Employees and Email: How Considering User Experience Strengthens Email Security
When considering email security, IT teams have historically had to choose between excluding employees entirely, or including them but giving them too much power and implementing unenforceable, trust-based policies that try to make up for it.
However, just because email security should not rely on employees, this does not mean they should be excluded entirely. Employees are the ones interacting with emails daily, and their experiences and behaviors can provide valuable security insights and even influence productivity.
AI technology supports employee engagement in this non-intrusive, nuanced way to not only maintain email security, but also enhance it.
Finding a Balance of Employee Involvement in Security Strategies
Historically, security solutions offered ‘all or nothing’ approaches to employee engagement. On one hand, when employees are involved, they are unreliable. Employees cannot all be experts in security on top of their actual job responsibilities, and mistakes are bound to happen in fast-paced environments.
Although there have been attempts to raise security awareness, they often have shortcomings, as training emails lack context and realism, leaving employees with poor understandings that often lead to reporting emails that are actually safe. Having users constantly triaging their inboxes and reporting safe emails wastes time that takes away from their own productivity as well as the productivity of the security team.
Other historic forms of employee involvement also put security at risk. For example, users could create blanket rules through feedback, which could lead to common problems like safe-listing every email that comes from the gmail.com domain. Other times, employees could choose for themselves to release emails without context or limitations, introducing major risks to the organization. While these types of actions include employees to participate in security, they do so at the cost of security.
Even lower stakes employee involvement can prove ineffective. For example, excessive warnings when sending emails to external contacts can lead to banner fatigue. When employees see the same warning message or alert at the top of every message, it’s human nature that they soon become accustomed and ultimately immune to it.
On the other hand, when employees are fully excluded from security, an opportunity is missed to fine-tune security according to the actual users and to gain feedback on how well the email security solution is working.
So, both options of historically conventional email security, to include or exclude employees, prove incapable of leveraging employees effectively. The best email security practice strikes a balance between these two extremes, allowing more nuanced interactions that maintain security without interrupting daily business operations. This can be achieved with AI that tailors the interactions specifically to each employee to add to security instead of detracting from it.
Reducing False Reports While Improving Security Awareness Training
Humans and AI-powered email security can simultaneously level up by working together. AI can inform employees and employees can inform AI in an employee-AI feedback loop.
By understanding ‘normal’ behavior for every email user, AI can identify unusual, risky components of an email and take precise action based on the nature of the email to neutralize them, such as rewriting links, flattening attachments, and moving emails to junk. AI can go one step further and explain in non-technical language why it has taken a specific action, which educates users. In contrast to point-in-time simulated phishing email campaigns, this means AI can share its analysis in context and in real time at the moment a user is questioning an email.
The employee-AI feedback loop educates employees so that they can serve as additional enrichment data. It determines the appropriate levels to inform and teach users, while not relying on them for threat detection.
In the other direction, the AI learns from users’ activity in the inbox and gradually factors this into its decision-making. This is not a ‘one size fits all’ mechanism – one employee marking an email as safe will never result in blanket approval across the business – but over time, patterns can be observed and autonomous decision-making enhanced.
The employee-AI feedback loop draws out the maximum potential benefits of employee involvement in email security. Other email security solutions only consider the security team, enhancing its workflow but never considering the employees that report suspicious emails. Employees who try to do the right thing but blindly report emails never learn or improve and end up wasting their own time. By considering employees and improving security awareness training, the employee-AI feedback loop can level up users. They learn from the AI explanations how to identify malicious components, and so then report fewer emails but with greater accuracy.
While AI programs have classically acted like black boxes, Darktrace trains its AI on the best data, the organization’s actual employees, and invites both the security team and employees to see the reasoning behind its conclusions. Over time, employees will trust themselves more as they better learn how to discern unsafe emails.
Leveraging AI to Generate Productivity Gains
Uniquely, AI-powered email security can have effects outside of security-related areas. It can save time by managing non-productive email. As the AI constantly learns employee behavior in the inbox, it becomes extremely effective at detecting spam and graymail – emails that aren't necessarily malicious, but clutter inboxes and hamper productivity. It does this on a per-user basis, specific to how each employee treats spam, graymail, and newsletters. The AI learns to detect this clutter and eventually learns which to pull from the inbox, saving time for the employees. This highlights how security solutions can go even further than merely protecting the email environment with a light touch, to the point where AI can promote productivity gains by automating tasks like inbox sorting.
Preventing Email Mishaps: How to Deal with Human Error
Improved user understanding and decision making cannot stop natural human error. Employees are bound to make mistakes and can easily send emails to the wrong people, especially when Outlook auto-fills the wrong recipient. This can have effects ranging anywhere from embarrassing to critical, with major implications on compliance, customer trust, confidential intellectual property, and data loss.
However, AI can help reduce instances of accidentally sending emails to the wrong people. When a user goes to send an email in Outlook, the AI will analyze the recipients. It considers the contextual relationship between the sender and recipients, the relationships the recipients have with each other, how similar each recipient’s name and history is to other known contacts, and the names of attached files.
If the AI determines that the email is outside of a user’s typical behavior, it may alert the user. Security teams can customize what the AI does next: it can block the email, block the email but allow the user to override it, or do nothing but invite the user to think twice. Since the AI analyzes each email, these alerts are more effective than consistent, blanket alerts warning about external recipients, which often go ignored. With this targeted approach, the AI prevents data leakage and reduces cyber risk.
Since the AI is always on and continuously learning, it can adapt autonomously to employee changes. If the role of an employee evolves, the AI will learn the new normal, including common behaviors, recipients, attached file names, and more. This allows the AI to continue effectively flagging potential instances of human error, without needing manual rule changes or disrupting the employee’s workflow.
Email Security Informed by Employee Experience
As the practical users of email, employees should be considered when designing email security. This employee-conscious lens to security can strengthen defenses, improve productivity, and prevent data loss.
In these ways, email security can benefit both employees and security teams. Employees can become another layer of defense with improved security awareness training that cuts down on false reports of safe emails. This insight into employee email behavior can also enhance employee productivity by learning and sorting graymail. Finally, viewing security in relation to employees can help security teams deploy tools that reduce data loss by flagging misdirected emails. With these capabilities, Darktrace/Email™ enables security teams to optimize the balance of employee involvement in email security.
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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.