Inside the SOC
Emotet resurgence: cross-industry campaign analysis
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.
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)  with public encryption keys contained in the C2 configuration file . 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 .
· 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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
· 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.
· 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.
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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.