Inside the SOC
How one email took down a logistics company
Organizations are only as secure as their weakest link. In many cases, that weak link arises in the various cloud applications an organization relies on. Several high-profile groups including APT28 are known to exploit commonly-used passwords to bruteforce their way into businesses around the world. These ‘spray’ campaigns often target Microsoft Office 365 accounts and will only become more frequent as the use of SaaS increases.
This blog analyses how a single phishing email slipped under the radar of the gateway and other traditional tools in place, and eventually led to mass compromise at a logistics company in Europe.
Logistics operators play a critical role across every industry sector. Managing the distribution of goods and services from the seller to the customer, they enable – or bottleneck – an efficient supply chain. Inevitably, logistics companies have become an attractive target for cyber-criminals, due to the high number of organizations they interact with, the pressure they’re under to deliver on time, and the sensitive data they often handle.
It is a simple equation for attackers: do they put in the hard work to infiltrate 20 well-defended organizations, or compromise just one, and from there gain access to all 20 or more? The majority of cyber-threats Darktrace has observed this year have gone for the latter – exploiting less protected third parties to gain a foothold across a range of businesses.
The vaccine supply in particular has fallen under attack, numerous times. Last autumn, threat actors infiltrated a German biomedical organization and launched a phishing campaign to harvest credentials and compromise several organizations involved in the COVID-19 cold chain.
Alongside ransomware, phishing attacks are one of the most pressing concerns facing the industry.
Breaking the chain
At a medium-sized logistics company, a user received one phishing email from a hijacked third party. The email came from a trusted source with a well established history of sending emails, so it easily passed the gateway.
Once the phishing email had reached the inbox, the user clicked on the malicious link and was led to a fake login page, where they were tricked into divulging their credentials.
Four days later, the attacker logged into the account from an unusual location, and proceeded to read files with sensitive information.
The next day, Darktrace detected a new email rule from another unusual location. Almost immediately, a large volume of outbound emails was sent from the account, all containing the suspicious link.
Figure 1: Timeline of the attack — the total dwell time was five days.
Supply and disrupt
Once you are inside an organization’s digital ecosystem, it is easy to move around and compromise more accounts. Most security tools and employees do not question an internal email sent by a trusted user, especially if the user is a senior figure with authority.
So, after this set of outbound emails, unusual activity from anomalous locations was duly seen on other company accounts. These users had been tricked into giving away their details from the emails supposedly sent by their colleague.
More sensitive customer files were read, followed by a second spike in outbound emails from these hijacked accounts.
This time, the emails were sent not internally, but to external contacts. The contacts likely were conducting business with the logistics company at the time, and so were used to receiving emails from the accounts.
In total, over 450 phishing emails were sent to a wide range of third parties. Many of these third parties in turn had their credentials compromised – repeating the cycle once again.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigates the suspicious activity of a compromised user, providing a detailed summary with the unusual login location and actions carried out.
Hanging by a thread: The threat of third-party attacks
The source of the initial phishing email that kickstarted this attack was itself from a legitimate third party known to the customer, where presumably the same thing had occured.
This form of Vendor Email Compromise, which can be rinsed and repeated to form a vicious loop, is notoriously difficult for email security solutions to detect, and can lead to heavy reputational and financial damage. To complicate matters, acting against a suspicious email from a known sender can also cause severe business disruption if it turns out to be legitimate.
Because of this, security must move beyond the binary approach of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, towards a more holistic understanding of the contextual setting surrounding any email interaction.
Darktrace accurately detected the multiple anomalies when comparing it to other emails from senders of the same domain. It sent high-priority alerts to the security team, but could not prevent the email from reaching the inbox because it was only in detection mode.
The phishing links during the attack used a third-party tool called Piktochart, designed to create various type of files such as infographics, charts, and forms. While Piktochart has several legitimate applications, it can also be exploited. Gateways thus have a hard time distinguishing between legitimate and malicious Piktochart links. In this case, the gateway rewrote the initial link for analysis, but did not identify it as malicious.
In comparison, Darktrace for Email easily identified the email to be suspicious because it noticed it was out of character for that particular sender, and because the link itself was suspicious. In active mode, the AI would have locked the link and moved the email to the Junk folder, effectively preventing the very first step of the attack and avoiding any further compromise.
Figure 4: Piktochart was rarely seen on the deployment up until this point – the domain was 100% rare. Darktrace therefore easily detected the anomalous nature of this third-party tool usage.
The butterfly effect
Most cyber-attacks begin with just a single point of entry – that is all an attacker requires. One phishing email can be enough to bring a whole supply chain to its knees. With 94% of cyber-attacks beginning in the inbox, and suppliers and vendors in constant communication over multiple SaaS platforms – including Microsoft Teams and Google Cloud – email security tools must be capable of detecting when a trusted third party is acting abnormally.
Especially with the rise of remote working, SaaS usage has surged in businesses worldwide and many have been forced to turn to cloud and SaaS to enable a flexible workforce. While there are obvious benefits, these additions have expanded the attack surface and stretched the limits of traditional security and human security teams.
When it comes to logistics companies – who often act as the middle man in global operations – credential harvesting not only has serious consequences for the customer, but for anyone in the customer’s email contacts, and can lead to major breaches for numerous people and businesses.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s user interface reveals the two spikes in outbound emails that were sent out by compromised company accounts.
Thanks to Darktrace analyst Emma Foulger for her insights on the above threat find.
Learn more about the threats facing logistics providers
Darktrace model detections:
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- Antigena Email models included
- Unusual / Unusual Login Location and New Unknown Link
- Link / Account Hijack Link
- Link / Outlook Hijack
- Internal Compromise / Recipient Surge from Unusual Login Location (outbound emails)
- Internal Compromise / Recipient Surge with Suspicious Content (outbound emails)
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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.