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How Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst accelerates reporting incidents to the US federal government

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12
Apr 2022
12
Apr 2022
This blog explains how Darktrace helps defenders abide by US federal laws on reporting cyber security incidents, featuring a real-world example of a ransomware attack investigated by Cyber AI Analyst.

On March 15, 2022, President Biden signed the Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act into law, included as part of the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill. The law requires critical infrastructure owners and operators to quickly notify the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of ransomware payments and significant cyber-attacks.

The Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act creates two new reporting requirements:

  1. an obligation to report certain cyber incidents to DHS CISA within 72 hours
  2. an obligation to report ransomware payments within 24 hours

Supporting the new law, Darktrace AI accelerates the cyber incident reporting process. Specifically, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst understands the connections among disparate security incidents with supervised machine learning and autonomously writes incident reports in human-readable language using natural language processing (NLP). These Darktrace incident reports allow human analysts to send reports to CISA quickly and efficiently.

In the below real-world attack case study, we demonstrate how Cyber AI Analyst facilitates seamless reporting for critical infrastructure organizations that fall victim to ransomware and malicious data exfiltration. The AI technology, trained on human analyst behavior, replicates investigations at machine speed and scale, surfacing relevant details in minutes and allowing security teams to understand what happened precisely and share this information with the relevant authorities.

The below threat investigation details a significant threat find on a step by step level in technical detail to demonstrate the power and speed of Cyber AI Analyst.

Cyber AI Analyst’s incident report

When ransomware struck this organization, Cyber AI Analyst was invaluable, autonomously investigating the full scope of the incident and generating a natural language summary that clearly showed the progression of the attack.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst reveals the full scope of the attack

In the aftermath of this attack, Darktrace’s technology also offered analyst assistance in mapping out the timeline of the attack and identifying what files were compromised, helping the security team identify anomalous activity related to the ransomware attack.

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst showing the stages of the attack chain undergone by the compromised device

With Darktrace AI’s insights, the team easily identified the timeline of the attack, affected devices, credentials used, file shares accessed, files exfiltrated, and malicious endpoints contacted, enabling the customer to disclose the scale of the attack and notify necessary parties.

This example demonstrates how Cyber AI Analyst empowers critical infrastructure owners and operators to swiftly report major cyber-attacks to the federal government. Considering that 72 hours is the reporting period is for significant incidents — and 24 hours for ransomware payments — Cyber AI Analyst is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for critical infrastructure.

Attack breakdown: Ransomware and data exfiltration

Cyber AI Analyst delivered the most critical information in an easy-to-read report — with no human touch involved — as shown in the incident report above. We will now break down the attack further to demonstrate how Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understood the unusual activity throughout the attack lifecycle.

In this double extortion ransomware, attackers exfiltrated data over 22 days. The detections made by Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, and the parallel investigation by Cyber AI Analyst, were used to map the attack chain and identify how and what data had been exfiltrated and encrypted.

The attack consisted of three general groups of events:

  • Unencrypted FTP (File Transfer Protocol) data exfiltration to rare malicious external endpoint in Bulgaria (May 9 07:23:46 UTC – May 21 03:06:46 UTC)
  • Ransomware encryption of files in network file shares (May 25 01:00:27 UTC – May 30 07:09:53 UTC)
  • Encrypted SSH (Secure Shell) data exfiltration to rare malicious external endpoint (May 29 16:43:37 UTC – May 30 13:23:59 UTC)
Figure 3: Timeline of the attack alongside Darktrace model breaches

First, uploads of internal data to a rare external endpoint in Bulgaria were observed within the networks. The exfiltration was preceded by SMB reads of internal file shares before approximately 450GB of data was exfiltrated via FTP.

Darktrace’s AI identified this threatening activity on its own, and the organization was quickly able to pinpoint what data had been exfiltrated, including files camouflaged by markings such as ‘Talent Acquisition’ and ‘Engineering and Construction,’ and legal and financial documents — suggesting that these were documents of an extremely sensitive nature.

Figure 4: Screenshots showing two model breaches relating to external uploads over FTP
Figure 5: Screenshot showing SMB reads from a file share before FTP upload

Model breaches:

  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual Incoming Data Volume
  • Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity
  • Compromise / Ransomware / SMB Reads then Writes with Additional Extensions
  • Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Move & Write
  • Unusual Activity / High Volume Server Data Transfer
  • Unusual Activity / Sustained Anomalous SMB Activity
  • Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Four days following this observed activity, Darktrace’s AI detected the deployment of ransomware when multiple compromised devices began making anomalous SMB connections to file shares that they do not typically access, reading and writing similar volumes to the SMB file shares, as well as writing additional extensions to files over SMB. The file extension comprised a random string of letters and was likely to be unique to this target.

Using Darktrace, the customer obtained a full list of files that had been encrypted. The list included apparent financial records in an ‘Accounts’ file share.

Figure 6: Model breach showing additional extension written to file during ransomware encryption

Model breaches:

  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual Incoming Data Volume
  • Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity
  • Compromise / Ransomware / SMB Reads then Writes with Additional Extensions
  • Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Move & Write
  • Unusual Activity / High Volume Server Data Transfer
  • Unusual Activity / Sustained Anomalous SMB Activity
  • Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Simultaneously, uploads of internal data to a rare external endpoint were observed within the network. The uploads were all performed using encrypted SSH/SFTP. In total, approximately 3.5GB of data was exfiltrated this way.

Despite the attacker using an encrypted channel to exfiltrate this data, Darktrace detected anomalous SMB file transfers prior to the external upload, indicating which files were exfiltrated. Here, Darktrace’s ability to go ‘back in time’ proved invaluable in helping analysts determine which files had been exfiltrated, although they were exfiltrated via an encrypted means.

Figure 7: Model breaches showing anomalous SMB activity before upload over SSH

Model breaches:

  • Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server
  • Compliance / SSH to Rare External Destination
  • Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer
  • Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Breaches
  • Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
  • Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound
  • Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain
  • Anomalous Connection / Data Sent To New External Device

How did the attack bypass the rest of the security stack?

Existing administrative credentials were used to escalate privileges within the network and perform malicious activity.

Had Darktrace Antigena been active, it would have actioned a targeted, autonomous response to contain the activity in its early stages. Antigena would have enforced the ‘pattern of life’ on the devices involved in anomalous SMB activity — containing activity such as reading from file shares that are not normally connected, appending extensions to files and blocking outgoing connections to rare external endpoints.

However, in this case, Antigena was not set up to take action – it was configured in Human Confirmation mode. The incident was clearly alerted on by Darktrace, and appeared as a top priority item in the security team’s workflow. However, the security team was not monitoring Darktrace’s user interface, and in the absence of any action taken by other tools, the attack was allowed to progress, and the organization was obligated to disclose the details of the incident.

Streamlining the reporting process

In the modern threat landscape, leaning on AI to stop fast-moving and sophisticated attacks at machine speed and scale is critical. As this attack shows, the technology also helps organizations fulfill reporting requirements in the aftermath of an attack.

New legislation requires timely disclosure; with many traditional approaches to security, organizations do not have the capacity to surface the full details after an attack. On top of this, collating these details can take days or weeks. This is why Darktrace is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for critical infrastructure organizations, which are now required to report significant incidents swiftly.

Darktrace’s AI detects malicious activity as it happens and empowers customers to quickly understand the timeline of a compromise, as well as files accessed and exfiltrated by an attacker. This not only prepares organizations to resist the most sophisticated attacks, but also accelerates and radically simplifies the process of reporting the data breach.

Security teams should not have to confront disclosure processes on their own. Attacks happen fast, and their aftermaths are messy – retrospective investigation of lost data can be a futile effort with traditional approaches. With Darktrace, security teams can meet disruptive and sudden attacks with precise and nimble means of uncovering data, as well as detection and mitigation of risk. And, should the need arise, rapid and accurate reporting of events is laid out on a silver platter by the AI.

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
Justin Fier
SVP, Red Team Operations

Justin is one of the US’s leading cyber intelligence experts, and holds the position of SVP, Red Team Operations at Darktrace. His insights on cyber security and artificial intelligence have been widely reported in leading media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The Washington Post, and VICELAND. With over 10 years’ experience in cyber defense, Justin has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Justin is also a highly-skilled technical specialist, and works with Darktrace’s strategic global customers on threat analysis, defensive cyber operations, protecting IoT, and machine learning.

Sally Kenyon Grant
VP, Darktrace Federal

Sally Kenyon Grant is Vice President of Federal at Darktrace, working with the US Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community and Federal Civilian Agencies.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

Blog

Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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