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Four ways cyber-criminals fly under the radar

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07
Apr 2020
07
Apr 2020
As adversaries adopt a collection of techniques to escape detection, the challenge of reliably attributing cyber-threats intensifies.

The challenge of reliably attributing cyber-threats has amplified in recent years, as adversaries adopt a collection of techniques to ensure that even if their attacks are caught, they themselves escape detection and avoid punishment.

Detecting a threat is, of course, a very different technical challenge compared to tracing that activity back to a human operator. Nevertheless, at some point after the dust has settled, during the post-hoc incident analysis for example, someone somewhere may need to know who the suspects are. And in spite of all of our other advances, and also some recent successes in attributing offensive and cyber-criminal acts, only three out of every 100,000 cyber-crimes are prosecuted. Put simply, this is still an unsolved set of problems. Many of the successes we do have can be attributed more to operational security fails on the criminals’ end than any other active approaches. In fact, some recent trends have actually made reliable attribution even more challenging.

The four cyber-threat trends that make attribution difficult

There are four related trends in how threat-actors can procure and obtain attack capabilities that have resulted in an increase in complexity when attempting to reliably identify Tools, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) and attributing them to distinct threat-actors.

A Cybercrime-as-a-Service economy and supply chain allowing cyber-criminals to mix and match off the shelf offensive cyber capabilities.

Expansion of ‘Living off the Land’ (LoL) tool usage by threat-actors to evade traditional, signature-based security defenses, and to obfuscate their activity.

While Code Reuse has always existed in the hacker community, copying nation-state-grade attack code has recently become possible.

The barrier to entry for criminally motivated operators has been lowered, providing the means for less technical criminals, who are only limited by time and their imagination.

Figure 1: The four cyber-threat trends

Threat-actors can mix and match attack tools, creating attack stacks that can be tailored for a variety of campaigns.

Between a professional marketplace of cyber-crime tools and services, the increasing adoption of ‘Living off the Land’ techniques, and the reusing of code leaked from nation-state intelligence services, threat-actors with even the most limited technical ability can conduct highly sophisticated criminal campaigns. Prospective cyber-criminals now have four primary types of attack tools to choose from – with three of them brand new or greatly enhanced. Even more importantly, these threat-actors can mix and match attack tools, creating tactically flexible attack stacks that can be tailored for a variety of campaigns against a diverse set of victims.

Off the shelf attacks

The burgeoning and increasingly professional Cybercrime-as-a-Service market (estimated at $1.6B) provides a thriving marketplace of microservices, attack code, and attack platforms. Anyone with a motive and enough bitcoin and enthusiasm can become the next ‘cyber Don Corleone’. Many of these services offer dedicated account management and professional support 24 hours a day. The commercialization of the cyber-crime supply chain has raised the barrier to entry for Cybercrime-as-a-Service vendors, while at the same time lowering it for cyber-criminal operators.

Living off the Land

‘Living off the Land’ (LoL) and “malware-less” attacks have been on the rise for some time now. What makes these attack methods so dangerous is that they leverage standard operating system tools to conduct their nefarious business, making signature-based approaches that look for malware heuristics ineffective – including signature-based Intrusion Protection Systems.

These attacks in particular demonstrate the need for an approach to cyber security that goes beyond looking at what malware is being used. Rather than relying on static blacklists, security teams are instead turning to a more sophisticated approach that learns ‘normal’ for every user and device across an entire business. From that evolving baseline, this approach to defense can identify and contain anomalous activity indicative of a cyber-threat – all in real time.

Code reuse and repurpose

What is new, and unprecedented, is that cyber-criminals are gaining access to intelligence and nation-state grade attack code.

Hackers have always begged, borrowed, and stolen code from others, including attack code – just two notable examples include the Zeus trojan and RIG exploit kit code leaks that provided the code base for much of the current generation of threats. What is new and unprecedented is that, whether through malice or incompetence, cyber-criminals are gaining access to intelligence and nation-state grade attack code. The Shadowbroker leaks that resulted in Wannacry is one recent example of this trend, and one we expect to accelerate – especially with intelligence services actively outing each other’s methods.

Custom and bespoke techniques

The practice of hackers creating their own tools and researching their own exploits has a long and hallowed tradition, with headline-grabbing zero-days becoming more and more common. Nation-state actors in particular often make a distinction between attack operators and attack code developers, with the ability to request tailored and bespoke code and tools – not unlike the model that has been replicated in the Cybercrime-as-a-Service market. Even when developing custom tools, threat-actors frequently integrate code and exploits from other parties.

Figure 2: The four main attack tool types

When determining who is actually behind these attacks, though, what is most important is the ability to combine all four types of attack tools – this provides a further layer of obfuscation against methods that rely on pattern matching for detection whilst causing additional confusion for would-be investigators. An attacker can use any combination and variation of these tool types to create a different “Chimera” attack stack – making it that much more difficult to identify who is really the operator. Telling apart the operator from the Cybercrime-as-a-Service vendor, for example, is difficult when most of the TTPs that are evaluated are technical and derive from the tooling.

Figure 3: The TTP and Attribution Confusion Chain

Conclusion

As the challenge of attribution intensifies, our focus must turn to defending against cyber-attacks themselves.

The combination of the four threat trends outlined above has lowered the barrier to entry for criminally motivated operators. Less technical adversaries are now able to launch attacks at a speed and scale previously confined to the most organized and well-financed cyber-criminal rings. This change in circumstances has made attribution of offensive cyber activity drastically more complex, and it may be some time before the prosecution rate for cyber-crime gets good enough that it can act as a greater disincentive.

As the challenge of attribution intensifies, our focus must turn to defending against cyber-attacks themselves. You may not ever know who is attacking you, but if you can successfully thwart the full range of threats, new and old, your organization can continue to operate as normal.

Fortunately, defenders’ abilities to detect and respond to cyber-threats have significantly advanced in recent years, thanks to the latest developments in AI and machine learning. Over 3,500 organizations now rely on Cyber AI to detect and contain cyber-threats – whether attackers use pre-existing OS tools to masquerade their attacks or use bespoke and entirely new techniques to bypass rules and signatures. When a threat is identified, AI can respond autonomously by enforcing a user or device’s ‘pattern of life’, allowing ‘business as usual’ whilst ensuring the organization is protected from harm.

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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Oliver Rochford
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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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22
Feb 2024

What is VIP impersonation?

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

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

How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?

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

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

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

There are two types of VIPs:  

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

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

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

Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation

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

Understanding Attack Pathways

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

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

Phishing Attempts  

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

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

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

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

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

Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise  

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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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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