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9 Stages of Ransomware & How AI Responds

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22
Dec 2021
22
Dec 2021
Discover the 9 stages of ransomware attacks and how AI responds at each stage. Learn how you can protect your business from cyber threats.

Ransomware gets its name by commandeering and holding assets ransom, extorting their owner for money in exchange for discretion and full cooperation in returning exfiltrated data and providing decryption keys to allow business to resume.

Average ransom demands are skyrocketing, rising to $5.3 million in 2021, a 518% increase from the previous year. But the cost of recovering from a ransomware attack typically far exceeds the ransom payments: the average downtime after a ransomware attack is 21 days; and 66% of ransomware victims report a significant loss of revenue following a successful attack.

In this series, we break down this huge topic step by step. Ransomware is a multi-stage problem, requiring a multi-stage solution that autonomously and effectively contains the attack at any stage. Read on to discover how Self-Learning AI and Autonomous Response stops ransomware in its tracks.

1. Initial intrusion (email)

Initial entry – the first stage of a ransomware attack – can be achieved through RDP brute-forcing (exposed Internet service), malicious websites and drive-by downloads, an insider threat with company credentials, system and software vulnerabilities, or any number of other attack vectors.

But the most common initial attack vector is email. An organization’s biggest security weakness is often their people – and attackers are good at finding ways of exploiting this. Well-researched, targeted, legitimate-looking emails are aimed at employees attempting to solicit a reaction: a click of a link, an opening of an attachment, or persuading them to divulge credentials or other sensitive information.

Gateways: Stops what has been seen before

Most conventional email tools rely on past indicators of attack to try and spot the next threat. If an email comes in from a blocklisted IP address or email domain, and uses known malware that has previously been seen in the wild, the attack may be blocked.

But the reality is, attackers know the majority of defenses take this historical approach, and so constantly update their attack infrastructure to bypass these tools. By buying new domains for a few pennies each, or creating bespoke malware with just small adaptions to the code, they can outpace and outsmart the legacy approach taken by a typical email gateway.

Real-world example: Supply chain phishing attack

By contrast, Darktrace’s evolving understanding of ‘normal’ for every email user in the organization enables it to detect subtle deviations that point to a threat – even if the sender or any malicious contents of the email are unknown to threat intelligence. This is what enabled the technology to stop an attack that recently targeted McLaren Racing, with emails sent to a dozen employees in the organization each containing a malicious link. This possible precursor to ransomware bypassed conventional email tools – largely because it was sent from a known supplier – however Darktrace recognized the account hijack and held the email back.

Figure 1: A snapshot of Darktrace’s Threat Visualizer surfacing the malicious email

Read the full case study

2. Initial intrusion (server-side)

With organizations rapidly expanding their Internet-facing perimeter, this increased attack surface has paved the way for a surge in brute-force and server-side attacks.

A number of vulnerabilities against such Internet-facing servers and systems have been disclosed this year, and for attackers, targeting and exploiting public-facing infrastructure is easier than ever – scanning the Internet for vulnerable systems is made simple with tools like Shodan or MassScan.

Attackers may also achieve initial intrusion via RDP brute-forcing or stolen credentials, with attackers often reusing legitimate credentials from previous data dumps. This has much higher precision and is less noisy than a classic brute-force attack.

A lot of ransomware attacks use RDP as an entry vector. This is part of a wider trend of ‘Living off the Land’: using legitimate off-the-shelf tools (abusing RDP, SMB1 protocol, or various command line tools WMI or Powershell) to blur detection and attribution by blending in with typical administrator activity. Ensuring that backups are isolated, configurations are hardened, and systems are patched is not enough – real-time detection of every anomalous action is needed.

Antivirus, firewalls and SIEMs

In cases of malware downloads, endpoint antivirus will detect these if, and only if, the malware has been seen and fingerprinted before. Firewalls typically require configuration on a per-organization basis, and often need to be modified based on the needs of the business. If the attack hits the firewall where a rule or signature does not match it, again, it will bypass the firewall.

SIEM and SOAR tools also look for known malware being downloaded, leverage pre-programmed rules and use pre-programmed responses. While these tools do look for patterns, these patterns are defined in advance, and this approach relies on a new attack to have sufficiently similar traits to attacks that have been seen before.

Real-world example: Dharma ransomware

Darktrace detected a targeted Dharma ransomware attack against a UK organization exploiting an open RDP connection through Internet-facing servers. The RDP server began receiving a large number of incoming connections from rare IP addresses on the Internet. It is highly likely that the RDP credential used in this attack had been compromised at a previous stage – either via common brute-force methods, credential stuffing attacks, or phishing. Indeed, a technique growing in popularity is to buy RDP credentials on marketplaces and skip to initial access.

Figure 2: The model breaches that fired over the course of this attack, including anomalous RDP activity

Unfortunately, in this case, without Autonomous Response installed, the Dharma ransomware attack continued until its final stages, where the security team were forced into the heavy-handed and disruptive action of pulling the plug on the RDP server midway through encryption.

Read the full case study

3. Establish foothold and C2

Whether through a successful phish, a brute-force attack, or some other method, the attacker is in. Now, they make contact with the breached device(s) and establish a foothold.

This stage allows attackers to control subsequent stages of the attack remotely. During these command and control (C2) communications, further malware may also pass from the attacker to the devices. This helps them to establish an even greater foothold within the organization and readies them for lateral movement.

Attackers can adapt malware functionality with an assortment of ready-made plug-ins, allowing them to lie low inside the business undetected. More modern and sophisticated ransomware is able to adapt by itself to the surrounding environment, and operate autonomously, blending in to regular activity even when cut off from its command and control server. These ‘self-sufficient’ ransomware strains pose a big problem for traditional defenses reliant on stopping threats solely on the grounds of its malicious external connections.

Viewing connections in isolation vs understanding the business

Conventional security tools like IDS and firewalls tend to look at connections in isolation rather than in the context of previous and potentially relevant connections, making command and control very difficult to spot.

IDS and firewalls may block ‘known-bad’ domains or use some geo-blocking, but this is where an attacker would likely leverage new infrastructure.

These tools also don’t tend to analyze for things like the periodicity, such as whether a connection is beaconing at a regular or irregular interval, or the age and rarity of the domain in the context of the environment.

With Darktrace’s evolving understanding of the digital enterprise, suspicious C2 connections and the downloads which follow them are spotted, even when conducted using regular programs or methods. The AI technology correlates multiple subtle signs of threat – a small subset of which includes anomalous connections to young and/or unusual endpoints, anomalous file downloads, incoming remote desktop, and unusual data uploads and downloads.

Once they are detected as a threat, Darktrace RESPOND halts these connections and downloads, while allowing normal business activity to continue.

Real-world example: WastedLocker attack

When a WastedLocker ransomware attack hit a US agricultural organization, Darktrace immediately detected the initial unusual SSL C2 activity (based on a combination of destination rarity, JA3 unusualness and frequency analysis). Antigena (on this occasion configured in passive mode, and therefore not granted permission to take autonomous action) suggested instantly blocking the C2 traffic on port 443 and parallel internal scanning on port 135.

Figure 3: The Threat Visualizer reveals the action Antigena would have taken

When beaconing was later observed to bywce.payment.refinedwebs[.]com, this time over HTTP to /updateSoftwareVersion, Antigena escalated its response by blocking the further C2 channels.

Figure 4: Antigena escalates its response

Read the full case study

4. Lateral movement

Once an attacker has established a foothold within an organization, they begin to increase their knowledge of the wider digital estate and their presence within it. This is how they will find and access the files which they will ultimately attempt to exfiltrate and encrypt. It begins reconnaissance: scanning the network; building up a picture of its component devices; identifying the location of the most valuable assets.

Then the attacker begins moving laterally. They infect more devices and look to escalate their privileges – for instance, by obtaining admin credentials – thereby increasing their control over the environment. Once they have obtained authority and presence within the digital estate, they can progress to the final stages of the attack.

Modern ransomware has built-in functions that allow it to search automatically for stored passwords and spread through the network. More sophisticated strains are designed to build themselves differently in different environments, so the signature is constantly changing and it’s harder to detect.

Legacy tools: A blunt response to known threats

Because they rely upon static rules and signatures, legacy solutions struggle to prevent lateral movement and privilege escalation without also impeding essential business operations. Whilst in theory, an organization leveraging firewalls and NAC internally with proper network segmentation and a perfect configuration could prevent cross-network lateral movement, maintaining a perfect balance between protective and disruptive controls is near impossible.

Some organizations rely on Intrusion Prevent Systems (IPS) to deny network traffic when known threats are detected in packets, but as with previous stages, novel malware will evade detection, and this requires the database to be constantly updated. These solutions also sit at the ingress/egress points, limiting their network visibility. An Intrusion Detection System (IDS) may sit out-of-line, but doesn’t have response capabilities.

A self-learning approach

Darktrace’s AI learns ‘self’ for the organization, enabling it to detect suspicious activity indicative of lateral movement, regardless of whether the attacker uses new infrastructure or ‘lives off the land’. Potential unusual activity that Darktrace detects includes unusual scanning activity, unusual SMB, RDP, and SSH activity. Other models that fire at this stage include:

  • Suspicious Activity on High-Risk Device
  • Numeric EXE in SMB Write
  • New or Uncommon Service Control

Autonomous Response then takes targeted action to stop the threat at this stage, blocking anomalous connections, enforcing the infected device’s ‘pattern of life’, or enforcing the group ‘pattern of life’ – automatically clustering devices into peer groups and preventing a device from doing anything its peer group hasn’t done.

Where malicious behavior persists, and only if necessary, Darktrace will quarantine an infected device.

Real-world example: Unusual chain of RDP connections

At an organization in Singapore, one compromised server led to the creation of a botnet, which began moving laterally, predominantly by establishing chains of unusual RDP connections. The server then started making external SMB and RPC connections to rare endpoints on the Internet, in an attempt to find further vulnerable hosts.

Other lateral movement activities detected by Darktrace included the repeated failing attempts to access multiple internal devices over the SMB file-sharing protocol with a range of different usernames, implying brute-force network access attempts.

Figure 5: Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst reveals suspicious TCP scanning followed by a suspicious chain of administrative RDP connections

Read the full case study

5. Data exfiltration

In the past, ransomware was simply about encrypting an operating system and network files.

In a modern attack, as organizations insure against malicious encryption by becoming increasingly diligent with data backups, threat actors have moved towards ‘double extortion’, where they exfiltrate key data and destroy backups before the encryption takes place. Exfiltrated data is used to blackmail organizations, with attackers threatening to publish sensitive information online or sell it on to the organization’s competitors if they are not paid.

Modern ransomware variants also look for cloud file storage repositories such as Box, Dropbox, and others.

Many of these incidents aren’t public, because if IP is stolen, organizations are not always legally required to disclose it. However, in the case of customer data, organizations are obligated by law to disclose the incident and face the additional burden of compliance files – and we’ve seen these mount in recent years (Marriot, $23.8 million; British Airways, $26 million; Equifax, $575 million). There’s also the reputational blow associated with having to inform customers that a data breach has occurred.

Legacy tools: The same old story

For those that have been following, the narrative by now will sound familiar: to stop a ransomware attack at this stage, most defenses rely on either pre-programmed definitions of 'bad' or have rules constructed to combat different scenarios put organizations in a risky, never-ending game of cat and mouse.

A firewall and proxy might block connections based on pre-programmed policies based on specific endpoints or data volumes, but it’s likely an attacker will ‘live off the land’ and utilize a service that is generally allowed by the business.

The effectiveness of these tools will vary according to data volumes: they might be effective for ‘smash and grab’ attacks using known malware, and without employing any defense evasion techniques, but are unlikely to spot ‘low and slow’ exfiltration and novel or sophisticated strains.

On the other hand, because by nature it involves a break from expected behavior, even less conspicuous, low and slow data exfiltration is detected by Darktrace and stopped with Darktrace RESPOND. No confidential files are lost, and attackers are unable to extort a ransom payment through blackmail.

Real-world example: Unusual chain of RDP connections

It becomes more difficult to find examples of Darktrace RESPOND stopping ransomware at these later stages, as the threat is usually contained before it gets this far. This is the double-edged sword of effective security – early containment makes for bad storytelling! However, we can see the effects of a double extortion ransomware attack on an energy company in Canada. The organization had the Enterprise Immune System but no Antigena, and without anyone actively monitoring Darktrace’s AI detections, the attack was allowed to unfold.

The attacker managed to connect to an internal file server and download 1.95TB of data. The device was also seen downloading Rclone software – an open-source tool, which was likely applied to sync data automatically to the legitimate file storage service pCloud. Following the completion of the data exfiltration, the device ‘serverps’ finally began encrypting files on 12 devices with the extension *.06d79000. As with the majority of ransomware incidents, the encryption happened outside of office hours – overnight in local time – to minimize the chance of the security team responding quickly.

Read the full details of the attack

It should be noted that the exact order of the stages 3–5 above is not set in stone, and varies according to attack. Sometimes data is exfiltrated and then there is further lateral movement, and additional C2 beaconing. This entire period is known as the ‘dwell time’. Sometimes it takes place over only a few days, other times attackers may persist for months, slowly gathering more intel and exfiltrating data in a ‘low and slow’ fashion so as to avoid detection from rule-based tools that are configured to flag any single data transfer over a certain threshold. Only through a holistic understanding of malicious activity over time can a technology spot this level of activity and allow the security team to remove the threat before it reaches the latter and most damaging stages of ransomware.

6. Data encryption

Using either symmetric encryption, asymmetric encryption, or a combination of the two, attackers attempt to render as much data unusable in the organization’s network as they can before the attack is detected.

As the attackers alone have access to the relevant decryption keys, they are now in total control of what happens to the organization’s data.

Pre-programmed response and disruption

There are many families of tools that claim to stop encryption in this manner, but each contain blind spots which enable a sophisticated attacker to evade detection at this crucial stage. Where they do take action, it is often highly disruptive, causing major shutdowns and preventing a business from continuing its usual operations.

Internal firewalls prevent clients from accessing servers, so once an attacker has penetrated to servers using any of the techniques outlined above, they have complete freedom to act as they want.

Similarly, antivirus tools look only for known malware. If the malware has not been detected until this point, it is highly unlikely the antivirus will act here.

Stopping encryption autonomously

Even if familiar tools and methods are used to conduct it, Autonomous Response can enforce the normal ‘pattern of life’ for devices attempting encryption, without using static rules or signatures. This action can be taken independently or via integrations with native security controls, maximizing the return on other security investments. With a targeted Autonomous Response, normal business operations can continue while encryption is prevented.

7. Ransom note

It is important to note that in the stages before encryption, this ransomware attack is not yet “ransomware”. Only at this stage does it gets its name.

A ransom note is deployed. The attackers request payment in return for a decryption key and threaten the release of sensitive exfiltrated data. The organization must decide whether to pay the ransom or lose their data, possibly to their competition or the public. The average demand made by ransomware threat actors rose in 2021 to $5.3 million, with meat processing company JBS paying out $11 million and DarkSide receiving over $90 million in Bitcoin payments following the Colonial Pipeline incident.

All of the stages up until this point represent a typical, traditional ransomware attack. But ransomware is shifting from indiscriminate encryption of devices to attackers targeting business disruption in general, using multiple techniques to hold their victims to ransom. Additional methods of extortion include not only data exfiltration, but corporate domain hijack, deletion or encryption of backups, attacks against systems close to industrial control systems, targeting company VIPs… the list goes on.

Sometimes, attackers will just skip straight from stage 2 to 6 and jump straight to extortion. Darktrace recently stopped an email attack which showed an attacker bypassing the hard work and attempting to jump straight to extortion in an email. The attacker claimed to have compromised the organization’s sensitive data, requesting payment in bitcoin for its same return. Whether or not the claims were true, this attack shows that encryption is not always necessary for extortion, and this type of harassment exists in multiple forms.

Figure 6: Darktrace holds back the offending email, protecting the recipient and organization from harm

As with the email example we explored in the first post of this series, Darktrace/Email was able to step in and stop this email where other email tools would have let it through, stopping this potentially costly extortion attempt.

Whether through encryption or some other kind of blackmail, the message is the same every time. Pay up, or else. At this stage, it’s too late to start thinking about any of the options described above that were available to the organization, that would have stopped the attack in its earliest stages. There is only one dilemma. “To pay or not to pay” – that is the question.

Often, people believe their payment troubles are over after the ransom payment stage, but unfortunately, it’s just beginning to scratch the surface…

8. Clean-up

Efforts are made to try to secure the vulnerabilities which allowed the attack to happen initially – the organization should be conscious that approximately 80% of ransomware victims will in fact be targeted again in the future.

Legacy tools largely fail to shed light on the vulnerabilities which allowed the initial breach. Like searching for a needle in an incomplete haystack, security teams will struggle to find useful information within the limited logs offered by firewalls and IDSs. Antivirus solutions may reveal some known malware but fail to spot novel attack vectors.

With Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst, organizations are given full visibility over every stage of the attack, across all coverage areas of their digital estate, taking the mystery out of ransomware attacks. They are also able to see the actions that would have been taken to halt the attack by Darktrace RESPOND.

9. Recovery

The organization begins attempts to return its digital environment to order. Even if it has paid for a decryption key, many files may remain encrypted or corrupted. Beyond the costs of the ransom payment, network shutdowns, business disruption, remediation efforts, and PR setbacks all incur hefty financial losses.

The victim organization may also suffer additional reputation costs, with 66% of victims reporting a significant loss of revenue following a ransomware attack, and 32% reporting losing C-level talent as a direct result from ransomware.

Conclusion

While the high-level stages described above are common in most ransomware attacks, the minute you start looking at the details, you realize every ransomware attack is different.

As many targeted ransomware attacks come through ransomware affiliates, the Tools, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) displayed during intrusions vary widely, even when the same ransomware malware is used. This means that even comparing two different ransomware attacks using the same ransomware family, you are likely to encounter completely different TTPs. This makes it impossible to predict what tomorrow’s ransomware will look like.

This is the nail in the coffin for traditional tooling which is based on historic attack data. The above examples demonstrate that Self-Learning technology and Autonomous Response is the only solution that stops ransomware at every stage, across email and network.

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Dan Fein
VP, Product

Based in New York, Dan joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s product suite. Dan has a particular focus on Darktrace/Email, ensuring that it is effectively deployed in complex digital environments, and works closely with the development, marketing, sales, and technical teams. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from New York University.

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Safeguarding Distribution Centers in the Digital Age

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12
Jun 2024

Challenges securing distribution centers

For large retail providers, e-commerce organizations, logistics & supply chain organizations, and other companies who rely on the distribution of goods to consumers cybersecurity efforts are often focused on an immense IT infrastructure. However, there's a critical, often overlooked segment of infrastructure that demands vigilant monitoring and robust protection: distribution centers.

Distribution centers play a critical role in the business operations of supply chains, logistics, and the retail industry. They serve as comprehensive logistics hubs, with many organizations operating multiple centers worldwide to meet consumer needs. Depending on their size and hours of operation, even just one hour of downtime at these centers can result in significant financial losses, ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.

Due to the time-sensitive nature and business criticality of distribution centers, there has been a rise in applying modern technologies now including AI applications to enhance efficiency within these facilities. Today’s distribution centers are increasingly connected to Enterprise IT networks, the cloud and the internet to manage every stage of the supply chain. Additionally, it is common for organizations to allow 3rd party access to the distribution center networks and data for reasons including allowing them to scale their operations effectively.

However, this influx of new technologies and interconnected systems across IT, OT and cloud introduces new risks on the cybersecurity front. Distribution center networks include industrial operational technologies ICS/OT, IoT technologies, enterprise network technology, and cloud systems working in coordination. The convergence of these technologies creates a greater chance that blind spots exist for security practitioners and this increasing presence of networked technology increases the attack surface and potential for vulnerability. Thus, having cybersecurity measures that cover IT, OT or Cloud alone is not enough to secure a complex and dynamic distribution center network infrastructure.  

The OT network encompasses various systems, devices, hardware, and software, such as:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
  • Warehouse Execution System (WES)
  • Warehouse Control System (WCS)
  • Warehouse Management System (WMS)
  • Energy Management Systems (EMS)
  • Building Management Systems (BMS)
  • Distribution Control Systems (DCS)
  • Enterprise IT devices
  • OT and IoT: Engineering workstations, ICS application and management servers, PLCs, HMI, access control, cameras, and printers
  • Cloud applications

Distribution centers: An expanding attack surface

As these distribution centers have become increasingly automated, connected, and technologically advanced, their attack surfaces have inherently increased. Distribution centers now have a vastly different potential for cyber risk which includes:  

  • More networked devices present
  • Increased routable connectivity within industrial systems
  • Externally exposed industrial control systems
  • Increased remote access
  • IT/OT enterprise to industrial convergence
  • Cloud connectivity
  • Contractors, vendors, and consultants on site or remoting in  

Given the variety of connected systems, distribution centers are more exposed to external threats than ever before. Simultaneously, distribution center’s business criticality has positioned them as interesting targets to cyber adversaries seeking to cause disruption with significant financial impact.

Increased connectivity requires a unified security approach

When assessing the unique distribution center attack surface, the variety of interconnected systems and devices requires a cybersecurity approach that can cover the diverse technology environment.  

From a monitoring and visibility perspective, siloed IT, OT or cloud security solutions cannot provide the comprehensive asset management, threat detection, risk management, and response and remediation capabilities across interconnected digital infrastructure that a solution natively covering IT, cloud, OT, and IoT can provide.  

The problem with using siloed cybersecurity solutions to cover a distribution center is the visibility gaps that are inherently created when using multiple solutions to try and cover the totality of the diverse infrastructure. What this means is that for cross domain and multi-stage attacks, depending on the initial access point and where the adversary plans on actioning their objectives, multiple stages of the attack may not be detected or correlated if they security solutions lack visibility into OT, IT, IoT and cloud.

Comprehensive security under one solution

Darktrace leverages Self-Learning AI, which takes a new approach to cybersecurity. Instead of relying on rules and signatures, this AI trains on the specific business to learn a ‘pattern of life’ that models normal activity for every device, user, and connection. It can be applied anywhere an organization has data, and so can natively cover IT, OT, IoT, and cloud.  

With these models, Darktrace /OT provides improved visibility, threat detection and response, and risk management for proactive hardening recommendations.  

Visibility: Darktrace is the only OT security solution that natively covers IT, IoT and OT in unison. AI augmented workflows ensure OT cybersecurity analysts and operation engineers can manage IT and OT environments, leveraging a live asset inventory and tailored dashboards to optimize security workflows and minimize operator workload.

Threat detection, investigation, and response: The AI facilitates anomaly detection capable of detecting known, unknown, and insider threats and precise response for OT environments that contains threats at their earliest stages before they can jeopardize control systems. Darktrace immediately understands, identifies, and investigates all anomalous activity in OT networks, whether human or machine driven and uses Explainable AI to generate investigation reports via Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst.

Proactive risk identification: Risk management capabilities like attack path modeling can prioritize remediation and mitigation that will most effectively reduce derived risk scores. Rather than relying on knowledge of past attacks and CVE lists and scores, Darktrace AI learns what is ‘normal’ for its environment, discovering previously unknown threats and risks by detecting subtle shifts in behavior and connectivity. Through the application of Darktrace AI for OT environments, security teams can investigate novel attacks, discover blind spots, get live-time visibility across all their physical and digital assets, and reduce the time to detect, respond to, and triage security events.

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About the author
Daniel Simonds
Director of Operational Technology

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Inside the SOC

Medusa Ransomware: Looking Cyber Threats in the Eye with Darktrace

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10
Jun 2024

What is Living off the Land attack?

In the face of increasingly vigilant security teams and adept defense tools, attackers are continually looking for new ways to circumvent network security and gain access to their target environments. One common tactic is the leveraging of readily available utilities and services within a target organization’s environment in order to move through the kill chain; a popular method known as living off the land (LotL). Rather than having to leverage known malicious tools or write their own malware, attackers are able to easily exploit the existing infrastructure of their targets.

The Medusa ransomware group in particular are known to extensively employ LotL tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in their attacks, as one Darktrace customer in the US discovered in early 2024.

What is Medusa Ransomware?

Medusa ransomware (not to be confused with MedusaLocker) was first observed in the wild towards the end of 2022 and has been a popular ransomware strain amongst threat actors since 2023 [1]. Medusa functions as a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) platform, providing would-be attackers, also know as affiliates, with malicious software and infrastructure required to carry out disruptive ransomware attacks. The ransomware is known to target organizations across many different industries and countries around the world, including healthcare, education, manufacturing and retail, with a particular focus on the US [2].

How does medusa ransomware work?

Medusa affiliates are known to employ a number of TTPs to propagate their malware, most prodominantly gaining initial access by exploiting vulnerable internet-facing assets and targeting valid local and domain accounts that are used for system administration.

The ransomware is typically delivered via phishing and spear phishing campaigns containing malicious attachments [3] [4], but it has also been observed using initial access brokers to access target networks [5]. In terms of the LotL strategies employed in Medusa compromises, affiliates are often observed leveraging legitimate services like the ConnectWise remote monitoring and management (RMM) software and PDQ Deploy, in order to evade the detection of security teams who may be unable to distinguish the activity from normal or expected network traffic [2].

According to researchers, Medusa has a public Telegram channel that is used by threat actors to post any data that may have been stolen, likely in an attempt to extort organizations and demand payment [2].  

Darktrace’s Coverage of Medusa Ransomware

Established Foothold and C2 activity

In March 2024, Darktrace /NETWORK identified over 80 devices, including an internet facing domain controller, on a customer network performing an unusual number of activities that were indicative of an emerging ransomware attack. The suspicious behavior started when devices were observed making HTTP connections to the two unusual endpoints, “wizarr.manate[.]ch” and “go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de”, with the PowerShell and JWrapperDownloader user agents.

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ launched an autonomous investigation into the connections and was able to connect the seemingly separate events into one wider incident spanning multiple different devices. This allowed the customer to visualize the activity in chronological order and gain a better understanding of the scope of the attack.

At this point, given the nature and rarity of the observed activity, Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response would have been expected to take autonomous action against affected devices, blocking them from making external connections to suspicious locations. However, autonomous response was not configured to take autonomous action at the time of the attack, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually approved by the customer’s security team.

Internal Reconnaissance

Following these extensive HTTP connections, between March 1 and 7, Darktrace detected two devices making internal connection attempts to other devices, suggesting network scanning activity. Furthermore, Darktrace identified one of the devices making a connection with the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of the Nmap vulnerability scanning tool. While Nmap is primarily used legitimately by security teams to perform security audits and discover vulnerabilities that require addressing, it can also be leveraged by attackers who seek to exploit this information.

Darktrace / NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.
Figure 1: Darktrace /NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.

Darktrace observed actors using multiple credentials, including “svc-ndscans”, which was also seen alongside DCE-RPC activity that took place on March 1. Affected devices were also observed making ExecQuery and ExecMethod requests for IWbemServices. ExecQuery is commonly utilized to execute WMI Query Language (WQL) queries that allow the retrieval of information from WI, including system information or hardware details, while ExecMethod can be used by attackers to gather detailed information about a targeted system and its running processes, as well as a tool for lateral movement.

Lateral Movement

A few hours after the first observed scanning activity on March 1, Darktrace identified a chain of administrative connections between multiple devices, including the aforementioned internet-facing server.

Cyber AI Analyst was able to connect these administrative connections and separate them into three distinct ‘hops’, i.e. the number of administrative connections made from device A to device B, including any devices leveraged in between. The AI Analyst investigation was also able to link the previously detailed scanning activity to these administrative connections, identifying that the same device was involved in both cases.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.

On March 7, the internet exposed server was observed transferring suspicious files over SMB to multiple internal devices. This activity was identified as unusual by Darktrace compared to the device's normal SMB activity, with an unusual number of executable (.exe) and srvsvc files transferred targeting the ADMIN$ and IPC$ shares.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Figure 3: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.
Figure 4: Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.

The threat actor was also seen writing SQLite3*.dll files over SMB using a another credential this time. These files likely contained the malicious payload that resulted in the customer’s files being encrypted with the extension “.s3db”.

Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.

Encryption of Files

Finally, Darktrace observed the malicious actor beginning to encrypt and delete files on the customer’s environment. More specifically, the actor was observed using credentials previously seen on the network to encrypt files with the aforementioned “.s3db” extension.

Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.
Figure 6: Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.


After that, Darktrace observed the attacker encrypting  files and appending them with the extension “.MEDUSA” while also dropping a ransom note with the file name “!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt”

Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Figure 7: Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.
Figure 8: Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.

At the same time as these events, Darktrace observed the attacker utilizing a number of LotL techniques including SSL connections to “services.pdq[.]tools”, “teamviewer[.]com” and “anydesk[.]com”. While the use of these legitimate services may have bypassed traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to detect the activity and distinguish it from ‘normal’’ network activity. It is highly likely that these SSL connections represented the attacker attempting to exfiltrate sensitive data from the customer’s network, with a view to using it to extort the customer.

Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.
Figure 9: Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.

If this customer had been subscribed to Darktrace's Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service at the time of the attack, they would have been promptly notified of these suspicious activities by the Darktrace Security Operation Center (SOC). In this way they could have been aware of the suspicious activities taking place in their infrastructure before the escalation of the compromise. Despite this, they were able to receive assistance through the Ask the Expert service (ATE) whereby Darktrace’s expert analyst team was on hand to assist the customer by triaging and investigating the incident further, ensuring the customer was well equipped to remediate.  

As Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response was not enabled in autonomous response mode, this ransomware attack was able to progress to the point of encryption and data exfiltration. Had autonomous response been properly configured to take autonomous action, Darktrace would have blocked all connections by affected devices to both internal and external endpoints, as well as enforcing a previously established “pattern of life” on the device to stop it from deviating from its expected behavior.

Conclusion

The threat actors in this Medusa ransomware attack attempted to utilize LotL techniques in order to bypass human security teams and traditional security tools. By exploiting trusted systems and tools, like Nmap and PDQ Deploy, attackers are able to carry out malicious activity under the guise of legitimate network traffic.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, allows it to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that tend to be indicative of compromise, regardless of whether it appears legitimate or benign on the surface.

Further to the detection of the individual events that made up this ransomware attack, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to correlate the activity and collate it under one wider incident. This allowed the customer to track the compromise and its attack phases from start to finish, ensuring they could obtain a holistic view of their digital environment and remediate effectively.

Credit to Maria Geronikolou, Cyber Analyst, Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Alerts

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / Attack and Recon Tools

Device / Suspicious File Writes to Multiple Hidden SMB Share

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Device / Network Scan

Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Possible HTTP Command and Control

Extensive Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Possible SSL Command and Control to Multiple Endpoints

Suspicious Remote WMI Activity

Scanning of Multiple Devices

Possible Ransom Note Accessed over SMB

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type – Description + Confidence

207.188.6[.]17      -     IP address   -      C2 Endpoint

172.64.154[.]227 - IP address -        C2 Endpoint

wizarr.manate[.]ch  - Hostname -       C2 Endpoint

go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de.  Hostname  - C2 Endpoint

.MEDUSA             -        File extension     - Extension to encrypted files

.s3db               -             File extension    -  Created file extension

SQLite3-64.dll    -        File           -               Used tool

!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt - File -   Ransom note

Svc-ndscans         -         Credential     -     Possible compromised credential

Svc-NinjaRMM      -       Credential      -     Possible compromised credential

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Discovery  - File and Directory Discovery - T1083

Reconnaissance    -  Scanning IP            -          T1595.001

Reconnaissance -  Vulnerability Scanning -  T1595.002

Lateral Movement -Exploitation of Remote Service -  T1210

Lateral Movement - Exploitation of Remote Service -   T1210

Lateral Movement  -  SMB/Windows Admin Shares     -    T1021.002

Lateral Movement   -  Taint Shared Content          -            T1080

Execution   - PowerShell     - T1059.001

Execution  -   Service Execution   -    T1059.002

Impact   -    Data Encrypted for Impact  -  T1486

References

[1] https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/medusa-ransomware-escalation-new-leak-site/

[2] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[3] https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/trustwave-blog/unveiling-the-latest-ransomware-threats-targeting-the-casino-and-entertainment-industry/

[4] https://www.sangfor.com/farsight-labs-threat-intelligence/cybersecurity/security-advisory-for-medusa-ransomware

[5] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[6]https://any.run/report/8be3304fec9d41d44012213ddbb28980d2570edeef3523b909af2f97768a8d85/e4c54c9d-12fd-477f-8cbb-a20f8fb98912

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About the author
Maria Geronikolou
Cyber Analyst
Our ai. Your data.

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