Botnet malware: Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) attack
With the rise of the dynamic workforce, IT teams have been forced to rely on remote access more than ever before. There are now almost five million Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) servers exposed to the Internet – around two million more than before the pandemic. Remote desktops are an essential feature for the majority of companies and yet are often exploited by cyber-criminals. Events such as the Florida water plant incident, where an attacker attempted to manipulate the chemical concentration in the water supply of a whole city, show how fatal the consequences of such a cyber-threat can be.
Last month, Darktrace detected a server-side attack at a technology company in the APAC region. The hackers brute-forced an RDP server and attempted to spread throughout the organization. The early detection of this breach was crucial in stopping the cyber-criminals before they could create a botnet and use it to cause serious damage, potentially launching a ransomware or distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack.
How to make a botnet
All it takes is one vulnerable RDP server for a threat actor to gain an initial foothold into an organization and spread laterally to build their botnet army. A bot is simply an infected device which can be controlled by a malicious third party; once a network of these hosts has been accumulated, a hacker can perform a range of actions, including:
- Exfiltration of user credentials and payment data
- Uploading Trojan malware to the server, which opens a backdoor to the system while masquerading as legitimate software
- Deploying ransomware, as seen last year in a Dharma attack
- Renting out access to the company’s infrastructure to other threat actors
- Mining cryptocurrency with the CPUs of zombie devices
In fact, there is little an attacker can’t do once they have gained remote access to these devices. Botnet malware tends to contain self-updating functions that allow the owner to add or remove functionality. And because the attackers are using legitimate administrative RDP credentials, it is extremely difficult for traditional security tools to detect this malicious activity until it is far too late.
DDoS for hire: A cyber-criminal enterprise
The commerce of cyber-crime has boomed in recent years, further complicating matters. There are now subscription-based and rental models easily available on the Dark Web for a range of illegal activities from Ransomware-as-a-Service to private data auctions. As a result, it is becoming increasingly common for attackers to infect servers and sell the use of these bots online. DDoS for hire services offer access to botnets for as little as $20 per hour. In fact, some of these kits are even legal and market themselves as ‘IP stressers’ or ‘booters’, which can be used legitimately to test the resilience of a website, but are often exploited and used to take down sites and networks.
These developments have sparked a new wave in DDoS and botnet malware attacks as hackers capitalize on the added financial incentive to create botnets and rent them on the Dark Web. ‘Botnet builder’ tools help low-skilled attackers create bots by providing botnet malware and assisting with the initial infection. Sophisticated RDP attacks have blossomed as a result of these kits, which lower the skill-threshold of such attacks and thus make them widely accessible.
Automated RDP attack under the microscope
Figure 1: A timeline of the attack
An Internet-facing RDP server hosting an online games site was recently compromised at a technology company with around 500 devices on its network. The attacker used brute force to glean the correct password and gain remote access to the desktop. It was at this point that Darktrace’s Cyber AI began to detect unusual administrative RDP connections from rare external locations.
In many ways, this incident is typical of an RDP compromise. Credential brute-forcing is a common initial vector for server-side attacks, alongside credential stuffing and exploiting vulnerabilities. In this case, the threat actor likely planned to utilize the exposed server as a pivot point to infect other internal and external devices, possibly to create a botnet-for-hire or exfiltrate sensitive information.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst highlights unusual connections to internal IP addresses from an example breach device
Approximately 14 hours after this compromise, the attacker downloaded multiple files from rare domains. Over the next 18 hours the attacker made over 4.4 million internal and external connection attempts on port 445 using the vulnerable SMBv1 protocol. The majority of these attempts were SMB Session Failures using the credential “administrator”. The server engaged in successful SMB sessions with over 270 internal and external IP addresses.
Outgoing connections to rare but benign locations on ports normally used internally may not match a specific attack profile, meaning they are missed by signature-based security tools. However, despite a lack of threat intelligence on the multiple file download sources, Darktrace’s AI was able to observe the highly unusual nature of the activity, leading to high-confidence detections.
Figure 3: An example graph from Darktrace’s Threat Visualizer showing a large increase in the number of anomalous external connections
Botnet malware and automation
The speed of movement and lack of data exfiltration in this incident suggest that the attack was automated, likely with the help of botnet builder tools. The use of automation to accelerate and mask the breach could have led to severe consequences had Darktrace not alerted the security team in the initial stages.
Attacks against Internet-facing RDP servers remain one of the most common initial infection vectors. With the rise of automated scanning services and botnet malware tools, the ease of compromise has shot up. It is only matter of time before exposed servers are exploited. Furthermore, heavily automated attacks are constantly running and can spread rapidly across the organization. In such cases, it is vital for security teams to be made aware of malicious activity on devices as quickly as possible.
Darktrace’s AI not only pinpointed by itself that the infection had originated on a specific RDP server, it also detected every step of the attack in real time, despite a lack of clear existing signatures. Self-learning AI detects anomalous activity for users and devices across the digital environment and is therefore crucial in shutting down threats at machine speed. Moreover, the visibility provided by Darktrace DETECT greatly reduces the attack surface and identifies badly maintained shadow IT, providing an extra layer of security over the digital business.
Thanks to Darktrace analyst Tom McHale for his insights on the above threat find.
Darktrace model detections:
- Compliance / Internet Facing RDP Server
- Anomalous File / Zip or Gzip from Rare External Location
- Anomalous File / Incoming RAR File
- Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location
- Anomalous File / Internet Facing System File Download
- Experimental / Rare Endpoint with Young Certificate
- Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
- Device / New User Agent and New IP
- Anomalous File / Anomalous Octet Stream
- Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Breaches
- Device / Anomalous RDP Followed By Multiple Model Breaches
- Compliance / External Windows Communications
- Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server
- Device / Increased External Connectivity
- Device / SMB Session Bruteforce
- Unusual Activity / Unusual Activity from New Device
- Device / Network Scan - Low Anomaly Score
- Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints
- Device / High Volume of Connections from Guest or New Device
- Compromise / Suspicious File and C2
- Anomalous File / Script from Rare Location
- Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations
- Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise
- Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server
- Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
- Device / Suspicious Domain
- Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.