Hafnium cyber-attack neutralized by AI in December 2020
In early December 2020, Darktrace AI autonomously detected and investigated a sophisticated cyber-attack that targeted a customer’s Exchange server. On March 2, 2021, Microsoft disclosed an ongoing campaign by the Hafnium threat actor group leveraging Exchange server zero-days.
Based on similarities in techniques, tools and procedures (TTPs) observed, Darktrace has now assessed with high confidence that the attack in December was the work of the Hafnium group. Although it is not possible to determine whether this attack leveraged the same Exchange zero-days as reported by Microsoft, the finding suggests that Hafnium’s campaign was active several months earlier than assumed.
As a result, organizations may want to go back as far as early December 2020 to check security logs and tools for signs of initial intrusion into their Internet-facing Exchange servers.
As Darktrace does not rely on rules or signatures, it doesn’t require a constant cloud connection. Most customers therefore operate our technology themselves, and we don’t centrally monitor their detections.
At the time of detection in December, this was one of many uncategorized, sophisticated intrusions that affected only a single customer, and was not indicative of a broader campaign.
This means that while we protect our customers from individual intrusions, we are not in a position to do global campaign tracking like other companies which focus primarily on threat intelligence and threat actor tracking.
In this blog, we will analyze the attack to aid organizations in their ongoing investigations, and to raise awareness that the Hafnium campaign may have been active for longer than previously disclosed.
Overview of the Exchange attack
The intrusion was detected at an organization in the critical national infrastructure sector in South Asia. One hypothesis is that the Hafnium group was testing out and refining its TTPs, potentially including the Exchange server exploit, before running a broad-scale campaign against Western organizations in early 2021.
The threat actor used many of the same techniques that were observed in the later Hafnium attacks, including the deployment of the low-activity China Chopper web shell, quickly followed by post-exploitation activity – attempting to move laterally and spread to critical devices in the network.
The following analysis demonstrates how Darktrace’s Enterprise Immune System detected the malicious activity, how Cyber AI Analyst automatically investigated on the incident and surfaced the alert as a top priority, and how Darktrace RESPOND (formerly known as 'Antigena') would have responded autonomously to shut down the attack, had it been in active mode.
All the activity took place in early December 2020, almost three months before Microsoft released information about the Hafnium campaign.
Unfortunately, the victim organization did not keep any logs or forensic artefacts from their Exchange server in December 2020, which would have allowed Darktrace to ascertain the exploit of the zero-day. However, there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that these Exchange server vulnerabilities were abused.
Darktrace observed no signs of compromise or change in behavior from the Internet-facing Exchange server – no prior internal admin connections, no broad-scale brute-force attempts, no account takeovers, no malware copied to the server via internal channels – until all of a sudden, it began to scan the internal network.
While this is not conclusive evidence that no other avenue of initial intrusion was present, the change in behavior on an administrative level points to a complete takeover of the Exchange server, rather than the compromise of a single Outlook Web Application account.
To conduct a network scan from an Exchange server, a highly privileged, operating SYSTEM-level account is required. The patch level of the Exchange server at the time of compromise appears to have been up-to-date, at least not offering a threat actor the ability to target a known vulnerability to instantly get SYSTEM-level privileges.
For this reason, Darktrace has inferred that the Exchange server zero-days that became public in early March 2021 were possibly being used in this attack observed in early December 2020.
As soon as the attackers gained access via the web shell, they used the Exchange server to scan all IPs in a single subnet on ports 80, 135, 445, 8080.
This particular Exchange server had never made such a large number of new failed internal connections to that specific subnet on those key ports. As a result, Darktrace instantly alerted on the anomalous behavior, which was indicative of a network scan.
Darktrace RESPOND was in passive mode in the environment, so was not able to take action. In active mode, it would have responded by enforcing the previously learned, normal ‘pattern of life’ of the Exchange server – allowing the server to continue normal business operations (sending and receiving emails) but preventing the network scan and any subsequent activity. These actions would have been carried out via various integrations with the customer’s existing security stack, including Firewalls and Network Access Controls.
Specifically, when the network scanning started, the ‘Antigena Network Scan Block’ was triggered. This means that for several hours, Darktrace RESPOND (Antigena) would have blocked any new outgoing connections from the Exchange server to the scanned subnet on port 80, 135, 445, or 8080, preventing the infected Exchange server from conducting network scanning.
As a result, the attackers would not have been able to conclude anything from their reconnaissance — all their scanning would have returned closed ports. At this point, they would need to stop their attack or resort to other means, likely triggering further detections and further Autonomous Response.
The network scan was the first step touching the internal network. This is therefore a clear case of how Darktrace RESPOND can intercept an attack in seconds, acting at the earliest possible evidence of the intrusion.
Less than an hour after the internal network scan, the compromised Exchange server was observed writing further web shells to other Exchange servers via internal SMB. Darktrace alerted on this as the initially compromised Exchange server had never accessed the other Exchange servers in this fashion over SMB, let alone writing .aspx files to Program Files remotely.
A single click allowed the security team to pivot from the alert into Darktrace’s Advanced Search, revealing further details about the written files. The full file path for the newly deployed web shells was:
Program Files\Microsoft\Exchange Server\V15\FrontEnd\HttpProxy\owa\auth\Current\themes\errorFS.aspx
The attackers thus used internal SMB to compromise further Exchange servers and deploy more web shells, rather than using the Exchange zero-day exploit again to achieve the same goal. The reason for this is clear: exploits can often be unstable, and an adversary would not want to show their hand unnecessarily if it could be avoided.
While the China Chopper web shell has been deployed with many different names in the past, the file path and file name of the actual .aspx web shell bear very close resemblance to the Hafnium campaign details published by Microsoft and others in March 2021.
As threat actors often reuse naming conventions / TTPs in coherent campaigns, it again indicates that this particular attack was in some way part of the broader campaign observed in early 2021.
Further lateral movement
Minutes later, the attacker conducted further lateral movement by making more SMB drive writes to Domain Controllers. This time the attackers did not upload web shells, but malware, in the form of executables and Windows .bat files.
Darktrace alerted the security team as it was extremely unusual for the Exchange server and its peer group to make SMB drive writes to hidden shares to a Domain Controller, particularly using executables and batch files. The activity was presented to the team in the form of a high-confidence alert such as the anonymized example below.
The batch file was called ‘a.bat’. At this point, the security team could have created a packet capture for the a.bat file in Darktrace with the click of a button, inspecting the content and details of that script at the time of the intrusion.
Darktrace also listed the credentials involved in the activity, providing context into the compromised accounts. This allows an analyst to pivot rapidly around the data and further understand the scope of the intrusion.
In addition to detecting the malicious activity outlined above, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst autonomously summarized the incident and reported on it, outlining the internal reconnaissance and lateral movement activity in a single, cohesive incident.
The organization has several thousand devices covered by Darktrace’s Enterprise Immune System. Nevertheless, over the period of one week, the Hafnium intrusion was in the top five incidents highlighted in Cyber AI Analyst. Even a small or resource-stretched security team, with only a few minutes available per week to review the highest-severity incidents, could have seen and inspected this threat.
Below is a graphic showing a similar Cyber AI Analyst incident created by Darktrace.
How to stop a zero-day
Large scale campaigns which target Internet-facing infrastructure and leverage zero-day exploits will continue to occur regularly, and such attacks will always succeed in evading signature-based detection. However, organizations are not helpless against the next high-profile zero-day or supply chain attack.
Detecting the movements of attackers inside a system and responding to contain in-progress threats is possible before IoCs have been provided. The methods of detection outlined above protected the company against this attack in December, and the same techniques will continue to protect the company against unknown threats in the future.
Learn more about how Darktrace AI has stopped Hafnium cyber-attacks and similar threat actors
Darktrace model detections:
- Device / New or Uncommon WMI Activity
- Executable Uploaded to DC
- Compliance / High Priority Compliance Model Breach
- Compliance / SMB Drive Write
- Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena Network Scan Block
- Device / Network Scan - Low Anomaly Score
- Unusual Activity / Unusual Internal Connections
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.