Hives & Frankensteins: The Half-Year Threat Report
Darktrace's first comprehensive report on the threats faced by businesses examines the trends our threat team saw in the first half of 2013.
At Darktrace, we do threat intelligence differently.
Rather than examining the patterns of previous attacks to identify threats, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands the normal pattern of life for each of our customers so it can quickly identify the abnormal - anomalies and behaviors that can indicate known and unknown threats.
Our unique approach, which is focused on using AI to detect anomalies and behavioral patterns, enables us to mitigate threats that may not have even been publicly attributed yet. Once Darktrace has successfully detected and contained a threat, the work of our Threat Intelligence team, a group of talented analysts located all over the world, begins. We map these mitigated cases against some of the more publicly attributed threats within the threat intelligence community and identify trends and themes that are valuable to share more broadly.
We’ve been pulling together insights from the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) as well as from across our customer fleet for some time and we regularly share them on our Inside the SOC blog. Now for the first time, we’re bringing you a comprehensive report that outlines our key findings, trends and insights into some of the top cyber threats facing businesses in the first half of 2023.
The Darktrace team assessed a wide variety of threats during the first half of 2023. While some of these threats were identified as emerging or novel exploits, the majority were identified, known tooling, and many of these threats were identified as campaign-like activity targeting multiple customers. A few top takeaways from the report include:
RaaS on the Rise
Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) and Malware-as-a-Service (MaaS) are the most consistently identified and mitigated threats against Darktrace customers and the most likely to affect organizations throughout the rest of 2023 and likely into 2024.
One of the most prolific forms of ransomware-as-a-service during the last 12 months has been Hive ransomware. While the customizable nature of RaaS means there’s no one way the attacks are distributed, Darktrace DETECT™ has observed several general trends which indicated a Hive ransomware attack could be in progress, including initial access via phishing emails, or through exploiting unpatched security vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange, before exploiting legitimate tools to move laterally around the network with the aim of exfiltrating and encrypting as much data as possible.
These Hive network intrusions – and many other MaaS and RaaS attacks - are often complimented with readily available tools – including legitimate security testing tools like CobaltStrike and other applications. This ‘Frankenstein’ approach will very likely increase, as use of open-source code and the growth of the MaaS marketplace continues, especially if attempts to hide malicious activity within every day applications and software continues.
Anomalous Activity Across Industries
Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst, part of Darktrace DETECT, observed several key anomalous activity trends in the first half of the year. Beaconing was the most observed pattern of activity observed by Cyber AI Analyst between January and June 2023, which is indicative of Command and Control activity.
Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst also observed more patterns of activities from customers in the manufacturing sector than any other sector in the first half, this was followed closely by theInformation and Communication sector, Financial and Insurance sector, Human Health and Social Work sector, and the Education sector.
What’s Next: Our Predictions
Lowering the Barrier to Entry: The growing malware-as-a-service market is providing even low-level cyber criminals with the tools necessary to deploy highly customizable attacks. This is leading to challenges for defenders who might be working to specific playbooks and creating large gaps in their security posture – especially if the attacker is exploiting legitimate, everyday applications and tools to help conduct attacks.
Cascading Supply Chain Attacks: With a widening pool of supply chains enabled by interconnective and adaptable technology, there will likely be a continuation of cascading supply chain attacks, like the 3CX supply chain attack reported earlier this year, whether by design or due to accidental spread of tainted technology.
Increasing Cloud Threats: The shift towards cloud infrastructure is making ‘simply logging in’ hacks easier, creating additional risks across entire supply chains. Sensitive information which would have been previously only stored on-premises is now accessible via common working tools, which can be accessed from anywhere – and attackers know it. As organizations are still largely reliant on passwords to access SaaS and cloud applications, it is very likely cloud-focused identity targeting will continue to be a significant attack vector.
At Darktrace, our mission is to free the world from cyber disruption. That mission has never been more important as the volume of unique attacks is poised to grow and the barrier to entry for threat actors gets lower due to widespread access to AI, automation and as-a-service threat markets. For the last 10 years, Darktrace has used its Self-Learning AI to detect anomalies and analyze behavior to stay ahead of attacks that have yet to be publicly attributed. We hope that these insights, which were detected by Darktrace and combined with analysis from our Threat Intelligence team, offer insights to help you keep your business safe in 2023 and beyond.
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.
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Director of Threat Research
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PurpleFox in a Henhouse: How Darktrace Hunted Down a Persistent and Dynamic Rootkit
Versatile Malware: PurpleFox
As organizations and security teams across the world move to bolster their digital defenses against cyber threats, threats actors, in turn, are forced to adopt more sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to circumvent them. Rather than being static and predictable, malware strains are becoming increasingly versatile and therefore elusive to traditional security tools.
One such example is PurpleFox. First observed in 2018, PurpleFox is a combined fileless rootkit and backdoor trojan known to target Windows machines. PurpleFox is known for consistently adapting its functionalities over time, utilizing different infection vectors including known vulnerabilities (CVEs), fake Telegram installers, and phishing. It is also leveraged by other campaigns to deliver ransomware tools, spyware, and cryptocurrency mining malware. It is also widely known for using Microsoft Software Installer (MSI) files masquerading as other file types.
The Evolution of PurpleFox
The Original Strain
First reported in March 2018, PurpleFox was identified to be a trojan that drops itself onto Windows machines using an MSI installation package that alters registry values to replace a legitimate Windows system file . The initial stage of infection relied on the third-party toolkit RIG Exploit Kit (EK). RIG EK is hosted on compromised or malicious websites and is dropped onto the unsuspecting system when they visit browse that site. The built-in Windows installer (MSIEXEC) is leveraged to run the installation package retrieved from the website. This, in turn, drops two files into the Windows directory – namely a malicious dynamic-link library (DLL) that acts as a loader, and the payload of the malware. After infection, PurpleFox is often used to retrieve and deploy other types of malware.
Since its initial discovery, PurpleFox has also been observed leveraging PowerShell to enable fileless infection and additional privilege escalation vulnerabilities to increase the likelihood of successful infection . The PowerShell script had also been reported to be masquerading as a .jpg image file. PowerSploit modules are utilized to gain elevated privileges if the current user lacks administrator privileges. Once obtained, the script proceeds to retrieve and execute a malicious MSI package, also masquerading as an image file. As of 2020, PurpleFox no longer relied on the RIG EK for its delivery phase, instead spreading via the exploitation of the SMB protocol . The malware would leverage the compromised systems as hosts for the PurpleFox payloads to facilitate its spread to other systems. This mode of infection can occur without any user action, akin to a worm.
The current iteration of PurpleFox reportedly uses brute-forcing of vulnerable services, such as SMB, to facilitate its spread over the network and escalate privileges. By scanning internet-facing Windows computers, PurpleFox exploits weak passwords for Windows user accounts through SMB, including administrative credentials to facilitate further privilege escalation.
Darktrace detection of PurpleFox
In July 2023, Darktrace observed an example of a PurpleFox infection on the network of a customer in the healthcare sector. This observation was a slightly different method of downloading the PurpleFox payload. An affected device was observed initiating a series of service control requests using DCE-RPC, instructing the device to make connections to a host of servers to download a malicious .PNG file, later confirmed to be the PurpleFox rootkit. The device was then observed carrying out worm-like activity to other external internet-facing servers, as well as scanning related subnets.
Darktrace DETECT™ was able to successfully identify and track this compromise across the cyber kill chain and ensure the customer was able to take swift remedial action to prevent the attack from escalating further.
While the customer in question did have Darktrace RESPOND™, it was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually applied by the customer’s security team. If RESPOND had been enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack, it would have been able to take swift action against the compromise to contain it at the earliest instance.
Initial Scanning over SMB
On July 14, 2023, Darktrace detected the affected device scanning other internal devices on the customer’s network via port 445. The numerous connections were consistent with the aforementioned worm-like activity that has been reported from PurpleFox behavior as it appears to be targeting SMB services looking for open or vulnerable channels to exploit.
This initial scanning activity was detected by Darktrace DETECT, specifically through the model breach ‘Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity’. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ then launched an autonomous investigation into these internal connections and tied them into one larger-scale network reconnaissance incident, rather than a series of isolated connections.
As Darktrace RESPOND was configured in human confirmation mode, it was unable to autonomously block these internal connections. However, it did suggest blocking connections on port 445, which could have been manually applied by the customer’s security team.
The device successfully logged in via NTLM with the credential, ‘administrator’. Darktrace recognized that the endpoint was external to the customer’s environment, indicating that the affected device was now being used to propagate the malware to other networks. Considering the lack of observed brute-force activity up to this point, the credentials for ‘administrator’ had likely been compromised prior to Darktrace’s deployment on the network, or outside of Darktrace’s purview via a phishing attack.
Darktrace then detected a series of service control requests over DCE-RPC using the credential ‘admin’ to make SVCCTL Create Service W Requests. A script was then observed where the controlled device is instructed to launch mshta.exe, a Windows-native binary designed to execute Microsoft HTML Application (HTA) files. This enables the execution of arbitrary script code, VBScript in this case.
There are a few MSIEXEC flags to note:
/i : installs or configures a product
/Q : sets the user interface level. In this case, it is set to ‘No UI’, which is used for “quiet” execution, so no user interaction is required
Evidently, this was an attempt to evade detection by endpoint users as it is surreptitiously installed onto the system. This corresponds to the download of the rootkit that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. At this stage, the infected device continues to be leveraged as an attack device and scans SMB services over external endpoints. The device also appeared to attempt brute-forcing over NTLM using the same ‘administrator’ credential to these endpoints. This activity was identified by Darktrace DETECT which, if enabled in autonomous response mode would have instantly blocked similar outbound connections, thus preventing the spread of PurpleFox.
On August 9, Darktrace observed the device making initial attempts to download a malicious .PNG file. This was a notable change in tactics from previously reported PurpleFox campaigns which had been observed utilizing .MOE files for their payloads . The .MOE payloads are binary files that are more easily detected and blocked by traditional signatured-based security measures as they are not associated with known software. The ubiquity of .PNG files, especially on the web, make identifying and blacklisting the files significantly more difficult.
The first connection was made with the URI ‘/test.png’. It was noted that the HTTP method here was HEAD, a method similar to GET requests except the server must not return a message-body in the response.
The metainformation contained in the HTTP headers in response to a HEAD request should be identical to the information sent in response to a GET request. This method is often used to test hypertext links for validity and recent modification. This is likely a way of checking if the server hosting the payload is still active. Avoiding connections that could possibly be detected by antivirus solutions can help keep this activity under-the-radar.
The server responds with a status code of 200 before the download begins. The HEAD request could be part of the attacker’s verification that the server is still running, and that the payload is available for download. The ‘/test.png’ HEAD request was sent twice, likely for double confirmation to begin the file transfer.
Subsequent analysis using a Packet Capture (PCAP) tool revealed that this connection used the Windows Installer user agent that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. The device then began to download a payload that was masquerading as a Microsoft Word document. The device was thus able to download the payload twice, from two separate endpoints.
By masquerading as a Microsoft Word file, the threat actor was likely attempting to evade the detection of the endpoint user and traditional security tools by passing off as an innocuous text document. Likewise, using a Windows Installer user agent would enable threat actors to bypass antivirus measures and disguise the malicious installation as legitimate download activity.
Darktrace DETECT identified that these were masqueraded file downloads by correctly identifying the mismatch between the file extension and the true file type. Subsequently, AI Analyst was able to correctly identify the file type and deduced that this download was indicative of the device having been compromised.
In this case, the device attempted to download the payload from several different endpoints, many of which had low antivirus detection rates or open-source intelligence (OSINT) flags, highlighting the need to move beyond traditional signature-base detections.
If Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack it would have acted by blocking connections to these suspicious endpoints, thus preventing the download of malicious files. However, as RESPOND was in human confirmation mode, RESPOND actions required manual application by the customer’s security team which unfortunately did not happen, as such the device was able to download the payloads.
The PurpleFox malware is a particularly dynamic strain known to continually evolve over time, utilizing a blend of old and new approaches to achieve its goals which is likely to muddy expectations on its behavior. By frequently employing new methods of attack, malicious actors are able to bypass traditional security tools that rely on signature-based detections and static lists of indictors of compromise (IoCs), necessitating a more sophisticated approach to threat detection.
Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI enables it to confront adaptable and elusive threats like PurpleFox. By learning and understanding customer networks, it is able to discern normal network behavior and patterns of life, distinguishing expected activity from potential deviations. This anomaly-based approach to threat detection allows Darktrace to detect cyber threats as soon as they emerge.
By combining DETECT with the autonomous response capabilities of RESPOND, Darktrace customers are able to effectively safeguard their digital environments and ensure that emerging threats can be identified and shut down at the earliest stage of the kill chain, regardless of the tactics employed by would-be attackers.
Credit to Piramol Krishnan, Cyber Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst & Deputy Team Lead, Singapore
Darktrace Model Detections
Device / Increased External Connectivity
Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints
Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)
Compliance / External Windows Communications
Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control
Compromise / Unusual SVCCTL Activity
Compromise / Rare Domain Pointing to Internal IP
Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer
Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block
$70 Million in Cyber Security Funding for Electric Cooperatives & Utilities
What is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal?
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by congress in 2021 aimed to upgrade power and infrastructure to deliver clean, reliable energy across the US to achieve zero-emissions. To date, the largest investment in clean energy, the deal will fund new programs to support the development and deployment of clean energy technology.
Why is it relevant to electric municipalities?
Section 40124 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $250 million over a 5-year period to create the Rural and Municipal Utility Cybersecurity (RMUC) Program to help electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities protect against, detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity threats.1 This act illuminates the value behind a full life-cycle approach to cyber security. Thus, finding a cyber security solution that can provide all aspects of security in one integrated platform would enhance the overall security posture and ease many of the challenges that arise with adopting multiple point solutions.
On November 16, 2023 the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) released the Advanced Cybersecurity Technology (ACT) for electric utilities offering a $70 million funding opportunity that aims to enhance the cybersecurity posture of electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities.
10 projects will be funded with application submissions due November 29, 2023, 5:00 pm ET with $200,000 each in cash prizes in the following areas:
Direct support for eligible utilities to make investments in cybersecurity technologies, tools, training, and improvements in utility processes and procedures;
Funding to strengthen the peer-to-peer and not-for-profit cybersecurity technical assistance ecosystem currently serving eligible electric utilities; and
Increasing access to cybersecurity technical assistance and training for eligible utilities with limited cybersecurity resources. 2
How can electric municipalities utilize the funding?
While the adoption of hybrid working patterns increase cloud and SaaS usage, the number of industrial IoT devices also continues to rise. The result is decrease in visibility for security teams and new entry points for attackers. Particularly for energy and utility organizations.
Electric cooperatives seeking to enhance their cyber security posture can aim to invest in cyber security tools that provide the following:
Compliance support: Consider finding an OT security solution that maps out how its solutions and features help your organization comply with relevant compliance mandates such as NIST, ISA, FERC, TSA, HIPAA, CIS Controls, and more.
Anomaly based detection: Siloed security solutions also fail to detect attacks that span the entire organization. Anomaly-based detection enhances an organization’s cyber security posture by proactively defending against potential attacks and maintaining a comprehensive view of their attack surface.
Integration capabilities: Implementation of several point solutions that complete individual tasks runs the risk of increasing workloads for operators and creates additional challenges with compliance, budgeting, and technical support. Look for cyber security tools that integrate with your existing technologies.
Passive and active asset tracking: Active Identification offers accurate enumeration, real time updates, vulnerability assessment, asset validation while Passive Identification eliminates the risk of operational disruption, minimizes risk, does not generate additional network traffic. It would be ideal to find a security solution that can do both.
Can secure both IT and OT in unison: Given that most OT cyber-attacks actually start in IT networks before pivoting into OT, a mature security posture for critical infrastructure would include a single solution for both IT and OT. Separate solutions for IT and OT present challenges when defending network boundaries and detecting incidents when an attacker pivots from IT to OT. These independent solutions also significantly increase operator workload and materially diminish risk mitigation efforts.
For smaller teams with just one or two dedicated employees, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst and Investigation features allow end users to spend less time in the platform as it compiles critical incidents into comprehensive actionable event reports. AI Analyst brings all the information into a centralized view with incident reporting in natural language summaries and can be generated for compliance reports specific to regulatory requirements.
For larger teams, Darktrace alerts can be forwarded to 3rd party platforms such as a SIEM, where security team decision making is augmented. Additionally, executive reports and autonomous response reduce the alert fatigue generally associated with legacy tools. Most importantly, Darktrace’s unique understanding of normal allows security teams to detect zero-days and signatureless attacks regardless of the size of the organization and how alerts are consumed.