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Glimpsing inside the trojan horse: An insider analysis of Emotet

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09
Jan 2019
09
Jan 2019
In 2018, Darktrace detected a 239% year-on-year uptick in incidents related specifically to banking trojans.

While both traditional security tools and the attacks against them continue to improve, advanced cyber-criminals are increasingly exploiting the weakness inherent to any organization’s security posture: its employees. Designed to mislead such employees into compromising their devices, computer trojans are now rapidly on the rise. In 2018, Darktrace detected a 239% year-on-year uptick in incidents related specifically to banking trojans, which use deception to harvest the credentials of online banking customers from infected machines. And one banking trojan in particular, Emotet, is among the costliest and most destructive malware variants currently imperilling governments and companies worldwide.

Emotet is a highly sophisticated malware with a modular architecture, installing its main component first before delivering additional payloads. Further increasing its subtlety is the fact that Emotet is considered to be ‘polymorphic malware’, since it constantly changes its identifiable features to evade detection by antivirus products. And, as will be subsequently discussed in greater detail, Emotet has advanced persistence techniques and worm-like self-propagation abilities, which render it uniquely resilient and dangerous.

Since its launch in 2014, Emotet has been adapted and repurposed on numerous occasions as its targets have diversified. Initially, Emotet’s primary victims were German banks, from which the malware was designed to steal financial information by intercepting network traffic. By this past year’s end, Emotet had spread far and wide while shifting focus to U.S. targets, resulting in permanently lost files, costly business interruptions, and serious reputational harm.

How Emotet works

(Image courtesy of US-CERT)

Emotet is spread by targeting Windows-based systems via sophisticated phishing campaigns, employing social engineering techniques to fool users into believing that the malware-laden emails are legitimate. For instance, the latest versions of Emotet were delivered by way of Thanksgiving-related emails, which invited their American recipients to open an apparently innocuous Thanksgiving card:

These emails contain Microsoft Word documents that are either linked or attached directly. The Word files, in turn, act as vectors for malicious macros, which must be explicitly enabled by the user to be executed. For security reasons, running macros by default is disabled in most of the latest Microsoft application versions, meaning that the cyber-criminals responsible must resort to tricking users in order to enable them — in this case, by enticing them with the Thanksgiving card.

Once the macros are enabled, the Word file is executed and a PowerShell command is activated to retrieve the main Emotet component from compromised servers. The trojan payload is then downloaded and executed into the victim’s system. As mentioned above, Emotet payloads are polymorphic, often allowing them to slip past conventional security tools undetected.

How Emotet persists and propagates

Once Emotet has been executed on the victim’s device, it begins deploying itself with two main objectives: (1) achieving persistence and (2) spreading to more machines. To achieve the first aim, which involves resisting a reboot and various attempts at removal, Emotet does the following:

  • Creates scheduled tasks and registry key entries, ensuring its automatic execution during every system start-up.
  • Registers itself by creating files that have randomly generated names in system root directories, which are run as Windows services.
  • Typically stores payloads in paths located off AppData\Local and AppData\Roaming directories that it masks with names that appear legitimate, such as ‘flashplayer.exe’.

Emotet’s second key goal is that of spreading across local networks and beyond in order to infect as many machines as possible. To this end, Emotet first gathers information on both the victim’s system itself and the operating system it uses. Following this reconnaissance stage, it establishes encrypted command and control communications (C2) with its parent infrastructure before determining which payloads it will deliver. After reporting a new infection, Emotet downloads modules from the C2 servers, including:

  • WebBrowserPassView: A tool that steals passwords from most common web browsers like Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer.
  • NetPass.exe: A legitimate tool that recovers all the network passwords stored on the system for the current logged-on user.
  • MailPassView: A tool that reveals passwords and account details for popular email clients, such as Hotmail, Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, and Yahoo! Mail.
  • Outlook PST scraper: A module that searches Outlook’s messages to obtain names and email addresses from the victim’s Outlook account.
  • Credential enumerator: A module that enumerates network resources and attempts to gain access to other machines via SMB enumeration and brute-forcing connections.
  • Banking trojans: These include Dridex, IceID, Zeus Panda, Trickbot and Qakbot, all of which harvest banking account information via browser monitoring routines.

Whilst the WebBrowserPassView, NetPass.exe and MailPassView modules are able to steal the compromised user’s credentials, the PST scraper module can ransack the user’s contact list of friends, family members, colleagues and clients, enabling Emotet to self-propagate by sending phishing emails to those contacts. And because such emails are sent from the hijacked accounts of known acquaintances and loved ones, their recipients are more likely to open their infected attachments and links.

Emotet’s other self-propagation method is via brute-forcing credentials using various password lists, with the intent of gaining access to other machines within the network. When unsuccessful, the malware’s repeated failed login attempts can cause users to become locked out of their accounts, and when successful, the victims may become infected without even clicking on a malicious link or attachment. These tactics have collectively made Emotet remarkably durable and widespread. Indeed, in line with Darktrace’s discovery that incidents related to banking trojans have increased by 239% from 2017 to 2018, Emotet alone recorded a 39% increase, and the worst may be yet to come.

How AI fights back

Emotet presents significant challenges for traditional security tools, both because it exploits the ubiquitous vulnerability of human error, and because it is designed specifically to bypass endpoint solutions. Yet unlike such traditional tools, Darktrace leverages unsupervised machine learning algorithms to detect cyber-threats that have already infiltrated the network. Modelled after the human immune system, Darktrace AI works by learning the individual ‘pattern of life’ of every user, device, and network that it safeguards. From this ever-evolving sense of ‘self,’ Darktrace can differentiate between normal and anomalous behavior, allowing it to identify cyber-attacks in much the same way that our immune system spots harmful germs.

Recently, Darktrace’s AI models managed to detect a machine on a clients’ network that was experiencing active signs of an Emotet infection. The device was observed downloading a suspicious file and, shortly thereafter, began beaconing to a rare external destination, likely reporting the infection to a C2 server.

The device was then observed moving laterally across the network by performing brute force activities. In fact, Darktrace detected thousands of Kerberos failed logins, including to administrative accounts, as well as multiple SMB session failures that used a range of common usernames, such as ‘admin’ and ‘exchange’. Below is a graph showing the SMB and Kerberos brute-force activity on the breached device:

In addition to the brute-forcing activity performed by the credential enumerator module, Darktrace also detected another payload that was potentially functioning as an email spammer. The infected machine started to make a high number of outgoing connections over common email ports. This activity is consistent with Emotet’s typical spreading behavior, which revolves around sending emails to the victim’s hijacked email contacts. Below is an image of Darktrace models breached during the reported Emotet infection:

By forming a comprehensive understanding of normalcy, Darktrace can flag even the most minute anomalies in real time, thwarting subtle threats like Emotet that have already circumvented the network perimeter. To counter such advanced banking trojans, cyber AI defenses like Darktrace have become an organizational necessity.

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.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Max Heinemeyer
Chief Product Officer

Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works with the R&D team at Darktrace, shaping research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

Blog

Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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