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Illuminating AWS cloud environments with Darktrace Cyber AI

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21
May 2020
21
May 2020
This blog post explains how enterprise-wide and real-time analysis enables self-learning AI to uniquely detect and investigate threats in AWS environments at an early stage.

Cloud platforms transform the way we build digital infrastructure, allowing us to create incredibly innovative environments for business – but often, it’s at the cost of visibility and control.

With complex hybrid and multi-cloud infrastructures becoming an essential part of increasingly diverse digital estates, the journey to the cloud has fundamentally reshaped the traditional paradigm of the network perimeter, while expanding the attack surface at an alarming rate. Meanwhile, traditional security controls still only offer point solutions that rely on retrospective rules and threat signatures and fail to stop novel and advanced attacks.

To shoulder the weight of shared responsibility for cloud security, organizations require the approach offered by Darktrace DETECT & RESPOND. With Self-Learning AI, DETECT continuously learns what normal ‘patterns of life’ look like for every user, device, virtual machine, and container across an organization. By actively developing a bespoke understanding of ‘self,’ the DETECT can identify the subtle anomalies that point to an advanced attack, without any pre-defined assumptions of ‘good’ or ‘bad' and RESPOND can autonomously interfere to stop emerging threats without disrupting business operations.

As more and more businesses turn to AWS to leverage the benefits of cloud infrastructure, gaining visibility and security for AWS-hosted data and applications is absolutely crucial. The advent of AWS VPC traffic mirroring has allowed Darktrace to shine a light on blind spots in our customers’ AWS environments, ensuring that our Cyber AI security platform can stop any type of threat that emerges. With the AI-powered security securing your AWS environment, you can embrace all the benefits of the cloud with confidence.

Self-learning Cyber AI with granular, real-time visibility

VPC traffic mirroring gives our Self-Learning AI access to granular packet data, allowing DETECT to extract hundreds of features from the raw data and build rich behavioral models for our customers’ AWS cloud environments. This real-time visibility to the underlying fabric of AWS environments provided by VPC traffic mirroring helps Darktrace Cyber AI learn ‘on the job,’ continuously adapting as your business evolves. Darktrace provides the only security solution that learns in real time, a critical feature given the speed and scale of development in the cloud.

Unified control: Correlating patterns across infrastructure

Taking a fundamentally unique approach, DETECT actively correlates activity across AWS and beyond – whether your digital ecosystem includes other cloud environments, SaaS applications, or any range of on- and off-premise infrastructure. From a threat detection perspective, this is crucial, as security events detected in one part of an organization are often part of a broader security incident. This ensures that threats in the cloud are not siloed from monitoring of the rest of the infrastructure, nor are the implications for cloud security ignored when intrusions occur elsewhere in the network.

Neutralizing sophisticated and novel attacks

Legacy security controls miss novel and advanced attacks targeting cloud infrastructure. With VPC traffic mirroring supporting Darktrace Cyber AI’s understanding of an organization’s AWS environment, any slight changes from normal behavior that may indicate a potential threat can be detected immediately. This allows the DETECT to catch the full range of cloud-based attacks, from zero-day malware, to stealthy insider threats.

“Darktrace represents a new frontier in AI-based cyber defense. Our team now has complete real-time coverage across our SaaS applications and cloud containers.”

— CIO, City of Las Vegas

How it works: Using VPC traffic mirroring to analyze AWS traffic

For customers leveraging AWS within an IaaS model, Darktrace uses VPC traffic mirroring to collect metadata from mirrored VPC packets in a Darktrace probe known as a ‘vSensor’. The vSensor captures real-time traffic and selectively forwards relevant metadata to a Darktrace cloud instance or on-premise probe. From here, DETECT correlates VPC traffic with cloud, email, network, and SaaS traffic across a customer’s hybrid and multi-cloud infrastructure for analysis.

By utilizing VPC traffic mirroring in this way, the Immune System can perform deep packet inspection on traffic in the customer’s AWS cloud environment, up to and including the application layer. Hundreds of features are extracted from the raw data, ranging from high-level metrics of data flow quantities, to peer relationship meta-data, to specific application layer events. These features allow Darktrace Cyber AI to build rich behavioral models that let it understand normal patterns of life for the organization and detect malicious activity. It is important that Darktrace is able to construct these metrics from the raw data rather than relying on flow logs alone, as flow logs don't provide the required level of granularity or real-time events within connections.

For non-Nitro AWS instances, we deploy lightweight agents known as ‘OS-Sensors’ that feed relevant traffic to a local vSensor and, in turn, to a Darktrace cloud instance or on-premise probe. Once configured, OS-Sensors can easily be scaled as new instances are spun up. Darktrace also offers a specialized OS-Sensor that provides coverage in containerized systems like Docker and Kubernetes.

Richer context with AWS CloudTrail logs

In addition to analyzing data with VPC traffic mirroring, the DETECT also monitors management and data events within AWS. It does so via HTTP requests for logfiles generated by AWS CloudTrail, which monitors events from all AWS services, including:

  • EC2
  • IAM
  • S3
  • VPC
  • Lambda

Different event types produced via CloudTrail are organized by Darktrace into categories based on the action type and the AWS services that generate it. These different categories show up as metrics in the DETECT user interface, the Threat Visualizer. This information is used to provide even richer context in connection with mirrored traffic in VPCs, as well as all cloud, network, email, and SaaS traffic across a customer’s entire digital environment.

Darktrace deployment scenarios for AWS customers

For IaaS environments, Darktrace deploys a vSensor in each cloud environment. Within AWS environments, the vSensor captures real-time traffic with AWS VPC traffic mirroring. The receiving vSensor processes the data and feeds it back to the cloud-based Darktrace instance. AWS customers additionally have the option of deploying a ‘Darktrace Security Module’ to monitor IaaS management and data events at the API level, such as logins, editing virtual servers, or creating new access credentials.

Figure 1: A cloud-only deployment scenario — Darktrace manages a master cloud probe which receives traffic from sensors and connectors in IaaS and/or SaaS environments.

For hybrid IaaS deployments, Darktrace will similarly deploy vSensors, and OS-Sensors as appropriate. Cloud traffic and event data from AWS and any other cloud environments is then fed to a Darktrace probe in the cloud or on-premise network. For the latter scenario, Darktrace will deploy a physical appliance that ingests real-time network traffic via a SPAN port or network tap, allowing it to correlate patterns across the entire digital ecosystem.

Figure 2: A hybrid cloud deployment scenario, with multi-cloud infrastructure across AWS, Azure and GCP

For hybrid SaaS deployments, Darktrace will deploy provider-specific Darktrace Security Modules on either a physical or cloud-based Darktrace probe, in addition to any other relevant vSensors and OS-Sensors in place. SaaS data is then analyzed and correlated with traffic and user behaviors across AWS, other cloud environments, and any on- and off- premise cyber-physical infrastructure.

Figure 3: A hybrid SaaS deployment scenario

Defense against the full range of threats in the cloud

With the deep insight and powerful reaction capabilities of Cyber AI, Darktrace DETECT & RESPOND are the only proven technologies to stop the full range of cyber-threats in the cloud, including:

  • Critical misconfigurations
  • Insider threat
  • Compromised credentials
  • Novel and advanced malware
  • Password brute-force attacks
  • Data exfiltration
  • Lateral movement
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks
  • Crypto-jacking
  • Violations of policy

Case Studies

Crypto mining malware inadvertently installed

Darktrace detected a mistake from a junior DevOps engineer in a multinational organization with workloads across AWS and Azure and leveraging containerized systems like Docker and Kubernetes. The engineer accidentally downloaded an update that included a crypto miner, which led to an infection across multiple cloud production systems.

After the initial infection, the malware started beaconing out to an external command and control server, which was immediately picked up by Darktrace. With the external connection established and the attack mission instructions delivered, the crypto malware infection was then able to rapidly spread across the organization’s expansive cloud infrastructure at machine speed, infecting 20 cloud servers in under 15 seconds.

Extensive visibility into the organization’s AWS environment via VPC traffic mirroring was a key factor allowing Darktrace Cyber AI to identify the scale of the attack. With the dynamic and unified view across the company’s sprawling hybrid and multi-cloud infrastructure provided by Darktrace, the company’s security team was able to contain the attack within minutes, rather than hours or days. Even though the attack moved at machine speed, by leveraging solutions like VPC traffic mirroring to continuously analyze behavior in the cloud, Darktrace caught the threat at an early enough stage – well before the costs could start to mount.

Developer misuse of AWS cloud infrastructure

At an insurance group, a DevOps Engineer was attempting to build a parallel back-up infrastructure within AWS to replicate the organization’s data center production systems. The technical implementation was perfect, and the back-up systems were created – however, the cost of running the system would have been several million dollars per year.

The DevOps Engineer was unaware of the costs associated with the project and kept management in the dark. The cloud infrastructure was launched, and the costs started rising. Yet with real-time access to the company’s AWS environment provided by VPC traffic mirroring, Darktrace’s Cyber AI was immediately alerted to this unusual behavior, allowing the security team to take preventative action immediately.

With Darktrace Cyber AI, embrace the benefits of AWS

As organizations increasingly turn to the cloud and the threat surface continues to expand, security teams need self-learning AI on their side to gain the strongest insights, illuminate every blind spot, and stop all attacks.

By providing an enterprise-wide Cyber AI platform, Darktrace helps teams overcome the traditional security challenge of manually piecing together incidents across disparate corners of an organization. The unified visibility and control offered by Darktrace PREVENT, DETECTRESPOND, & HEAL reduces the complexity and dashboard fatigue that many teams continue to struggle with, while the system’s multi-dimensional insight enhances its decision-making and threat confidence. Darktrace further augments this process with the Immune System’s AI Analyst capability, which takes the additional step of automatically investigating threats detected by Darktrace and producing concise, AI-generated reports that communicate the full scope of an incident.

With the granular, real-time visibility of VPC traffic mirroring Darktrace, you can be certain your AWS cloud environments are always protected.

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
Andrew Tsonchev
VP of Technology

Andrew is a technical expert on cyber security and advises Darktrace’s strategic customers on advanced threat defense, AI and autonomous response. He has a background in threat analysis and research, and holds a first-class degree in physics from Oxford University and a first-class degree in philosophy from King’s College London. His comments on cyber security and the threat to critical national infrastructure have been reported in international media, including CNBC and the BBC World.

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Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

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About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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22
Feb 2024

What is VIP impersonation?

VIP impersonation involves a threat actor impersonating a trusted, prominent figure at an organization in an attempt to solicit sensitive information from an employee.

VIP impersonation is a high-priority issue for security teams, but it can be difficult to assess the exact risks, and whether those are more critical than other types of compromise. Looking across a range of Darktrace/Email™ customer deployments, this blog explores the patterns of individuals targeted for impersonation and evaluates if these target priorities correspond with security teams' focus on protecting attack pathways to critical assets.

How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?

Protecting VIP entities within an organization has long been a traditional focus for security teams. The assumption is that VIPs, due to their prominence, possess the greatest access to critical assets, making them prime targets for cyber threats.  

Email remains the predominant vector for attacks, with over 90% of breaches originating from malicious emails. However, the dynamics of email-based attacks are shifting, as the widespread use of generative AI is lowering the barrier to entry by allowing adversaries to create hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors.

Given these developments, it's worth asking the question – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are most targeted by threat actors via email? And, more importantly – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are more valuable if they are successfully compromised?

There are two types of VIPs:  

1. When referring to emails and phishing, VIPs are the users in an organization who are well known publicly.  

2. When referring to attack paths, VIPs are users in an organization that are known publicly and have access to highly privileged assets.  

Not every prominent user has access to critical assets, and not every user that has access to critical assets is prominent.  

Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation

We analyzed patterns of attack pathways and phishing attempts across 20 customer deployments from a large, randomized pool encompassing a diverse range of organizations.  

Understanding Attack Pathways

Our observations revealed that 57% of low-difficulty attack paths originated from VIP entities, while 43% of observed low-difficulty attack paths towards critical assets or entities began through non-VIP users. This means that targeting VIPs is not the only way attackers can reach critical assets, and that non-VIP users must be considered as well.  

While the sample size prevents us from establishing statistical significance across all customers, the randomized selection lends credence to the generalizability of these findings to other environments.

Phishing Attempts  

On average, 1.35% of total emails sent to these customers exhibited significantly malicious properties associated with phishing or some form of impersonation. Strikingly, nearly half of these malicious emails (49.6%) were directed towards VIPs, while the rest were sent to non-VIPs. This near-equal split is worth noting, as attack paths show that non-VIPs also serve as potential entry points for targeting critical assets.  

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: A phishing email actioned by Darktrace, sent to multiple VIP and non-VIP entities

For example, a recent phishing campaign targeted multiple customers across deployments, with five out of 13 emails specifically aimed at VIP users. Darktrace/Email actioned the malicious emails by double locking the links, holding the messages, and stripping the attachments.

Given that non-VIP users receive nearly half of the phishing or impersonation emails, it underscores the critical importance for security teams to recognize their blind spots in protecting critical assets. Overlooking the potential threat originating from non-VIP entities could lead to severe consequences. For instance, if a non-VIP user falls victim to a phishing attack or gets compromised, their credentials could be exploited to move laterally within the organization, potentially reaching critical assets.

This highlights the necessity for a sophisticated security tool that can identify targeted users, without the need for extensive customization and regardless of VIP status. By deploying a solution capable of promptly responding to email threats – including solicitation, phishing attempts, and impersonation – regardless of the status of the targeted user, security teams can significantly enhance their defense postures.

Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods

Traditional rules and signatures-based detection mechanisms fall short in identifying the evolving threats we’ve observed, due to their reliance on knowledge of past attacks to categorize emails.

Secure Email Gateway (SEG) or Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) tools categorize emails based on previous or known attacks, operating on a known-good or known-bad model. Even if tools use AI to automate this process, the approach is still fundamentally looking to the past and therefore vulnerable to unknown and zero-day threats.  

Darktrace uses AI to understand each unique organization and how its email environment interoperates with each user and device on the network. Consequently, it is able to identify the subtle deviations from normal behavior that qualify as suspicious. This approach goes beyond simplistic categorizations, considering factors such as the sender’s history and recipient’s exposure score.  

This nuanced analysis enables Darktrace to differentiate between genuine communications and malicious impersonation attempts. It automatically understands who is a VIP, without the need for manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails  based on a user’s status.

Email does determine who is a VIP, without a need of manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails.

Darktrace/Email also feeds into Darktrace’s preventative security tools, giving the interconnected AI engines further context for assessing the high-value targets and pathways to vital internal systems and assets that start via the inbox.

Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise  

The efficacy of AI-driven security solutions lies in their ability to make informed decisions and recommendations based on real-time business data. By leveraging this data, AI driven solutions can identify exploitable attack pathways and an organizations most critical assets. Darktrace uniquely uses several forms of AI to equip security teams with the insights needed to make informed decisions about which pathways to secure, reducing human bias around the importance of protecting VIPs.

With the emergence of tools like AutoGPT, identifying potential targets for phishing attacks has become increasingly simplified. However, the real challenge lies in gaining a comprehensive understanding of all possible and low-difficulty attack paths leading to critical assets and identities within the organization.

At the same time, organizations need email tools that can leverage the understanding of users to prevent email threats from succeeding in the first instance. For every email and user, Darktrace/Email takes into consideration changes in behavior from the sender, recipient, content, and language, and many other factors.

Integrating Darktrace/Email with Darktrace’s attack path modeling capabilities enables comprehensive threat contextualization and facilitates a deeper understanding of attack pathways. This holistic approach ensures that all potential vulnerabilities, irrespective of the user's status, are addressed, strengthening the overall security posture.  

Conclusion

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis suggests that the distinction between VIPs and non-VIPs in terms of susceptibility to impersonation and low-difficulty attack paths is not as pronounced as presumed. Therefore, security teams must adopt a proactive stance in safeguarding all pathways, rather than solely focusing on VIPs.  

Attack path modeling enhances Darktrace/Email's capabilities by providing crucial metrics on potential impact, damage, exposure, and weakness, enabling more targeted and effective threat mitigation strategies. For example, stronger email actions can be enforced for users who are known to have a high potential impact in case of compromise. 

In an era where cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity, an adaptive and non-siloed approach to securing inboxes, high-priority individuals, and critical assets is indispensable.  

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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