Blog

Inside the SOC

Gozi-ISFB:Darktrace’s Detection of the Malware with a Thousand Faces

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
26
Apr 2023
26
Apr 2023
Banking trojans, designed to steal confidential information, are constantly adapting to avoid detection from security tools. Gozi-ISFB is one of these banking trojans that has caused a recent concern, read more about how Darktrace's Self-Learning AI was able to spot these attacks.

Mirroring the overall growth of the cybersecurity landscape and the advancement of security tool capabilities, threat actors are continuously forced to keep pace. Today, threat actors are bringing novel malware into the wild, creating new attack vectors, and finding ways to avoid the detection of security tools. 

One notable example of a constantly adapting type of malware can be seen with banking trojans, a type of malware designed to steal confidential information, such as banking credentials, used by attackers for financial gain. Gozi-ISFB is a widespread banking trojan that has previously been referred to as ‘the malware with a thousand faces’ and, as it name might suggest, has been known under various names such as Gozi, Ursnif, Papras and Rovnix to list a few.

Between November 2022 and January 2023, a rise in Gozi-ISFB malware related activity was observed across Darktrace customer environments and was investigated by the Darktrace Threat Research team. Leveraging its Self-Learning AI, Darktrace was able to identify activity related to this banking trojan, regardless of the attack vectors or delivery methods utilized by threat actors.

We have moderate to high confidence that the series of activities observed is associated with Gozi-ISFB malware and high confidence in the indicators of compromise identified which are related to the post-compromise activities from Gozi-ISFB malware. 

Gozi-ISFB Background

The Gozi-ISFB malware was first observed in 2011, stemming from the source code of another family of malware, Gozi v1, which in turn borrowed source code from the Ursnif malware strain.  

Typically, the initial access payloads of Gozi-ISFB would require an endpoint to enable a macro on their device, subsequently allowing a pre-compiled executable file (.exe) to be gathered from an attacker-controlled server, and later executed on the target device.

However, researchers have recently observed Gozi-ISFB actors using additional and more advanced capabilities to gain access to organizations networks. These capabilities range from credential harvest, surveilling user keystrokes, diverting browser traffic from banking websites, remote desktop access, and the use of domain generation algorithms (DGA) to create command-and-control (C2) domains to avoid the detection and blocking of traditional security tools. 

Ultimately, the goal of Gozi-ISFB malware is to gather confidential information from infected devices by connecting to C2 servers and installing additional malware modules on the network. 

Darktrace Coverage of Gozi-ISFB 

Unlike traditional security approaches, Darktrace DETECT/Network™ can identify malicious activity because Darktrace models build an understanding of a device’s usual pattern of behavior, rather than using a static list of indicators of compromise (IoCs) or rules and signatures. As such, Darktrace is able to instantly detect compromised devices that deviate from their expected behavioral patterns, engaging in activity such as unusual SMB connections or connecting to newly created malicious endpoints or C2 infrastructure. In the event that Darktrace detects malicious activity, it would automatically trigger an alert, notifying the customer of an ongoing security concern. 

Regarding the Gozi-ISFB attack process, initial attack vectors commonly include targeted phishing campaigns, where the recipient would receive an email with an attached Microsoft Office document containing macros or a Zip archive file. Darktrace frequently observes malicious emails like this across the customer base and is able to autonomously detect and action them using Darktrace/Email™. In the following cases, the clients who had Darktrace/Email did not have evidence of compromise through their corporate email infrastructure, suggesting devices were likely compromised via the access of personal email accounts. In other cases, the customers did not have Darktrace/Email enabled on their networks.

Upon downloading and opening the malicious attachment included in the phishing email, the payload subsequently downloads an additional .exe or dynamic link library (DLL) onto the device. Following this download, the malware will ultimately begin to collect sensitive data from the infected device, before exfiltrating it to the C2 server associated with Gozi-ISFB. Darktrace was able to demonstrate and detect the retrieval of Gozi-ISFB malware, as well as subsequent malicious communication on multiple customer environments. 

In some attack chains observed, the infected device made SMB connections to the rare external endpoint ’62.173.138[.]28’ via port 445. Darktrace recognized that the device used unusual credentials for this destination endpoint and further identified it performing SMB reads on the share ‘\\62.173.138[.]28\Agenzia’. Darktrace also observed that the device downloaded the executable file ‘entrat.exe’ from this connection as can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Model breach event log showing an infected device making SMB read actions on the share ‘\\62.173.138[.]28\Agenzia’. Darktrace observed the device downloading the executable file ‘entrat.exe’ from this connection.

Subsequently, the device performed a separate SMB login to the same external endpoint using a credential identical to the device's name. Shortly after, the device performed a SMB directory query from the root share drive for the file path to the same endpoint. 

Figure 2:SMB directory query from the root share drive for the file path to the same endpoint, ’62.173.138[.]28’.

In Gozi-ISFB compromises investigated by the Threat Research team, Darktrace commonly observed model breaches for ‘Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname’ and the use of the Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64)’ user agent. 

Devices were additionally observed making external connections over port 80 (TCP, HTTP) to endpoints associated with Gozi-ISFB. Regarding these connections, C2 communication was observed used configurations of URI path and resource file extension that claimed to be related to images within connections that were actually GET or POST request URIs. This is a commonly used tactic by threat actors to go under the radar and evade the detection of security teams.  

An example of this type of masqueraded URI can be seen below:

In another similar example investigated by the Threat Research team, Darktrace detected similar external connectivity associated with Gozi-ISFB malware. In this case, DETECT identified external connections to two separate hostnames, namely ‘gameindikdowd[.]ru’ and ‘jhgfdlkjhaoiu[.]su’,  both of which have been associated to Gozi-ISFB by OSINT sources. This specific detection included HTTP beaconing connections to endpoint, gameindikdowd[.]ru .

Details observed from this event: 

Destination IP: 134.0.118[.]203

Destination port: 80

ASN: AS197695 Domain names registrar REG.RU, Ltd

User agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64

The same device later made anomalous HTTP POST requests to a known Gozi-ISFB endpoint, jhgfdlkjhaoiu[.]su. 

Details observed:

Destination port: 80

ASN: AS197695 Domain names registrar REG.RU, Ltd

User agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64

Figure 3: Packet Capture (PCAP) with the device conducting anomalous HTTP POST requests to a Gozi-ISFB related IOC, ‘jhgfdlkjhaoiu[.]su’.

Conclusions 

With constantly changing attack infrastructure and new methods of exploitation tested and leveraged hour upon hour, it is critical for security teams to employ tools that help them stay ahead of the curve to avoid critical damage from compromise.  

Faced with a notoriously adaptive malware strain like Gozi-ISFB, Darktrace demonstrated its ability to autonomously detect malicious activity based upon more than just known IoCs and attack vectors. Despite the multitude of different attack vectors utilized by threat actors, Darktrace was able to detect Gozi-ISFB activity at various stages of the kill chain using its anomaly-based detection to identify unusual activity or deviations from normal patterns of life. Using its Self-Learning AI, Darktrace successfully identified infected devices and brought them to the immediate attention of customer security teams, ultimately preventing infections from leading to further compromise.  

The Darktrace suite of products, including DETECT/Network, is uniquely placed to offer customers an unrivaled level of network security that can autonomously identify and respond to arising threats against their networks in real time, preventing suspicious activity from leading to damaging network compromises.

Credit to: Paul Jennings, Principal Analyst Consultant and the Threat Research Team

Appendices

List of IOCs

134.0.118[.]203 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB C2 Endpoint

62.173.138[.]28 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

45.130.147[.]89 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

94.198.54[.]97 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB C2 Endpoint

91.241.93[.]111 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

89.108.76[.]56 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

87.106.18[.]141 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

35.205.61[.]67 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

91.241.93[.]98 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint

62.173.147[.]64 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB C2 Endpoint

146.70.113[.]161 - IP Address - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Endpoint 

iujdhsndjfks[.]ru - Hostname - Gozi-ISFB C2 Hostname

reggy505[.]ru - Hostname - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Hostname

apr[.]intoolkom[.]at - Hostname - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Hostname

jhgfdlkjhaoiu[.]su - Hostname - Gozi-ISFB  C2 Hostname

gameindikdowd[.]ru - Hostname - Gozi-ISFB  Hostname

chnkdgpopupser[.]at - Hostname – Gozi-ISFB C2 Hostname

denterdrigx[.]com - Hostname – Gozi-ISFB C2 Hostname

entrat.exe - Filename – Gozi-ISFB Related Filename

Darktrace Model Coverage

Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname

Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname

Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Medium Period)

Anomalous File / Application File Read from Rare Endpoint

Device / Suspicious Domain

Mitre Attack and Mapping

Tactic: Application Layer Protocol: Web Protocols

Technique: T1071.001

Tactic: Drive-by Compromise

Technique: T1189

Tactic: Phishing: Spearphishing Link

Technique: T1566.002

Model Detection

Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname - T1071.001

Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname - T1071.001

Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname - T1071.001

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Medium Period) - T1071.001

Anomalous File / Application File Read from Rare Endpoint - N/A

Device / Suspicious Domain - T1189, T1566.002

References

https://threatfox.abuse.ch/browse/malware/win.isfb/

https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa22-216a

https://www.fortinet.com/blog/threat-research/new-variant-of-ursnif-continuously-targeting-italy#:~:text=Ursnif%20(also%20known%20as%20Gozi,Italy%20over%20the%20past%20year

https://medium.com/csis-techblog/chapter-1-from-gozi-to-isfb-the-history-of-a-mythical-malware-family-82e592577fef

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
Justin Torres
Cyber Analyst
Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
USE CASES
No items found.
COre coverage

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

Inside the SOC

Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

Default blog imageDefault blog image
23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

Continue reading
About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

Blog

No items found.

Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

Default blog imageDefault blog image
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.  

Continue reading
About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

Good news for your business.
Bad news for the bad guys.

Start your free trial

Start your free trial

Flexible delivery
Cloud-based deployment.
Fast install
Just 1 hour to set up – and even less for an email security trial.
Choose your journey
Try out Self-Learning AI wherever you most need it — including cloud, network or email.
No commitment
Full access to the Darktrace Threat Visualizer and three bespoke Threat Reports, with no obligation to purchase.
For more information, please see our Privacy Notice.
Thanks, your request has been received
A member of our team will be in touch with you shortly.
YOU MAY FIND INTERESTING
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get a demo

Flexible delivery
You can either install it virtually or with hardware.
Fast install
Just 1 hour to set up – and even less for an email security trial.
Choose your journey
Try out Self-Learning AI wherever you most need it — including cloud, network or email.
No commitment
Full access to the Darktrace Threat Visualizer and three bespoke Threat Reports, with no obligation to purchase.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.