How cyber-attacks take down critical infrastructure
The recent high-profile attacks against Colonial Pipeline and JBS Foods highlight that operational technology (OT) — the devices that drive gas flows and food processing, along with essentially all other machine-driven physical processes — does not need to be directly targeted in order to be shut down as the result of a cyber-attack.
Indeed, in the Colonial Pipeline incident, the information technology (IT) systems were reportedly compromised, with operations shut down intentionally out of an abundance of caution, that is, so as to not risk the attack spreading to OT and threatening safety. This highlights that threats to both human and environmental safety, along with uncertainty as to the scope of infection, present risk factors for these sensitive industrial environments.
Continuity through availability and integrity
In most countries, critical infrastructure (CI) — ranging from power grids and pipelines to transportation and health care — must maintain continuous activity. The recent ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline demonstrates why this is the case, where gas shortages due to the compromise led to dangerous panic buys and long lines at the pumps.
Ensuring continuous operation of critical infrastructure requires safeguarding the availability and integrity of machinery. This means that organizations overseeing critical infrastructure must foresee any possible risks and implement systems, procedures, and technologies that mitigate or remove these risks so as to keep their operations running.
Operational demand versus safety
Alongside this requirement for operational continuity, and often in opposition to it, is the requirement for operational safety. These requirements can be in opposition because operational continuity demands that devices remain up and running at all costs, and operational safety demands that humans and the environment be protected at all costs.
Safety measures in critical infrastructure have improved and become increasingly prioritized over the last 50 years following numerous high-profile incidents, such as the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Texas City refinery explosion, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Appropriate safety precautions could have likely prevented these incidents, but at the expense of operational continuity.
Consequently, administrators of critical infrastructure have to balance the very real threat that an incident may pose to both human life and the environment with the demand to remain operational at all times. More often than not, the final decision regarding what constitutes an acceptable risk is determined by budgets and cost-benefit analyses.
Cyber-attack: A rising risk profile for critical infrastructure
In 2010, the discovery of the Stuxnet malware — which resulted in a nuclear facility in Iran having its centrifuges ruined via compromised programmable logic controllers (PLCs) — demonstrated that critical infrastructure could be targeted by a cyber-attack.
At the time of Stuxnet, critical infrastructure industries used computers designed to ensure operational continuity with little regard for cyber security, as at the time the risk of a cyber-attack seemed either non-existent or vanishingly low. Since then, a number of attacks targeting industrial environments that have emerged on the global threat landscape.
Figure 1: An overview of distinctive methods used in attacks against industrial environments
Classic strains of industrial malware, such as Stuxnet, Triton, and Industroyer, have historically been installed via removable media, such as USB. This is because OT networks are traditionally segregated from the Internet in what is known as an ‘air gap.’ And this remains a prevalent vector of attack, with a study recently finding that cyber-threats installed via USB and other external media doubled in 2021, with 79% of these holding the potential to disrupt OT.
In many ways, operational demands in the subsequent 10 years have made critical infrastructure even more vulnerable. These include the convergence of information technology and operational technology (IT/OT convergence), the adoption of devices in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and the deprecation of manual back-up systems. This means that OT can be disrupted by cyber-attacks that first target IT systems, rather than having to be installed manually via external media.
At the same time, recent government initiatives — such as the Department of Energy’s 100-day ‘cyber sprint’ to protect electricity operations and President Biden’s Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity — and regulatory frameworks and directives such as the EU’s NIS directive have either encouraged or mandated that critical infrastructure industries start addressing this new risk.
With the severe and persistent threat that cyber-attacks pose to critical infrastructure, and the increasing calls to address the issue, the question remains as to how to best achieve robust cyber defense.
Assessing the risk
To claim administrators of critical infrastructure are ignorant or oblivious to the threat posed by cyber-attacks would be unfair. Many organizations have implemented changes to mitigate or remove the risk either as a result of regulation or their own forward thinking.
However, these projects can take years, even decades. High costs and ever-changing operational demand also mean that these projects may never fully remove the risk.
As a result, many operators may understand the threat of a cyber-attack but not be in a position to do anything about it in the short or medium term. Instead, procedures have to be put in place to minimize risk even if this threatens operational continuity.
For example, a risk assessment may decide it is best to shut down all OT operations in the event of a cyber-attack in order to avoid a major accident. This abundance of caution is forced upon operators, who do not have the ability to immediately confirm the boundaries of a compromise. The prevalence of cyber insurance provides this option with further appeal. Any losses incurred by stopping operations can theoretically be recouped and the risk is therefore transferred.
While the full details of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware incident are still to be determined, the sequence of events outlined below provides a plausible explanation for how a cyber-attack could take down critical infrastructure, even when that cyber-attack does not reach or even target OT systems. Indeed, the CEO of Colonial Pipeline, in a testimony to congress, confirmed “the imperative to isolate and contain the attack to help ensure the malware did not spread to the operational technology network, which controls our pipeline operations, if it had not already.”
Figure 2: A sequence of events which may lead to critical infrastructure being shut down by a cyber-attack, even when that cyber-attack doesn’t directly impact OT networks
The limits of securing IT or OT in isolation
The emergence of OT cyber security solutions in the last five years demonstrates that critical infrastructure industries are trying to find a way to address the risks posed by cyber-attacks. But these solutions have limited scope, as they assume IT and OT are separated and use legacy security techniques such as malware signatures and patch management.
The 2021 SANS ICS Security Summit highlighted how the OT security community suffers from a lack of visibility in knowing and understanding their networks. For many organizations, simply determining whether an unusual incident is an attack or the result of a software error is a challenge.
Given that most OT cyber-attacks actually start in IT networks before pivoting into OT, investing in an IT security solution rather than an OT-specific solution may at first seem like a better business decision. But IT solutions fall short if an attacker successfully pivots into the OT network, or if the attacker is a rogue insider who already has direct access to the OT network. A siloed approach to securing either IT or OT in isolation will thus fall short of the full scope needed to safeguard industrial systems.
It is clear that a mature security posture for critical infrastructure would include security solutions for both IT and OT. Even then, using separate solutions to protect the IT and OT networks is limited, as it presents challenges when defending network boundaries and detecting incidents when an attacker pivots from IT to OT. Under time pressure, a security team does not want changes in visibility, detection, language or interface while trying to determine whether a threat crossed the ‘boundary’ between IT and OT.
Separate solutions can also make detecting an attacker abusing traditional IT attack TTPs within an OT network much harder if the security team is relying on a purely OT solution to defend the OT environment. Examples of this include the abuse of IT remote management tools to affect industrial environments, such as in the suspected cyber-attack at the Florida water facility earlier this year.
Using AI to minimize cyber risk and maximize cyber safety
In contrast, Darktrace AI is able to defend an entire cyber ecosystem estate, building a ‘pattern of life’ across IT and OT, as well as the points at which they converge. Consequently, cyber security teams can use a single pane of glass to detect and respond to cyber-attacks as they emerge and develop, regardless of where they are in the environment.
Use cases for Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI include containing pre-existing threats to maintain continuous operations. This was seen when Darktrace’s AI detected pre-existing infections and acted autonomously to contain the threat, allowing the operator to leave infected IIoT devices active while waiting for replacements. Darktrace can also thwart ransomware in IT before it can spread into OT, as when Darktrace detected a ransomware attack targeting a supplier for critical infrastructure in North America at its earliest stages.
Darktrace’s unified protection, including visibility and early detection of zero-days, empowers security teams to overcome uncertainty and make a confident decision not to shut down operations. Darktrace has already demonstrated this ability in the wild, and allows organizations to understand normal machine and human behavior in order to enforce this behavior, even in the face of an emerging cyber-attack.
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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.