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Admin Credential Abuse: How Darktrace Succeeded Where Other Solutions Failed

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17
Aug 2023
17
Aug 2023
This blog details a malicious actor’s attempt to abuse a customer’s administrative credentials in order to further their compromise on the network. Thanks to its anomaly-based approach to threat detection, Darktrace was the only solution in the customer’s stack to identify and contain the attack.

What is Admin Credential Abuse?

In an effort to remain undetected by increasingly vigilant security teams, malicious actors across the threat landscape often resort to techniques that allow them to remain ‘quiet’ on the network and carry out their objectives subtly. One such technique often employed by attackers is using highly privileged credentials to carry out malicious activity.

This emphasizes the need to be hyper vigilant and not assume that ‘administrative’ activity using privileged credentials is legitimate. In this way, both internal visibility and defense in-depth are needed, as well as a strong understanding of ‘normal’ administrative activity to then identify any deviations from this.  

In one recent example, Darktrace identified a threat actor attempting to use privileged administrative credentials to move laterally through a customer’s network and compromise two further critical servers. Darktrace DETECT™ identified that this activity was unusual and alerted the customer to early signs of compromise, reconnaissance and lateral movement to the other critical devices, while Darktrace RESPOND™ acted autonomously to inhibit the spread of activity and allowed the customer to quarantine the compromised devices.

Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Over the course of a week in late May 2023, Darktrace observed a compromise on the network of a customer in the Netherlands. The threat actors primarily used living off the land techniques, abusing legitimate administrative credentials and executables to perform unexpected activities. This technique is intended to go under the radar of traditional security tools that are often unable to distinguish between the legitimate or malicious use of privileged credentials.

Darktrace was the only security solution in the customer’s stack that way able to detect and contain the attack, preventing it from spreading through their digital estate.

1. Device Reactivated

On May 22, 2023, Darktrace began to observe traffic originating from a File Server device which prior to this, had been been inactive on the network for some time, with no incoming or outgoing traffic recently observed for this IP. Therefore, upon initiating connections again, Darktrace’s AI tagged the device with the “Re-Activated Device” label. It also tagged the device as an “Internet Facing System”, which could represent an initial point of compromise.

Following this, the device was observed using an administrative credential that was commonly used across network, with no clear indications of brute-force activity or successive login failures preceeding this activity. The unusual use of a known credential on a network can be very difficult to detect for traditional security tools. Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection allows it to recognize subtle deviations in device behavior meaning it is uniquely placed to recognize this type of activity.

2. Reconaissance  

On the following day, the affected device began to perform SMB scans for open 445 ports, and writing files such as srvsvc and winreg, both of which are indicative of network  reconnaissance. Srvsvc is used to enumerate available SMB shares on destination devices which could be used to then write malicious files to these shares, while Winreg (Windows Registry) is used to store information that configures users, applications, and hardware devices [1]. Darktrace also observed the device carrying out DCE_RPC activity and making Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) enumeration requests to other internal devices.

3. Lateral Movement via SMB

On May 24 and May 30, Darktrace observed the same device writing files over SMB to a number of other internal devices, including an SMB server and the Domain Controller. Darktrace identified that these writers were to privileged credential paths, such as C$ and ADMIN$, and it further recognized that the device was using the compromised administrative credential.

The files included remote command executable files (.exe) and batch scripts which execute commands upon clicking in a serial order. This behavior is indicative of a threat actor performing lateral movement in an attempt to infect other devices and strengthen their foothold in the network.

Files written:

·       LogConverter.bat

·       sql.bat

·       Microsoft.NodejsTools.PressAnyKey.exe

·       PSEXESVC.exe

·       Microsoft.NodejsTools.PressAnyKey.lnk

·       CG6oDkyFHl3R.t

5. Reconnaissance Spread

Around the same time as the observed lateral movement activity, between May 24 and May 30, the initially compromised device continued SMB and DCE_RPC activity, mainly involving SMB writes of files such as srvsvc, and PSEXESVC.exe.

Then, on May 28, Darktrace identified another internal Domain Controller engaging in similar suspicious behavior to the original compromised device. This included network scanning, enumeration and service control activity, indicating a spread of further malicious reconnaissance.

Following the successful detection of this activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst launched autonomous investigations which was able to correlate incidents from multiple affected devices across the network, in doing so connecting multiple incidents into one security event.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst connecting multiple events into one incident
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigation process to identify suspicious activity.

6. Lateral Movement

Alongside these SMB writes, the initially compromised device was seen connecting to various internal devices over ports associated with administrative protocols such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). It also made a high volume of NTLM login failures for the credential ‘administrator’, suggesting that the malicious actor was attempting to brute-force an administrative credential.

7. Suspicious External Activity

Following earlier SMB writes from the initially compromised device to the Domain Controller server, the Domain Controller was seen making an unusual volume of external connections to rare endpoints which could indicate malicious command and control (C2) communication.

Alongside this activity, between May 30 and June 1, Darktrace also observed an unusually large number (over 12 million) of incoming connections from external endpoints. This activity is likely indicative of an attempted Denial of Service (DoS) attack.

Endpoints include:

·       45.15.145[.]92

·       198.2.200[.]89

·       162.211.180[.]215

Figure 3: Graphing function in the Darktrace UI showing the observed spike of inbound communication from external endpoints, indicating a potential DoS attack.

8. Reconnaissance and RDP activity

On May 31, the initially compromised device was seen creating an administrative RDP session with cookie ‘Administr’. Using the initially compromised administrative credential, further suspicious SMB activity was observed from the compromised devices on the same day including further SMB Enumeration, service control, PsExec remote command execution, and writes of another suspicious batch script file to various internal devices.

Darktrace RESPOND Coverage

Darktrace RESPOND’s autonomous response capabilities allowed it to take instantaneous preventative action against the affected devices as soon as suspicious activity was identified, consequently inhibiting the spread of this attack.

Specifically, Darktrace RESPOND was able to block suspicious connections to multiple internal devices and ports, among them port 445 which was used by threat actors to perform SMB scanning, for one hour. As a result of the autonomous actions carried out by Darktrace, the attack was stopped at the earliest possible stage.

Figure 4: Autonomous RESPOND actions taken against initially compromised devices.

In addition to these autonomous actions, the customer was able to further utilize RESPOND for containment purposes by manually actioning some of the more severe actions suggested by RESPOND, such as quarantining compromised devices from the rest of the network for a week.

Figure 5: Manually applied RESPOND actions to quarantine compromised devices for one week.

Conclusion

As attackers continue to employ harder to detect living off the land techniques to exploit administrative credentials and move laterally across networks, it is paramount for organizations to have an intelligent decision maker that can recgonize the subtle deviations in device behavior.

Thanks to its Self-Learning AI, Darktrace is uniquely placed to understand its customer’s networks, allowing it to recognize unusual or uncommon activity for individual devices or user credentials, irrespective of whether this activity is typically considered as legitimate.

In this case, Darktrace was the only solution in the customer’s security stack that successfully identified and mitigated this attack. Darktrace DETECT was able to identify the the early stages of the compromise and provide full visibility over the kill chain. Meanwhile, Darktrace RESPOND moved at machine-speed, blocking suspicious connections and preventing the compromise from spreading across the customer’s network.

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

Anomalous Connection / High Volume of New or Uncommon Service Control

Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control

Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin RDP Session

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin SMB Session

Anomalous File / Internal / Executable Uploaded to DC

Anomalous File / Internal / Unusual SMB Script Write

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Anomalous Server Activity / Possible Denial of Service Activity

Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena Network Scan Block

Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena SMB Enumeration Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Server Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

Compliance / Outgoing NTLM Request from DC

Compliance / SMB Drive Write

Device / Anomalous NTLM Brute Force

Device / ICMP Address Scan  

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches from Critical Network Device

Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

Device / Network Scan

Device / New or Uncommon SMB Named Pipe

Device / New or Uncommon WMI Activity

Device / New or Unusual Remote Command Execution

Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Brute Force

Device / RDP Scan

Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Darktrace RESPOND Model Breaches

Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena Network Scan Block

Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena SMB Enumeration Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Server Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

Cyber AI Analyst Incidents

Extensive Suspicious Remote WMI Activity

Extensive Unusual Administrative Connections

Large Volume of SMB Login Failures from Multiple Devices

Port Scanning

Scanning of Multiple Devices

SMB Writes of Suspicious Files

Suspicious Chain of Administrative Connections

Suspicious DCE_RPC Activity

TCP Scanning of Multiple Devices

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

RECONNAISSANCE
T1595 Active Scanning
T1589.001 Gathering Credentials

CREDENTIAL ACCESS
T1110 Brute Force

LATERAL MOVEMENT
T1210 Exploitation of Remote Services
T1021.001 Remote Desktop Protocol

COMMAND AND CONTROL
T1071 Application Layer Protocol

IMPACT
T1498.001 Direct Network Flood

References

[1] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/troubleshoot/windows-server/performance/windows-registry-advanced-users

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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Zoe Tilsiter
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Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

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Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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22
Feb 2024

What is VIP impersonation?

VIP impersonation involves a threat actor impersonating a trusted, prominent figure at an organization in an attempt to solicit sensitive information from an employee.

VIP impersonation is a high-priority issue for security teams, but it can be difficult to assess the exact risks, and whether those are more critical than other types of compromise. Looking across a range of Darktrace/Email™ customer deployments, this blog explores the patterns of individuals targeted for impersonation and evaluates if these target priorities correspond with security teams' focus on protecting attack pathways to critical assets.

How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?

Protecting VIP entities within an organization has long been a traditional focus for security teams. The assumption is that VIPs, due to their prominence, possess the greatest access to critical assets, making them prime targets for cyber threats.  

Email remains the predominant vector for attacks, with over 90% of breaches originating from malicious emails. However, the dynamics of email-based attacks are shifting, as the widespread use of generative AI is lowering the barrier to entry by allowing adversaries to create hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors.

Given these developments, it's worth asking the question – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are most targeted by threat actors via email? And, more importantly – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are more valuable if they are successfully compromised?

There are two types of VIPs:  

1. When referring to emails and phishing, VIPs are the users in an organization who are well known publicly.  

2. When referring to attack paths, VIPs are users in an organization that are known publicly and have access to highly privileged assets.  

Not every prominent user has access to critical assets, and not every user that has access to critical assets is prominent.  

Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation

We analyzed patterns of attack pathways and phishing attempts across 20 customer deployments from a large, randomized pool encompassing a diverse range of organizations.  

Understanding Attack Pathways

Our observations revealed that 57% of low-difficulty attack paths originated from VIP entities, while 43% of observed low-difficulty attack paths towards critical assets or entities began through non-VIP users. This means that targeting VIPs is not the only way attackers can reach critical assets, and that non-VIP users must be considered as well.  

While the sample size prevents us from establishing statistical significance across all customers, the randomized selection lends credence to the generalizability of these findings to other environments.

Phishing Attempts  

On average, 1.35% of total emails sent to these customers exhibited significantly malicious properties associated with phishing or some form of impersonation. Strikingly, nearly half of these malicious emails (49.6%) were directed towards VIPs, while the rest were sent to non-VIPs. This near-equal split is worth noting, as attack paths show that non-VIPs also serve as potential entry points for targeting critical assets.  

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: A phishing email actioned by Darktrace, sent to multiple VIP and non-VIP entities

For example, a recent phishing campaign targeted multiple customers across deployments, with five out of 13 emails specifically aimed at VIP users. Darktrace/Email actioned the malicious emails by double locking the links, holding the messages, and stripping the attachments.

Given that non-VIP users receive nearly half of the phishing or impersonation emails, it underscores the critical importance for security teams to recognize their blind spots in protecting critical assets. Overlooking the potential threat originating from non-VIP entities could lead to severe consequences. For instance, if a non-VIP user falls victim to a phishing attack or gets compromised, their credentials could be exploited to move laterally within the organization, potentially reaching critical assets.

This highlights the necessity for a sophisticated security tool that can identify targeted users, without the need for extensive customization and regardless of VIP status. By deploying a solution capable of promptly responding to email threats – including solicitation, phishing attempts, and impersonation – regardless of the status of the targeted user, security teams can significantly enhance their defense postures.

Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods

Traditional rules and signatures-based detection mechanisms fall short in identifying the evolving threats we’ve observed, due to their reliance on knowledge of past attacks to categorize emails.

Secure Email Gateway (SEG) or Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) tools categorize emails based on previous or known attacks, operating on a known-good or known-bad model. Even if tools use AI to automate this process, the approach is still fundamentally looking to the past and therefore vulnerable to unknown and zero-day threats.  

Darktrace uses AI to understand each unique organization and how its email environment interoperates with each user and device on the network. Consequently, it is able to identify the subtle deviations from normal behavior that qualify as suspicious. This approach goes beyond simplistic categorizations, considering factors such as the sender’s history and recipient’s exposure score.  

This nuanced analysis enables Darktrace to differentiate between genuine communications and malicious impersonation attempts. It automatically understands who is a VIP, without the need for manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails  based on a user’s status.

Email does determine who is a VIP, without a need of manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails.

Darktrace/Email also feeds into Darktrace’s preventative security tools, giving the interconnected AI engines further context for assessing the high-value targets and pathways to vital internal systems and assets that start via the inbox.

Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise  

The efficacy of AI-driven security solutions lies in their ability to make informed decisions and recommendations based on real-time business data. By leveraging this data, AI driven solutions can identify exploitable attack pathways and an organizations most critical assets. Darktrace uniquely uses several forms of AI to equip security teams with the insights needed to make informed decisions about which pathways to secure, reducing human bias around the importance of protecting VIPs.

With the emergence of tools like AutoGPT, identifying potential targets for phishing attacks has become increasingly simplified. However, the real challenge lies in gaining a comprehensive understanding of all possible and low-difficulty attack paths leading to critical assets and identities within the organization.

At the same time, organizations need email tools that can leverage the understanding of users to prevent email threats from succeeding in the first instance. For every email and user, Darktrace/Email takes into consideration changes in behavior from the sender, recipient, content, and language, and many other factors.

Integrating Darktrace/Email with Darktrace’s attack path modeling capabilities enables comprehensive threat contextualization and facilitates a deeper understanding of attack pathways. This holistic approach ensures that all potential vulnerabilities, irrespective of the user's status, are addressed, strengthening the overall security posture.  

Conclusion

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis suggests that the distinction between VIPs and non-VIPs in terms of susceptibility to impersonation and low-difficulty attack paths is not as pronounced as presumed. Therefore, security teams must adopt a proactive stance in safeguarding all pathways, rather than solely focusing on VIPs.  

Attack path modeling enhances Darktrace/Email's capabilities by providing crucial metrics on potential impact, damage, exposure, and weakness, enabling more targeted and effective threat mitigation strategies. For example, stronger email actions can be enforced for users who are known to have a high potential impact in case of compromise. 

In an era where cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity, an adaptive and non-siloed approach to securing inboxes, high-priority individuals, and critical assets is indispensable.  

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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