Inside the SOC
How Conti ransomware took down Operational Technology
Ransomware has taken the world by storm, and IT is not the only technology affected. Operational Technology (OT), which is increasingly blending with IT, is also susceptible to ransomware tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). And when ransomware strikes OT, the effects have the potential to be devastating.
Here, we will look at a ransomware attack that spread from IT to OT systems. The attack was detected by Darktrace AI.
This threat find demonstrates a use case of Darktrace’s technology that delivers immense value to organizations with OT: spotting and stopping ransomware at its earliest stages, before the damage is done. This is particularly helpful for organizations with interconnected enterprise and industrial environments, as it means:
- Emerging attacks can be contained in IT before they spread laterally into OT, and even before they spread from device to device in IT;
- Organizations gain granular visibility into their industrial environments, detecting deviations from normal activity, and quick identification of remediating actions.
Threat find: Ransomware and crypto-mining hijack affecting IT and OT systems
Darktrace recently identified an aggressive attack targeting an OT R&D investment firm in EMEA. The attack originally started as a crypto-mining campaign and later evolved into ransomware. This organization deployed Darktrace in a digital estate containing both IT and OT assets that spanned over 3,000 devices.
If the organization had deployed Darktrace’s Autonomous Response technology in active mode, this threat would have been stopped in its earliest stages. Even in the absence of Autonomous Response, however, mere human attention would have stopped this attack’s progression. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI gave clear indications of an ongoing compromise in the month prior to the detonation of ransomware. In this case, however, the security team was not monitoring Darktrace’s interface, and so the attack was allowed to proceed.
Compromised OT devices
This threat find will focus on the attack techniques used to take over two OT devices, specifically, a HMI (human machine interface), and an ICS Historian used to collect and log industrial data. These OT devices were both VMware virtual machines running Windows OS, and were compromised as part of a wider Conti ransomware infection. Both devices were being used primarily within an industrial control system (ICS), running a popular ICS software package and making regular connections to an industrial cloud platform.
These devices were thus part of an ICSaaS (ICS-as-a-Service) environment, using virtualised and Cloud platforms to run analytics, update threat intelligence, and control the industrial process. As previously highlighted by Darktrace, the convergence of cloud and ICS increases a network’s attack surface and amplifies cyber risk.
The initial infection of the OT devices occurred when a compromised Domain Controller (DC) made unusual Active Directory requests. The devices made subsequent DCE-RPC binds for epmapper, often used by attackers for command execution, and lsarpc, used by attackers to abuse authentication policies and escalate privileges.
The payload was delivered when the OT devices used SMB to connect to the sysvol folder on the DC and read a malicious executable file, called SetupPrep.exe.
Figure 1: Darktrace model breaches across the whole network from initial infection on October 21 to the detonation on November 15.
Figure 2: ICS reads on the HMI in the lead up, during, and following detonation of the ransomware.
Device encryption and lateral spread
The malicious payload remained dormant on the OT devices for three weeks. It seems the attacker used the time to install crypto-mining malware elsewhere on the network and consolidate their foothold.
On the day the ransomware detonated, the attacker used remote management tools to initiate encryption. The PSEXEC tool was used on an infected server (separate from the original DC) to remotely execute malicious .dll files on the compromised OT devices.
The devices then attempted to make command and control (C2) connections to rare external endpoints using suspicious ports. Like in many ICS networks, sufficient network segregation had been implemented to prevent the HMI device from making successful connections to the Internet and the C2 communications failed. But worryingly, the failed C2 did not prevent the attack from proceeding or the ransomware from detonating.
The Historian device made successful C2 connections to around 40 unique external endpoints. Darktrace detected beaconing-type behavior over suspicious TCP/SSL ports including 465, 995, 2078, and 2222. The connections were made to rare destination IP addresses that did not specify the Server Name Indication (SNI) extension hostname and used self-signed and/or expired SSL certificates.
Both devices enumerated network SMB shares and wrote suspicious shell scripts to network servers. Finally, the devices used SMB to encrypt files stored in network shares, adding a file extension which is likely to be unique to this victim and which will be called ABCXX for the purpose of this blog. Most encrypted files were uploaded to the folder in which the file was originally located, but in some instances were moved to the images folder.
During the encryption, the device was using the machine account to authenticate SMB sessions. This is in contrast to other ransomware incidents that Darktrace has observed, in which admin or service accounts are compromised and abused by the attacker. It is possible that in this instance the attacker was able to use ‘Living off the Land’ techniques (for example the use of lsarpc pipe) to give the machine account admin privileges.
Examples of files being encrypted and moved:
- SMB move success
- File: new\spbr0007\0000006A.bak
- Renamed: new\spbr0007\0000006A.bak.ABCXX
- SMB move success
- File: ActiveMQ\readme.txt
- Renamed: Images\10j0076kS1UA8U975GC2e6IY.488431411265952821382.png.ABCXX
Detonation of ransomware
Upon detonation, the ransomware note readme.txt was written by the ICS to targeted devices as part of the encryption activity.
The final model breached by the device was “Unresponsive ICS Device” as the device either stopped working due to the effects of the ransomware, or was removed from the network.
Figure 3: abc-histdev — external connections filtered on destination port 995 shows C2 connections starting around one hour before encryption began.
How the attack bypassed the rest of the security stack
In this threat find, there were a number of factors which resulted in the OT devices becoming compromised.
The first is IT/OT convergence. The ICS network was insufficiently segregated from the corporate network. This means that devices could be accessed by the compromised DC during the lateral movement stage of the attack. As OT becomes more reliant on IT, ensuring sufficient segregation is in place, or that an attacker can not circumvent such segregation, is becoming an ever increasing challenge for security teams.
Another reason is that the attacker used attack methods which leverage Living off the Land techniques to compromise devices with no discrimination as to whether they were part of an IT or OT network. Many of the machines used to operate ICS networks, including the devices highlighted here, rely on operating systems vulnerable to the kinds of TTPs observed here and that are regularly employed by ransomware groups.
Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to stitch together many disparate forms of unusual activity across the compromised devices to give a clear security narrative containing details of the attack. The incident report for the Historian server is shown below. This provides a clear illustration of how Cyber AI Analyst can close any skills or communication gap between IT and OT specialists.
Figure 4: Cyber AI Analyst of the Historian server (abc-histdev). It investigated and reported the C2 communication (step 2) that started just before network reconnaissance using TCP scanning (step 3) and the subsequent file encryption over SMB (step 4).
In total, the attacker’s dwell time within the digital estate was 25 days. Unfortunately, it lead to disruption to operational technology, file encryption and financial loss. Altogether, 36 devices were crypto-mining for over 20 days – followed by nearly 100 devices (IT and OT) becoming encrypted following the detonation of the ransomware.
If it were active, Autonomous Response would have neutralized this activity, containing the damage before it could escalate into crisis. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI gave clear indications of an ongoing compromise in the month prior to the detonation of ransomware, and so any degree of human attention toward Darktrace’s revelations would have stopped the attack.
Autonomous Response is highly configurable, and so, in industrial environments — whether air-gapped OT or converged IT/OT ecosystems — Antigena can be deployed in a variety of manners. In human confirmation mode, human operators need to give the green light before the AI takes action. Antigena can also be deployed only in the higher levels of the Purdue model, or the “IT in OT,” protecting the core assets from fast-moving attacks like ransomware.
Ransomware and interconnected IT/OT systems
ICS networks are often operated by machines that rely on operating systems which can be affected by TTPs regularly employed by ransomware groups — that is, TTPs such as Living off the Land, which do not discriminate between IT and OT.
The threat that ransomware poses to organizations with OT, including critical infrastructure, is so severe that the Cyber Infrastructure and Security Agency (CISA) released a fact sheet concerning these threats in the summer of 2021, noting the risk that IT attacks pose to OT networks:
“OT components are often connected to information technology (IT) networks, providing a path for cyber actors to pivot from IT to OT networks… As demonstrated by recent cyber incidents, intrusions affecting IT networks can also affect critical operational processes even if the intrusion does not directly impact an OT network.”
Major ransomware attacks against the Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods demonstrate the potential for ransomware affecting OT to cause severe economic disruption on a national and international scale. And ransomware can wreak havoc on OT systems regardless of whether they directly target OT systems.
As industrial environments continue to converge and evolve — be they IT/OT, ICSaaS, or simply poorly segregated legacy systems — Darktrace stands ready to contain attacks before the damage is done. It is time for organizations with industrial environments to take the quantum leap forward that Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI is uniquely positioned to provide.
Thanks to Darktrace analysts Ash Brice and Andras Balogh for their insights on the above threat find.
Discover more on how Darktrace protects OT environments from ransomware
Darktrace model detections
HMI in chronological order at time of detonation:
- Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration
- Anomalous File / Internal / Unusual SMB Script Write
- Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
- Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity [Enhanced Monitoring]
- ICS / Unusual Data Transfer By OT Device
- ICS / Unusual Unresponsive ICS Device
- ICS / Rare External from OT Device
- Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
- Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port
- ICS / Unusual Activity From OT Device
- Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration
- Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Activity On High Risk Device
- Unusual Activity / SMB Access Failures
- Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
- ICS / Unusual Data Transfer By OT Device
- Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
- Device / SMB Lateral Movement
- Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity [Enhanced Monitoring]
- Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches [Enhanced Monitoring]
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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.