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Ransomware

RESPOND

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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Inside the SOC

Post-Exploitation Activities on PAN-OS Devices: A Network-Based Analysis

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20
Jun 2024

Introduction

Perimeter devices such as firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), and intrusion prevention systems (IPS), have long been the target of adversarial actors attempting to gain access to internal networks. However, recent publications and public service announcements by leading public institutions underscore the increased emphasis threat actors are putting on leveraging such products to initiate compromises.

A blog post by the UK National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) released in early 2024 notes that as improvements are made in the detection of phishing email payloads, threat actors have again begun re-focusing efforts to exploiting network edge devices, many of which are not secure by design, as a means of breach initiation.[i] As such, it comes as no surprise that new Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) are constantly discovered that exploit such internet-exposed systems.

Darktrace analysts frequently observe the impacts of such CVEs first through their investigations via Darktrace’s Security Operations Center (SOC), sometimes even before the public disclosure of proof of concepts for such exploits.  Beginning April 2024, Darktrace’s SOC began handling alerts and customer requests for potential incidents involving Palo Alto Networks firewall devices.  It was during this time that external researchers publicly disclosed what would later be classified as PAN-OS CVE-2024-3400, a form of remote command execution vulnerability that affects several versions of Palo Alto Networks’ firewall operating System (PAN-OS), namely PAN-OS 11.1, 11.0 and 10.2.

The increase in observed SOC activity for Palo Alto firewall devices, coupled with the public announcement of the new CVE, prompted Darktrace researchers to look for evidence of PAN-OS exploitation on customer networks. Researchers also focused on documenting post-exploitation activity from threat actors leveraging the recently disclosed vulnerability.

As such, this blog highlights the network-based behaviors involved in the CVE-2024-3400 attack chains investigated by Darktrace’s SOC and Threat Research teams. Moreover, this investigation also provides a deeper insight into the post-compromise activities of threat actors leveraging the novel CVE.  Such insights will not only prove relevant for cybersecurity teams looking to inhibit compromises in this specific instance, but also highlights general patterns of behavior by threat actors utilizing such CVEs to target internet-facing systems.

CVE-2024-3400

In April 2024, the Darktrace SOC observed an uptick in activity involving recurring patterns of malicious activity from Palo Alto firewall appliances. In response to this trend, Darktrace initiated a Threat Research investigation into such activity to try and identify common factors and indicators across seemingly parallel events. As the Threat Research team opened their investigation, external researchers concurrently provided public details of CVE-2024-3400, a form of remote command execution vulnerability in the GlobalProtect feature on Palo Alto Network firewall devices running PAN-OS versions: 10.2, 11.0, and 11.1.[ii]

In their proof of concept, security researchers at watchTowr demonstrated how an attacker can pass session ID (SESSID) values to these PAN-OS devices to request files that do not exist. In response, the system creates a zero-byte file with root privileges with the same name.[iii] Log data is passed on devices running telemetry services to external servers through command line functionality.[iv] Given this functionality, external actors could then request non-existent files in the SESSID containing command parameters which then be interpreted by the command line functionality.[v] Although researchers first believed the exploit could only be used against devices running telemetry services, this was later discovered to be untrue.[vi]

As details of CVE-2024-3400 began to surface, Darktrace’s Threat Research analysts quickly identified distinct overlaps in the observed activity on specific customer deployments and the post-exploitation behavior reported by external researchers. Given the parallels, Darktrace correlated the patterns of activity observed by the SOC team to exploitation of the newly discovered vulnerability in PAN-OS firewall appliances.

Campaign Analysis

Between the April and May 2024, Darktrace identified four main themes of post-exploitation activity involving Palo Alto Network firewall devices likely targeted via CVE-2024-3400: exploitation validation, shell command and tool retrieval, configuration data exfiltration, and ongoing command and control through encrypted channels and application protocols.

1. Exploit Validation and Further Vulnerability Enumeration

Many of the investigated attack chains began with malicious actors using out-of-band application security testing (OAST) services such as Interactsh to validate exploits against Palo Alto firewall appliances. This exploit validation activity typically resulted in devices attempting to contact unusual external endpoints (namely, subdomains of ‘oast[.]pro’, ‘oast[.]live’, ‘oast[.]site’, ‘oast[.]online’, ‘oast[.]fun’, ‘oast[.]me’, and ‘g3n[.]in’) associated with OAST services such as Interactsh. These services can be used by developers to inspect and debug internet traffic, but also have been easily abused by threat actors.

While attempted connections to OAST services do not alone indicate CVE-2024-3400 exploitation, the prevalence of such activities in observed Palo Alto firewall attack chains suggests widespread usage of these OAST services to validate initial access methods and possibly further enumerate systems for additional vulnerabilities.

Figure 1: Model alert log details showcasing a PAN-OS device making DNS queries for Interactsh domain names in what could be exploit validation, and/or further host enumeration.

2. Command and Payload Transmission

The most common feature across analyzed incidents was HTTP GET requests for shell scripts and Linux executable files (ELF) from external IPs associated with exploitation of the CVE. These HTTP requests were frequently initiated using the utilities, cURL and wget. On nearly every device likely targeted by threat actors leveraging the CVE, Darktrace analysts highlighted the retrieval of shell scripts that either featured enumeration commands, the removal of evidence of compromise activity, or commands to retrieve and start binaries on the destination device.

a) Shell Script Retrieval

Investigated devices commonly performed HTTP GET requests to retrieve shell command scripts. Despite this commonality, there was some degree of variety amongst the retrieved payloads and their affiliation with certain command tools. Several distinct types of shell commands and files were identified during the analyzed breaches. For example, some firewall devices were seen requesting .txt files associated with both Sliver C2, whose malicious use has previously been investigated by Darktrace, and Cobalt Strike. The target URIs of devices’ HTTP requests for these files included, “36shr.txt”, “2.txt”, “bin.txt”, and “data.txt”.

More interestingly, though, was the frequency with which analyzed systems requested bash scripts from rare external IP addresses, sometimes over non-standard ports for the HTTP protocol. These bash scripts would feature commands usually for the recipient system to check for certain existing files and or running processes. If the file did not exist, the system would then use cURL or wget to obtain content from external sites, change the permissions of the file, and then execute, sending output to dev/null as a means of likely defense evasion. In some scripts, the system would first make a new folder, and change directories prior to acquiring external content. Additionally, some samples highlighted multiple attempts at enumeration of the host system.

Figure 2: Packet capture (PCAP) data highlighting the incoming shell scripts providing instructions to use cURL to obtain external content, change the permissions of the file to execute, and then run the binary using the credentials and details provided.
Figure 3: PCAP data highlighting a variation of a shell script seen in an HTTP response processed by compromised devices. The script provides instructions to make a directory, retrieve and execute external content, and to hide the output.

Not every retrieved file that was not explicitly a binary featured bash scripts. Model alerts on some deployments also included file masquerading attempts by threat actors, whereby the Palo Alto firewall device would request content with a misleading extension in the URI. In one such instance, the requested URI, and HTTP response header suggests the returned content is an image/png, but the actual body response featured configuration parameters for a new daemon service to be run on the system.

Figure 4: PCAP data indicating configuration details likely for a new daemon on an investigated host. Such HTTP body content differs from the image/png extension within the request URI and declared content type in the HTTP response header.

Bash scripts analyzed across customer deployments also mirrored those identified by external security teams. External researchers previously reported on a series of identifiable shell commands in some cases of CVE-2024-3400 exploitation analyzed by their teams. Commands frequently involved a persistence mechanism they later labeled as the “UPSTYLE” backdoor.[vii]  This python-based program operates by reading commands hidden in error logs generated by 404 requests to the compromised server. The backdoor interprets the requests and writes the output to CSS files on the device. In many cases, Darktrace’s Threat Research team noted clear parallels between shell commands retrieved via HTTP GET request with those directly involving UPSTYLE. There were also matches with some URI patterns identified with the backdoor and requests observed on Darktrace deployments.

Figure 5: HTTP response data containing shell commands potentially relating to the UPSTYLE backdoor.

The presence of these UPSTYLE-related shell commands in response to Palo Alto firewall devices’ HTTP requests provides further evidence for initial exploitation of the CVE. Many bash scripts in examined cases interacted with folders and files likely related to CVE-2024-3400 exploitation. These scripts frequently sought to delete contents of certain folders, such as “/opt/panlogs/tmp/device_telemetry/minute/*” where evidence of exploitation would likely reside. Moreover, recursive removal and copy commands were frequently seen targeting CSS files within the GlobalProtect folder, already noted as the vulnerable element within PAN-OS versions. This evidence is further corroborated by host-based forensic analysis conducted by external researchers.[viii]

Figure 6: PCAP data from investigated system indicating likely defense evasion by removing content on folders where CVE exploitation occurred.

b) Executable File Retrieval

Typically, following command processing, compromised Palo Alto firewall devices proceeded to make web requests for several unusual and potentially malicious files. Many such executables would be retrieved via processed scripts. While there a fair amount of variety in specific executables and binaries obtained, overall, these executables involved either further command tooling such as Sliver C2 or Cobalt Strike payloads, or unknown executables. Affected systems would also employ uncommon ports for HTTP connections, in a likely attempt to evade detection. Extensions featured within the URI, when visible, frequently noted ‘.elf’ (Linux executable) or ‘.exe’ payloads. While most derived hashes did not feature identifiable open-source intelligence (OSINT) details, some samples did have external information tying the sample to specific malware. For example, one such investigation featured a compromised system requesting a file with a hash identified as the Spark malware (backdoor) while another investigated case included a host requesting a known crypto-miner.

Figure 7: PCAP data highlighting compromised system retrieving ELF content from a rare external server running a simple Python HTTP server.
Figure 8: Darktrace model alert logs highlighting a device labeled “Palo Alto” making a HTTP request on an uncommon port for an executable file following likely CVE exploitation.

3. Configuration Data Exfiltration and Unusual HTTP POST Activity

During Darktrace’s investigations, there were also several instances of sensitive data exfiltration from PAN-OS firewall devices. Specifically, targeted systems were observed making HTTP POST requests via destination port 80 to rare external endpoints that OSINT sources associate with CVE-2024-3400 exploitation and activity. PCAP analysis of such HTTP requests revealed that they often contained sensitive configuration details of the targeted Palo Alto firewall devices, including the IP address, default gateway, domain, users, superusers, and password hashes, to name only a few. Threat actors frequently utilized Target URIs such as “/upload” in their HTTP POST requests of this multi-part boundary form data. Again, the User-Agent headers of these HTTP requests largely involved versions of cURL, typically 7.6.1, and wget.

Figure 9: PCAP datahighlighting Palo Alto Firewall device running vulnerable version of PAN-OSposting configuration details to rare external services via HTTP.
Figure 10: Model alert logs highlighting a Palo Alto firewall device performing HTTP POSTs to a rare external IP, without a prior hostname lookup, on an uncommon port using a URI associated with configuration data exfiltration across analyzed incidents
Figure 11: Examples of TargetURIs of HTTP POST requests involving base64 encoded IPs and potential dataegress.

4. Ongoing C2 and Miscellaneous Activity

Lastly, a smaller number of affected Palo Alto firewall devices were seen engaging in repeated beaconing and/or C2 communication via both encrypted and unencrypted protocols during and following the initial series of kill chain events. Such encrypted channels typically involved protocols such as TLS/SSL and SSH. This activity likely represented ongoing communication of targeted systems with attacker infrastructure. Model alerts typically highlighted unusual levels of repeated external connectivity to rare external IP addresses over varying lengths of time. In some investigated incidents, beaconing activity consisted of hundreds of thousands of connections over several days.

Figure 12:  Advanced search details highlighting high levels of ongoing external communication to endpoints associated with C2 infrastructure exploiting CVE-2024-3400.

Some beaconing activity appears to have involved the use of the WebSocket protocol, as indicated by the appearance of “/ws” URIs and validated within packet captures. Such connections were then upgraded to an encrypted connection.

Figure 13:  PCAP highlighting use of WebSocket protocol to engage in ongoing external connectivity to likely C2 infrastructure following CVE-2024-3400 compromise.

While not directly visible in all the deployments, some investigations also yielded evidence of attempts at further post-exploitation activity. For example, a handful of the analyzed binaries that were downloaded by examined devices had OSINT information suggesting a relation to crypto-mining malware strains. However, crypto-mining activity was not directly observed at this time. Furthermore, several devices also triggered model alerts relating to brute-forcing activity via several authentication protocols (namely, Keberos and RADIUS) during the time of compromise. This brute-force activity likely represented attempts to move laterally from the affected firewall system to deeper parts of the network.

Figure 14: Model alert logs noting repeated SSL connectivity to a Sliver C2-affiliated endpoint in what likely constitutes C2 connectivity.
Figure 15: Model alert logs featuring repeated RADIUS login failures from a compromised PAN-OS device using generic usernames, suggesting brute-force activity.

Conclusion

Between April and late May 2024, Darktrace’s SOC and Threat Research teams identified several instances of likely PAN-OS CVE-2024-3400 exploitation across the Darktrace customer base. The subsequent investigation yielded four major themes that categorize the observed network-based post-exploitation activity. These major themes were exploit validation activity, retrieval of binaries and shell scripts, data exfiltration via HTTP POST activity, and ongoing C2 communication with rare external endpoints. The insights shared in this article will hopefully contribute to the ongoing discussion within the cybersecurity community about how to handle the likely continued exploitation of this vulnerability. Moreover, this article may also help cybersecurity professionals better respond to future exploitation of not only Palo Alto PAN-OS firewall devices, but also of edge devices more broadly.

Threat actors will continue to discover and leverage new CVEs impacting edge infrastructure. Since it is not yet known which CVEs threat actors will exploit next, relying on rules and signatures for the detection of exploitation of such CVEs is not a viable approach. Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection, however, is well positioned to robustly adapt to threat actors’ changing methods, since although threat actors can change the CVEs they exploit, they cannot change the fact that their exploitation of CVEs results in highly unusual patterns of activity.

Credit to Adam Potter, Cyber Analyst, Sam Lister, Senior Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Indicators of Compromise

Indicator – Type – Description

94.131.120[.]80              IP             C2 Endpoint

94.131.120[.]80:53/?src=[REDACTED]=hour=root                  URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

134.213.29[.]14/?src=[REDACTED]min=root             URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

134.213.29[.]14/grep[.]mips64            URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/grep[.]x86_64             URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/?deer               URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/?host=IDS   URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/ldr[.]sh           URL        Payload

91ebcea4e6d34fd6e22f99713eaf67571b51ab01  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

185.243.115[.]250/snmpd2[.]elf        URL        Payload

23.163.0[.]111/com   URL        Payload

80.92.205[.]239/upload            URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

194.36.171[.]43/upload            URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

update.gl-protect[.]com          Hostname         C2 Endpoint

update.gl-protect[.]com:63869/snmpgp      URL        Payload

146.70.87[.]237              IP address         C2 Endpoint

146.70.87[.]237:63867/snmpdd         URL        Payload

393c41b3ceab4beecf365285e8bdf0546f41efad   SHA1 File Hash               Payload

138.68.44[.]59/app/r URL        Payload

138.68.44[.]59/app/clientr     URL        Payload

138.68.44[.]59/manage            URL        Payload

72.5.43[.]90/patch      URL        Payload

217.69.3[.]218                 IP             C2 Endpoint

5e8387c24b75c778c920f8aa38e4d3882cc6d306                  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

217.69.3[.]218/snmpd[.]elf   URL        Payload

958f13da6ccf98fcaa270a6e24f83b1a4832938a    SHA1 File Hash               Payload

6708dc41b15b892279af2947f143af95fb9efe6e     SHA1 File Hash               Payload

dc50c0de7f24baf03d4f4c6fdf6c366d2fcfbe6c       SHA1 File Hash               Payload

109.120.178[.]253:10000/data[.]txt                  URL        Payload

109.120.178[.]253:10000/bin[.]txt   URL        Payload

bc9dc2e42654e2179210d98f77822723740a5ba6                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

109.120.178[.]253:10000/123              URL        Payload

65283921da4e8b5eabb926e60ca9ad3d087e67fa                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

img.dxyjg[.]com/6hiryXjZN0Mx[.]sh                  URL        Payload

149.56.18[.]189/IC4nzNvf7w/2[.]txt                 URL        Payload

228d05fd92ec4d19659d71693198564ae6f6b117 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

54b892b8fdab7c07e1e123340d800e7ed0386600                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

165.232.121[.]217/rules          URL        Payload

165.232.121[.]217/app/request          URL        Payload

938faec77ebdac758587bba999e470785253edaf SHA1 File Hash               Payload

165.232.121[.]217/app/request63   URL        Payload

165.232.121[.]217:4443/termite/165.232.121[.]217             URL        Payload

92.118.112[.]60/snmpd2[.]elf               URL        Payload

2a90d481a7134d66e8b7886cdfe98d9c1264a386                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

92.118.112[.]60/36shr[.]txt   URL        Payload

d6a33673cedb12811dde03a705e1302464d8227f                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

c712712a563fe09fa525dfc01ce13564e3d98d67  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

091b3b33e0d1b55852167c3069afcdb0af5e5e79 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

5eebf7518325e6d3a0fd7da2c53e7d229d7b74b6                  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

183be7a0c958f5ed4816c781a2d7d5aa8a0bca9f SHA1 File Hash               Payload

e7d2f1224546b17d805617d02ade91a9a20e783e                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

e6137a15df66054e4c97e1f4b8181798985b480d SHA1 File Hash               Payload

95.164.7[.]33:53/sea[.]png    URL        Payload

95.164.7[.]33/rules     URL        Payload

95.164.7[.]33:53/lb64                URL        Payload

c2bc9a7657bea17792048902ccf2d77a2f50d2d7 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

923369bbb86b9a9ccf42ba6f0d022b1cd4f33e9d SHA1 File Hash               Payload

52972a971a05b842c6b90c581b5c697f740cb5b9                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

95d45b455cf62186c272c03d6253fef65227f63a    SHA1 File Hash               Payload

322ec0942cef33b4c55e5e939407cd02e295973e                  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

6335e08873b4ca3d0eac1ea265f89a9ef29023f2  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

134.213.29[.]14              IP             C2 Endpoint

185.243.115[.]250       IP             C2 Endpoint

80.92.205[.]239              IP             C2 Endpoint

194.36.171[.]43              IP             C2 Endpoint

92.118.112[.]60              IP             C2 Endpoint

109.120.178[.]253       IP             C2 Endpoint

23.163.0[.]111                 IP             C2 Endpoint

72.5.43[.]90     IP             C2 Endpoint

165.232.121[.]217       IP             C2 Endpoint

8.210.242[.]112              IP             C2 Endpoint

149.56.18[.]189              IP             C2 Endpoint

95.164.7[.]33  IP             C2 Endpoint

138.68.44[.]59                 IP             C2 Endpoint

Img[.]dxyjg[.]com         Hostname         C2 Endpoint

Darktrace Model Alert Coverage

·      Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

·      Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

·      Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations

·      Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location

·      Anomalous File / Script and EXE from Rare External

·      Anomalous File / Suspicious Octet Stream Download

·      Anomalous File / Numeric File Download

·      Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port

·      Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

·      Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname

·      Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

·      Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

·      Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External

·      Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

·      Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

·      Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

·      Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server

·      Compromise / SSH Beacon

·      Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days

·      Compromise / Sustained TCP Beaconing Activity To Rare Endpoint

·      Compromise / High Priority Tunnelling to Bin Services

·      Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

·      Compromise / Connection to Suspicious SSL Server

·      Compromise / Suspicious File and C2

·      Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

·      Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to New Endpoint

·      Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon

·      Compromise / Suspicious HTTP and Anomalous Activity

·      Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

·      Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

·      Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behaviour

·      Compliance / SSH to Rare External Destination

·      Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination

·      Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Device::New User Agent

·      Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

·      Device / Multiple C2 Model Breaches

MITRE ATTACK Mapping

Tactic – Technique

Initial Access  T1190 – Exploiting Public-Facing Application

Execution           T1059.004 – Command and Scripting Interpreter: Unix Shell

Persistence      T1543.002 – Create or Modify System Processes: Systemd Service

Defense Evasion           T1070.004 – Indicator Removal: File Deletion

Credential Access       T1110.001 – Brute Force: Password Guessing

Discovery           T1083 – File and System Discovery

T1057 – Process Discovery

Collection         T1005 – Data From Local System

Command and Control             T1071.001 – Application Layer Protocol:  Web Protocols

T1573.002 – Encrypted Channel: Asymmetric Cryptography

T1571 – Non-Standard Port

T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer

Exfiltration         T1041 – Exfiltration over C2 Protocol

T1048.002 - Exfiltration Over Alternative Protocol: Exfiltration Over Asymmetric Encrypted Non-C2 Protocol

References

[i]  https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/blog-post/products-on-your-perimeter

[ii] https://security.paloaltonetworks.com/CVE-2024-3400

[iii] https://labs.watchtowr.com/palo-alto-putting-the-protecc-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[iv] https://labs.watchtowr.com/palo-alto-putting-the-protecc-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[v] https://labs.watchtowr.com/palo-alto-putting-the-protecc-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[vi] https://security.paloaltonetworks.com/CVE-2024-3400

[vii] https://www.volexity.com/blog/2024/04/12/zero-day-exploitation-of-unauthenticated-remote-code-execution-vulnerability-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[viii] https://www.volexity.com/blog/2024/05/15/detecting-compromise-of-cve-2024-3400-on-palo-alto-networks-globalprotect-devices/

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About the author
Adam Potter
Cyber Analyst

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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