Hacking season: Why Cyber Monday presents a cyber security nightmare
As ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) drives digital convergence of our personal and professional lives, Black Friday scams targeting personal inboxes can easily spill over into corporate environments. This, coupled with an increased incidence of ransomware attacks over public holidays, is giving defenders plenty to think about this holiday season.
As Black Friday and Cyber Monday approach, retailers are gearing up for what is predicted to be a holiday season worth around $214 billion in e-commerce sales. They are not alone in making special preparations: in the cyber-criminal underworld, hackers are looking to use the influx of limited-time offers to incite a sense of urgency and lure victims with phishing emails disguised as Black Friday deals.
And as the holiday season draws nearer, another familiar attack vector threatens to dampen the festive cheer. With security teams enjoying well-earned breaks, upcoming public holidays present the perfect opportunity for ransomware attackers to strike. We covered this topic in detail earlier this year, and over the Fourth of July bank holiday weekend, the ‘largest ever ransomware attack’ wreaked havoc across the world, affecting up to 1,500 organizations.
With sophisticated festive phishing and the recent well-documented surge in ransomware, the stage is set for this holiday season to be one filled with cyber disruption. Security teams need all the help they can get to face this year’s ‘hacking season’ with best-in-class technology that keeps a watchful eye over the digital enterprise 365 days a year.
Attacks know no boundaries
Most of us tend to use personal email addresses for our holiday shopping, but in an era of remote and hybrid working, this can easily have knock-on effects, granting attackers a backdoor into the corporate sphere. The pandemic has seen a greater number of organizations focused on enabling remote and flexible working in whatever ways possible to ‘get the job done.’
BYOD (‘Bring Your Own Device’) has seen a surge in popularity to enable flexible working, increase efficiency, reduce costs, and give employees the opportunity to use IT they feel comfortable with.
From a digital perspective, this has led to increasing convergence of our personal and professional lives. Phishing emails that target personal email accounts – often using more relaxed email security measures – therefore put organizations at risk. Malicious executable files may grant an attacker access to the device, and from here they can pivot into corporate activity, and infiltrate an organization through a single, careless employee.
It’s not just BYOD users who are at risk. Despite the warnings, password reuse continues to be widespread, meaning a successful credential-grab on a personal account can potentially give attackers the keys to a wide range of corporate accounts, whether it’s Microsoft 365 or any number of other internal systems.
A longer holiday calendar expands the attack ‘calendar’ surface
This year, disruptions in the global supply chain are already causing problems for shipping and delays. In response, retailers like Best Buy are offering special deals well ahead of Black Friday with the price promise that they’ll refund the difference should the price drop further on the day itself.
This extends the time period in which these offers are promoted, and thereby the attack ‘calendar’ surface, gifting attackers an extra few weeks through which to launch seasonal scams.
And we know from experience that attackers can get creative, not only with emails disguised as Black Friday offers and promotions, but also spoofing attacks posing as delivery firms, or other third-party logistics suppliers. They will try anything which might induce a click on a link or attachment.
They see you when you’re sleeping: Hackers won’t take holiday
During public holidays, IT and security teams drastically reduce in size. Attackers know this, and it no longer comes as a surprise when some of the largest cyber-attacks of the year are detonated during this time. Adopting reliable autonomous security, and in particular autonomous response, has never been more important in ensuring organizations stay protected.
With opportunistic hackers looking to spoil the holiday season for some quick returns, we cannot rely on human teams alone. Human beings are fallible: they get tired, they need breaks, and they get complacent. One simple misconfiguration can leave an unprotected device exposed to the Internet, opening up the wider digital ecosystem to attack.
Breaches are inevitable, and organizations are no longer throwing all their resources into stopping an attacker from getting inside. The focus is increasingly shifting to being able to spot their behavior once they do get in, and taking autonomous action at machine speed to minimize cyber disruption.
Self-Learning AI does exactly this, learning every user and device in the organization from the ground up, without relying on static rules or signatures, and with no pre-conceptions of what constitutes a ‘threat’. And unlike humans, the technology works around the clock, without needing breaks or unwinding as the year draws to an end.
Darktrace’s AI learns ‘self’ across the entire digital estate, from the email layer, to the cloud, network, and endpoints. And crucially, Autonomous Response takes action on behalf of security teams, and can respond to ransomware in under 10 seconds, minimizing disruption, and saving teams from facing the new year with a lengthy and costly incident clean-up.
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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.
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
VP, Cyber Innovation
Mariana is the VP of Cyber Innovation at Darktrace, and works closely with the development, analyst, and marketing teams to advise technical and non-technical audiences on how best to augment cyber resilience, and how to implement AI technology as a means of defense. She speaks regularly at international events, with a specialism in presenting on sophisticated, AI-powered email attacks. She holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, and speaks several languages including French, Italian, and Portuguese.
Gootloader Malware: Detecting and Containing Multi-Functional Threats with Darktrace
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 .
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 .
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
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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
After analyzing the observed threats and trends that have affected customers across the Darktrace fleet in the second half of 2023, the Darktrace Threat Research team have made a series of predictions. These assessments highlight the threats that are expected to impact Darktrace customers and the wider threat landscape in 2024.
1. Initial access broker malware, especially loader malware, is likely to be a prominent threat.
Initial access malware such as loaders, information stealers, remote access trojans (RATs), and downloaders, will probably remain some of the most relevant threats to most organizations, especially when noted in the context that many are interoperable, tailorable Malware-as-a-Service (MaaS) tools.
These types of malware often serve as a gateway for threat actors to compromise a target network before launching subsequent, and often more severe, attacks. Would-be cyber criminals are now able to purchase and deploy these malware without the need for technical expertise.
2. Infrastructure complexity will increase SaaS attacks and leave cloud environments vulnerable.
The increasing reliance on SaaS solutions and platforms for business operations, coupled with larger attack surfaces than ever before, make it likely that attackers will continue targeting organizations’ cloud environments with account takeovers granting unauthorized access to privileged accounts. These account hijacks can be further exploited to perform a variety of nefarious activities, such as data exfiltration or launching phishing campaigns.
It is paramount for organizations to not only fortify their SaaS environments with security strategies including multifactor authentication (MFA), regular monitoring of credential usage, and strict access control, but moreover augment SaaS security using anomaly detection.
3. The prevalence and evolution of ransomware will surge.
The Darktrace Threat Research team anticipates a surge in Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) attacks, marking a shift away from conventional ransomware. The uptick in RaaS observed in 2023 evidences that ransomware itself is becoming increasingly accessible, lowering the barrier to entry for threat actors. This surge also demonstrates how lucrative RaaS is for ransomware operators in the current threat landscape, further reinforcing a rise in RaaS.
This development is likely to coincide with a pivot away from traditional encryption-centric ransomware tactics towards more sophisticated and advanced extortion methods. Rather than relying solely on encrypting a target’s data for ransom, malicious actors are expected to employ double or even triple extortion strategies, encrypting sensitive data but also threatening to leak or sell stolen data unless their ransom demands are met.
4. Threat actors will continue to rely on living-off-the-land techniques.
With evolving sophistication of security tools and greater industry adoption of AI techniques, threat actors have focused more and more on living-off-the-land. The extremely high volume of vulnerabilities discovered in 2023 highlights threat actors’ persistent need to compromise trusted organizational mechanisms and infrastructure to gain a foothold in networks. Although inbox intrusions remain prevalent, the exploitation of edge infrastructure has demonstrably expanded compared to previously endpoint-focused attacks.
Given the prevalence of endpoint evasion techniques and the high proportion of tactics utilizing native programs, threat actors will likely progressively live off the land, even utilizing new techniques or vulnerabilities to do so, rather than relying on unidentified malicious programs which evade traditional detection.
5. The “as-a-Service” marketplace will contribute to an increase in multi-phase compromises.
With the increasing “as-a-Service” marketplaces, it is likely that organizations will face more multi-phase compromises, where one strain of malware is observed stealing information and that data is sold to additional threat actors or utilized for second and/or third-stage malware or ransomware.
This trend builds on the concept of initial access brokers but utilizes basic browser scraping and data harvesting to make as much profit throughout the compromise process as possible. This will likely result in security teams observing multiple malicious tools and strains of malware during incident response and/or multi-functional malware, with attack cycles and kill chains morphing into less linear and more abstract chains of activity. This makes it more essential than ever for security teams to apply an anomaly approach to stay ahead of asymmetric threats.
6. Generative AI will let attackers phish across language barriers.
Classic phishing scams play a numbers game, targeting as many inboxes as possible and hoping that some users take the bait, even if there are spelling and grammar errors in the email. Now, Generative AI has reduced the barrier for entry, so malicious actors do not have to speak English to produce a convincing phishing email.
In 2024, we anticipate this to extend to other languages and regions. For example, many countries in Asia have not yet been greatly impacted by phishing. Yet Generative AI continues to develop, with improved data input yielding improved output. More phishing emails will start to be generated in various languages with increasing sophistication.
7. AI regulation and data privacy rules will stifle AI adoption.
AI regulation, like the European Union’s AI Act and NIS2, is starting to be implemented around the world. As policies continue to come out about AI and data privacy, practical and pragmatic AI adoption becomes more complex.
Businesses will likely have to take a second look at AI they are adopting into their tech stacks to consider what may happen if a tool is suddenly deprecated because it is no longer fit for purpose or loses the approvals in place. Many will also have to use completely different supply chain evaluations from their usual ones based on developing compliance registrars. This increased complication may make businesses reticent to adopt innovative AI solutions as legislation scrambles to keep up.