Catching APT41 exploiting a zero-day vulnerability
- 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.
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:
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.
Destination Port: 12345
Content Type: application/x-msdownload
Status Code: 200
Figure 4: Outbound connection fetching batch file
Shortly after the initial compromise, the first stage Cobalt Strike Beacon LOADER was downloaded.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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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.