Inside the SOC
How AI uncovered Outlaw’s secret crypto-mining operation
Infamy is a paradoxical calling for cyber-criminals. While for some, bragging rights are a motivation for cyber-crime in and of themselves, notoriety is usually not a sensible goal for those hoping to avoid detection. This is what threat actors behind the prolific Emotet botnet learned earlier in 2021, for instance, when a coordinated effort was launched by eight national law enforcement agencies to take down their operation. There are, however, certain names which appear again and again in cyber security media and consistently avoid detection – names like Outlaw.
How Outlaw plans an ambush
Despite being active since 2018, very little is known about the hacking group Outlaw, which has staged numerous botnet and crypto-jacking attacks in China and internationally. The group is recognized by a variety of calling cards, be they repeated filenames or a tendency to illicitly mine Monero cryptocurrency, but its success ultimately lies in its tendency to adapt and evolve during months of dormancy between attacks.
Outlaw’s attacks are marked by constant changes and updates, which they work on in relative silence, before targeting security systems which are too-often defeated by the unfamiliarity of the threat.
In 2020, Outlaw gained attention when they updated their botnet toolset to find and eradicate other criminals’ crypto-jacking software, maximizing their own payout from infected devices. While it might come as no surprise that there’s no honor among cyber-thieves, this update also implemented more troubling changes which allowed Outlaw’s malware to evade traditional security defenses.
By switching disguises between each big robbery, and laying low with the loot, Outlaw ensures that traditional security systems which rely on historical attack data will never be ready for them, no matter how much notoriety is attached to their name. When organizations move beyond these systems’ rules-based approaches, however, adopting Self-Learning AI to protect their digital estates, they can begin to turn the tables on groups like Outlaw.
This blog explores how two pre-infected zombie devices in two very different parts of the world were activated by Outlaw’s botnet in the summer of 2021, and how Darktrace was able to detect the activity despite the devices being pre-infected.
Bounty hunting: First signs of attack
Figure 1: Timeline of the attack.
When a new device was added to the network of a Central American telecomms company in July, Darktrace detected a series of regular connections to two suspicious endpoints which it identified as beaconing behavior. The same behavior was noticed independently, but almost simultaneously, at a financial company in the APAC region, which was implementing Darktrace for the first time. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was able to identify the pre-infected devices by clustering similarly-behaving devices into peer groups within the local digital estates and therefore recognize that both were acting unusually based on a range of behaviors.
The first sign that the zombie devices had been activated by Outlaw was the initiation of cryptocurrency mining. Both devices, despite their geographical distance, were discovered to be connected to a single crypto-account, exemplifying the indiscriminate and exponential nature by which a botnet grows.
Outlaw has in the past restricted its activities to devices within China in what was assumed to be a show of caution, but recent activities like this one speak to a growing confidence.
The botnet recruitment process
The subsequent initiation of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) connections across port 443, a port more often associated with HTTPS activity, was perfectly characteristic of the Outlaw botnet’s earlier activity in 2020. IRC is a tool regularly used for communication between botmasters and zombie devices, but by using port 443 the attacker was attempting to blend into normal Internet traffic.
Soon after this exchange, the devices downloaded a shell script. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to intercept and recreate this shell script as it passed through the network, revealing its full function. Intriguingly, the script identified and excluded devices utilizing ARM architecture from the botnet. Due to its notably low battery consumption, ARM architecture is used primarily by portable mobile devices.
This selectivity is evidence that malicious crypto-mining remains Outlaw’s primary objective. By circumventing smaller devices which offer limited crypto-mining capabilities, this shell script focuses the botnet on the most high-powered, and therefore profitable, devices, such as desktop computers and servers. In this way, it reduces the Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) left behind by the wider botnet without greatly affecting the scale of its crypto-mining operation.
The two devices in question did not employ ARM architecture, and minutes later received a secondary payload containing a file named dota3[.]tar[.]gz, a sequel of sorts to the previous incarnation of the Outlaw botnet, ‘dota2’, which itself referenced a popular video game of the same name. With the arrival of this file, the devices appear to have been updated with the latest version of Outlaw’s world-spanning botnet.
This download was made possible in part by the attacker’s use of ‘Living off the Land’ tactics. By using only common Linux programs already present on the devices (‘curl’ and ‘Wget’ respectively), Outlaw had avoided having its activity flagged by traditional security systems. Wget, for instance, is ostensibly a reputable program used for retrieving content from web servers, and was never previously recorded as part of Outlaw’s TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures).
By evolving and adapting its approach, Outlaw is continually able to outsmart and outrun rules-based security. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, kept pace, immediately identifying this Wget connection as suspicious and advising further investigation.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst identifies Wget use on the morning of July 15 as suspicious and begins investigating potentially related HTTP connections made on the morning of July 14. In this way, it builds a complete picture of the attack.
The botnet unchained
In the following 36 hours, Darktrace detected over 6 million TCP and SSH connections directed to rare external IP addresses using ports often associated with SSH, such as 22, 2222, and 2022.
Exactly what the botnet was undertaking with these connections can only be speculated on. The devices may have been made part of a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, bruteforce attempts on targeted SSH accounts, or simply have taken up the task of seeking and infecting new targets, further expanding the botnet. Darktrace recognized that neither device had made SSH connections prior to this event and, had Antigena been in active mode, would have enacted measures to stop them.
Figure 3: The behavior on the device before and after the bot was activated on July 14, 2021. The large spike in model breaches shows clear deviation from the established ‘pattern of life’.
Thankfully, the owners of both devices responded to Darktrace’s detection alerts soon enough to prevent any serious damage to their own digital estates. Had these devices remained under the influence of the botnet, the ramifications may have been far graver.
The use of SSH protocol would have allowed Outlaw to pivot into any number of activities, potentially compromising each device’s network further and causing data or monetary loss to their respective organizations.
Call the sheriff: Self-Learning AI
Rules-based security solutions operate much like the ‘wanted’ posters of the old west, looking out for the criminals who came through town last week without preparing for those riding over the hill today. When black hats and outlaws are adopting new looks and employing new techniques with every attack, a new way of responding to threats is needed.
Darktrace doesn’t need to know the name ‘Outlaw’, or the group’s history of evolving attacks, in order to stop them. With its fundamental self-learning approach, Darktrace learns its surroundings from the ground up, and identifies subtle deviations indicative of a cyber-threat. And with Autonomous Response, it will even take targeted action to neutralize the threat at machine speed, without the need for human intervention.
Thanks to Darktrace analyst Jun Qi Wong for his insights on the above threat find.
Learn more about how Cyber AI Analyst sheds light on complex attacks
Darktrace model detections
- Compliance / Crypto Currency Mining Activity
- Compromise / High Priority Crypto Currency Mining [Enhanced Monitoring]
- Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
- Anomalous File / Zip or Gzip from Rare External Location
- Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
- Device / Increased External Connectivity
- Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity
- Compromise / SSH Beacon
- Compromise / High Frequency SSH Beacon
- Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port
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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.