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Darktrace vs Cobalt Strike: How Antigena intercepted and delayed a Cobalt Strike intrusion

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05
Apr 2022
05
Apr 2022
An attacker exploited vulnerabilities in Log4j to install Bughatch, Cobalt Strike Beacon, and NetSupport onto an Internet-facing VMware Exchange server within the network of a Darktrace customer. By inhibiting the attacker’s subsequent attempts to communicate with the compromised server, Antigena Network likely prevented ransomware from being deployed.

In December 2021 several CVEs[1] were issued for the Log4j vulnerabilities that sent security teams into a global panic. Threat actors are now continuously scanning external infrastructure for evidence of the vulnerability to deploy crypto-mining malware.[2] However, through December ‘21 – February ‘22, it was ransomware groups that seized the initiative.

Compromise

In January 2022, a Darktrace customer left an external-facing VMware server unpatched allowing Cobalt Strike to be successfully installed. Several IoCs indicate that Cuba Ransomware operators were behind the attack. Thanks to the Darktrace SOC service, the customer was notified of the active threat on their network, and Antigena’s Autonomous Response was able to keep the attackers at bay before encryption events took place.

Initially the VMware server breached two models relating to an anomalous script download and a new user agent both connecting via HTTP. As referenced in an earlier Darktrace blog, both of these models had been seen in previous Log4j exploits. As with all Darktrace models however, the model deck is not designed to detect only one exploit, infection variant, or APT.

Figure 1: Darktrace models breaching due to the malicious script download

Analyst investigation

A PCAP of the downloaded script showed that it contained heavily obfuscated JavaScript. After an OSINT investigation a similar script was uncovered which likely breached the same Yara rules.

Figure 2: PCAP of the Initial HTTP GET request for the Windows Script component

Figure 3: PCAP of the initial HTTP response containing obfuscated JavaScript

Figure 4: A similar script that has been observed installing additional payloads after an initial infection[3]

While not an exact match, this de-obfuscated code shared similarities to those seen when downloading other banking trojans.

Having identified on the Darktrace UI that this was a VMware server, the analyst isolated the incoming external connections to the server shortly prior to the HTTP GET requests and was able to find an IP address associated with Log4j exploit attempts.

Figure 5: Advanced Search logs showing incoming SSL connections from an IP address linked to Log4j exploits

Through Advanced Search the analyst identified spikes shortly prior and immediately after the download. This suggested the files were downloaded and executed by exploiting the Log4j vulnerability.

Antigena response

Figure 6: AI Analyst reveals both the script downloads and the unusual user agent associated with the connections

Figure 7: Antigena blocked all further connections to these endpoints following the downloads

Cobalt Strike

Cobalt Strike is a popular tool for threat actors as it can be used to perform a swathe of MITRE ATT&CK techniques. In this case the threat actor attempted command and control tactics to pivot through the network, however, Antigena responded promptly when the malware attempted to communicate with external infrastructure.

On Wednesday January 26, the DNS beacon attempted to connect to malicious infrastructure. Antigena responded, and a Darktrace SOC analyst issued an alert.

Figure 8: A Darktrace model detected the suspicious DNS requests and Antigena issued a response

The attacker changed their strategy by switching to a different server “bluetechsupply[.]com” and started issuing commands over TLS. Again, Darktrace detected these connections and AI Analyst reported on the incident (Figure 9, below). OSINT sources subsequently indicated that this destination is affiliated with Cobalt Strike and was only registered 14 days prior to this incident.

Figure 9: AI Analyst summary of the suspicious beaconing activity

Simultaneous to these connections, the device scanned multiple internal devices via an ICMP scan and then scanned the domain controller over key TCP ports including 139 and 445 (SMB). This was followed by an attempt to write an executable file to the domain controller. While Antigena intervened in the file write, another Darktrace SOC analyst was issuing an alert due to the escalation in activity.

Figure 10: AI Analyst summary of the .dll file that Antigena intercepted to the Windows/temp directory of the domain controller

Following the latest round of Antigena blocks, the threat actor attempted to change methods again. The VMware server utilised the Remote Access Tool/Trojan NetSupport Manager in an attempt to install further malware.

Figure 11: Darktrace reveals the attacker changing tactics

Despite this escalation, Darktrace yet again blocked the connection.

Perhaps due to an inability to connect to C2 infrastructure, the attack stopped in its tracks for around 12 hours. Thanks to Antigena and the Darktrace SOC team, the security team had been afforded time to remediate and recover from the active threat in their network. Interestingly, Darktrace detected a final attempt at pivoting from the machine, with an unusual PowerShell Win-RM connection to an internal machine. The modern Win-RM protocol typically utilises port 5985 for HTTP connections however pre-Windows 7 machines may use Windows 7 indicating this server was running an old OS.

Figure 12: Darktrace detects unusual PowerShell usage

Cuba Ransomware

While no active encryption appears to have taken place for this customer, a range of IoCs were identified which indicated that the threat actor was the group being tracked as UNC2596, the operators of Cuba Ransomware.[4]

These IoCs include: one of the initially dropped files (komar2.ps1,[5] revealed by AI Analyst in Figure 6), use of the NetSupport RAT,[6] and Cobalt Strike beaconing.[7] These were implemented to maintain persistence and move laterally across the network.

Cuba Ransomware operators prefer to exfiltrate data to their beacon infrastructure rather than using cloud storage providers, however no evidence of upload activity was observed on the customer’s network.

Concluding thoughts

Unpatched, external-facing VMware servers vulnerable to the Log4j exploit are actively being targeted by threat actors with the aim of ransomware detonation. Without using rules or signatures, Darktrace was able to detect all stages of the compromise. While Antigena delayed the attack, forcing the threat actor to change C2 servers constantly, the Darktrace analyst team relayed their findings to the security team who were able to remediate the compromised machines and prevent a final ransomware payload from detonating.

For Darktrace customers who want to find out more about Cobalt Strike, refer here for an exclusive supplement to this blog.

Appendix

Darktrace model detections

Initial Compromise:

  • Device / New User Agent To Internal Server
  • Anomalous Server Activity / New User Agent from Internet Facing System
  • Experimental / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

Breaches from Critical Devices / DC:

  • Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block
  • Device / SMB Lateral Movement
  • Experimental / Unusual SMB Script Write V2
  • Compliance / High Priority Compliance Model Breach
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device
  • Experimental / Possible Cobalt Strike Server IP V2

Lateral Movement:

  • Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena Internal Anomalous File Activity
  • Compliance / SMB Drive Write
  • Anomalous File / Internal / Executable Uploaded to DC
  • Experimental / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behaviour
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block
  • Anomalous Connection / High Volume of Connections to Rare Domain
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Server Block

Network Scan Activity:

  • Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity
  • Experimental / Network Scan V2
  • Device / ICMP Address Scan
  • Experimental / Possible SMB Scanning Activity
  • Experimental / Possible SMB Scanning Activity V2
  • Antigena / Network / Insider Threat / Antigena Network Scan Block
  • Device / Network Scan
  • Compromise / DNS / Possible DNS Beacon
  • Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert
  • Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Server Block

DNS / Cobalt Strike Activity:

  • Experimental / Possible Cobalt Strike Server IP
  • Experimental / Possible Cobalt Strike Server IP V2
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block
  • Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location

MITRE ATT&CK techniques observed

IoCs

Thanks to Brianna Leddy, Sam Lister and Marco Alanis for their contributions.

Footnotes

1.

https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2021-44228
https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2021-44530
https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2021-45046
https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2021-4104

2. https://www.toolbox.com/it-security/threat-reports/news/log4j-vulnerabilities-exploitation-attempts

3. https://twitter.com/ItsReallyNick/status/899845845906071553

4. https://www.mandiant.com/resources/unc2596-cuba-ransomware

5. https://www.ic3.gov/Media/News/2021/211203-2.pdf

6. https://threatpost.com/microsoft-exchange-exploited-cuba-ransomware/178665/

7. https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/microsoft-exchange-servers-hacked-to-deploy-cuba-ransomware/

8. https://gist.github.com/blotus/f87ed46718bfdc634c9081110d243166

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Gootloader Malware: Detecting and Containing Multi-Functional Threats with Darktrace

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15
Feb 2024

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 [1].  

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 [2].

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

Figure 1: Timeline of Anomalous Activities seen on the breach device.

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.

Figure 2: Initial beaconing activity detected on the breach device.

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.

Figure 3: The breach device Model Breach Event Log showing Darktrace DETECT identifying suspicious SMB scanning activity and the corresponding RESPOND actions.

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.

Figure 4: Cyber AI Analyst incident log summarizing the technical details of the device’s beaconing and scanning behavior.

Beaconing Continues

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 [3].

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.

Figure 5: A sample of the autonomous RESPOND actions that was applied on the affected device.

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.

Figure 6: DETECT’s identification of the offending device downloading a suspicious executable file via FTP.

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.

Figure 7: Enhanced Monitoring Model investigated by the Darktrace SOC.

Conclusion

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

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous Connection / Young or Invalid Certificate SSL Connections to Rare

Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Expired SSL

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Anomalous File / FTP Executable from Rare External Location

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

RESPOND Models

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block

Antigena / Network/Insider Threat/Antigena Network Scan Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

Type

Hostname

IoCs + Description

explorer[.]ee - C2 Endpoint

fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl- C2 Endpoint

devcxp2019.theclearingexperience[.]com- C2 Endpoint

campsite.bplaced[.]net- C2 Endpoint

coup2pompes[.]fr- C2 Endpoint

analyzetest[.]ir- Possible C2 Endpoint

tdgroup[.]ru- C2 Endpoint

ciedespuys[.]com- C2 Endpoint

fi.sexydate[.]world- C2 Endpoint

funadhoo.gov[.]mv- C2 Endpoint

geying.qiwufeng[.]com- C2 Endpoint

goodcomix[.]fun- C2 Endpoint

ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com- Possible Payload Download Host

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique

Reconnaissance - Scanning IP blocks (T1595.001, T1595)

Command and Control - Web Protocols , Application Layer Protocol, One-Way Communication, External Proxy, Non-Application Layer Protocol, Non-Standard Port (T1071.001/T1071, T1071, T1102.003/T1102, T1090.002/T1090, T1095, T1571)

Collection – Man in the Browser (T1185)

Resource Development - Web Services, Malware (T1583.006/T1583, T1588.001/T1588)

Persistence - Browser Extensions (T1176)

References

1.     https://www.blackberry.com/us/en/solutions/endpoint-security/ransomware-protection/gootloader

2.     https://redcanary.com/threat-detection-report/threats/gootloader/

3.     https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fysiotherapie-panken.nl

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Ashiq Shafee
Cyber Security Analyst

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Seven Cyber Security Predictions for 2024

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13
Feb 2024

2024 Cyber Threat Predictions

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.  

Learn more about observed threat trends and future predictions in the 2023 End of Year Threat Report

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