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Emotet resurgence: cross-industry campaign analysis

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22
Aug 2022
22
Aug 2022
This blog aims to provide background and technical discoveries from the recent Emotet resurgence detected in early 2022 across multiple Darktrace client environments in multiple regions and industries. Predominantly in March and April 2022, Darktrace DETECT provided visibility over network activities associated with Emotet compromises using initial staged payload downloads involving algorithmically generated DLLs and subsequent outbound command and control, as well as spam activities.

Introduction

Last year provided further evidence that the cyber threat landscape remains both complex and challenging to predict. Between uncertain attribution, novel exploits and rapid malware developments, it is becoming harder to know where to focus security efforts. One of the largest surprises of 2021 was the re-emergence of the infamous Emotet botnet. This is an example of a campaign that ignored industry verticals or regions and seemingly targeted companies indiscriminately. Only 10 months after the Emotet takedown by law enforcement agencies in January, new Emotet activities in November were discovered by security researchers. These continued into the first quarter of 2022, a period which this blog will explore through findings from the Darktrace Threat Intel Unit. 

Dating back to 2019, Emotet was known to deliver Trickbot payloads which ultimately deployed Ryuk ransomware strains on compromised devices. This interconnectivity highlighted the hydra-like nature of threat groups wherein eliminating one (even with full-scale law enforcement intervention) would not rule them out as a threat nor indicate that the threat landscape would be any more secure. 

When Emotet resurged, as expected, one of the initial infection vectors involved leveraging existing Trickbot infrastructure. However, unlike the original attacks, it featured a brand new phishing campaign.

Figure 1: Distribution of observed Emotet activities across Darktrace deployments

Although similar to the original Emotet infections, the new wave of infections has been classified into two categories: Epochs 4 and 5. These had several key differences compared to Epochs 1 to 3. Within Darktrace’s global deployments, Emotet compromises associated to Epoch 4 appeared to be the most prevalent. Affected customer environments were seen within a large range of countries (Figure 1) and industry verticals such as manufacturing and supply chain, hospitality and travel, public administration, technology and telecoms and healthcare. Company demographics and size did not appear to be a targeting factor as affected customers had varying employee counts ranging from less than 250, to over 5000.

Key differences between Epochs 1-3 vs 4-5

Based on wider security research into the innerworkings of the Emotet exploits, several key differences were identified between Epochs 4/5 and its predecessors. The newer epochs used:

·       A different Microsoft document format (OLE vs XML-based).

·       A different encryption algorithm for communication. The new epochs used Elliptic Curve Cryptograph (ECC) [1] with public encryption keys contained in the C2 configuration file [2]. This was different from the previous Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) key encryption method.

·       Control Flow Flattening was used as an obfuscation technique to make detection and reverse engineering more difficult. This is done by hiding a program’s control flow [3].

·       New C2 infrastructure was observed as C2 communications were directed to over 230 unique IPs all associated to the new Epochs 4 and 5.

In addition to the new Epoch 4 and 5 features, Darktrace detected unsurprising similarities in those deployments affected by the renewed campaign. This included self-signed SSL connections to Emotet’s new infrastructure as well as malware spam activities to multiple rare external endpoints. Preceding these outbound communications, devices across multiple deployments were detected downloading Emotet-associated payloads (algorithmically generated DLL files).

Emotet Resurgence Campaign

Figure 2: Darktrace’s Detection Timeline for Emotet Epoch 4 and 5 compromises

1. Initial Compromise

The initial point of entry for the resurgence activity was almost certainly via Trickbot infrastructure or a successful phishing attack (Figure 2). Following the initial intrusion, the malware strain begins to download payloads via macro-ladened files which are used to spawn PowerShell for subsequent malware downloads.

Following the downloads, malicious communication with Emotet’s C2 infrastructure was observed alongside activities from the spam module. Within Darktrace, key techniques were observed and documented below.

2. Establish Foothold: Binary Dynamic-link library (.dll) with algorithmically generated filenames 

Emotet payloads are polymorphic and contain algorithmically generated filenames . Within deployments, HTTP GET requests involving a suspicious hostname, www[.]arkpp[.]com, and Emotet related samples such as those seen below were observed:

·       hpixQfCoJb0fS1.dll (SHA256 hash: 859a41b911688b00e104e9c474fc7aaf7b1f2d6e885e8d7fbf11347bc2e21eaa)

·       M0uZ6kd8hnzVUt2BNbRzRFjRoz08WFYfPj2.dll (SHA256 hash: 9fbd590cf65cbfb2b842d46d82e886e3acb5bfecfdb82afc22a5f95bda7dd804)

·       TpipJHHy7P.dll (SHA256 hash: 40060259d583b8cf83336bc50cc7a7d9e0a4de22b9a04e62ddc6ca5dedd6754b)

These DLL files likely represent the distribution of Emotet loaders which depends on windows processes such as rundll32[.]exe and regsvr32[.]exe to execute. 

3. Establish Foothold: Outbound SSL connections to Emotet C2 servers 

A clear network indicator of compromise for Emotet’s C2 communication involved self-signed SSL using certificate issuers and subjects which matched ‘CN=example[.]com,OU=IT Department,O=Global Security,L=London,ST=London,C=GB’ , and a common JA3 client fingerprint (72a589da586844d7f0818ce684948eea). The primary C2 communications were seen involving infrastructures classified as Epoch 4 rather than 5. Despite encryption in the communication content, network contextual connection details were sufficient for the detection of the C2 activities (Figure 3).

Figure 3: UI Model Breach logs on download and outbound SSL activities.

Outbound SSL and SMTP connections on TCP ports 25, 465, 587 

An anomalous user agent such as, ‘Microsoft Outlook 15.0’, was observed being used for SMTP connections with some subject lines of the outbound emails containing Base64-encoded strings. In addition, this JA3 client fingerprint (37cdab6ff1bd1c195bacb776c5213bf2) was commonly seen from the SSL connections. Based on the set of malware spam hostnames observed across at least 10 deployments, the majority of the TLDs were .jp, .com, .net, .mx, with the Japanese TLD being the most common (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Malware Spam TLDs observed in outbound SSL and SMTP

 Plaintext spam content generated from the spam module were seen in PCAPs (Figure 5). Examples of clear phishing or spam indicators included 1) mismatched personal header and email headers, 2) unusual reply chain and recipient references in the subject line, and 3) suspicious compressed file attachments, e.g. Electronic form[.]zip.

Figure 5: Example of PCAP associated to SPAM Module

4. Accomplish Mission

 The Emotet resurgence also showed through secondary compromises involving anomalous SMB drive writes related to CobaltStrike. This consistently included the following JA3 hash (72a589da586844d7f0818ce684948eea) seen in SSL activities as well as SMB writes involving the svchost.exe file.

Darktrace Detection

 The key DETECT models used to identify Emotet Resurgence activities were focused on determining possible C2. These included:

·       Suspicious SSL Activity

·       Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

·       Rare External SSL Self-Signed

·       Possible Outbound Spam

File-focused models were also beneficial and included:

·       Zip or Gzip from Rare External Location

·       EXE from Rare External Location

Darktrace’s detection capabilities can also be shown through a sample of case studies identified during the Threat Research team’s investigations.

Case Studies 

Darktrace’s detection of Emotet activities was not limited by industry verticals or company sizing. Although there were many similar features seen across the new epoch, each incident displayed varying techniques from the campaign. This is shown in two client environments below:

When investigating a large customer environment within the public administration sector, 16 different devices were detected making 52,536 SSL connections with the example[.]com issuer. Devices associated with this issuer were mainly seen breaching the same Self-Signed and Spam DETECT models. Although anomalous incoming octet-streams were observed prior to this SSL, there was no clear relation between the downloads and the Emotet C2 connections. Despite the total affected devices occupying only a small portion of the total network, Darktrace analysts were able to filter against the much larger network ‘noise’ and locate detailed evidence of compromise to notify the customer.

Darktrace also identified new Emotet activities in much smaller customer environments. Looking at a company in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sector, from mid-March 2022 a single internal device was detected making an HTTP GET request to the host arkpp[.]com involving the algorithmically-generated DLL, TpipJHHy7P.dll with the SHA256 hash: 40060259d583b8cf83336bc50cc7a7d9e0a4de22b9a04e62ddc6ca5dedd6754b (Figure 6). 

Figure 6: A screenshot from VirusTotal, showing that the SHA256 hash has been flagged as malicious by other security vendors.

After the sample was downloaded, the device contacted a large number of endpoints that had never been contacted by devices on the network. The endpoints were contacted over ports 443, 8080, and 7080 involving Emotet related IOCs and the same SSL certificate mentioned previously. Malware spam activities were also observed during a similar timeframe.

 The Emotet case studies above demonstrate how autonomous detection of an anomalous sequence of activities - without depending on conventional rules and signatures - can reveal significant threat activities. Though possible staged payloads were only seen in a proportion of the affected environments, the following outbound C2 and malware spam activities involving many endpoints and ports were sufficient for the detection of Emotet.

 If present, in both instances Darktrace’s Autonomous Response technology, RESPOND, would recommend or implement surgical actions to precisely target activities associated with the staged payload downloads, outgoing C2 communications, and malware spam activities. Additionally, restriction to the devices’ normal pattern of life will prevent simultaneously occurring malicious activities while enabling the continuity of normal business operations.

 Conclusion 

·       The technical differences between past and present Emotet strains emphasizes the versatility of malicious threat actors and the need for a security solution that is not reliant on signatures.

·       Darktrace’s visibility and unique behavioral detection continues to provide visibility to network activities related to the novel Emotet strain without reliance on rules and signatures. Key examples include the C2 connections to new Emotet infrastructure.

·       Looking ahead, detection of C2 establishment using suspicious DLLs will prevent further propagation of the Emotet strains across networks.

·       Darktrace’s AI detection and response will outpace conventional post compromise research involving the analysis of Emotet strains through static and dynamic code analysis, followed by the implementation of rules and signatures.

Thanks to Paul Jennings and Hanah Darley for their contributions to this blog.

Appendices

Model breaches

·       Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External 

·       Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port 

·       Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port 

·       Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint 

·       Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname 

·       Anomalous Connection / Possible Outbound Spam 

·       Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed 

·       Anomalous Connection / Repeated Rare External SSL Self-Signed      

·       Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Expired SSL 

·       Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

·       Anomalous File / Anomalous Octet Stream (No User Agent) 

·       Anomalous File / Zip or Gzip from Rare External Location 

·       Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

·       Compromise / Agent Beacon to New Endpoint 

·       Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint 

·       Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare 

·       Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port 

·       Compromise / Repeating Connections Over 4 Days 

·       Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare 

·       Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination 

·       Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behaviour 

·       Compromise / Suspicious Spam Activity 

·       Compromise / Suspicious SSL Activity 

·       Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase 

·       Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise 

·       Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints 

·       Device / Long Agent Connection to New Endpoint 

·       Device / New User Agent 

·       Device / New User Agent and New IP 

·       Device / SMB Session Bruteforce 

·       Device / Suspicious Domain 

·       Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity 

For Darktrace customers who want to know more about using Darktrace to triage Emotet, refer here for an exclusive supplement to this blog.

References

[1] https://blog.lumen.com/emotet-redux/

[2] https://blogs.vmware.com/security/2022/03/emotet-c2-configuration-extraction-and-analysis.html

[3] https://news.sophos.com/en-us/2022/05/04/attacking-emotets-control-flow-flattening/

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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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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Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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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.  

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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