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Catching APT41 exploiting a zero-day vulnerability

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01
Apr 2020
01
Apr 2020
This blog looks at how the cyber-criminal group APT41 exploited a zero-day vulnerability, and examines how Darktrace’s AI detected and investigated the threat at machine speed.

Executive summary

  • Darktrace detected several highly targeted attacks in early March, well before any associated signatures had become available. Two weeks later, the attacks were attributed to Chinese threat-actor APT41.
  • APT41 exploited the Zoho ManageEngine zero-day vulnerability CVE-2020-10189. Darktrace automatically detected and reported on the attack in its earliest stages, enabling customers to contain the threat before it could make an impact.
  • The intrusions described here were part of a wider campaign aiming to gain initial access to as many companies as possible during the window of opportunity presented by CVE-2020-10189.
  • The reports generated by Darktrace highlighted and delineated every aspect of the incident in the form of a meaningful security narrative. Even a junior responder could have reviewed this output and acted on this zero-day APT attack in under 5 minutes.

Fighting APT41’s global attack

In early March, Darktrace detected several advanced attacks targeting customers in the US and Europe. A majority of these customers are in the legal sector. The attacks shared the same Techniques, Tools & Procedures (TTPs), targeting public-facing servers and exploiting recent high-impact vulnerabilities. Last week, FireEye attributed this suspicious activity to the Chinese cyber espionage group APT41.

This campaign used the Zoho ManageEngine zero-day vulnerability CVE-2020-10189 to get access to various companies, but little to no follow-up was detected after initial intrusion. This activity indicates a broad-brush campaign to get initial access to as many target companies as possible during the zero-day window of opportunity.

The malicious activity observed by Darktrace took place late on Sunday March 8, 2020 and in the morning of March 9, 2020 (UTC), broadly in line with office hours previously attributed to the Chinese cyber espionage group APT41.

The graphic below shows an exemplary timeline from one of the customers targeted by APT41. The attacks observed in other customer environments are identical.

Timeline of the APT41 attack
Figure 1: A timeline of the attack

Technical analysis

The attack described here centered around the Zoho ManageEngine zero-day vulnerability CVE-2020-10189. Most of the attack appears to have been automated.

We observed the initial intrusion, several follow-up payload downloads, and command and control (C2) traffic. In all cases, the activity was contained before any later steps in the attack lifecycle, such as lateral movement or data exfiltration, were identified.

The below screenshot shows an overview of the key AI Analyst detections reported. Not only did it report on the SSL and HTTP C2 traffic, but it also reported on the payload downloads:

Cyber AI Analyst breaks down the APT41 attack
Figure 2: SSL C2 detection by Cyber AI Analyst
Figure 3: Payload detection by Cyber AI Analyst

Initial compromise

The initial compromise began with the successful exploitation of the Zoho ManageEngine zero-day vulnerability CVE-2020-10189. Following the initial intrusion, the Microsoft BITSAdmin command line tool was used to fetch and install a malicious Batch file, described below:

install.bat (MD5: 7966c2c546b71e800397a67f942858d0) from infrastructure 66.42.98[.]220 on port 12345.

Source: 10.60.50.XX
Destination: 66.42.98[.]220
Destination Port: 12345
Content Type: application/x-msdownload
Protocol: HTTP
Host: 66.42.98[.]220
URI: /test/install.bat
Method: GET
Status Code: 200

Figure 4: Outbound connection fetching batch file

Shortly after the initial compromise, the first stage Cobalt Strike Beacon LOADER was downloaded.

Cobalt Strike Beacon loader screenshot
Figure 5: Detection of the Cobalt Strike Beacon LOADER

Command and Control traffic

Interestingly, TeamViewer activity and the download of Notepad++ was taking place at the same time as the C2 traffic was starting in some of the customer attacks. This indicates APT41 trying to use familiar tools instead of completely ‘Living off the Land’.

Storesyncsvc.dll was a Cobalt Strike Beacon implant (trial-version) which connected to exchange.dumb1[.]com. A successful DNS resolution to 74.82.201[.]8 was identified, which Darktrace discerned as a successful SSL connection to a hostname with Dynamic DNS properties.

Multiple connections to exchange.dumb1[.]com were identified as beaconing to a C2 center. This C2 traffic to the initial Cobalt Strike Beacon was leveraged to download a second stage payload.

Interestingly, TeamViewer activity and the download of Notepad++ was taking place at the same time as the C2 traffic was starting in some of the customer attacks. This indicates APT41 trying to use familiar tools instead of completely ‘Living off the Land’. There is at least high certainty that the use of these two tools can be attributed to this intrusion instead of regular business activity. Notepad++ was not normally used in the target customers’ environments, nor was TeamViewer – in fact, the use of both applications was 100% unusual for the targeted organizations.

Attack tools download

CertUtil.exe, a command line program installed as part of Certificate Services, was then leveraged to connect externally and download the second stage payload.

Detection associated with Meterpreter activity

Figure 6: Darktrace detecting the usage of CertUtil

A few hours after this executable download, the infected device made an outbound HTTP connection requesting the URI /TzGG, which was identified as Meterpreter downloading further shellcode for the Cobalt Strike Beacon.

Figure 7: Detection associated with Meterpreter activity. No lateral movement or significant data exfiltration was observed.

How Cyber AI Analyst reported on the zero-day exploit

Darktrace not only detected this zero-day attack campaign, but Cyber AI Analyst also saved security teams valuable time by investigating disparate security events and generating a report that immediately put them in a position to take action.

The below screenshot shows the AI Analyst incidents reported in one infected environment, over the eight days covering the intrusion period. The first incident on the left represents the APT activity described here. The other five incidents are independent of the APT activity and not as severe.

AI Analyst Security Incidents
Figure 8: The security incidents surfaced by AI Analyst

AI Analyst reported on six incidents in total over the eight-day period. Each AI Analyst incident includes a detailed timeline and summary of the incident, in a concise format that takes an average of two minutes to review. This means that with Cyber AI Analyst, even a non-technical person could have actioned a response to this sophisticated, zero-day incident in less than five minutes.

Conclusion

Without public Indicators of Compromise (IoCs) or any open-source intelligence available, targeted attacks are incredibly difficult to detect. Moreover, even the best detections are useless if they cannot be actioned by a security analyst at an early stage. Too often this occurs because of an overwhelming volume of alerts, or simply because the skills barrier to triage and investigation is too high.

This appears to be a broad campaign to gain initial access to many different companies and sectors. While very sophisticated in nature, the threat sacrificed stealth for speed by targeting many companies at the same time. APT41 wanted to utilize the limited window of opportunity that the Zoho zero-day provided before IT staff starts patching.

Darktrace’s Cyber AI is specifically designed to detect the subtle signs of targeted, unknown attacks at an early stage, without relying on prior knowledge or IoCs. It achieves this by continuously learning the normal patterns of behavior for every user, device, and associated peer group from scratch, and ‘on the job’.

In the face of this zero-day attack campaign, the AI’s ability to (a) detect unknown threats with self-learning AI and (b) augment strained responders with AI-driven investigations and reporting proved crucial. Indeed, it ensured that the attacks were swiftly contained before escalating to the later stages of the attack lifecycle.

Indicators of Compromise

Selection of Darktrace model breaches:

  • Anomalous File / Script from Rare External
  • Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location
  • Compromise / SSL to DynDNS
  • Compliance / CertUtil External Connection
  • Anomalous Connection / CertUtil Requesting Non Certificate
  • Anomalous Connection / CertUtil to Rare Destination
  • Anomalous Connection / New User-Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise
  • Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Anomalous File / Numeric Exe Download
  • Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server
  • Compromise / Sustained TCP Beaconing Activity To Rare Endpoint
  • Compliance / Remote Management Tool On Server

The below screenshot shows Darktrace model breaches occurring together during the compromise of one customer:

Figure 9: Darktrace model breaches occurring together

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

Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works with the R&D team at Darktrace, shaping research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.

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Blog

Email

How to Protect your Organization Against Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks

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21
May 2024

The problem: Microsoft Teams phishing attacks are on the rise

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services1, with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft SharePoint in particular emerging as critical platforms to the business operations of the everyday workplace. Researchers across the threat landscape have begun to observe these legitimate services being leveraged more and more by malicious actors as an initial access method.

As Teams becomes a more prominent feature of the workplace many employees rely on it for daily internal and external communication, even surpassing email usage in some organizations. As Microsoft2 states, "Teams changes your relationship with email. When your whole group is working in Teams, it means you'll all get fewer emails. And you'll spend less time in your inbox, because you'll use Teams for more of your conversations."

However, Teams can be exploited to send targeted phishing messages to individuals either internally or externally, while appearing legitimate and safe. Users might receive an external message request from a Teams account claiming to be an IT support service or otherwise affiliated with the organization. Once a user has accepted, the threat actor can launch a social engineering campaign or deliver a malicious payload. As a primarily internal tool there is naturally less training and security awareness around Teams – due to the nature of the channel it is assumed to be a trusted source, meaning that social engineering is already one step ahead.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)
Figure 1: Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)

Microsoft Teams Phishing Examples

Microsoft has identified several major phishing attacks using Teams within the past year.

In July 2023, Microsoft announced that the threat actor known as Midnight Blizzard – identified by the United States as a Russian state-sponsored group – had launched a series of phishing campaigns via Teams with the aim of stealing user credentials. These attacks used previously compromised Microsoft 365 accounts and set up new domain names that impersonated legitimate IT support organizations. The threat actors then used social engineering tactics to trick targeted users into sharing their credentials via Teams, enabling them to access sensitive data.  

At a similar time, threat actor Storm-0324 was observed sending phishing lures via Teams containing links to malicious SharePoint-hosted files. The group targeted organizations that allow Teams users to interact and share files externally. Storm-0324’s goal is to gain initial access to hand over to other threat actors to pursue more dangerous follow-on attacks like ransomware.

For a more in depth look at how Darktrace stops Microsoft Teams phishing read our blog: Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

The market: Existing Microsoft Teams security solutions are insufficient

Microsoft’s native Teams security focuses on payloads, namely links and attachments, as the principal malicious component of any phishing. These payloads are relatively straightforward to detect with their experience in anti-virus, sandboxing, and IOCs. However, this approach is unable to intervene before the stage at which payloads are delivered, before the user even gets the chance to accept or deny an external message request. At the same time, it risks missing more subtle threats that don’t include attachments or links – like early stage phishing, which is pure social engineering – or completely new payloads.

Equally, the market offering for Teams security is limited. Security solutions available on the market are always payload-focused, rather than taking into account the content and context in which a link or attachment is sent. Answering questions like:

  • Does it make sense for these two accounts to speak to each other?
  • Are there any linguistic indicators of inducement?

Furthermore, they do not correlate with email to track threats across multiple communication environments which could signal a wider campaign. Effectively, other market solutions aren’t adding extra value – they are protecting against the same types of threats that Microsoft is already covering by default.

The other aspect of Teams security that native and market solutions fail to address is the account itself. As well as focusing on Teams threats, it’s important to analyze messages to understand the normal mode of communication for a user, and spot when a user’s Teams activity might signal account takeover.

The solution: How Darktrace protects Microsoft Teams against sophisticated threats

With its biggest update to Darktrace/Email ever, Darktrace now offers support for Microsoft Teams. With that, we are bringing the same AI philosophy that protects your email and accounts to your messaging environment.  

Our Self-Learning AI looks at content and context for every communication, whether that’s sent in an email or Teams message. It looks at actual user behavior, including language patterns, relationship history of sender and recipient, tone and payloads, to understand if a message poses a threat. This approach allows Darktrace to detect threats such as social engineering and payloadless attacks using visibility and forensic capabilities that Microsoft security doesn’t currently offer, as well as early symptoms of account compromise.  

Unlike market solutions, Darktrace doesn’t offer a siloed approach to Teams security. Data and signals from Teams are shared across email to inform detection, and also with the wider Darktrace ActiveAI security platform. By correlating information from email and Teams with network and apps security, Darktrace is able to better identify suspicious Teams activity and vice versa.  

Interested in the other ways Darktrace/Email augments threat detection? Read our latest blog on how improving the quality of end-user reporting can decrease the burden on the SOC. To find our more about Darktrace's enduring partnership with Microsoft, click here.

References

[1] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

[2] Microsoft blog, Microsoft Teams and email, living in harmony, 2024

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Blog

Inside the SOC

Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

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20
May 2024

Social Engineering in Phishing Attacks

Faced with increasingly cyber-aware endpoint users and vigilant security teams, more and more threat actors are forced to think psychologically about the individuals they are targeting with their phishing attacks. Social engineering methods like taking advantage of the human emotions of their would-be victims, pressuring them to open emails or follow links or face financial or legal repercussions, and impersonating known and trusted brands or services, have become common place in phishing campaigns in recent years.

Phishing with Microsoft Teams

The malicious use of the popular communications platform Microsoft Teams has become widely observed and discussed across the threat landscape, with many organizations adopting it as their primary means of business communication, and many threat actors using it as an attack vector. As Teams allows users to communicate with people outside of their organization by default [1], it becomes an easy entry point for potential attackers to use as a social engineering vector.

In early 2024, Darktrace/Apps™ identified two separate instances of malicious actors using Microsoft Teams to launch a phishing attack against Darktrace customers in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. Interestingly, in this case the attackers not only used a well-known legitimate service to carry out their phishing campaign, but they were also attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

Despite these attempts to evade endpoint users and traditional security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly detection enabled it to identify the suspicious phishing messages and bring them to the customer’s attention. Additionally, Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, was able to follow-up these detections with targeted actions to contain the suspicious activity in the first instance.

Darktrace Coverage of Microsoft Teams Phishing

Chats Sent by External User and Following Actions by Darktrace

On February 29, 2024, Darktrace detected the presence of a new external user on the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment of an EMEA customer for the first time. The user, “REDACTED@InternationalHotelChain[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” was only observed on this date and no further activities were detected from this user after February 29.

Later the same day, the unusual external user created its first chat on Microsoft Teams named “New Employee Loyalty Program”. Over the course of around 5 minutes, the user sent 63 messages across 21 different chats to unique internal users on the customer’s SaaS platform. All these chats included the ‘foreign tenant user’ and one of the customer’s internal users, likely in an attempt to remain undetected. Foreign tenant user, in this case, refers to users without access to typical internal software and privileges, indicating the presence of an external user.

Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Figure 1: Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.
Figure 2: Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.

Darktrace identified that the external user had connected from an unusual IP address located in Poland, 195.242.125[.]186. Darktrace understood that this was unexpected behavior for this user who had only previously been observed connecting from the United Kingdom; it further recognized that no other users within the customer’s environment had connected from this external source, thereby deeming it suspicious. Further investigation by Darktrace’s analyst team revealed that the endpoint had been flagged as malicious by several open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors.

External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.
Figure 3: External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.

Following Darktrace’s initial detection of these suspicious Microsoft Teams messages, Darktrace's autonomous response was able to further support the customer by providing suggested mitigative actions that could be applied to stop the external user from sending any additional phishing messages.

Unfortunately, at the time of this attack Darktrace's autonomous response capability was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any autonomous response actions had to be manually actioned by the customer. Had it been enabled in autonomous response mode, it would have been able promptly disrupt the attack, disabling the external user to prevent them from continuing their phishing attempts and securing precious time for the customer’s security team to begin their own remediation procedures.

Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.
Figure 4: Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.

External URL Sent within Teams Chats

Within the 21 Teams chats created by the threat actor, Darktrace identified 21 different external URLs being sent, all of which included the domain "cloud-sharcpoint[.]com”. Many of these URLs had been recently established and had been flagged as malicious by OSINT providers [3]. This was likely an attempt to impersonate “cloud-sharepoint[.]com”, the legitimate domain of Microsoft SharePoint, with the threat actor attempting to ‘typo-squat’ the URL to convince endpoint users to trust the legitimacy of the link. Typo-squatted domains are commonly misspelled URLs registered by opportunistic attackers in the hope of gaining the trust of unsuspecting targets. They are often used for nefarious purposes like dropping malicious files on devices or harvesting credentials.

Upon clicking this malicious link, users were directed to a similarly typo-squatted domain, “InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpoInte-docs[.]com”. This domain was likely made to appear like the SharePoint URL used by the international hotel chain being impersonated.

Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.
Figure 5: Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

This fake SharePoint page used the branding of the international hotel chain and contained a document named “New Employee Loyalty Program”; the same name given to the phishing messages sent by the attacker on Microsoft Teams. Upon accessing this file, users would be directed to a credential harvester, masquerading as a Microsoft login page, and prompted to enter their credentials. If successful, this would allow the attacker to gain unauthorized access to a user’s SaaS account, thereby compromising the account and enabling further escalation in the customer’s environment.

Figure 6: A fake Microsoft login page that popped-up when attempting to open the ’New Employee Loyalty Program’ document.

This is a clear example of an attacker attempting to leverage social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their targets and convince them to inadvertently compromise their account. Many corporate organizations partner with other companies and well-known brands to offer their employees loyalty programs as part of their employment benefits and perks. As such, it would not necessarily be unexpected for employees to receive such an offer from an international hotel chain. By impersonating an international hotel chain, threat actors would increase the probability of convincing their targets to trust and click their malicious messages and links, and unintentionally compromising their accounts.

In spite of the attacker’s attempts to impersonate reputable brands, platforms, Darktrace/Apps was able to successfully recognize the malicious intent behind this phishing campaign and suggest steps to contain the attack. Darktrace recognized that the user in question had deviated from its ‘learned’ pattern of behavior by connecting to the customer’s SaaS environment from an unusual external location, before proceeding to send an unusually large volume of messages via Teams, indicating that the SaaS account had been compromised.

A Wider Campaign?

Around a month later, in March 2024, Darktrace observed a similar incident of a malicious actor impersonating the same international hotel chain in a phishing attacking using Microsoft Teams, suggesting that this was part of a wider phishing campaign. Like the previous example, this customer was also based in the EMEA region.  

The attack tactics identified in this instance were very similar to the previously example, with a new external user identified within the network proceeding to create a series of Teams messages named “New Employee Loyalty Program” containing a typo-squatted external links.

There were a few differences with this second incident, however, with the attacker using the domain “@InternationalHotelChainExpeditions[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” to send their malicious Teams messages and using differently typo-squatted URLs to imitate Microsoft SharePoint.

As both customers targeted by this phishing campaign were subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, this suspicious SaaS activity was promptly escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for immediate triage and investigation. Following their investigation, the SOC team sent an alert to the customers informing them of the compromise and advising urgent follow-up.

Conclusion

While there are clear similarities between these Microsoft Teams-based phishing attacks, the attackers here have seemingly sought ways to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), leveraging new connection locations and creating new malicious URLs in an effort to outmaneuver human security teams and conventional security tools.

As cyber threats grow increasingly sophisticated and evasive, it is crucial for organizations to employ intelligent security solutions that can see through social engineering techniques and pinpoint suspicious activity early.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands customer environments and is able to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavioral pattern, enabling it to effectively identify suspicious activity even when attackers adapt their strategies. In this instance, this allowed Darktrace to detect the phishing messages, and the malicious links contained within them, despite the seemingly trustworthy source and use of a reputable platform like Microsoft Teams.

Credit to Min Kim, Cyber Security Analyst, Raymond Norbert, Cyber Security Analyst and Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendix

Darktrace Model Detections

SaaS Model

Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type - Description

https://cloud-sharcpoint[.]com/[a-zA-Z0-9]{15} - Example hostname - Malicious phishing redirection link

InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpolnte-docs[.]com – Hostname – Redirected Link

195.242.125[.]186 - External Source IP Address – Malicious Endpoint

MITRE Tactics

Tactic – Technique

Phishing – Initial Access (T1566)

References

[1] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/trusted-organizations-external-meetings-chat?tabs=organization-settings

[2] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/195.242.125.186/detection

[3] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cloud-sharcpoint.com

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About the author
Min Kim
Cyber Security Analyst
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