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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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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

Blog

Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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