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Cutting Through the Noise: An Analysis of Post-Exploitation Activity on PaperCut Servers

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29
Aug 2023
29
Aug 2023
In mid-April 2023, Darktrace observed two related clusters of attack chains across its customer base. Further investigation revealed these clusters of activity to be related to exploitation of a critical vulnerability in the print management system, PaperCut. This blog details the observed attack chains, and Darktrace’s coverage of the steps involved in them.

Introduction

Malicious cyber actors are known to exploit vulnerabilities in Internet-facing systems and services to gain entry to organizations’ digital environments. Keeping track of the vulnerabilities which malicious actors are exploiting is seemingly futile, with malicious actors continually finding new avenues of exploitation.  

In mid-April 2023, Darktrace, along with the wider security community, observed malicious cyber actors gaining entry to networks through exploitation of a critical vulnerability in the print management system, PaperCut. Darktrace observed two types of attack chain within its customer base, one involving the deployment of payloads to facilitate crypto-mining, and the other involving the deployment of a payload to facilitate Tor-based command-and-control (C2) communication.

Walking Through the Front Door

One of the most widely abused Initial Access methods attackers use to gain entry to an organization’s digital environment is the exploitation of vulnerabilities in Internet-facing systems and services [1]. The public disclosure of a critical vulnerability in a widely used, Internet-facing service, along with a proof of concept (POC) exploit for such vulnerability, provides malicious cyber actors with a key to the front door of countless organizations. Once malicious actors are in possession of such a key, security teams are in a race against time to patch all their vulnerable systems and services. But until organizations accomplish this, the doors are left open.

This year, the security community has seen malicious actors gaining entry to networks through the exploitation of vulnerabilities in a range of services. These services include familiar suspects, such as Microsoft Exchange and ManageEngine, along with less familiar suspects, such as PaperCut. PaperCut is a system for managing and tracking printing, copying, and scanning activity within organizations. In 2021, PaperCut was used in more than 50,000 sites across over 100 countries [2], making PaperCut a widely used print management system.

In January 2023, Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) notified PaperCut of a critical RCE vulnerability, namely CVE-2023–27350, in certain versions of PaperCut NG (PaperCut’s ‘print only’ variant) and PaperCut MF (PaperCut’s ‘extended feature’ variant) [3,4]. In March 2023, PaperCut released versions of PaperCut NG and PaperCut MF containing a fix for CVE-2023–27350 [4]. Despite this, security teams observed a surge in cases of malicious actors exploiting CVE-2023–27350 to compromise PaperCut servers in April 2023 [4-10]. This trend was mirrored in Darktrace’s customer base, where a surge in compromises of PaperCut servers was observed in April 2023.

Observed Attack Chains

In mid-April 2023, Darktrace identified two related clusters of attack chains. The attack chains within the first of these clusters involved Internet-facing PaperCut servers downloading payloads with crypto-mining capabilities from the external location, 50.19.48[.]59. While the attack chains within the second of the clusters involved Internet-facing PaperCut servers downloading payloads with Tor-based C2 capabilities from 192.184.35[.]216. The attack chains within the first cluster, which were observed on April 22, 2023, will be referred to as ‘50.19.48[.]59 chains’ and the attack chains in the second cluster, observed on April 24, 2023, will be called ‘192.184.35[.]216 chains’.

Both attack chains started with highly unusual external endpoints contacting the '/SetupCompleted' endpoint of an Internet-facing PaperCut server. These requests to the ‘/SetupCompleted’ endpoint likely represented attempts to exploit CVE-2023–27350 [10].  50.19.48[.]59 chains started with exploit connections from the external endpoint, 85.106.112[.]60, whereas 192.184.35[.]216 chains started with exploit connections from Tor nodes, such as 185.34.33[.]2.

Figure 1: Darktrace’s Advanced Search data showing likely CVE-2023-27350 exploitation activity from the suspicious, external endpoint, 85.106.112[.]60.

After the exploitation step, the two attack chains took different paths. In the 50.19.48[.]59 chains, the exploitation step was followed by the affected PaperCut server making HTTP GET requests over port 82 to the rare external endpoint, 50.19.48[.]59. In the 192.184.35[.]216 chains, the exploitation step was followed by the affected PaperCut server making an HTTP GET request over port 443 to 192.184.35[.]216.

The HTTP GET requests to 50.19.48[.]59 had Target URIs such as ‘/me1.bat’, ‘/me2.bat’, ‘/dom.zip’, ‘/mazar.bat’, and ‘/mazar.zip’, whilst the HTTP GET requests to 192.184.35[.]216 had the Target URI ‘/4591187629.exe’. The User-Agent header of the GET requests to 192.184.35[.]216 indicated that that the malicious file transfers were initiated through Microsoft’s pre-installed Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS).

Figure 2: Darktrace’s Advanced Search data showing a PaperCut server downloading Batch and ZIP files from 50.19.48[.]59 straight after receiving likely exploit connections from 85.106.112[.]60.
Figure 3: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing a PaperCut server downloading an executable file from 192.184.35[.]216 immediately after receiving a likely exploit connection from the Tor node, 185.34.33[.]2.

Downloads from 50.19.48[.]59 were followed by cURL GET requests to 138.68.61[.]82 and then connections to external endpoints associated with the cryptocurrency miner, Mimu (as seen in Fig 4). Downloads from 192.184.35[.]216 were followed by Python-urllib GET requests to api.ipify[.]org and long connections to Tor nodes (as seen in Fig 5).  

These facts suggest that the actor behind the 50.19.48[.]59 chains were seeking to drop cryptocurrency miners on PaperCut servers, with the intention of abusing the customer’s network to carry out resource intensive and costly cryptocurrency mining activity. Meanwhile, the actors behind the 192.184.35[.]216 chains were likely attempting to establish a Tor-based C2 channel with PaperCut servers to allow actors to further communicate with compromised devices.

Figure 4: Darktrace's Event Log data showing a PaperCut contacting 50.19.48[.]59 to download payloads, and then making a cURL request to 138.68.61[.]82 before contacting a Mimu crypto-mining endpoint.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing a PaperCut server contacting 192.184.35[.]216 to download a payload, and then making connections to api.ipify[.]org and several Tor nodes.

The activities ensuing from both attack chains were varied, making it difficult to ascertain whether the activities were steps of separate attack chains, or steps of the existing 50.19.48[.]59 and 192.184.35[.]216 chains. A wide variety of activities ensued from observed 50.19.48[.]59 and 192.184.35[.]216 chains, including the abuse of pre-installed tools, such as cURL, CertUtil, and PowerShell to transfer further payloads to PaperCut servers, Cobalt Strike C2 communication, Ngrok usage, Mimikatz usage, AnyDesk usage, and in one case, detonation of the LockBit ransomware strain.

Figure 6: Diagram representing the steps of observed 50.19.48[.]59 chains.
Figure 7: Diagram representing the steps of observed 192.184.35[.]215 chains.

As the PaperCut servers that were targeted by malicious actors are Internet-facing, they regularly receive connections from unusual external endpoints. The exploit connections in the 50.19.48[.]59 and 192.184.35[.]216 chains, which originated from unusual external endpoints, were therefore not detected by Darktrace DETECT™, which relies on anomaly-based methods to detect network-based steps of an intrusion.

On the other hand, the post-exploitation steps of the 50.19.48[.]59 and 192.184.35[.]216 chains yielded ample anomaly-based detections, given that they consisted of PaperCut servers displaying highly unusual behaviors. As such Darktrace DETECT was able to successfully identify multiple chains of suspicious activity, including unusual file downloads from external endpoints and beaconing activity to rare external locations.

The file downloads from 50.19.48[.]59 observed in the 50.19.48[.]59 chains caused the following Darktrace DETECT models to breach:

- Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port

- Anomalous File / Internet Facing System File Download

- Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location

- Anomalous File / Zip or Gzip from Rare External Location

- Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Figure 8: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing a PaperCut server breaching several models immediately after contacting 50.19.48[.]59.

The file downloads from 192.184.35[.]216 observed in the 192.184.35[.]216 chains caused the following Darktrace DETECT models to breach:

- Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

- Anomalous File / Numeric File Download

- Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Figure 9: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing a PaperCut server breaching several models immediately after contacting 192.184.35[.]216.

Subsequent C2, beaconing, and crypto-mining connections in the 50.19.48[.]59 chains caused the following Darktrace DETECT models to breach:

- Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

- Anomalous Server Activity / New User Agent from Internet Facing System

- Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server

- Compromise / Crypto Currency Mining Activity

- Compromise / High Priority Crypto Currency Mining

- Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

- Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

- Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination

- Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

- Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Figure 10: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing a PaperCut server breaching models as a result of its connections to a Mimu crypto-mining endpoint.

Subsequent C2, beaconing, and Tor connections in the 192.184.35[.]216 chains caused the following Darktrace DETECT models to breach:

- Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port

- Compromise / Anomalous File then Tor

- Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

- Compromise / Possible Tor Usage

- Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

- Compromise / Uncommon Tor Usage

- Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

Figure 11: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing a PaperCut server breaching several models as a result of its connections to Tor nodes.

Darktrace RESPOND

Darktrace RESPOND™ was not active in any of the networks affected by 192.184.35[.]216 activity, however, RESPOND was active in some of the networks affected by 50.19.48[.]59 activity.  In those environments where RESPOND was enabled in autonomous mode, observed malicious activities resulted in intervention from RESPOND, including autonomous actions like blocking connections to specific external endpoints, blocking all outgoing traffic, and restricting affected devices to a pre-established pattern of behavior.

Figure 12: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing Darktrace RESPOND automatically performing inhibitive actions on a device in response to the device’s connection to 50.19.48[.]59.
Figure 13: Darktrace’s Event Log data showing Darktrace RESPOND automatically performing inhibitive actions on a device in response to the device’s connections to a Mimu crypto-mining endpoint.

Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst

Cyber AI Analyst autonomously investigated model breaches caused by events within these 50.19.48[.]59 and 192.184.35[.]216 chains. Cyber AI Analyst created user-friendly and detailed descriptions of these events, and then linked together these descriptions into threads representing the attack chains. Darktrace DETECT thus uncovered the individual steps of the attack chains, while Cyber AI Analyst was able to piece together the individual steps and uncover the attack chains themselves.  

Figure 14: An AI Analyst Incident entry showing the first event in a 50.19.48[.]59 chain uncovered by Cyber AI Analyst.
Figure 15: An AI Analyst Incident entry showing the second event in a 50.19.48[.]59 chain uncovered by Cyber AI Analyst.
Figure 16: An AI Analyst Incident entry showing the third event in a 50.19.48[.]59 chain uncovered by Cyber AI Analyst.
Figure 17: An AI Analyst Incident entry showing the first event in a 192.184.35[.]216 chain uncovered by Cyber AI Analyst.
Figure 18: An AI Analyst Incident entry showing the second event in a 192.184.35[.]216 chain uncovered by Cyber AI Analyst.

Conclusion

The existence of critical vulnerabilities in third-party software leaves organizations at constant risk of malicious actors breaching the perimeters of their networks. This risk can be mitigated through attack surface management and regular patching. However, this does not eliminate cyber risk entirely, meaning that organizations must be prepared for the eventuality of malicious actors getting inside their digital estate.

In April 2023, Darktrace observed malicious actors breaching the perimeters of several customer networks through exploitation of a critical vulnerability in PaperCut. Darktrace DETECT observed actors exploiting PaperCut servers to conduct a wide variety of post-exploitation activities, including downloading malicious payloads associated with cryptocurrency mining or payloads with Tor-based C2 capabilities. Darktrace DETECT created numerous model breaches based on this activity which alerted then customer’s security teams early in their development, providing them with ample time to take mitigative steps.

The successful detection of this payload delivery activity, along with the crypto-mining, beaconing, and Tor C2 activities which followed, elicited Darktrace RESPOND to take autonomous inhibitive action against the ongoing activity in those environments where it was operating in autonomous response mode.

If left to unfold, these intrusions developed in a variety of ways, in some cases leading to Cobalt Strike and ransomware activity. The detection of these intrusions in their early stages thus played a vital role in preventing malicious cyber actors from causing significant disruption.

Credit to: Sam Lister, Senior SOC Analyst, Zoe Tilsiter, Senior Cyber Analyst.

Appendices

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Initial Access techniques:

- Exploit Public-Facing Application (T1190)

Execution techniques:

- Command and Scripting Interpreter: PowerShell (T1059.001)

Discovery techniques:

- System Network Configuration Discovery (T1016)

Command and Control techniques

- Application Layer Protocol: Web Protocols (T1071.001)

- Encrypted Channel: Asymmetric Cryptography (T1573.002)

- Ingress Tool Transfer (T1105)

- Non-Standard Port (T1571)

- Protocol Tunneling (T1572)

- Proxy: Multi-hop Proxy (T1090.003)

- Remote Access Software (T1219)

Defense Evasion techniques:

- BITS Jobs (T1197)

Impact techniques:

- Data Encrypted for Impact (T1486)

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoCs from 50.19.48[.]59 attack chains:

- 85.106.112[.]60

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/me1.bat

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/me2.bat

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/dom.zip

- 138.68.61[.]82

- update.mimu-me[.]cyou • 102.130.112[.]157

- 34.195.77[.]216

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/mazar.bat

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/mazar.zip

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/prx.bat

- http://50.19.48[.]59:82/lol.exe  

- http://77.91.85[.]117/122.exe

- windows.n1tro[.]cyou • 176.28.51[.]151

- 77.91.85[.]117

- 91.149.237[.]76

- kernel-mlclosoft[.]site • 104.21.29[.]206

- tunnel.us.ngrok[.]com • 3.134.73[.]173

- 212.113.116[.]105

- c34a54599a1fbaf1786aa6d633545a60 (JA3 client fingerprint of crypto-mining client)

IoCs from 192.184.35[.]216 attack chains:

- 185.56.83[.]83

- 185.34.33[.]2

- http://192.184.35[.]216:443/4591187629.exe

- api.ipify[.]org • 104.237.62[.]211

- www.67m4ipctvrus4cv4qp[.]com • 192.99.43[.]171

- www.ynbznxjq2sckwq3i[.]com • 51.89.106[.]29

- www.kuo2izmlm2silhc[.]com • 51.89.106[.]29

- 148.251.136[.]16

- 51.158.231[.]208

- 51.75.153[.]22

- 82.66.61[.]19

- backmainstream-ltd[.]com • 77.91.72[.]149

- 159.65.42[.]223

- 185.254.37[.]236

- http://137.184.56[.]77:443/for.ps1

- http://137.184.56[.]77:443/c.bat

- 45.88.66[.]59

- http://5.8.18[.]237/download/Load64.exe

- http://5.8.18[.]237/download/sdb64.dll

- 140e0f0cad708278ade0984528fe8493 (JA3 client fingerprint of Tor-based client)

References

[1] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa22-137a

[2] https://www.papercut.com/kb/Main/PaperCutMFSolutionBrief/

[3] https://www.zerodayinitiative.com/advisories/ZDI-23-233/

[4] https://www.papercut.com/kb/Main/PO-1216-and-PO-1219

[5] https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/23/d/update-now-papercut-vulnerability-cve-2023-27350-under-active-ex.html

[6] https://www.huntress.com/blog/critical-vulnerabilities-in-papercut-print-management-software

[7] https://news.sophos.com/en-us/2023/04/27/increased-exploitation-of-papercut-drawing-blood-around-the-internet/

[8] https://twitter.com/MsftSecIntel/status/1651346653901725696

[9] https://twitter.com/MsftSecIntel/status/1654610012457648129

[10] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa23-131a

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

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

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

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

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

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

What is Quasar?

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

How does Quasar work?

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

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

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

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

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

Quasar Initial Infection

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

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

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

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quasar Executing Objectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

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

List of IoCs

IP:Port

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

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

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

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

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

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

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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