Inside the SOC
How a SOC team neutralized the QakBot banking trojan
While cutting-edge technology is essential for organizations to secure their digital assets, having on-hand human support to deal with threats can be invaluable for lean security teams and organizations without Autonomous Response in their digital enterprise.
Cyber AI technology recently detected the QakBot banking trojan in a customer environment, and with the help of Darktrace’s SOC team, the customer was able to shut down the attack in under two hours.
QakBot has built a name for itself over the past twelve years as one of the most deadly trojans in the game. Used in fast-paced, automated attacks against individual businesses, it has the ability to drain company resources and steal vast amounts of financial data. It is often downloaded during Emotet campaigns to infect devices and harvest bank account information.
Like other banking trojans, QakBot uses a dropper to install itself on a corporate device. It then self-propagates through a system and collects credentials at machine speed. Cyber-criminals can use this information to extract private data or distribute ransomware and further malicious payloads.
QakBot is extremely difficult for traditional security tools to detect. Due to a combination of its automatic worm-like capabilities, its use of a virus dropper with delayed execution, and several other obfuscation methods, it is able to bypass the majority of legacy tools and can lead to extreme financial repercussions if not dealt with in its initial stages.
The Darktrace SOC team
Darktrace’s Security Operations Center (SOC) team, located in Cambridge, San Francisco, and Singapore, deal with a wide range of these quick-moving and stealthy threats which are identified by Cyber AI, including ransomware deployments, SaaS account takeovers, and data exfiltration.
Such attacks often use ‘Living off the Land’ techniques which make them difficult to differentiate from legitimate network traffic. Moreover, many threat actors carry out malicious activities outside of a target organization’s normal working hours, amplifying the potential impact of a breach before it is discovered.
The Darktrace SOC team provides around-the-clock coverage of customer environments through Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) and Ask the Expert (ATE) services. Alongside autonomous AI detection, these services provide additional human monitoring and support for customers undergoing significant security events.
Uncovering the QakBot banking trojan
Figure 1: Timeline of the QakBot banking trojan attack, including the response from Darktrace’s services.
At a company in the EMEA region with around 7,000 devices, Cyber AI detected the early signs of a trojan horse. The organization did not have Antigena Email analyzing its email traffic in order to respond to attacks in the inbox, so when a phishing email slipped through the gateway and was opened by a user, their device began connecting to a high volume of suspicious endpoints.
This resembled command and control (C2) communication, and, based on the unusual nature of this activity for the device and the environment, this behavior triggered multiple high scoring model breaches. One of these was a high fidelity model breach for ‘Suspicious SSL Activity’, which prompted an investigation through the Proactive Threat Notification service.
Figure 2: An example of the Cyber AI Analyst incident timeline for an infected device, showing command and control and reconnaissance activity.
An expert Darktrace analyst was alerted to the unusual connectivity by the Enterprise Immune System and began to investigate the anomalous behavior, determining that this device was exhibiting strong signs of a banking trojan infection. The analyst needed to move quickly: the trojan had immediately begun reconnaissance and was preparing to spread across the network.
Within an hour, the analyst had produced a brief report summarizing the activity and this was sent as a PTN alert to the customer. The report contained key technical information from the model breach and Cyber AI Analyst incident – including the timeframe, device hostname and IP address, suspicious external domains, and a reference for the customer to view this alert in the Darktrace UI.
Figure 3: Visual example of the Darktrace threat tray. In the QakBot attack, four Enhanced Monitoring model breaches were triggered, and these were investigated and alerted through the PTN service. They were all high scoring detections, clearly indicating a compromise.
Upon receiving the alert, the customer initiated further investigation and quickly shut down the affected device. The attack was contained in less than two hours.
Ask the Expert
After their initial remediation, the company reached out to the Darktrace team via Ask the Expert to confirm that this was a QakBot infection and to gain additional assistance in investigating the extent of the compromise.
The analyst team provided ongoing support to the investigation over the next six hours, concluding that this likely came from a phishing email and that no other devices in the environment were compromised. The analyst provided a list of observed Indicators of Compromise (IoCs) and worked with the customer to add these to the Darktrace Watched Domains List for further monitoring. The customer was also able to use this list to block the IoCs at the firewall.
The organization contained the infection, and no further suspicious behavior was observed from network devices.
Humans and AI
This case study is a perfect example of how Darktrace’s services provide constant assistance to customers every day of every week. On top of Darktrace’s advanced machine learning technology, the Darktrace SOC team serves as an additional layer of support for security teams of all sizes. Proactive Threat Notifications offer an extra set of eyes on emerging threats, while Ask The Expert provides a mechanism for customers to gain investigative support directly from Darktrace analysts.
The early detection of this banking trojan allowed the organization to deal with the threat before it could develop into a serious infection or a ransomware attack. QakBot is just one of many strains of swift self-spreading malware in today’s threat landscape. Such automated attacks consistently outpace the fastest of human defenders, exposing the desperate need for AI and autonomous systems to augment human teams and protect digital systems in real time.
If Antigena Network had been active in this environment, the suspicious external connectivity would have been blocked upon first detection, stopping the attack within seconds. In fact, the customer decided to deploy Antigena Network following this incident, and now benefits from 24/7 Autonomous Response against all emerging cyber-threats.
Darktrace model detections:
- Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
- Compromise / Suspicious SSL Activity
- Device / Multiple C2 Model Breaches
- Device / Lateral Movement and C2 Activity
- Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches
- Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
- Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behaviour
- Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
- Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
- Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
- Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL
- Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
- Device / Reverse DNS Sweep
- Unusual Activity / Possible RPC Recon Activity
- Device / Active Directory Reconnaissance
- Device / Network Scan - Low Anomaly Score
- Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration
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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.