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Enemies on Our Teams: Darktrace Stops DarkGate Malware through Microsoft Teams

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15
Dec 2023
15
Dec 2023
This blog discusses how Darktrace was able to detect and respond to malicious attempts to use Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint to deliver the DarkGate malware onto a customer network in September 2023.

Securing Microsoft Teams and SharePoint

Given the prevalence of the Microsoft Teams and Microsoft SharePoint platforms in the workplace in recent years, it is essential that organizations stay vigilant to the threat posed by applications vital to hybrid and remote work and prioritize the security and cyber hygiene of these services. For just as the use of these platforms has increased exponentially with the rise of remote and hybrid working, so too has the malicious use of them to deliver malware to unassuming users.

Researchers across the threat landscape have begun to observe these legitimate services being leveraged by malicious actors as an initial access method. Microsoft Teams can easily be exploited to send targeted phishing messages to individuals within an organization, while appearing legitimate and safe. Although the exact contents of these messages may vary, the messages frequently use social engineering techniques to lure users to click on a SharePoint link embedded into the message. Interacting with the malicious link will then download a payload [1].

Darktrace observed one such malicious attempt to use Microsoft Teams and SharePoint in September 2023, when a device was observed downloading DarkGate, a commercial trojan that is known to deploy other strains of malware, also referred to as a commodity loader [2], after clicking on SharePoint link. Fortunately for the customer, Darktrace’s suite of products was perfectly poised to identify the initial signs of suspicious activity and Darktrace RESPOND™ was able to immediately halt the advancement of the attack.

DarkGate Attack Overview

On September 8, 2023, Darktrace DETECT™ observed around 30 internal devices on a customer network making unusual SSL connections to an external SharePoint site which contained the name of a person, 'XXXXXXXX-my.sharepoint[.]com' (107.136[.]8, 13.107.138[.]8). The organization did not have any employees who went by this name and prior to this activity, no internal devices had been seen contacting the endpoint.

At first glance, this initial attack vector would have appeared subtle and seemingly trustworthy to users. Malicious actors likely sent various users a phishing message via Microsoft Teams that contained the spoofed SharePoint link to the personalized SharePoint link ''XXXXXXXX-my.sharepoint[.]com'.

Figure 1: Advanced Search query showing a sudden spike in connections to ''XXXXXXXX -my.sharepoint[.]com'.

Darktrace observed around 10 devices downloading approximately 1 MB of data during their connections to the Sharepoint endpoint. Darktrace DETECT observed some of the devices making subsequent HTTP GET requests to a range of anomalous URIs. The devices utilized multiple user-agents for these connections, including ‘curl’, a command line tool that allows individuals to request and transfer data from a specific URL. The connections were made to the IP 5.188.87[.]58, an endpoint that has been flagged as an indicator of compromise (IoC) for DarkGate malware by multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources [3], commonly associated with HTTP GET requests:

  1. GET request over port 2351 with the User-Agent header 'Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; Win32; WinHttp.WinHttpRequest.5)' and the target URI '/bfyxraav' to 5.188.87[.]58
  2. GET request over port 2351 with the user-agent header 'curl' and the target URI '/' to 5.188.87[.]58
  3. GET request over port 2351 with the user-agent header 'curl/8.0.1' and the target URI '/msibfyxraav' to 5.188.87[.]58

The HTTP GET requests made with the user-agent header 'curl' and the target URI '/' to 5.188.87[.]58 were responded to with a filename called 'Autoit3.exe'. The other requests received script files with names ending in '.au3, such as 'xkwtvq.au3', 'otxynh.au3', and 'dcthbq.au3'. DarkGate malware has been known to make use of legitimate AutoIt files, and typically runs multiple AutoIt scripts (‘.au3’) [4].

Following these unusual file downloads, the devices proceeded to make hundreds of HTTP POST requests to the target URI '/' using the user-agent header 'Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; Synapse)' to 5.188.87[.]58. The contents of these requests, along with the contents of the responses, appear to be heavily obfuscated.

Figure 2: Example of obfuscated response, as shown in a packet capture downloaded from Darktrace.

While Microsoft’s Safe Attachments and Safe Links settings were unable to detect this camouflaged malicious activity, Darktrace DETECT observed the unusual over-the-network connectivity that occurred. While Darktrace DETECT identified multiple internal devices engaging in this anomalous behavior throughout the course of the compromise, the activity observed on one device in particular best showcases the overall kill chain of this attack.

The device in question was observed using two different user agents (curl/8.0.1 and Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; Win32; WinHttp.WinHttpRequest.5)) when connecting to the endpoint 5.188.87[.]58 and target URI ‘/bfyxraav’. Additionally, Darktrace DETECT recognized that it was unusual for this device to be making these HTTP connections via destination port 2351.

As a result, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ launched an autonomous investigation into the suspicious activity and was able to connect the unusual external connections together, viewing them as one beaconing incident as opposed to isolated series of connections.

Figure 3: Cyber AI Analyst investigation summarizing the unusual repeated connections made to 5.188.87[.]58 via destination port 2351.

Darktrace then observed the device downloading the ‘Autoit3.exe’ file. Darktrace RESPOND took swift mitigative action by blocking similar connections to this endpoint, preventing the device from downloading any additional suspicious files.

Figure 4: Suspicious ‘Autoit3.exe’ downloaded by the source device from the malicious external endpoint.

Just one millisecond later, Darktrace observed the device making suspicious HTTP GET requests to URIs including ‘/msibfyxraav’. Darktrace recognized that the device had carried out several suspicious actions within a relatively short period of time, breaching multiple DETECT models, indicating that it may have been compromised. As a result, RESPOND took action against the offending device by preventing it from communicating externally [blocking all outbound connections] for a period of one hour, allowing the customer’s security team precious time to address the issue.

It should be noted that, at this point, had the customer subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) would have investigated these incidents in greater detail, and likely would have sent a notification directly to the customer to inform them of the suspicious activity.

Additionally, AI Analyst collated various distinct events and suggested that these stages were linked as part of an attack. This type of augmented understanding of events calculated at machine speed is extremely valuable since it likely would have taken a human analyst hours to link all the facets of the incident together.  

Figure 5: AI Analyst investigation showcasing the use of the ‘curl’ user agent to connect to the target URI ‘/msibfyxraav’.
Figure 6: Darktrace RESPOND moved to mitigate any following connections by blocking all outgoing traffic for 1 hour.

Following this, an automated investigation was launched by Microsoft Defender for Endpoint. Darktrace is designed to coordinate with multiple third-party security tools, allowing for information on ongoing incidents to be seamlessly exchanged between Darktrace and other security tools. In this instance, Microsoft Defender identified a ‘low severity’ incident on the device, this automatically triggered a corresponding alert within DETECT, presented on the Darktrace Threat Visuallizer.

The described activity occurred within milliseconds. At each step of the attack, Darktrace RESPOND took action either by enforcing expected patterns of life [normality] on the affected device, blocking connections to suspicious endpoints for a specified amount of time, and/or blocking all outgoing traffic from the device. All the relevant activity was detected and promptly stopped for this device, and other compromised devices, thus containing the compromise and providing the security team invaluable remediation time.

Figure 7: Overview of the compromise activity, all of which took place within a matter of miliseconds.

Darktrace identified similar activity on other devices in this customer’s network, as well as across Darktrace’s fleet around the same time in early September.

On a different customer environment, Darktrace DETECT observed more than 25 ‘.au3’ files being downloaded; this activity can be seen in Figure 9.

Figure 8: High volume of file downloads following GET request and 'curl' commands.

Figure 9 provides more details of this activity, including the source and destination IP addresses (5.188.87[.]58), the destination port, the HTTP method used and the MIME/content-type of the file

Figure 9: Additional information of the anomalous connections.

A compromised server in another customer deployment was seen establishing unusual connections to the external IP address 80.66.88[.]145 – an endpoint that has been associated with DarkGate by OSINT sources [5]. This activity was identified by Darktrace/DETECT as a new connection for the device via an unusual destination port, 2840. As the device in question was a critical server, Darktrace DETECT treated it with suspicion and generated an ‘Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device’ model breach.  

Figure 10: Model breach and model breach event log for suspicious connections to additional endpoint.

Conclusion

While Microsoft Teams and SharePoint are extremely prominent tools that are essential to the business operations of many organizations, they can also be used to compromise via living off the land, even at initial intrusion. Any Microsoft Teams user within a corporate setting could be targeted by a malicious actor, as such SharePoint links from unknown senders should always be treated with caution and should not automatically be considered as secure or legitimate, even when operating within legitimate Microsoft infrastructure.

Malicious actors can leverage these commonly used platforms as a means to carry out their cyber-attacks, therefore organizations must take appropriate measures to protect and secure their digital environments. As demonstrated here, threat actors can attempt to deploy malware, like DarkGate, by targeting users with spoofed Microsoft Teams messages. By masking malicious links as legitimate SharePoint links, these attempts can easily convince targets and bypass traditional security tools and even Microsoft’s own Safe Links and Safe Attachments security capabilities.

When the chain of events of an attack escalates within milliseconds, organizations must rely on AI-driven tools that can quickly identify and automatically respond to suspicious events without latency. As such, the value of Darktrace DETECT and Darktrace RESPOND cannot be overstated. Given the efficacy and efficiency of Darktrace’s detection and autonomous response capabilities, a more severe network compromise in the form of the DarkGate commodity loader was ultimately averted.

Credit to Natalia Sánchez Rocafort, Cyber Security Analyst, Zoe Tilsiter.

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

  • [Model Breach: Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114039 ] (Enhanced Monitoring)·      [Model Breach: Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114124 ] (Enhanced Monitoring)
  • [Model Breach: Device / New User Agent and New IP 62% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114030 ]
  • [Model Breach: Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port 46% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114031 ]
  • [Model Breach: Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname 62% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114032 ]
  • [Model Breach: Device / New User Agent 32% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114035 ]
  • [Model Breach: Device / Three Or More New User Agents 31% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114036 ]
  • [Model Breach: Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device 62% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/612173 ]
  • [Model Breach: Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location 61% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114037 ]
  • [Model Breach: Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port 61% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114042 ]
  • [Model Breach: Security Integration / Integration Ransomware Detected 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114049 ]
  • [Model Breach: Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare 62% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114059 ]
  • [Model Breach: Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to New Endpoint 30% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114067 ]
  • [Model Breach: Security Integration / C2 Activity and Integration Detection 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114069 ]
  • [Model Breach: Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location 55% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114077 ]
  • [Model Breach: Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score 66% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114260 ]
  • [Model Breach: Security Integration / Low Severity Integration Detection 59% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114293 ]
  • [Model Breach: Security Integration / Low Severity Integration Detection 33% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114462 ]
  • [Model Breach: Security Integration / Integration Ransomware Detected 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114109 ]·      [Model Breach: Device / Three Or More New User Agents 31% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114118 ]·      [Model Breach: Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port 46% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114113 ] ·      [Model Breach: Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname 62% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114114 ]·      [Model Breach: Device / New User Agent 32% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114117 ]·      [Model Breach: Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location 61% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114122 ]·      [Model Breach: Security Integration / Low Severity Integration Detection 54% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114310 ]
  • [Model Breach: Security Integration / Integration Ransomware Detected 65% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114662 ]Darktrace/Respond Model Breaches
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Suspicious File Block 61% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114033 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena File then New Outbound Block 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114038 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114040 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114041 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Controlled and Model Breach 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114043 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Ransomware Block 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114052 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Significant Security Integration and Network Activity Block 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114070 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Breaches Over Time Block 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114071 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Suspicious Activity Block 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114072 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Suspicious File Block 53% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114079 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Breaches Over Time Block 64% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114539 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Ransomware Block 66% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114667 ]
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Suspicious Activity Block 79% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114684 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Ransomware Block 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114110 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114111 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Controlled and Model Breach 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114115 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Breaches Over Time Block 87% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114116 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena Suspicious File Block 61% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114121 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::External Threat::Antigena File then New Outbound Block 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114123 ]·      
  • [Model Breach: Antigena / Network::Significant Anomaly::Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block 100% –– Breach URI: /#modelbreach/114125 ]

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

5.188.87[.]58 - IP address - C2 endpoint

80.66.88[.]145 - IP address - C2 endpoint

/bfyxraav - URI - Possible C2 endpoint URI

/msibfyxraav - URI - Possible C2 endpoint URI

Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; Win32; WinHttp.WinHttpRequest.5) - User agent - Probable user agent leveraged

curl - User agent - Probable user agent leveraged

curl/8.0.1 - User agent - Probable user agent leveraged

Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; Synapse) - User agent - Probable user agent leveraged

Autoit3.exe - Filename - Exe file

CvUYLoTv.au3    

eDVeqcCe.au3

FeLlcFRS.au3

FTEZlGhe.au3

HOrzcEWV.au3

rKlArXHH.au3

SjadeWUz.au3

ZgOLxJQy.au3

zSrxhagw.au3

ALOXitYE.au3

DKRcfZfV.au3

gQZVKzek.au3

JZrvmJXK.au3

kLECCtMw.au3

LEXCjXKl.au3

luqWdAzF.au3

mUBNrGpv.au3

OoCdHeJT.au3

PcEJXfIl.au3

ssElzrDV.au3

TcBwRRnp.au3

TFvAUIgu.au3

xkwtvq.au3

otxynh.au3

dcthbq.au3 - Filenames - Possible exe files delivered in response to curl/8.0.1 GET requests with Target URI '/msibfyxraav

f3a0a85fe2ea4a00b3710ef4833b07a5d766702b263fda88101e0cb804d8c699 - SHA256 file hash - Possible SHA256 hashes of 'Autoit3.exe' files

afa3feea5964846cd436b978faa7d31938e666288ffaa75d6ba75bfe6c12bf61 - SHA256 file hash - Possible SHA256 hashes of 'Autoit3.exe' files

63aeac3b007436fa8b7ea25298362330423b80a4cb9269fd2c3e6ab1b1289208 - SHA256 file hash - Possible SHA256 hashes of 'Autoit3.exe' files

ab6704e836a51555ec32d1ff009a79692fa2d11205f9b4962121bda88ba55486 - SHA256 file hash - Possible SHA256 hashes of 'Autoit3.exe' files

References

1. https://www.truesec.com/hub/blog/darkgate-loader-delivered-via-teams

2. https://feedit.cz/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/YiR2022_onepager_ransomware_loaders.pdf

3. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/5.188.87[.]58

4. https://www.forescout.com/resources/darkgate-loader-malspam-campaign/

5. https://otx.alienvault.com/indicator/ip/80.66.88[.]145

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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ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Natalia Sánchez Rocafort
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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Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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Inside the SOC

Gootloader Malware: Detecting and Containing Multi-Functional Threats with Darktrace

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15
Feb 2024

What is multi-functional malware?

While traditional malware variants were designed with one specific objective in mind, the emergence of multi-functional malware, such as loader malware, means that organizations are likely to be confronted with multiple malicious tools and strains of malware at once. These threats often have non-linear attack patterns and kill chains that can quickly adapt and progress quicker than human security teams are able to react. Therefore, it is more important than ever for organizations to adopt an anomaly approach to combat increasingly versatile and fast-moving threats.

Example of Multi-functional malware

One example of a multi-functional malware recently observed by Darktrace can be seen in Gootloader, a multi-payload loader variant that has been observed in the wild since 2020. It is known to primarily target Windows-based systems across multiple industries in the US, Canada, France, Germany, and South Korea [1].  

How does Gootloader malware work?

Once installed on a target network, Gootloader can download additional malicious payloads that allow threat actors to carry out a range of harmful activities, such as stealing sensitive information or encrypting files for ransom.

The Gootloader malware is known to infect networks via search engine optimization (SEO) poisoning, directing users searching for legitimate documents to compromised websites hosting a malicious payload masquerading as the desired file.

If the malware remains undetected, it paves the way for a second stage payload known as Gootkit, which functions as a banking trojan and information-stealer, or other malware tools including Cobalt Strike and Osiris [2].

Darktrace detection of Gootloader malware

In late 2023, Darktrace observed one instance of Gootloader affecting a customer in the US. Thanks to its anomaly-focused approach, Darktrace DETECT™ quickly identified the anomalous activity surrounding this emerging attack and brought it to the immediate attention of the customer’s security team. All the while, Darktrace RESPOND™ was in place and able to autonomously intervene, containing the suspicious activity and ensuring the Gootloader compromise could not progress any further.

In September 2023, Darktrace identified an instance of the Gootloader malware attempting to propagate within the network of a customer in the US. Darktrace identified the first indications of the compromise when it detected a device beaconing to an unusual external location and performing network scanning. Following this, the device was observed making additional command-and-control (C2) connections, before finally downloading an executable (.exe) file which likely represented the download of a further malicious payload.

As this customer had subscribed to the Proactive Notification Service (PTN), the suspicious activity was escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for further investigation by Darktrace’s expert analysts. The SOC team were able to promptly triage the incident and advise urgent follow-up actions.

Gootloader Attack Overview

Figure 1: Timeline of Anomalous Activities seen on the breach device.

Initial Beaconing and Scanning Activity

On September 21, 2023, Darktrace observed the first indications of compromise on the network when a device began to make regular connections to an external endpoint that was considered extremely rare for the network, namely ‘analyzetest[.]ir’.

Although the endpoint did not overtly seem malicious in nature (it appeared to be related to laboratory testing), Darktrace recognized that it had never previously been seen on the customer’s network and therefore should be treated with caution.  This initial beaconing activity was just the beginning of the malicious C2 communications, with several additional instances of beaconing detected to numerous suspicious endpoints, including funadhoo.gov[.]mv, tdgroup[.]ru’ and ‘army.mil[.]ng.

Figure 2: Initial beaconing activity detected on the breach device.

Soon thereafter, Darktrace detected the device performing internal reconnaissance, with an unusually large number of connections to other internal locations observed. This scanning activity appeared to primarily be targeting the SMB protocol by scanning port 445.

Within seconds of DETECT’s detection of this suspicious SMB scanning activity, Darktrace RESPOND moved to contain the compromise by blocking the device from connecting to port 445 and enforcing its ‘pattern of life’. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to learn a device’s normal behavior and recognize if it deviates from this; by enforcing a pattern of life on an affected device, malicious activity is inhibited but the device is allowed to continue its expected activity, minimizing disruption to business operations.

Figure 3: The breach device Model Breach Event Log showing Darktrace DETECT identifying suspicious SMB scanning activity and the corresponding RESPOND actions.

Following the initial detection of this anomalous activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst launched an autonomous investigation into the beaconing and scanning activity and was able to connect these seemingly separate events into one incident. AI Analyst analyzes thousands of connections to hundreds of different endpoints at machine speed and then summarizes its findings in a single pane of glass, giving customers the necessary information to assess the threat and begin remediation if necessary. This significantly lessens the burden for human security teams, saving them previous time and resources, while ensuring they maintain full visibility over any suspicious activity on their network.

Figure 4: Cyber AI Analyst incident log summarizing the technical details of the device’s beaconing and scanning behavior.

Beaconing Continues

Darktrace continued to observe the device carrying out beaconing activity over the next few days, likely representing threat actors attempting to establish communication with their malicious infrastructure and setting up a foothold within the customer’s environment. In one such example, the device was seen connecting to the suspicious endpoint ‘fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl’. Multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors reported this endpoint to be a known malware delivery host [3].

Once again, Darktrace RESPOND was in place to quickly intervene in response to these suspicious external connection attempts. Over the course of several days, RESPOND blocked the offending device from connecting to suspicious endpoints via port 443 and enforced its pattern of life. These autonomous actions by RESPOND effectively mitigated and contained the attack, preventing it from escalating further along the kill chain and providing the customer’s security team crucial time to take act and employ their own remediation.

Figure 5: A sample of the autonomous RESPOND actions that was applied on the affected device.

Possible Payload Retrieval

A few days later, on September 26, 2023, Darktrace observed the affected device attempting to download a Windows Portable Executable via file transfer protocol (FTP) from the external location ‘ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com’, which had never previously been seen on the network. This download likely represented the next step in the Gootloader infection, wherein additional malicious tooling is downloaded to further cement the malicious actors’ control over the device. In response, Darktrace RESPOND immediately blocked the device from making any external connections, ensuring it could not download any suspicious files that may have rapidly escalated the attackers’ efforts.

Figure 6: DETECT’s identification of the offending device downloading a suspicious executable file via FTP.

The observed combination of beaconing activity and a suspicious file download triggered an Enhanced Monitoring breach, a high-fidelity DETECT model designed to detect activities that are more likely to be indicative of compromise. These models are monitored by the Darktrace SOC round the clock and investigated by Darktrace’s expert team of analysts as soon as suspicious activity emerges.

In this case, Darktrace’s SOC triaged the emerging activity and sent an additional notice directly to the customer’s security team, informing them of the compromise and advising on next steps. As this customer had subscribed to Darktrace’s Ask the Expert (ATE) service, they also had a team of expert analysts available to them at any time to aid their investigations.

Figure 7: Enhanced Monitoring Model investigated by the Darktrace SOC.

Conclusion

Loader malware variants such as Gootloader often lay the groundwork for further, potentially more severe threats to be deployed within compromised networks. As such, it is crucial for organizations and their security teams to identify these threats as soon as they emerge and ensure they are effectively contained before additional payloads, like information-stealing malware or ransomware, can be downloaded.

In this instance, Darktrace demonstrated its value when faced with a multi-payload threat by detecting Gootloader at the earliest stage and responding to it with swift targeted actions, halting any suspicious connections and preventing the download of any additional malicious tooling.

Darktrace DETECT recognized that the beaconing and scanning activity performed by the affected device represented a deviation from its expected behavior and was indicative of a potential network compromise. Meanwhile, Darktrace RESPOND ensured that any suspicious activity was promptly shut down, buying crucial time for the customer’s security team to work with Darktrace’s SOC to investigate the threat and quarantine the compromised device.

Credit to: Ashiq Shafee, Cyber Security Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst and Deputy Analyst Team Lead, Singapore

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous Connection / Young or Invalid Certificate SSL Connections to Rare

Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Expired SSL

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Anomalous File / FTP Executable from Rare External Location

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

RESPOND Models

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block

Antigena / Network/Insider Threat/Antigena Network Scan Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

Type

Hostname

IoCs + Description

explorer[.]ee - C2 Endpoint

fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl- C2 Endpoint

devcxp2019.theclearingexperience[.]com- C2 Endpoint

campsite.bplaced[.]net- C2 Endpoint

coup2pompes[.]fr- C2 Endpoint

analyzetest[.]ir- Possible C2 Endpoint

tdgroup[.]ru- C2 Endpoint

ciedespuys[.]com- C2 Endpoint

fi.sexydate[.]world- C2 Endpoint

funadhoo.gov[.]mv- C2 Endpoint

geying.qiwufeng[.]com- C2 Endpoint

goodcomix[.]fun- C2 Endpoint

ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com- Possible Payload Download Host

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique

Reconnaissance - Scanning IP blocks (T1595.001, T1595)

Command and Control - Web Protocols , Application Layer Protocol, One-Way Communication, External Proxy, Non-Application Layer Protocol, Non-Standard Port (T1071.001/T1071, T1071, T1102.003/T1102, T1090.002/T1090, T1095, T1571)

Collection – Man in the Browser (T1185)

Resource Development - Web Services, Malware (T1583.006/T1583, T1588.001/T1588)

Persistence - Browser Extensions (T1176)

References

1.     https://www.blackberry.com/us/en/solutions/endpoint-security/ransomware-protection/gootloader

2.     https://redcanary.com/threat-detection-report/threats/gootloader/

3.     https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fysiotherapie-panken.nl

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About the author
Ashiq Shafee
Cyber Security Analyst

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