain a foothold and cause disruption.
  9. Memory: Moving target defenses can help with address space layout randomization increasing the attack efforts, and making probing and attack efforts increase tremendously for operating system vulnerabilities.

By implementing MTD and AMTD strategies in these various domains, organizations can significantly improve their overall cybersecurity posture and reduce the likelihood of successful cyberattacks.

How Does Moving Target Defense Work?

MTD introduces unpredictability, uncertainty and complexity to the system, disrupting the attacker’s ability to gain control of a foothold and maintain a stable connection with their target. The key principles of MTD are randomization, diversification, and adaptation. Here’s an overview of how MTD works in practice:

  1. Randomization: MTD uses randomization techniques to introduce uncertainty and variability into the system. For example, it may randomly change IP addresses, port numbers, or memory locations, making it difficult for attackers to predict the system’s configuration.
  2. Diversification: MTD employs diversification to create heterogeneous environments, reducing the chances of a single vulnerability being exploited across multiple systems. This can involve using different software versions, operating systems, or hardware components to minimize the potential impact of an attack.
  3. Adaptation: MTD continuously adapts and reconfigures the target environment in response to threats or changes in the system’s state. This dynamic behavior makes it challenging for attackers to maintain a persistent presence within the system and increases the time and effort required for them to execute a successful attack.
  4. Monitoring and Analytics: MTD relies on monitoring and analytics to detect anomalies and potential threats in real-time. By analyzing system behavior and network traffic, MTD can identify indicators of compromise and quickly adapt the system to counter the identified threats.
  5. Integration with existing security measures: MTD works alongside traditional security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and antivirus software, to create a more comprehensive and resilient cybersecurity strategy. By combining MTD with these established security measures, organizations can better protect their systems, networks, and data from evolving threats.

What are the phases involved in implementing MTD and AMTD?

Creating an Automated Moving Target Defense (AMTD) environment involves several phases, each focused on different aspects of the design, implementation, and management of the system. Here’s an outline and comprehensive overview of the typical phases involved in creating an AMTD environment:

  1. Assessment and planning: This phase involves a thorough evaluation of the organization’s current security posture, threat landscape, and available resources. The goal is to identify the specific needs and requirements for the AMTD implementation, set objectives, and determine the scope of the project.
  2. Design and architecture: In this phase, the overall architecture and design of the AMTD environment are developed. This includes selecting the appropriate MTD techniques (e.g., randomization, diversification, adaptation) and integrating them with automated decision-making technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and rule-based systems.
  3. Tool and technology selection: Select the appropriate tools, technologies, and platforms that will be used to implement the AMTD environment. This may involve choosing among commercial off-the-shelf products, open-source solutions, or custom-developed software and hardware components.
  4. Integration and deployment: In this phase, the AMTD environment is integrated into the existing IT infrastructure and security systems, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and endpoint protection solutions. The deployment process should be carefully planned and executed to ensure minimal disruption to existing services and operations.
  5. Testing and validation: Before fully deploying the AMTD environment, it is essential to test and validate its functionality, performance, and effectiveness. This may involve running simulations, conducting penetration tests, and analyzing the system’s ability to adapt and respond to different types of threats.
  6. Monitoring and management: Once the AMTD environment is operational, continuous monitoring and management are critical to ensure its ongoing effectiveness. This includes monitoring system performance, analyzing logs and alerts for potential threats, and adapting the AMTD environment as needed to address new vulnerabilities or emerging attack techniques.
  7. Training and awareness: Educate and train IT staff and end-users about the AMTD environment and its associated security benefits. This may involve conducting training sessions, developing documentation, and promoting awareness of the new security measures in place.
  8. Continuous improvement: Regularly review and update the AMTD environment to keep up with evolving threats, technologies, and industry best practices. This may involve refining the automated decision-making algorithms, enhancing monitoring and analytics capabilities, or adopting new MTD techniques.

MTD, AMTD and Cyber Deception

MTD and AMTD can be effectively supplemented by cyber deception to create a more robust and proactive cybersecurity strategy. Cyber deception is the practice of deploying decoys, traps, and false information to mislead and confuse attackers and threat hunt, making it harder for them to achieve their objectives. Here’s how MTD, AMTD, and cyber deception can work together as active defense systems:

  1. Enhanced unpredictability: By combining MTD solutions and AMTD strategies with cyber deception, a target system can present an even more unpredictable and complex attack surface and create uncertainty in the mind of an adversary. While MTD and AMTD continuously change the system’s configuration, cyber deception adds deceptive elements, such as honeypots and fake data, further complicating an attacker’s efforts to gain an accurate understanding of the environment.
  2. Early threat detection: Cyber deception techniques, can help identify probing and reconnaissance attempts by adversaries. When integrated with MTD and AMTD, these techniques can provide early warning of potential threats, enabling the system to adapt and reconfigure more effectively to counter the identified threats.
  3. Increased attacker confusion: By integrating deceptive elements into the constantly changing attack surface created by MTD and AMTD, an organization can increase the confusion experienced by an attacker. The combination of changing configurations and false information can hinder an attacker’s ability to discern real assets from deceptive ones, thereby slowing down their progress and increasing the chances of detection.
  4. Resource exhaustion: Combining MTD, AMTD, and cyber deception forces attackers to expend even more resources on reconnaissance and attack planning. The attacker has to deal not only with the constantly changing attack surface but also with deceptive elements that may lead them down false paths or into traps.
  5. Attack attribution: Cyber deception techniques can help gather valuable information about an attacker’s methods, tools, and intentions. When combined with MTD and AMTD, this intelligence can be used to further refine the defense strategy, making it more effective at identifying and countering specific threats.

In summary, MTD and AMTD, when supplemented by cyber deception, create a multi-layered defense approach that increases the complexity, cost, and time required for an attacker to succeed.

Is Cyber Deception a Moving target defense Strategy?

Cyber deception and Moving Target Defense (MTD) are related concepts with some overlap, but they differ in their primary focus and approach. While both techniques aim to enhance cybersecurity by increasing the complexity and unpredictability of various layers of the attack surface, they do so using different methods.

Moving Target Defense focuses on dynamically changing the attack surface and control of a system, network, or data by altering configurations, diversifying software and hardware components, and adapting to potential threats. MTD aims to create an unpredictable environment that makes it difficult for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities or maintain a stable connection to their target.

Cyber deception, on the other hand, focuses on misleading and confusing attackers by deploying decoys, traps, and false information. This technique aims to create an illusionary environment that distracts and misleads attackers, leading them down false paths, wasting their resources, and increasing their chances of being detected.

While cyber deception can be considered a form of MTD in a broader sense, as it contributes to the dynamic and changing nature of the attack surface, it is generally recognized as a distinct strategy with its unique set of tactics and goals.

That said, the two approaches can be combined effectively to create a more comprehensive and resilient cybersecurity strategy, with cyber deception complementing and enhancing the benefits of MTD.

Should I implement Cyber Deception before Moving Target Defense?

The answer is of course, it depends!

Overall, MTD strategies are often more complicated to implement than Cyber Deception.

However, deciding which technique to implement first—Moving Target Defense (MTD) or cyber deception—depends on your organization’s specific information security, challenges, needs, resources, and current cybersecurity posture. Here are some factors to consider when making your decision:

  1. Existing security infrastructure: Assess your current security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and antivirus software. If you have a solid foundation in place, you may want to consider adding cyber deception techniques to complement these measures and further confuse potential attackers.
  2. Resource availability: MTD generally requires more resources, as it involves continuous changes to the system and network configurations. Cyber deception can be less resource-intensive, as it focuses on deploying decoys and false information. Consider your organization’s available resources, including budget, personnel, and expertise, when deciding which technique to implement first.
  3. Technical expertise: MTD implementation may require more specialized knowledge and expertise, as it involves modifying system configurations and managing diverse software and hardware components. Cyber deception can be simpler to implement, especially when using off-the-shelf deception tools. Evaluate your organization’s technical expertise and capacity for managing these techniques.
  4. Threat landscape: Analyze the threats your organization faces and the nature of the adversaries targeting your systems. If you are dealing with advanced persistent threats or highly sophisticated attackers, you may want to consider implementing MTD first to increase the complexity and unpredictability of your systems. If your primary concern is detecting and identifying attackers, cyber deception may be a better starting point.
  5. Risk tolerance: Consider your organization’s risk tolerance and appetite for innovation. MTD may be more suitable for organizations willing to embrace change and invest in proactive security measures. Cyber deception can be a more conservative approach that focuses on detecting and responding to attacks rather than preventing them proactively.

Ultimately, the decision to implement MTD or cyber deception first should be based on a thorough assessment of your organization’s specific needs, resources, and objectives. It is also important to note that both techniques are complementary, and implementing one does not preclude the use of the other.


If you are currently looking for an MTD or cyber deception solution, come and have a chat we’d be happy to show you how we can integrate with your existing architecture and make adversaries work for you.


Gartner report

15 March 2023 | by Xavier Bellekens

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