Detecting and responding to Log4Shell in the wild
In this blog, we’ll take a look at the Log4Shell vulnerability and provide real-world examples of how Darktrace detects and responds to attacks attempting to leverage Log4Shell in the wild.
Log4Shell is now the well-known name for CVE-2021-44228 – a severity 10 zero-day exploiting a well-known Java logging utility known as Log4j. Vulnerabilities are discovered daily, and some are more severe than others, but the fact that this open source utility is nested into nearly everything, including the Mars Ingenuity drone, makes this that much more menacing. Details and further updates about Log4Shell are still emerging at the publication date of this blog.
Typically, zero-days with the power to reach this many systems are held close to the chest and only used by nation states for high value targets or operations. This one, however, was first discovered being used against Minecraft gaming servers, shared in chat amongst gamers.
While all steps should be taken to deploy mitigations to the Log4Shell vulnerability, these can take time. As evidenced here, behavioral detection can be used to look for signs of post-exploitation activity such as scanning, coin mining, lateral movement, and other activities.
Darktrace initially detected the Log4Shell vulnerability targeting one of our customers’ Internet-facing servers, as you will see in detail in an actual anonymized threat investigation below. This was highlighted and reported using Cyber AI Analyst, unpacked here by our SOC team. Please take note that this was using pre-existing algorithms without retraining classifiers or adjusting response mechanisms in reaction to Log4Shell cyber-attacks.
How Log4Shell works
The vulnerability works by taking advantage of improper input validation by the Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI). A command comes in from an HTTP user-agent, encrypted HTTPS connection, or even a chat room message, and the JNDI sends that to the target system in which it gets executed. Most libraries and applications have checks and protections in place to prevent this from happening, but as seen here, they get missed at times.
Various threat actors have started to leverage the vulnerability in attacks, ranging from indiscriminate crypto-mining campaigns to targeted, more sophisticated attacks.
Real-world example 1: Log4Shell exploited on CVE ID release date
Darktrace saw this first example on December 10, the same day the CVE ID was released. We often see publicly documented vulnerabilities being weaponized within days by threat actors. This attack hit an Internet-facing device in an organization’s demilitarized zone (DMZ). Darktrace had automatically classified the server as an Internet-facing device based on its behavior.
The organization had deployed Darktrace in the on-prem network as one of many coverage areas that include cloud, email and SaaS. In this deployment, Darktrace had good visibility of the DMZ traffic. Antigena was not active in this environment, and Darktrace was in detection-mode only. Despite this fact, the client in question was able to identify and remediate this incident within hours of the initial alert. The attack was automated and had the goal of deploying a crypto-miner known as Kinsing.
In this attack, the attacker made it harder to detect the compromise by encrypting the initial command injection using HTTPS over the more common HTTP seen in the wild. Despite this method being able to bypass traditional rules and signature-based systems Darktrace was able to spot multiple unusual behaviors seconds after the initial connection.
Initial compromise details
Through peer analysis Darktrace had previously learned what this specific DMZ device and its peer group normally do in the environment. During the initial exploitation, Darktrace detected various subtle anomalies that taken together made the attack obvious.
- 15:45:32 Inbound HTTPS connection to DMZ server from rare Russian IP — 45.155.205[.]233;
- 15:45:38 DMZ server makes new outbound connection to the same rare Russian IP using two new user agents: Java user agent and curl over a port that is unusual to serve HTTP compared to previous behavior;
- 15:45:39 DMZ server uses an HTTP connection with another new curl user agent (‘curl/7.47.0’) to the same Russian IP. The URI contains reconnaissance information from the DMZ server.
All this activity was detected not because Darktrace had seen it before, but because it strongly deviated from the regular ‘pattern of life’ for this and similar servers in this specific organization.
This server never reached out to rare IP addresses on the Internet, using user agents it never used before, over protocol and port combinations it never uses. Every point-in-time anomaly itself may have presented slightly unusual behavior – but taken together and analyzed in the context of this particular device and environment, the detections clearly tell a bigger story of an ongoing cyber-attack.
Darktrace detected this activity with various models, for example:
- Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
- Anomalous Connection / Callback on Web Facing Device
Further tooling and crypto-miner download
Less than 90 minutes after the initial compromise, the infected server started downloading malicious scripts and executables from a rare Ukrainian IP 80.71.158[.]12.
The following payloads were subsequently downloaded from the Ukrainian IP in order:
Using no threat intelligence or detections based on static indicators of compromise (IoC) such as IPs, domain names or file hashes, Darktrace detected this next step in the attack in real time.
The DMZ server in question never communicated with this Ukrainian IP address in the past over these uncommon ports. It is also highly unusual for this device and its peers to download scripts or executable files from this type of external destination, in this fashion. Shortly after these downloads, the DMZ server started to conduct crypto-mining.
Darktrace detected this activity with various models, for example:
- Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location
- Anomalous File / Internet Facing System File Download
- Device / Internet Facing System with High Priority Alert
Surfacing the Log4Shell incident immediately
In addition to Darktrace detecting each individual step of this attack in real time, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst also surfaced the overarching security incident, containing a cohesive narrative for the overall attack, as the most high-priority incident within a week’s worth of incidents and alerts in Darktrace. This means that this incident was the most obvious and immediate item highlighted to human security teams as it unfolded. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst found each stage of this incident and asked the very questions you would expect of your human SOC analysts. From the natural language report generated by the Cyber AI Analyst, a summary of each stage of the incident followed by the vital data points human analysts need, is presented in an easy to digest format. Each tab signifies a different part of this incident outlining the actual steps taken during each investigative process.
The result of this is no sifting through low-level alerts, no need to triage point-in-time detections, no putting the detections into a bigger incident context, no need to write a report. All of this was automatically completed by the AI Analyst saving human teams valuable time.
The below incident report was automatically created and could be downloaded as a PDF in various languages.
Figure 1: Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst surfaces multiple stages of the attack and explains its investigation process
Real-world example 2: Responding to a different attack using Log4Shell
On December 12, another organization’s Internet-facing server was initially compromised via Log4Shell. While the details of the compromise are different – other IoCs are involved – Darktrace detected and surfaced the attack similarly to the first example.
Interestingly, this organization had Darktrace Antigena in autonomous mode on their server, meaning the AI can take autonomous actions to respond to ongoing cyber-attacks. These responses can be delivered via a variety of mechanisms, for instance, API interactions with firewalls, other security tools, or native responses issued by Darktrace.
In this attack the rare external IP 164.52.212[.]196 was used for command and control (C2) communication and malware delivery, using HTTP over port 88, which was highly unusual for this device, peer group and organization.
Antigena reacted in real time in this organization, based on the specific context of the attack, without any human in the loop. Antigena interacted with the organization’s firewall in this case to block any connections to or from the malicious IP address – in this case 164.52.212[.]196 – over port 88 for 2 hours with the option of escalating the block and duration if the attack appears to persist. This is seen in the illustration below:
Figure 2: Antigena’s response
Here comes the trick: thanks to Self-Learning AI, Darktrace knows exactly what the Internet-facing server usually does and does not do, down to each individual data point. Based on the various anomalies, Darktrace is certain that this represents a major cyber-attack.
Antigena now steps in and enforces the regular pattern of life for this server in the DMZ. This means the server can continue doing whatever it normally does – but all the highly anomalous actions are interrupted as they occur in real time, such as speaking to a rare external IP over port 88 serving HTTP to download executables.
Of course the human can change or lift the block at any given time. Antigena can also be configured to be in human confirmation mode, having the human in the loop at certain times during the day (e.g. office hours) or at all times, depending on an organization’s needs and requirements.
This blog illustrates further aspects of cyber-attacks leveraging the Log4Shell vulnerability. It also demonstrates how Darktrace detects and responds to zero-day attacks if Darktrace has visibility of the attacked entities.
While Log4Shell is dominating the IT and security news, similar vulnerabilities have surfaced in the past and will appear in the future. We’ve spoken about our approach to detecting and responding to similar vulnerabilities and surrounding cyber-attacks before, for instance:
- the recent Gitlab vulnerability;
- the ProxyShell Exchange Server vulnerabilities when they were still a zero-day;
- and the Citrix Netscaler vulnerability.
As always, companies should aim for a defense-in-depth strategy combining preventative security controls with detection and response mechanisms, as well as strong patch management.
Thanks to Brianna Leddy (Darktrace’s Director of Analysis) for her insights on the above threat find.
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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.