Blog

Inside the SOC

No Smoke Without Fire: How Darktrace Extinguished the Threat of SmokeLoader Malware

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
31
Jan 2024
31
Jan 2024
This blog explores how Darktrace was able to identify and contain cases of the SmokeLoader malware on the network of affected customers in the summer of 2023.

What is Loader Malware?

Loader malware is a type of malicious software designed primarily to infiltrate a system and then download and execute additional malicious payloads.

In recent years, loader malware has emerged as a significant threat for organizations worldwide. This trend is expected to continue given the widespread availability of many loader strains within the Malware-as-a-Service (MaaS) marketplace. The MaaS marketplace contains a wide variety of innovative strains which are both affordable, with toolkits ranging from USD 400 to USD 1,650 [1], and continuously improving, aiming to avoid traditional detection mechanisms.

SmokeLoader is one such example of a MaaS strain that has been observed in the wild since 2011 and continues to pose a significant threat to organizations and their security teams.

How does SmokeLoader Malware work?

SmokeLoader’s ability to drop an array of different malware strains onto infected systems, from backdoors, ransomware, cryptominers, password stealers, point-of-sale malware and banking trojans, means its a highly versatile loader that has remained consistently popular among threat actors.

In addition to its versatility, it also exhibits advanced evasion strategies that make it difficult for traditional security solutions to detect and remove, and it is easily distributed via methods like spam emails or malicious file downloads.

Between July and August 2023, Darktrace observed an increasing trend in SmokeLoader compromises across its customer base. The anomaly-based threat detection capabilities of Darktrace, coupled with the autonomous response technology, identified and contained the SmokeLoader infections in their initial stages, preventing attackers from causing further disruption by deploying other malicious software or ransomware.

SmokeLoader Malware Attack Details

PROPagate Injection Technique

SmokeLoader utilizes the PROPagate code injection technique, a less common method that inserts malicious code into existing processes in order to appear legitimate and bypass traditional signature-based security measures [2] [3]. In the case of SmokeLoader, this technique exploits the Windows SetWindowsSubclass function, which is typically used to add or change the behavior of Windows Operation System. By manipulating this function, SmokeLoader can inject its code into other running processes, such as the Internet Explorer. This not only helps to disguise  the malware's activity but also allows attackers to leverage the permissions and capabilities of the infected process.

Obfuscation Methods

SmokeLoader is known to employ several obfuscation techniques to evade the detection and analysis of security teams. The techniques include scrambling portable executable files, encrypting its malicious code, obfuscating API functions and packing, and are intended to make the malware’s code appear harmless or unremarkable to antivirus software. This allows attackers to slip past defenses and execute their malicious activities while remaining undetected.

Infection Vector and Communication

SmokeLoader typically spreads via phishing emails that employ social engineering tactics to convince users to unknowingly download malicious payloads and execute the malware. Once installed on target networks, SmokeLoader acts as a backdoor, allowing attackers to control infected systems and download further malicious payloads from command-and-control (C2) servers. SmokeLoader uses fast flux, a DNS technique utilized by botets whereby IP addresses associated with C2 domains are rapidly changed, making it difficult to trace the source of the attack. This technique also boosts the resilience of attack, as taking down one or two malicious IP addresses will not significantly impact the botnet's operation.

Continuous Evolution

As with many MaaS strains, SmokeLoader is continuously evolving, with its developers regularly adding new features and techniques to increase its effectiveness and evasiveness. This includes new obfuscation methods, injection techniques, and communication protocols. This constant evolution makes SmokeLoader a significant threat and underscores the importance of advanced threat detection and response capabilities solution.

Darktrace’s Coverage of SmokeLoader Attack

Between July and August 2023, Darktrace detected one particular SmokeLoader infection at multiple stages of its kill chain on a customer network. This detection was made possible by Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach and Self-Learning AI that allows it to identify subtle deviations in device behavior.

One of the key components of this process is the classification of endpoint rarity and determining whether an endpoint is new or unusual for any given network. This classification is applied to various aspects of observed endpoints, such as domains, IP addresses, or hostnames within the network. It thereby plays a vital role in identifying SmokeLoader activity, such as the initial infection vector or C2 communication, which typically involve a device contacting a malicious endpoint associated with SmokeLoader.

The First Signs of Infection SmokeLoader Infection

Beginning in July 2023, Darktrace observed a surge in suspicious activities that were assessed with moderate to high confidence to be associated with SmokeLoader malware.

For example on July 30, a device was observed making a successful HTTPS request to humman[.]art, a domain that had never been seen on the network, and therefore classified as 100% rare by DETECT. During this connection, the device in question received a total of 6.0 KiB of data from the unusual endpoint. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) sources reported with high confidence that this domain was associated with the SmokeLoader C2 botnet.

The device was then detected making an HTTP request to another 100% rare external IP, namely 85.208.139[.]35, using a new user agent. This request contained the URI ‘/DefenUpdate.exe’, suggesting a possible download of an executable (.exe) file. This was corroborated by the total amount of data received in this connection, 4.3 MB. Both the file name and its size suggest that the offending device may have downloaded additional malicious tooling from the SmokeLoader C2 endpoint, such as a trojan or information stealer, as reported on OSINT platforms [4].

Figure 1: Device event log showing the moment when a device made its first connection to a SmokeLoader associated domain, and the use of a new user agent. A few seconds later, the DETECT model “Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname” breached.

The observed new user agent, “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0) like Gecko” was identified as suspicious by Darktrace leading to the “Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname” DETECT model breach.

As this specific user agent was associated with the Internet Explorer browser running on Windows 10, it may not have appeared suspicious to traditional security tools. However, Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection allows it to identify and mitigate emerging threats, even those that utilize sophisticated evasion techniques.

This is particularly noteworthy in this case because, as discussed earlier, SmokeLoader is known to inject its malicious code into legitimate processes, like Internet Explorer.

Figure 2: Darktrace detecting the affected device leveraging a new user agent and establishing an anomalous HTTP connection with an external IP, which was 100% rare to the network.

C2 Communication

Darktrace continued to observe the device making repeated connections to the humman[.]art endpoint. Over the next few days. On August 7, the device was observed making unusual POST requests to the endpoint using port 80, breaching the ‘Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname’ DETECT model. These observed POST requests were observed over a period of around 10 days and consisted of a pattern of 8 requests, each with a ten-minute interval.

Figure 3: Model Breach Event Log highlighting the Darktrace DETECT model breach ‘Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname’.

Upon investigating the details of this activity identified by Darktrace DETECT, a particular pattern was observed in these requests: they used the same user-agent, “Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0) like Gecko”, which was previously detected in the initial breach.

Additionally, they the requests had a constantly changing  eferrer header, possibly using randomly generated domain names for each request. Further examination of the packet capture (PCAP) from these requests revealed that the payload in these POST requests contained an RC4 encrypted string, strongly indicating SmokeLoader C2 activity.

Figure4: Advanced Search results display an unusual pattern in the requests made by the device to the hostname humman[.]art. This pattern shows a constant change in the referrer header for each request, indicating anomalous behavior.
Figure 5: The PCAP shows the payload seen in these POST requests contained an RC4 encrypted string strongly indicating SmokeLoader C2 activity.  

Unfortunately in this case, Darktrace RESPOND was not active on the network meaning that the attack was able to progress through its kill chain. Despite this, the timely alerts and detailed incident insights provided by Darktrace DETECT allowed the customer’s security team to begin their remediation process, implementing blocks on their firewall, thus preventing the SmokeLoader malware from continuing its communication with C2 infrastructure.

Darktrace RESPOND Halting Potential Threats from the Initial Stages of Detection

With Darktrace RESPOND, organizations can move beyond threat detection to proactive defense against emerging threats. RESPOND is designed to halt threats as soon as they are identified by DETECT, preventing them from escalating into full-blown compromises. This is achieved through advanced machine learning and Self-Learning AI that is able to understand  the normal ‘pattern of life’ of customer networks, allowing for swift and accurate threat detection and response.

One pertinent example was seen on July 6, when Darktrace detected a separate SmokeLoader case on a customer network with RESPOND enabled in autonomous response mode. Darktrace DETECT initially identified a string of anomalous activity associated with the download of suspicious executable files, triggering the ‘Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations’ model to breach.

The device was observed downloading an executable file (‘6523.exe’ and ‘/g.exe’) via HTTP over port 80. These downloads originated from endpoints that had never been seen within the customer’s environment, namely ‘hugersi[.]com’ and ‘45.66.230[.]164’, both of which had strongly been linked to SmokeLoader by OSINT sources, likely indicating the initial infection stage of the attack [5].

Figure 6: This figure illustrates Darktrace DETECT observing a device downloading multiple .exe files from rare endpoints and the associated model breach, ‘Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations’.

Around the same time, Darktrace also observed the same device downloading an unusual file with a numeric file name. Threat actors often employ this tactic in order to avoid using file name patterns that could easily be recognized and blocked by traditional security measures; by frequently changing file names, malicious executables are more likely to remain undetected.

Figure 7: Graph showing the unusually high number of executable files downloaded by the device during the initial infection stage of the attack. The orange and red circles represent the number of model breaches that the device made during the observed activity related to SmokeLoader infection.
Figure 8: This figure illustrates the moment when Darktrace DETECT identified a suspicious download with a numeric file name.

With Darktrace RESPOND active and enabled in autonomous response mode, the SmokeLoader infection was thwarted in the first instance. RESPOND took swift autonomous action by blocking connections to the suspicious endpoints identified by DETECT, blocking all outgoing traffic, and enforcing a pre-established “pattern of life” on offending devices. By enforcing a patten of life on a device, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that it cannot deviate from its ‘normal’ activity to carry out potentially malicious activity, while allowing the device to continue expected business operations.

Figure 9:  A total of 8 RESPOND actions were applied, including blocking connections to suspicious endpoints and domains associated with SmokeLoader.

In addition to the autonomous mitigative actions taken by RESPOND, this customer also received a Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) informing them of potentially malicious activity on their network. This prompted the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) to investigate and document the incident, allowing the customer’s security team to shift their focus to remediating and removing the threat of SmokeLoader.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Darktrace showcased its ability to detect and contain versatile and evasive strains of loader malware, like SmokeLoader. Despite its adeptness at bypassing conventional security tools by frequently changing its C2 infrastructure, utilizing existing processes to infect malicious code, and obfuscating malicious file and domain names, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach allowed it to recognize such activity as deviations from expected network behavior, regardless of their apparent legitimacy.

Considering SmokeLoader’s wide array of functions, including C2 communication that could be used to facilitate additional attacks like exfiltration, or even the deployment of information-stealers or ransomware, Darktrace proved to be crucial in safeguarding customer networks. By identifying and mitigating SmokeLoader at the earliest possible stage, Darktrace effectively prevented the compromises from escalating into more damaging and disruptive compromises.

With the threat of loader malware expected to continue growing alongside the boom of the MaaS industry, it is paramount for organizations to adopt proactive security solutions, like Darktrace DETECT+RESPOND, that are able to make intelligent decisions to identify and neutralize sophisticated attacks.

Credit to Patrick Anjos, Senior Cyber Analyst, Justin Torres, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

- Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

- Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname

- Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations

- Anomalous File / Numeric File Download

List of IOCs (IOC / Type / Description + Confidence)

- 85.208.139[.]35 / IP / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- 185.174.137[.]109 / IP / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- 45.66.230[.]164 / IP / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- 91.215.85[.]147 / IP / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- tolilolihul[.]net / Hostname / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- bulimu55t[.]net / Hostname / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- potunulit[.]org / Hostname / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- hugersi[.]com / Hostname / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- human[.]art / Hostname / SmokeLoader C2 Endpoint

- 371b0d5c867c2f33ae270faa14946c77f4b0953 / SHA1 / SmokeLoader Executable

References:

[1] https://bazaar.abuse.ch/sample/d7c395ab2b6ef69210221337ea292e204b0f73fef8840b6e64ab88595eda45b3/#intel

[2] https://malpedia.caad.fkie.fraunhofer.de/details/win.smokeloader

[3] https://www.darkreading.com/cyber-risk/breaking-down-the-propagate-code-injection-attack

[4] https://n1ght-w0lf.github.io/malware%20analysis/smokeloader/

[5] https://therecord.media/surge-in-smokeloader-malware-attacks-targeting-ukrainian-financial-gov-orgs

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Model: Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

ID: T1071.001

Sub technique: T1071

Tactic: COMMAND AND CONTROL

Technique Name: Web Protocols

Model: Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname

ID: T1185

Sub technique: -

Tactic: COLLECTION

Technique Name: Man in the Browser

ID: T1071.001

Sub technique: T1071

Tactic: COMMAND AND CONTROL

Technique Name: Web Protocols

Model: Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations

ID: T1189

Sub technique: -

Tactic: INITIAL ACCESS

Technique Name: Drive-by Compromise

ID: T1588.001

Sub technique: - T1588

Tactic: RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT

Technique Name: Malware

Model: Anomalous File / Numeric File Download

ID: T1189

Sub technique: -

Tactic: INITIAL ACCESS

Technique Name: Drive-by Compromise

ID: T1588.001

Sub technique: - T1588

Tactic: RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT

Technique Name: Malware

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Patrick Anjos
Senior Cyber Analyst
Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT
No items found.
COre coverage
No items found.

More in this series

No items found.

Safeguarding Distribution Centers in the Digital Age

Default blog imageDefault blog image
12
Jun 2024

Challenges securing distribution centers

For large retail providers, e-commerce organizations, logistics & supply chain organizations, and other companies who rely on the distribution of goods to consumers cybersecurity efforts are often focused on an immense IT infrastructure. However, there's a critical, often overlooked segment of infrastructure that demands vigilant monitoring and robust protection: distribution centers.

Distribution centers play a critical role in the business operations of supply chains, logistics, and the retail industry. They serve as comprehensive logistics hubs, with many organizations operating multiple centers worldwide to meet consumer needs. Depending on their size and hours of operation, even just one hour of downtime at these centers can result in significant financial losses, ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.

Due to the time-sensitive nature and business criticality of distribution centers, there has been a rise in applying modern technologies now including AI applications to enhance efficiency within these facilities. Today’s distribution centers are increasingly connected to Enterprise IT networks, the cloud and the internet to manage every stage of the supply chain. Additionally, it is common for organizations to allow 3rd party access to the distribution center networks and data for reasons including allowing them to scale their operations effectively.

However, this influx of new technologies and interconnected systems across IT, OT and cloud introduces new risks on the cybersecurity front. Distribution center networks include industrial operational technologies ICS/OT, IoT technologies, enterprise network technology, and cloud systems working in coordination. The convergence of these technologies creates a greater chance that blind spots exist for security practitioners and this increasing presence of networked technology increases the attack surface and potential for vulnerability. Thus, having cybersecurity measures that cover IT, OT or Cloud alone is not enough to secure a complex and dynamic distribution center network infrastructure.  

The OT network encompasses various systems, devices, hardware, and software, such as:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
  • Warehouse Execution System (WES)
  • Warehouse Control System (WCS)
  • Warehouse Management System (WMS)
  • Energy Management Systems (EMS)
  • Building Management Systems (BMS)
  • Distribution Control Systems (DCS)
  • Enterprise IT devices
  • OT and IoT: Engineering workstations, ICS application and management servers, PLCs, HMI, access control, cameras, and printers
  • Cloud applications

Distribution centers: An expanding attack surface

As these distribution centers have become increasingly automated, connected, and technologically advanced, their attack surfaces have inherently increased. Distribution centers now have a vastly different potential for cyber risk which includes:  

  • More networked devices present
  • Increased routable connectivity within industrial systems
  • Externally exposed industrial control systems
  • Increased remote access
  • IT/OT enterprise to industrial convergence
  • Cloud connectivity
  • Contractors, vendors, and consultants on site or remoting in  

Given the variety of connected systems, distribution centers are more exposed to external threats than ever before. Simultaneously, distribution center’s business criticality has positioned them as interesting targets to cyber adversaries seeking to cause disruption with significant financial impact.

Increased connectivity requires a unified security approach

When assessing the unique distribution center attack surface, the variety of interconnected systems and devices requires a cybersecurity approach that can cover the diverse technology environment.  

From a monitoring and visibility perspective, siloed IT, OT or cloud security solutions cannot provide the comprehensive asset management, threat detection, risk management, and response and remediation capabilities across interconnected digital infrastructure that a solution natively covering IT, cloud, OT, and IoT can provide.  

The problem with using siloed cybersecurity solutions to cover a distribution center is the visibility gaps that are inherently created when using multiple solutions to try and cover the totality of the diverse infrastructure. What this means is that for cross domain and multi-stage attacks, depending on the initial access point and where the adversary plans on actioning their objectives, multiple stages of the attack may not be detected or correlated if they security solutions lack visibility into OT, IT, IoT and cloud.

Comprehensive security under one solution

Darktrace leverages Self-Learning AI, which takes a new approach to cybersecurity. Instead of relying on rules and signatures, this AI trains on the specific business to learn a ‘pattern of life’ that models normal activity for every device, user, and connection. It can be applied anywhere an organization has data, and so can natively cover IT, OT, IoT, and cloud.  

With these models, Darktrace /OT provides improved visibility, threat detection and response, and risk management for proactive hardening recommendations.  

Visibility: Darktrace is the only OT security solution that natively covers IT, IoT and OT in unison. AI augmented workflows ensure OT cybersecurity analysts and operation engineers can manage IT and OT environments, leveraging a live asset inventory and tailored dashboards to optimize security workflows and minimize operator workload.

Threat detection, investigation, and response: The AI facilitates anomaly detection capable of detecting known, unknown, and insider threats and precise response for OT environments that contains threats at their earliest stages before they can jeopardize control systems. Darktrace immediately understands, identifies, and investigates all anomalous activity in OT networks, whether human or machine driven and uses Explainable AI to generate investigation reports via Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst.

Proactive risk identification: Risk management capabilities like attack path modeling can prioritize remediation and mitigation that will most effectively reduce derived risk scores. Rather than relying on knowledge of past attacks and CVE lists and scores, Darktrace AI learns what is ‘normal’ for its environment, discovering previously unknown threats and risks by detecting subtle shifts in behavior and connectivity. Through the application of Darktrace AI for OT environments, security teams can investigate novel attacks, discover blind spots, get live-time visibility across all their physical and digital assets, and reduce the time to detect, respond to, and triage security events.

Continue reading
About the author
Daniel Simonds
Director of Operational Technology

Blog

Inside the SOC

Medusa Ransomware: Looking Cyber Threats in the Eye with Darktrace

Default blog imageDefault blog image
10
Jun 2024

What is Living off the Land attack?

In the face of increasingly vigilant security teams and adept defense tools, attackers are continually looking for new ways to circumvent network security and gain access to their target environments. One common tactic is the leveraging of readily available utilities and services within a target organization’s environment in order to move through the kill chain; a popular method known as living off the land (LotL). Rather than having to leverage known malicious tools or write their own malware, attackers are able to easily exploit the existing infrastructure of their targets.

The Medusa ransomware group in particular are known to extensively employ LotL tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in their attacks, as one Darktrace customer in the US discovered in early 2024.

What is Medusa Ransomware?

Medusa ransomware (not to be confused with MedusaLocker) was first observed in the wild towards the end of 2022 and has been a popular ransomware strain amongst threat actors since 2023 [1]. Medusa functions as a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) platform, providing would-be attackers, also know as affiliates, with malicious software and infrastructure required to carry out disruptive ransomware attacks. The ransomware is known to target organizations across many different industries and countries around the world, including healthcare, education, manufacturing and retail, with a particular focus on the US [2].

How does medusa ransomware work?

Medusa affiliates are known to employ a number of TTPs to propagate their malware, most prodominantly gaining initial access by exploiting vulnerable internet-facing assets and targeting valid local and domain accounts that are used for system administration.

The ransomware is typically delivered via phishing and spear phishing campaigns containing malicious attachments [3] [4], but it has also been observed using initial access brokers to access target networks [5]. In terms of the LotL strategies employed in Medusa compromises, affiliates are often observed leveraging legitimate services like the ConnectWise remote monitoring and management (RMM) software and PDQ Deploy, in order to evade the detection of security teams who may be unable to distinguish the activity from normal or expected network traffic [2].

According to researchers, Medusa has a public Telegram channel that is used by threat actors to post any data that may have been stolen, likely in an attempt to extort organizations and demand payment [2].  

Darktrace’s Coverage of Medusa Ransomware

Established Foothold and C2 activity

In March 2024, Darktrace /NETWORK identified over 80 devices, including an internet facing domain controller, on a customer network performing an unusual number of activities that were indicative of an emerging ransomware attack. The suspicious behavior started when devices were observed making HTTP connections to the two unusual endpoints, “wizarr.manate[.]ch” and “go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de”, with the PowerShell and JWrapperDownloader user agents.

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ launched an autonomous investigation into the connections and was able to connect the seemingly separate events into one wider incident spanning multiple different devices. This allowed the customer to visualize the activity in chronological order and gain a better understanding of the scope of the attack.

At this point, given the nature and rarity of the observed activity, Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response would have been expected to take autonomous action against affected devices, blocking them from making external connections to suspicious locations. However, autonomous response was not configured to take autonomous action at the time of the attack, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually approved by the customer’s security team.

Internal Reconnaissance

Following these extensive HTTP connections, between March 1 and 7, Darktrace detected two devices making internal connection attempts to other devices, suggesting network scanning activity. Furthermore, Darktrace identified one of the devices making a connection with the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of the Nmap vulnerability scanning tool. While Nmap is primarily used legitimately by security teams to perform security audits and discover vulnerabilities that require addressing, it can also be leveraged by attackers who seek to exploit this information.

Darktrace / NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.
Figure 1: Darktrace /NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.

Darktrace observed actors using multiple credentials, including “svc-ndscans”, which was also seen alongside DCE-RPC activity that took place on March 1. Affected devices were also observed making ExecQuery and ExecMethod requests for IWbemServices. ExecQuery is commonly utilized to execute WMI Query Language (WQL) queries that allow the retrieval of information from WI, including system information or hardware details, while ExecMethod can be used by attackers to gather detailed information about a targeted system and its running processes, as well as a tool for lateral movement.

Lateral Movement

A few hours after the first observed scanning activity on March 1, Darktrace identified a chain of administrative connections between multiple devices, including the aforementioned internet-facing server.

Cyber AI Analyst was able to connect these administrative connections and separate them into three distinct ‘hops’, i.e. the number of administrative connections made from device A to device B, including any devices leveraged in between. The AI Analyst investigation was also able to link the previously detailed scanning activity to these administrative connections, identifying that the same device was involved in both cases.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.

On March 7, the internet exposed server was observed transferring suspicious files over SMB to multiple internal devices. This activity was identified as unusual by Darktrace compared to the device's normal SMB activity, with an unusual number of executable (.exe) and srvsvc files transferred targeting the ADMIN$ and IPC$ shares.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Figure 3: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.
Figure 4: Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.

The threat actor was also seen writing SQLite3*.dll files over SMB using a another credential this time. These files likely contained the malicious payload that resulted in the customer’s files being encrypted with the extension “.s3db”.

Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.

Encryption of Files

Finally, Darktrace observed the malicious actor beginning to encrypt and delete files on the customer’s environment. More specifically, the actor was observed using credentials previously seen on the network to encrypt files with the aforementioned “.s3db” extension.

Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.
Figure 6: Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.


After that, Darktrace observed the attacker encrypting  files and appending them with the extension “.MEDUSA” while also dropping a ransom note with the file name “!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt”

Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Figure 7: Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.
Figure 8: Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.

At the same time as these events, Darktrace observed the attacker utilizing a number of LotL techniques including SSL connections to “services.pdq[.]tools”, “teamviewer[.]com” and “anydesk[.]com”. While the use of these legitimate services may have bypassed traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to detect the activity and distinguish it from ‘normal’’ network activity. It is highly likely that these SSL connections represented the attacker attempting to exfiltrate sensitive data from the customer’s network, with a view to using it to extort the customer.

Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.
Figure 9: Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.

If this customer had been subscribed to Darktrace's Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service at the time of the attack, they would have been promptly notified of these suspicious activities by the Darktrace Security Operation Center (SOC). In this way they could have been aware of the suspicious activities taking place in their infrastructure before the escalation of the compromise. Despite this, they were able to receive assistance through the Ask the Expert service (ATE) whereby Darktrace’s expert analyst team was on hand to assist the customer by triaging and investigating the incident further, ensuring the customer was well equipped to remediate.  

As Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response was not enabled in autonomous response mode, this ransomware attack was able to progress to the point of encryption and data exfiltration. Had autonomous response been properly configured to take autonomous action, Darktrace would have blocked all connections by affected devices to both internal and external endpoints, as well as enforcing a previously established “pattern of life” on the device to stop it from deviating from its expected behavior.

Conclusion

The threat actors in this Medusa ransomware attack attempted to utilize LotL techniques in order to bypass human security teams and traditional security tools. By exploiting trusted systems and tools, like Nmap and PDQ Deploy, attackers are able to carry out malicious activity under the guise of legitimate network traffic.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, allows it to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that tend to be indicative of compromise, regardless of whether it appears legitimate or benign on the surface.

Further to the detection of the individual events that made up this ransomware attack, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to correlate the activity and collate it under one wider incident. This allowed the customer to track the compromise and its attack phases from start to finish, ensuring they could obtain a holistic view of their digital environment and remediate effectively.

Credit to Maria Geronikolou, Cyber Analyst, Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Alerts

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / Attack and Recon Tools

Device / Suspicious File Writes to Multiple Hidden SMB Share

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Device / Network Scan

Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Possible HTTP Command and Control

Extensive Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Possible SSL Command and Control to Multiple Endpoints

Suspicious Remote WMI Activity

Scanning of Multiple Devices

Possible Ransom Note Accessed over SMB

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type – Description + Confidence

207.188.6[.]17      -     IP address   -      C2 Endpoint

172.64.154[.]227 - IP address -        C2 Endpoint

wizarr.manate[.]ch  - Hostname -       C2 Endpoint

go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de.  Hostname  - C2 Endpoint

.MEDUSA             -        File extension     - Extension to encrypted files

.s3db               -             File extension    -  Created file extension

SQLite3-64.dll    -        File           -               Used tool

!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt - File -   Ransom note

Svc-ndscans         -         Credential     -     Possible compromised credential

Svc-NinjaRMM      -       Credential      -     Possible compromised credential

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Discovery  - File and Directory Discovery - T1083

Reconnaissance    -  Scanning IP            -          T1595.001

Reconnaissance -  Vulnerability Scanning -  T1595.002

Lateral Movement -Exploitation of Remote Service -  T1210

Lateral Movement - Exploitation of Remote Service -   T1210

Lateral Movement  -  SMB/Windows Admin Shares     -    T1021.002

Lateral Movement   -  Taint Shared Content          -            T1080

Execution   - PowerShell     - T1059.001

Execution  -   Service Execution   -    T1059.002

Impact   -    Data Encrypted for Impact  -  T1486

References

[1] https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/medusa-ransomware-escalation-new-leak-site/

[2] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[3] https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/trustwave-blog/unveiling-the-latest-ransomware-threats-targeting-the-casino-and-entertainment-industry/

[4] https://www.sangfor.com/farsight-labs-threat-intelligence/cybersecurity/security-advisory-for-medusa-ransomware

[5] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[6]https://any.run/report/8be3304fec9d41d44012213ddbb28980d2570edeef3523b909af2f97768a8d85/e4c54c9d-12fd-477f-8cbb-a20f8fb98912

Continue reading
About the author
Maria Geronikolou
Cyber Analyst
Our ai. Your data.

Elevate your cyber defenses with Darktrace AI

Start your free trial
Darktrace AI protecting a business from cyber threats.