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A Thorn in Attackers’ Sides: How Darktrace Uncovered a CACTUS Ransomware Infection

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24
Apr 2024
24
Apr 2024
This blog examines CACTUS, a relatively new strain of ransomware that first appeared in the threat landscape in March 2023. In November 2023, Darktrace detected CACTUS ransomware on a US customer network and was able to provide full visibility over the attack and its kill chain.

What is CACTUS Ransomware?

In May 2023, Kroll Cyber Threat Intelligence Analysts identified CACTUS as a new ransomware strain that had been actively targeting large commercial organizations since March 2023 [1]. CACTUS ransomware gets its name from the filename of the ransom note, “cAcTuS.readme.txt”. Encrypted files are appended with the extension “.cts”, followed by a number which varies between attacks, e.g. “.cts1” and “.cts2”.

As the cyber threat landscape adapts to ever-present fast-paced technological change, ransomware affiliates are employing progressively sophisticated techniques to enter networks, evade detection and achieve their nefarious goals.

How does CACTUS Ransomware work?

In the case of CACTUS, threat actors have been seen gaining initial network access by exploiting Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. Once inside the network, they may conduct internal scanning using tools like SoftPerfect Network Scanner, and PowerShell commands to enumerate endpoints, identify user accounts, and ping remote endpoints. Persistence is maintained by the deployment of various remote access methods, including legitimate remote access tools like Splashtop, AnyDesk, and SuperOps RMM in order to evade detection, along with malicious tools like Cobalt Strike and Chisel. Such tools, as well as custom scripts like TotalExec, have been used to disable security software to distribute the ransomware binary. CACTUS ransomware is unique in that it adopts a double-extortion tactic, stealing data from target networks and then encrypting it on compromised systems [2].

At the end of November 2023, cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf reported instances of CACTUS attacks exploiting vulnerabilities on the Windows version of the business analytics platform Qlik, specifically CVE-2023-41266, CVE-2023-41265, and CVE-2023-48365, to gain initial access to target networks [3]. The vulnerability tracked as CVE-2023-41266 can be exploited to generate anonymous sessions and perform HTTP requests to unauthorized endpoints, whilst CVE-2023-41265 does not require authentication and can be leveraged to elevate privileges and execute HTTP requests on the backend server that hosts the application [2].

Darktrace’s Coverage of CACTUS Ransomware

In November 2023, Darktrace observed malicious actors leveraging the aforementioned method of exploiting Qlik to gain access to the network of a customer in the US, more than a week before the vulnerability was reported by external researchers.

Here, Qlik vulnerabilities were successfully exploited, and a malicious executable (.exe) was detonated on the network, which was followed by network scanning and failed Kerberos login attempts. The attack culminated in the encryption of numerous files with extensions such as “.cts1”, and SMB writes of the ransom note “cAcTuS.readme.txt” to multiple internal devices, all of which was promptly identified by Darktrace DETECT™.

While traditional rules and signature-based detection tools may struggle to identify the malicious use of a legitimate business platform like Qlik, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was able to confidently identify anomalous use of the tool in a CACTUS ransomware attack by examining the rarity of the offending device’s surrounding activity and comparing it to the learned behavior of the device and its peers.

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled in autonomous response mode during their encounter with CACTUS ransomware meaning that attackers were able to successfully escalate their attack to the point of ransomware detonation and file encryption. Had RESPOND been configured to autonomously act on any unusual activity, Darktrace could have prevented the attack from progressing, stopping the download of any harmful files, or the encryption of legitimate ones.

Cactus Ransomware Attack Overview

Holiday periods have increasingly become one of the favoured times for malicious actors to launch their attacks, as they can take advantage of the festive downtime of organizations and their security teams, and the typically more relaxed mindset of employees during this period [4].

Following this trend, in late November 2023, Darktrace began detecting anomalous connections on the network of a customer in the US, which presented multiple indicators of compromise (IoCs) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with CACTUS ransomware. The threat actors in this case set their attack in motion by exploiting the Qlik vulnerabilities on one of the customer’s critical servers.

Darktrace observed the server device making beaconing connections to the endpoint “zohoservice[.]net” (IP address: 45.61.147.176) over the course of three days. This endpoint is known to host a malicious payload, namely a .zip file containing the command line connection tool PuttyLink [5].

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously identify over 1,000 beaconing connections taking place on the customer’s network and group them together, in this case joining the dots in an ongoing ransomware attack. AI Analyst recognized that these repeated connections to highly suspicious locations were indicative of malicious command-and-control (C2) activity.

Cyber AI Analyst Incident Log showing the offending device making over 1,000 connections to the suspicious hostname “zohoservice[.]net” over port 8383, within a specific period.
Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident Log showing the offending device making over 1,000 connections to the suspicious hostname “zohoservice[.]net” over port 8383, within a specific period.

The infected device was then observed downloading the file “putty.zip” over a HTTP connection using a PowerShell user agent. Despite being labelled as a .zip file, Darktrace’s detection capabilities were able to identify this as a masqueraded PuttyLink executable file. This activity resulted in multiple Darktrace DETECT models being triggered. These models are designed to look for suspicious file downloads from endpoints not usually visited by devices on the network, and files whose types are masqueraded, as well as the anomalous use of PowerShell. This behavior resembled previously observed activity with regards to the exploitation of Qlik Sense as an intrusion technique prior to the deployment of CACTUS ransomware [5].

The downloaded file’s URI highlighting that the file type (.exe) does not match the file's extension (.zip). Information about the observed PowerShell user agent is also featured.
Figure 2: The downloaded file’s URI highlighting that the file type (.exe) does not match the file's extension (.zip). Information about the observed PowerShell user agent is also featured.

Following the download of the masqueraded file, Darktrace observed the initial infected device engaging in unusual network scanning activity over the SMB, RDP and LDAP protocols. During this activity, the credential, “service_qlik” was observed, further indicating that Qlik was exploited by threat actors attempting to evade detection. Connections to other internal devices were made as part of this scanning activity as the attackers attempted to move laterally across the network.

Numerous failed connections from the affected server to multiple other internal devices over port 445, indicating SMB scanning activity.
Figure 3: Numerous failed connections from the affected server to multiple other internal devices over port 445, indicating SMB scanning activity.

The compromised server was then seen initiating multiple sessions over the RDP protocol to another device on the customer’s network, namely an internal DNS server. External researchers had previously observed this technique in CACTUS ransomware attacks where an RDP tunnel was established via Plink [5].

A few days later, on November 24, Darktrace identified over 20,000 failed Kerberos authentication attempts for the username “service_qlik” being made to the internal DNS server, clearly representing a brute-force login attack. There is currently a lack of open-source intelligence (OSINT) material definitively listing Kerberos login failures as part of a CACTUS ransomware attack that exploits the Qlik vulnerabilities. This highlights Darktrace’s ability to identify ongoing threats amongst unusual network activity without relying on existing threat intelligence, emphasizing its advantage over traditional security detection tools.

Kerberos login failures being carried out by the initial infected device. The destination device detected was an internal DNS server.
Figure 4: Kerberos login failures being carried out by the initial infected device. The destination device detected was an internal DNS server.

In the month following these failed Kerberos login attempts, between November 26 and December 22, Darktrace observed multiple internal devices encrypting files within the customer’s environment with the extensions “.cts1” and “.cts7”. Devices were also seen writing ransom notes with the file name “cAcTuS.readme.txt” to two additional internal devices, as well as files likely associated with Qlik, such as “QlikSense.pdf”. This activity detected by Darktrace confirmed the presence of a CACTUS ransomware infection that was spreading across the customer’s network.

The model, 'Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB', triggered in response to SMB file writes of the ransom note, ‘cAcTuS.readme.txt’, that was observed on the customer’s network.
Figure 5: The model, 'Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB', triggered in response to SMB file writes of the ransom note, ‘cAcTuS.readme.txt’, that was observed on the customer’s network.
CACTUS ransomware extensions, “.cts1” and “.cts7”, being appended to files on the customer’s network.
Figure 6: CACTUS ransomware extensions, “.cts1” and “.cts7”, being appended to files on the customer’s network.

Following this initial encryption activity, two affected devices were observed attempting to remove evidence of this activity by deleting the encrypted files.

Attackers attempting to remove evidence of their activity by deleting files with appendage “.cts1”.
Figure 7: Attackers attempting to remove evidence of their activity by deleting files with appendage “.cts1”.

Conclusion

In the face of this CACTUS ransomware attack, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection enabled it to quickly identify multiple stages of the cyber kill chain occurring in the customer’s environment. These stages ranged from ‘initial access’ by exploiting Qlik vulnerabilities, which Darktrace was able to detect before the method had been reported by external researchers, to ‘actions on objectives’ by encrypting files. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was also able to detect a previously unreported stage of the attack: multiple Kerberos brute force login attempts.

If Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, RESPOND, had been active and enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of this attack, it would have been able to take swift mitigative action to shut down such suspicious activity as soon as it was identified by DETECT, effectively containing the ransomware attack at the earliest possible stage.

Learning a network’s ‘normal’ to identify deviations from established patterns of behaviour enables Darktrace’s identify a potential compromise, even one that uses common and often legitimately used administrative tools. This allows Darktrace to stay one step ahead of the increasingly sophisticated TTPs used by ransomware actors.

Credit to Tiana Kelly, Cyber Analyst & Analyst Team Lead, Anna Gilbertson, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

References

[1] https://www.kroll.com/en/insights/publications/cyber/cactus-ransomware-prickly-new-variant-evades-detection

[2] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/cactus-ransomware-exploiting-qlik-sense-flaws-to-breach-networks/

[3] https://explore.avertium.com/resource/new-ransomware-strains-cactus-and-3am

[4] https://www.soitron.com/cyber-attackers-abuse-holidays/

[5] https://arcticwolf.com/resources/blog/qlik-sense-exploited-in-cactus-ransomware-campaign/

Darktrace DETECT Models

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)

Anomalous Connection / PowerShell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Internal Remote Desktop

User / Kerberos Password Brute Force

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Delete Volume

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare  

Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination  

Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server  

Compliance / Remote Management Tool On Server

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)  

Compromise / Suspicious File and C2  

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert  

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches  

Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

Anomalous File / Internet facing System File Download  

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise  

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Medium Period)  

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)  

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description

zohoservice[.]net: 45.61.147[.]176 - Domain name: IP Address - Hosting payload over HTTP

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-US) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.17763.2183 - User agent -PowerShell user agent

.cts1 - File extension - Malicious appendage

.cts7- File extension - Malicious appendage

cAcTuS.readme.txt - Filename -Ransom note

putty.zip – Filename - Initial payload: ZIP containing PuTTY Link

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Technique  - SubTechnique

Web Protocols: COMMAND AND CONTROL - T1071 -T1071.001

Powershell: EXECUTION - T1059 - T1059.001

Exploitation of Remote Services: LATERAL MOVEMENT - T1210 – N/A

Vulnerability Scanning: RECONAISSANCE     - T1595 - T1595.002

Network Service Scanning: DISCOVERY - T1046 - N/A

Malware: RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT - T1588 - T1588.001

Drive-by Compromise: INITIAL ACCESS - T1189 - N/A

Remote Desktop Protocol: LATERAL MOVEMENT – 1021 -T1021.001

Brute Force: CREDENTIAL ACCESS        T – 1110 - N/A

Data Encrypted for Impact: IMPACT - T1486 - N/A

Data Destruction: IMPACT - T1485 - N/A

File Deletion: DEFENSE EVASION - T1070 - T1070.004

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.
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ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Tiana Kelly
Deputy Team Lead, London & Cyber Analyst
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Elevating Network Security: Confronting Trust, Ransomware, & Novel Attacks

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29
May 2024

Understanding the Network Security Market

Old tools blind to new threats

With the rise of GenAI and novel attacks, organizations can no longer rely solely on traditional network security solutions that depend on historical attack data, such as signatures and detection rules, to identify threats. However, in many cases network security vendors and traditional solutions like IDS/IPS focus on detecting known attacks using historical data. What happens is organizations are left vulnerable to unknown and novel threats, as these approaches only detect known malicious behavior and cannot keep up with unknown threats or zero-day attacks.

Advanced threats

Darktrace's End of Year Threat Report for 2023 highlights significant changes in the cyber threat landscape, particularly due to advancements in technology such as generative AI. The report notes a substantial increase in sophisticated attacks, including those utilizing generative AI, which have made it more challenging for traditional security measures to keep up. The report also details the rise of multi-functional malware, like Black Basta ransomware, which not only encrypts data for ransom but also spreads other types of malware such as the Qbot banking trojan. These complex attacks are increasingly being deployed by advanced cybercriminal groups, underscoring the need for organizations to adopt advanced security measures that can detect and respond to novel threats in real-time.

Defenders need a solution that can level the playing field, especially when they are operating with limited resources and getting overloaded with endless alerts. Most network security tools on the market have a siloed approach and do not integrate with the rest of an organization’s digital estate, but attackers don’t operate in a single domain.

Disparate workforce

With so many organizations continuing to support a remote or hybrid working environment, the need to secure devices that are outside the corporate network or off-VPN is increasingly important. While endpoint protection or endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools are a fundamental part of any security stack, it’s not possible to install an agent on every device, which can leave blind spots in an organization’s attack surface. Managing trust and access policies is also necessary to protect identities, however this comes with its own set of challenges in terms of implementation and minimizing business disruption.

This blog will dive into these challenges and show examples of how Darktrace has helped mitigate risk and stop novel and never-before-seen threats.

Network Security Challenge 1: Managing trust

What is trust in cybersecurity?

Trust in cybersecurity means that an entity can be relied upon. This can involve a person, organization, or system to be authorized or authenticated by proving their identity is legitimate and can be trusted to have access to the network or sensitive information.

Why is trust important in cybersecurity?

Granting access and privileges to your workforce and select affiliates has profound implications for cybersecurity, brand reputation, regulatory compliance, and financial liability. In a traditional network security model, traffic gets divided into two categories — trusted and untrusted — with some entities and segments of the network deemed more creditable than others.

How do you manage trust in cybersecurity?

Zero trust is too little, but any is too much.

Modern network security challenges point to an urgent need for organizations to review and update their approaches to managing trust. External pressure to adopt zero trust security postures literally suggests trusting no one, but that impedes your freedom
to do business. IT leaders need a proven but practical process for deciding who should be allowed to use your network and how.

Questions to ask in updating Trusted User policies include:

  • What process should you follow to place trust in third
    parties and applications?
  • Do you subject trusted entities to testing and other due
    diligence first?
  • How often do you review this process — and trusted
    relationships themselves — after making initial decisions?
  • How do you tell when trusted users should no longer be
    trusted?

Once trust has been established, security teams need new and better ways to autonomously verify that those transacting within your network are indeed those trusted users that they claim to be, taking only the authorized actions you’ve allowed them to take.

Exploiting trust in the network

Insider threats have a major head start. The opposite of attacks launched by nameless, faceless strangers, insider threats originate through parties once deemed trustworthy. That might mean a current or former member of your workforce or a partner, vendor, investor, or service provider authorized by IT to access corporate systems and data. Threats also arise when a “pawn” gets unwittingly tricked into disclosing credentials or downloading malware.

Common motives for insider attacks include revenge, stealing or leaking sensitive data, taking down IT systems, stealing assets or IP, compromising your organization’s credibility, and simply harassing your workforce. Put simply, rules and signatures based security solutions won’t flag insider threats because an insider does not immediately present themselves as an intruder. Insider threats can only be stopped by an evolving understanding of ‘normal’ for every user that immediately alerts your team when trusted users do something strange.

“By 2026, 10% of large enterprises will have a comprehensive, mature and measurable zero-trust program in place, up from less than 1% today.” [1]

Use Case: Darktrace spots an insider threat

Darktrace/OT detected a subtle deviation from normal behavior when a reprogram command was sent by an engineering workstation to a PLC controlling a pump, an action an insider threat with legitimized access to OT systems would take to alter the physical process without any malware involved. In this instance, AI Analyst, Darktrace’s investigation tool that triages events to reveal the full security incident, detected the event as unusual based on multiple metrics including the source of the command, the destination device, the time of the activity, and the command itself.  

As a result, AI Analyst created a complete security incident, with a natural language summary, the technical details of the activity, and an investigation process explaining how it came to its conclusion. By leveraging Explainable AI, a security team can quickly triage and escalate Darktrace incidents in real time before it becomes disruptive, and even when performed by a trusted insider.

Read more about insider threats here

Network Security Challenge 2: Stopping Ransomware at every stage    

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts valuable files on a victim’s device, denying the account holder access, and demanding money in exchange for the encryption key. Ransomware has been increasingly difficult to deal with, especially with ransom payments being made in crypto currency which is untraceable. Ransomware can enter a system by clicking a link dangerous or downloading malicious files.

Avoiding ransomware attacks ranks at the top of most CISOs’ and risk managers’ priority lists, and with good reason. Extortion was involved in 25% of all breaches in 2022, with front-page attacks wreaking havoc across healthcare, gas pipelines, food processing plants, and other global supply chains. [2]

What else is new?

The availability of “DIY” toolkits and subscription-based ransom- ware-as-a-service (RaaS) on the dark web equips novice threat actors to launch highly sophisticated attacks at machine speed. For less than $500, virtually anyone can acquire and tweak RaaS offerings such as Philadelphia that come with accessible customer interfaces, reviews, discounts, and feature updates — all the signature features of commercial SaaS offerings.                  

Darktrace Cyber AI breaks the ransomware cycle

The preeminence of ransomware keeps security teams on high alert for indicators of attack but hypervigilance — and too many tools churning out too many alerts — quickly exhausts analysts’ bandwidth. To reverse this trend, AI needs to help prioritize and resolve versus merely detect risk.

Darktrace uses AI to recognize and contextualize possible signs of ransomware attacks as they appear in your network and across multiple domains. Viewing behaviors in the context of your organization’s normal ‘pattern of life’ updates and enhances detection that watches for a repeat of previous techniques.

Darktrace's AI brings the added advantage of continuously analyzing behavior in your environment at machine speed.

Darktrace AI also performs Autonomous Response, shutting down attacks at every stage of the ransomware cycle, including the first telltale signs of exfiltration and encryption of data for extortion purposes.

Use Case: Stopping Hive Ransomware attack

Hive is distributed via a RaaS model where its developers update and maintain the code, in return for a percentage of the eventual ransom payment, while users (or affiliates) are given the tools to carry out attacks using a highly sophisticated and complex malware they would otherwise be unable to use.

In early 2022, Darktrace/Network identified several instances of Hive ransomware on the networks of multiple customers. Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace was able to successfully detect the attacks and multiple stages of the kill chain, including command and control (C2) activity, lateral movement, data exfiltration, and ultimately data encryption and the writing of ransom notes.

Darktrace’s AI understands customer networks and learns the expected patterns of behavior across an organization’s digital estate. Using its anomaly-based detection Darktrace is able to identify emerging threats through the detection of unusual or unexpected behavior, without relying on rules and signatures, or known IoCs.

Read the full story here

Network Security Challenge 3: Spotting Novel Attacks

You can’t predict tomorrow’s weather by reading yesterday’s forecast, yet that’s essentially what happens when network security tools only look for known attacks.

What are novel attacks?

“Novel attacks” include unknown or previously unseen exploits such as zero-days, or new variations of known threats that evade existing detection rules.

Depending on how threats get executed, the term “novel” can refer to brand new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), or to subtle new twists on perennial threats like DoS, DDoS, and Domain Name Server (DNS) attacks.

Old tools may be blind to new threats

Stopping novel threats is less about deciding whom to trust than it is about learning to spot something brand new. As we’ve seen with ransomware, the growing “aaS” attack market creates a profound paradigm shift by allowing non-technical perpetrators to tweak, customize, and coin never-before-seen threats that elude traditional network, email, VPN, and cloud security.

Tools based on traditional rules and signatures lack a frame of reference. This is where AI’s ability to spot and analyze abnormalities in the context of normal patterns of life comes into play.                        

Darktrace AI spots what other tools miss                                      

Instead of training in cloud data lakes that pool data from unrelated attacks worldwide, Darktrace AI learns about your unique environment from your environment. By flagging and analyzing everything unusual — instead of only known signs of compromise — Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI keeps security stacks from missing less obvious but potentially more dangerous events.

The real challenge here is achieving faster “time to meaning” and contextualizing behavior that might — or might not — be part of a novel attack. Darktrace/Network does not require a “patient zero” to identify a novel attack, or one exploiting a zero-day vulnerability.

Use Case: Stopping Novel Ransomware Attack

In late May 2023, Darktrace observed multiple instances of Akira ransomware affecting networks across its customer base. Thanks to its anomaly-based approach to threat detection Darktrace successfully identified the novel ransomware attacks and provided full visibility over the cyber kill chain, from the initial compromise to the eventual file encryptions and ransom notes. Darktrace identified Akira ransomware on multiple customer networks, even when threat actors were utilizing seemingly legitimate services (or spoofed versions of them) to carry out malicious activity. While this may have gone unnoticed by traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection enabled it to recognize malicious activity for what it was. In cases where Darktrace’s autonomous response was enabled these attacks were mitigated in their early stages, thus minimizing any disruption or damage to customer networks.

Read the full story here

References

[1] Gartner, “Gartner Unveils Top Eight Cybersecurity Predictions for 2023-2024,” 28 March 2023.                    

[2] TechTarget, “Ransomware trends, statistics and facts in 2023,” Sean Michael Kerner, 26 January 2023.

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Mikey Anderson
Product Manager, Network Detection & Response

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Inside the SOC

Stemming the Citrix Bleed Vulnerability with Darktrace’s ActiveAI Platform

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28
May 2024

What is Citrix Bleed?

Since August 2023, cyber threat actors have been actively exploiting one of the most significant critical vulnerabilities disclosed in recent years: Citrix Bleed. Citrix Bleed, also known as CVE-2023-4966, remained undiscovered and even unpatched for several months, resulting in a wide range of security incidents across business and government sectors [1].

How does Citrix Bleed vulnerability work?

The vulnerability, which impacts the Citrix Netscaler Gateway and Netscaler ADC products, allows for outside parties to hijack legitimate user sessions, thereby bypassing password and multifactor authentication (MFA) requirements.

When used as a means of initial network access, the vulnerability has resulted in the exfiltration of sensitive data, as in the case of Xfinity, and even the deployment of ransomware variants including Lockbit [2]. Although Citrix has released a patch to address the vulnerability, slow patching procedures and the widespread use of these products has resulted in the continuing exploitation of Citrix Bleed into 2024 [3].

How Does Darktrace Handle Citrix Bleed?

Darktrace has demonstrated its proficiency in handling the exploitation of Citrix Bleed since it was disclosed back in 2023; its anomaly-based approach allows it to efficiently identify and inhibit post-exploitation activity as soon as it surfaces.  Rather than relying upon traditional rules and signatures, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to understand the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that would indicate an emerging compromise, thus allowing it to detect anomalous activity related to the exploitation of Citrix Bleed.

In late 2023, Darktrace identified an instance of Citrix Bleed exploitation on a customer network. As this customer had subscribed to the Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, the suspicious network activity surrounding the compromise was escalated to Darktrace’s Security Operation Center (SOC) for triage and investigation by Darktrace Analysts, who then alerted the customer’s security team to the incident.

Darktrace’s Coverage

Initial Access and Beaconing of Citrix Bleed

Darktrace’s initial detection of indicators of compromise (IoCs) associated with the exploitation of Citrix Bleed actually came a few days prior to the SOC alert, with unusual external connectivity observed from a critical server. The suspicious connection in question, a SSH connection to the rare external IP 168.100.9[.]137, lasted several hours and utilized the Windows PuTTY client. Darktrace also identified an additional suspicious IP, namely 45.134.26[.]2, attempting to contact the server. Both rare endpoints had been linked with the exploitation of the Citrix Bleed vulnerability by multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors [4] [5].

Darktrace model alert highlighting an affected device making an unusual SSH connection to 168.100.9[.]137 via port 22.
Figure 1: Darktrace model alert highlighting an affected device making an unusual SSH connection to 168.100.9[.]137 via port 22.

As Darktrace is designed to identify network-level anomalies, rather than monitor edge infrastructure, the initial exploitation via the typical HTTP buffer overflow associated with this vulnerability fell outside the scope of Darktrace’s visibility. However, the aforementioned suspicious connectivity likely constituted initial access and beaconing activity following the successful exploitation of Citrix Bleed.

Command and Control (C2) and Payload Download

Around the same time, Darktrace also detected other devices on the customer’s network conducting external connectivity to various endpoints associated with remote management and IT services, including Action1, ScreenConnect and Fixme IT. Additionally, Darktrace observed devices downloading suspicious executable files, including “tniwinagent.exe”, which is associated with the tool Total Network Inventory. While this tool is typically used for auditing and inventory management purposes, it could also be leveraged by attackers for the purpose of lateral movement.

Defense Evasion

In the days surrounding this compromise, Darktrace observed multiple devices engaging in potential defense evasion tactics using the ScreenConnect and Fixme IT services. Although ScreenConnect is a legitimate remote management tool, it has also been used by threat actors to carry out C2 communication [6]. ScreenConnect itself was the subject of a separate critical vulnerability which Darktrace investigated in early 2024. Meanwhile, CISA observed that domains associated with Fixme It (“fixme[.]it”) have been used by threat actors attempting to exploit the Citrix Bleed vulnerability [7].

Reconnaissance and Lateral Movement

A few days after the detection of the initial beaconing communication, Darktrace identified several devices on the customer’s network carrying out reconnaissance and lateral movement activity. This included SMB writes of “PSEXESVC.exe”, network scanning, DCE-RPC binds of numerous internal devices to IPC$ shares and the transfer of compromise-related tools. It was at this point that Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI deemed the activity to be likely indicative of an ongoing compromise and several Enhanced Monitoring models alerted, triggering the aforementioned PTNs and investigation by Darktrace’s SOC.

Darktrace observed a server on the network initiating a wide range of connections to more than 600 internal IPs across several critical ports, suggesting port scanning, as well as conducting unexpected DCE-RPC service control (svcctl) activity on multiple internal devices, amongst them domain controllers. Additionally, several binds to server service (srvsvc) and security account manager (samr) endpoints via IPC$ shares on destination devices were detected, indicating further reconnaissance activity. The querying of these endpoints was also observed through RPC commands to enumerate services running on the device, as well as Security Account Manager (SAM) accounts.  

Darktrace also identified devices performing SMB writes of the WinRAR data compression tool, in what likely represented preparation for the compression of data prior to data exfiltration. Further SMB file writes were observed around this time including PSEXESVC.exe, which was ultimately used by attackers to conduct remote code execution, and one device was observed making widespread failed NTLM authentication attempts on the network, indicating NTLM brute-forcing. Darktrace observed several devices using administrative credentials to carry out the above activity.

In addition to the transfer of tools and executables via SMB, Darktrace also identified numerous devices deleting files through SMB around this time. In one example, an MSI file associated with the patch management and remediation service, Action1, was deleted by an attacker. This legitimate security tool, if leveraged by attackers, could be used to uncover additional vulnerabilities on target networks.

A server on the customer’s network was also observed writing the file “m.exe” to multiple internal devices. OSINT investigation into the executable indicated that it could be a malicious tool used to prevent antivirus programs from launching or running on a network [8].

Impact and Data Exfiltration

Following the initial steps of the breach chain, Darktrace observed numerous devices on the customer’s network engaging in data exfiltration and impact events, resulting in additional PTN alerts and a SOC investigation into data egress. Specifically, two servers on the network proceeded to read and download large volumes of data via SMB from multiple internal devices over the course of a few hours. These hosts sent large outbound volumes of data to MEGA file storage sites using TLS/SSL over port 443. Darktrace also identified the use of additional file storage services during this exfiltration event, including 4sync, file[.]io, and easyupload[.]io. In total the threat actor exfiltrated over 8.5 GB of data from the customer’s network.

Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst investigation highlighting the details of a data exfiltration attempt.
Figure 2: Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst investigation highlighting the details of a data exfiltration attempt.

Finally, Darktrace detected a user account within the customer’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment conducting several suspicious Office365 and AzureAD actions from a rare IP for the network, including uncommon file reads, creations and the deletion of a large number of files.

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled on the network and the post-exploitation activity was able to progress until the customer was made aware of the attack by Darktrace’s SOC team. Had RESPOND been active and configured in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack, it would have been able to promptly contain the post-exploitation activity by blocking external connections, shutting down any C2 activity and preventing the download of suspicious files, blocking incoming traffic, and enforcing a learned ‘pattern of life’ on offending devices.

Conclusion

Given the widespread use of Netscaler Gateway and Netscaler ADC, Citrix Bleed remains an impactful and potentially disruptive vulnerability that will likely continue to affect organizations who fail to address affected assets. In this instance, Darktrace demonstrated its ability to track and inhibit malicious activity stemming from Citrix Bleed exploitation, enabling the customer to identify affected devices and enact their own remediation.

Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allows it to identify such post-exploitation activity resulting from the exploitation of a vulnerability, regardless of whether it is a known CVE or a zero-day threat. Unlike traditional security tools that rely on existing threat intelligence and rules and signatures, Darktrace’s ability to identify the subtle deviations in a compromised device’s behavior gives it a unique advantage when it comes to identifying emerging threats.

Credit to Vivek Rajan, Cyber Analyst, Adam Potter, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace Model Coverage

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / ICMP Address Scan

Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance

Device / Network Scan

Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Brute Force

Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity

User / New Admin Credentials on Server

Anomalous File / Internal::Unusual Internal EXE File Transfer

Compliance / SMB Drive Write

Device / New or Unusual Remote Command Execution

Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control

Anomalous Connection / Rare WinRM Incoming

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin SMB Session

Device / Unauthorised Device

User / New Admin Credentials on Server

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Device / Long Agent Connection to New Endpoint

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

Device / New or Uncommon SMB Named Pipe

Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Compliance / Remote Management Tool On Server

Device / Anomalous RDP Followed By Multiple Model Breaches

Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)

Device / New User Agent

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data Transfer

Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer

Device / Increased External Connectivity

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data to New Endpoints

Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain

Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound

Anomalous Connection / Active Remote Desktop Tunnel

Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device

Compliance / Possible Unencrypted Password File On Server

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Read Write Ratio and Rare External

Device / Reverse DNS Sweep]

Unusual Activity / Possible RPC Recon Activity

Anomalous File / Internal::Executable Uploaded to DC

Compliance / SMB Version 1 Usage

Darktrace AI Analyst Incidents

Scanning of Multiple Devices

Suspicious Remote Service Control Activity

SMB Writes of Suspicious Files to Multiple Devices

Possible SSL Command and Control to Multiple Devices

Extensive Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Internal Downloads and External Uploads

Unusual External Data Transfer

Unusual External Data Transfer to Multiple Related Endpoints

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Technique – Tactic – ID – Sub technique of

Network Scanning – Reconnaissance - T1595 - T1595.002

Valid Accounts – Defense Evasion, Persistence, Privilege Escalation, Initial Access – T1078 – N/A

Remote Access Software – Command and Control – T1219 – N/A

Lateral Tool Transfer – Lateral Movement – T1570 – N/A

Data Transfers – Exfiltration – T1567 – T1567.002

Compressed Data – Exfiltration – T1030 – N/A

NTLM Brute Force – Brute Force – T1110 - T1110.001

AntiVirus Deflection – T1553 - NA

Ingress Tool Transfer   - COMMAND AND CONTROL - T1105 - NA

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

204.155.149[.]37 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

199.80.53[.]177 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

168.100.9[.]137 – IP – Malicious Endpoint

45.134.26[.]2 – IP – Malicious Endpoint

13.35.147[.]18 – IP – Likely Malicious Endpoint

13.248.193[.]251 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

76.223.1[.]166 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

179.60.147[.]10 – IP – Likely Malicious Endpoint

185.220.101[.]25 – IP – Likely Malicious Endpoint

141.255.167[.]250 – IP – Malicious Endpoint

106.71.177[.]68 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

cat2.hbwrapper[.]com – Hostname – Likely Malicious Endpoint

aj1090[.]online – Hostname – Likely Malicious Endpoint

dc535[.]4sync[.]com – Hostname – Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.149[.]140 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.149[.]132 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.145[.]52 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.145[.]49 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

References

  1. https://www.axios.com/2024/01/02/citrix-bleed-security-hacks-impact
  2. https://www.csoonline.com/article/1267774/hackers-steal-data-from-millions-of-xfinity-customers-via-citrix-bleed-vulnerability.html
  3. https://www.cybersecuritydive.com/news/citrixbleed-security-critical-vulnerability/702505/
  4. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/168.100.9.137
  5. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/45.134.26.2
  6. https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/24/b/threat-actor-groups-including-black-basta-are-exploiting-recent-.html
  7. https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa23-325a
  8. https://www.file.net/process/m.exe.html
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About the author
Vivek Rajan
Cyber Analyst
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