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Let the Dominos Fall! SOC and IR Metrics for ROI

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25
Jun 2024
25
Jun 2024
Vendors are scrambling to compare MTTD metrics laid out in the latest MITRE Engenuity ATT&CK® Evaluations. But this analysis is reductive, ignoring the fact that in cybersecurity, there are far more metrics that matter.

One of the most enjoyable discussions (and debates) I engage in is the topic of Security Operations Center (SOC) and Incident Response (IR) metrics to measure and validate an organization’s Return on Investment (ROI). The debate part comes in when I hear vendor experts talking about “the only” SOC metrics that matter, and only list the two most well-known, while completely ignoring metrics that have a direct causal relationship.

In this blog, I will discuss what I believe are the SOC/IR metrics that matter, how each one has a direct impact on the others, and why organizations should ensure they are working towards the goal of why these metrics are measured in the first place: Reduction of Risk and Costs.

Reduction of Risk and Costs

Every security solution and process an organization puts in place should reduce the organization’s risk of a breach, exposure by an insider threat, or loss of productivity. How an organization realizes net benefits can be in several ways:

  • Improved efficiencies can result in SOC/IR staff focusing on other areas such as advanced threat hunting rather than churning through alerts on their security consoles. It may also help organizations dealing with the lack of skilled security staff by using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automated processes.
  • A well-oiled SOC/IR team that has greatly reduced or even eliminated mundane tasks attracts, motivates, and retains talent resulting in reduced hiring and training costs.
  • The direct impact of a breach such as a ransomware attack can be devastating. According to the 2024 Data Breach Investigations Report by Verizon, MGM Resorts International reported the ALPHV ransomware cost the company approximately $100 million[1].
  • Failure to take appropriate steps to protect the organization can result in regulatory fines; and if an organization has, or is considering, purchasing Cyber Insurance, can result in declined coverage or increased premiums.

How does an organization demonstrate they are taking proactive measures to prevent breaches? That is where it's important to understand the nine (yes, nine) key metrics, and how each one directly influences the others, play their roles.

Metrics in the Incident Response Timeline

Let’s start with a review of the key steps in the Incident Response Timeline:

Seven of the nine key metrics are in the IR timeline, while two of the metrics occur before you ever have an incident. They occur in the Pre-Detection Stage.

Pre-Detection stage metrics are:

  • Preventions Per Intrusion Attempt (PPIA)
  • False Positive Reduction Rate (FPRR)

Next is the Detect and Investigate stage, there are three metrics to consider:

  • Mean Time to Detection (MTTD)
  • Mean Time to Triage (MTTT)
  • Mean Time to Understanding (MTTU)

This is followed by the Remediation stage, there are two metrics here:

  • Mean Time to Containment (MTTC)
  • Mean Time to Remediation / Recovery (MTTR)

Finally, there is the Risk Reduction stage, there are two metrics:

  • Mean Time to Advice (MTTA)
  • Mean Time to Implementation (MTTI)

Pre-Detection Stage

Preventions Per Intrusion Attempt

PPIA is defined as stopping any intrusion attempt at the earliest possible stage. Your network Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) blocks vulnerability exploits, your e-mail security solution intercepts and removes messages with malicious attachments or links, your egress firewall blocks unauthorized login attempts, etc. The adversary doesn’t get beyond Step 1 in the attack life cycle.

This metric is the first domino. Every organization should strive to improve on this metric every day. Why? For every intrusion attempt you stop right out of the gate, you eliminate the actions for every other metric. There is no incident to detect, triage, investigate, remediate, or analyze post-incident for ways to improve your security posture.

When I think about PPIA, I always remember back to a discussion with a former mentor, Tim Crothers, who discussed the benefits of focusing on Prevention Failure Detection.

The concept is that as you layer your security defenses, your PPIA moves ever closer to 100% (no one has ever reached 100%). This narrows the field of fire for adversaries to breach into your organization. This is where novel, unknown, and permuted threats live and breathe. This is where solutions utilizing Unsupervised Machine Learning excel in raising anomalous alerts – indications of potential compromise involving one of these threats. Unsupervised ML also raises alerts on anomalous activity generated by known threats and can raise detections before many signature-based solutions. Most organizations struggle to find strong permutations of known threats, insider threats, supply chain attacks, attacks utilizing n-day and 0-day exploits. Moving PPIA ever closer to 100% also frees your team up for conducting threat hunting activities – utilizing components of your SOC that collect and store telemetry to query for potential compromises based on hypothesis the team raises. It also significantly reduces the alerts your team must triage and investigate – solving many of the issues outlined at the start of this paper.

False Positive Reduction Rate

Before we discuss FPRR, I should clarify how I define False Positives (FPs). Many define FPs as an alert that is in error (i.e.: your EDR alerts on malware that turns out to be AV signature files). While that is a FP, I extend the definition to include any alert that did not require triage / investigation and distracts the SOC/IR team (meaning they conducted some level of triage / investigation).

This metric is the second domino. Why is this metric important? Every alert your team exerts time and effort on that is a non-issue distracts them from alerts that matter. One of the major issues that has resonated in the security industry for decades is that SOCs are inundated with alerts and cannot clear the backlog. When it comes to PPIA + FPRR, I have seen analysts spend time investigating alerts that were blocked out of the gate while their screen continued to fill up with more. You must focus on Prevention Failure Detection to get ahead of the backlog.

Detect and Investigate Stages

Mean Time to Detection

MTTD, or “Dwell Time”, has decreased dramatically over the past 12 years. From well over a year to 16 days in 2023[2]. MTTD is measured from the earliest possible point you could detect the intrusion to the moment you actually detect it.

This third domino is important because the longer an adversary remains undetected, the more the odds increase they will complete their mission objective. It also makes the tasks of triage and investigation more difficult as analysts must piece together more activity and adversaries may be erasing evidence along the way – or your storage retention does not cover the breach timeline.

Many solutions focusing solely on MTTD can actually create the very problem SOCs are looking to solve.  That is, they generate so much alerting that they flood the console, email, or text messaging app causing an unmanageable queue of alerts (this is the problem XDR solutions were designed to resolve by focusing on incidents rather than alerts).

Mean Time to Triage

MTTT involves SOCs that utilize Level 1 (aka Triage) analysts to render an “escalate / do not escalate” alert verdict accurately. Accuracy is important because Triage Analysts typically are staff new to cyber security (recent grad / certification) and may over escalate (afraid to miss something important) or under escalate (not recognize signs of a successful breach). Because of this, a small MTTT does not always equate to successful handling of incidents.

This metric is important because keeping your senior staff focused on progressing incidents in a timely manner (and not expending time on false positives) should reduce stress and required headcount.

Mean Time to Understanding

MTTU deals with understanding the complete nature of the incident being investigated. This is different than MTTT which only deals with whether the issue merits escalation to senior analysts. It is then up to the senior analysts to determine the scope of the incident, and if you are a follower of my UPSET Investigation Framework, you know understanding the full scope involves:

U = All compromised accounts

P = Persistence Mechanisms used

S = All systems involved (organization, adversary, and intermediaries)

E = Endgame (or mission objective)

T = Techniques, Tactics, Procedures (TTPs) utilized by the adversary

MTTU is important because this information is critical before any containment or remediation actions are taken. Leave a stone unturned, and you alert the adversary that you are onto them and possibly fail to close an avenue of access.

Remediation Stages

Mean Time to Containment

MTTC deals with neutralizing the threat. You may not have kicked the adversary out, but you have halted their progress to their mission objective and ability to inflict further damage. This may be through use of isolation capabilities, termination of malicious processes, or firewall blocks.

MTTC is important, especially with ransomware attacks where every second counts. Faster containment responses can result in reduced / eliminated disruption to business operations or loss of data.

Mean Time to Remediation / Recovery

The full scope of the incident is understood, the adversary has been halted in their tracks, no malicious processes are running on any systems in your organization. Now is the time to put things back to right. MTTR deals with the time involved in restoring business operations to pre-incident stage. It means all remnants of changes made by the adversary (persistence, account alterations, programs installed, etc.) are removed; all disrupted systems are restored to operations (i.e.: ransomware encrypted systems are recovered from backups / snapshots), compromised user accounts are reset, etc.

MTTR is important because it informs senior management of how fast the organization can recover from an incident. Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity plans play a major role in improving this score.

Risk Reduction Stages

Mean Time to Advice

After the dust has settled from the incident, the job is not done. MTTA deals with identifying and assessing the specific areas (vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, lack of security controls) that permitted the adversary to advance to the point where detection occurred (and any actions beyond). The SOC and IR teams should then compile a list of recommendations to present to management to improve the security posture of the organization so the same attack path cannot be used.

Mean Time to Implement

Once recommendations are delivered to management, how long does it take to implement them? MTTI tracks this timeline because none of it matters if you don’t fix the holes that led to the breach.

Nine Dominos

There are the nine dominos of SOC / IR metrics I recommend helping organizations know if they are on the right track to reduce risk, costs and improve morale / retention of the security teams. You may not wish to track all nine, but understanding how each metric impacts the others can provide visibility into why you are not seeing expected improvements when you implement a new security solution or change processes.

Improving prevention and reducing false positives can make huge positive impacts on your incident response timeline. Utilizing solutions that get you to resolution quicker allows the team to focus on recommendations and risk reduction strategies.

Whichever metrics you choose to track, just be sure the dominos fall in your favor.

References

[1] 2024 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, p83

[2] Mandiant M-Trends 2023

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
John Bradshaw
Sr. Director, Technical Marketing

John Bradshaw is Sr. Director, Technical Marketing at Darktrace. He is a security practitioner at heart having built a Customer Security/SOC operations team for (then) the largest ISP on the planet. In his vendor roles he has worked with various security solutions utilized by SOC / IR teams and conducted advanced incident investigation workshops to help organizations understand the benefits and limitations of the solutions they are using. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Averett University and a Master of Science in Network Security from Capitol College.

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Hashing out TA577: Darktrace’s Detection of NTLM Hash Theft

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09
Jul 2024

What is credential theft and how does it work?

What began as a method to achieve unauthorized access to an account, often driven by the curiosity of individual attackers, credentials theft become a key tactic for malicious actors and groups, as stolen login credentials can be abused to gain unauthorized access to accounts and systems. This access can be leveraged to carry out malicious activities such as data exfiltration, fraud, espionage and malware deployment.

It is therefore no surprise that the number of dark web marketplaces selling privileged credentials has increased in recent years, making it easier for malicious actors to monetize stolen credentials [1]. This, in turn, has created new opportunities for threat actors to use increasingly sophisticated tactics such as phishing, social engineering and credential stuffing in their attacks, targeting individuals, organizations and government entities alike [1].

Credential theft example

TA577 Threat Actor

TA577 is a threat actor known to leverage stolen credentials, also known as Hive0118 [2], an initial access broker (IAB) group that was previously known for delivering malicious payloads [2]. On March 4, 2024, Proofpoint reported evidence of TA577 using a new attack chain with a different aim in mind: stealing NT LAN Manager (NTLM) hashes that can be used to authenticate to systems without needing to know plaintext passwords [3].

How does TA577 steal credentials?

Proofpoint reported that this new attack chain, which was first observed on February 26 and 27, was made up of two distinct campaigns. The first campaign consisted of a phishing attack featuring tens of thousands of emails targeting hundreds of organizations globally [3]. These phishing emails often appeared as replies to previous messages (thread hijacking) and contained zipped HTML attachments that each contained a unique file hash, customized for each recipient [3]. These attached files also contained a HTTP Meta refresh function, which triggered an automatic connection to a text file hosted on external IP addresses running as SMB servers [3].

When attempting to access the text file, the server requires an SMB session authentication via NTLM. This session is initiated when a client sends an ‘SMB_COM_NEGOTIATE’ request to the server, which answers with a ‘SMB_COM_NEGOTIATE’ response.

The client then proceeds to send a ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ request to start the SMB session setup process, which includes initiating the NTLM authentication process. The server responds with an ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ response, which includes an NTLM challenge message [6].

The client can then use the challenge message and its own credentials to generate a response by hashing its password using an NTLM hash algorithm. The response is sent to the server in an ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ request. The server validates the response and, if the authentication is successful, the server answers with a final ‘SMB_COM_SESSION_SETUP_ANDX’ response, which completes the session setup process and allows the client to access the file listed on the server [6].

What is the goal of threat actor TA577?

As no malware delivery was detected during these sessions, researchers have suggested that the aim of TA577 was not to deliver malware, but rather to take advantage of the NTLMV2 challenge/response to steal NTLM authentication hashes [3] [4]. Hashes stolen by attackers can be exploited in pass-the-hash attacks to authenticate to a remote server or service [4]. They can also be used for offline password cracking which, if successful, could be utilized to escalate privileges or perform lateral movement through a target network [4]. Under certain circumstances, these hashes could also permit malicious actors to hijack accounts, access sensitive information and evade security products [4].

The open-source toolkit Impacket, which includes modules for password cracking [5] and which can be identified by the default NTLM server challenge “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”[3], was observed during the SMB sessions. This indicates that TA577 actor aim to use stolen credentials for password cracking and pass-the-hash attacks.

TA577 has previously been associated with Black Basta ransomware infections and Qbot, and has been observed delivering various payloads including IcedID, SystemBC, SmokeLoader, Ursnif, and Cobalt Strike [2].This change in tactic to follow the current trend of credential theft may indicate that not only are TA577 actors aware of which methods are most effective in the current threat landscape, but they also have monetary and time resources needed to create new methods to bypass existing detection tools [3].  

Darktrace’s Coverage of TA577 Activity

On February 26 and 26, coinciding with the campaign activity reported by Proofpoint, Darktrace/Email™ observed a surge of inbound emails from numerous suspicious domains targeting multiple customer environments. These emails consistently included zip files with seemingly randomly generated names, containing HTLM content and links to an unusual external IP address [3].

A summary of anomaly indicators seen for a campaign email sent by TA577, as detected by Darktrace/Email.
Figure 1: A summary of anomaly indicators seen for a campaign email sent by TA577, as detected by Darktrace/Email.
Details of the name and size of the .zip file attached to a campaign email, along with the Darktrace/Email model alerts triggered by the email.
Figure 2: Details of the name and size of the .zip file attached to a campaign email, along with the Darktrace/Email model alerts triggered by the email.

The URL of these links contained an unusually named .txt file, which corresponds with Proofpoint reports of the automatic connection to a text file hosted on an external SMB server made when the attachment is opened [3].

A link to a rare external IP address seen within a campaign email, containing an unusually named .txt file.
Figure 3: A link to a rare external IP address seen within a campaign email, containing an unusually named .txt file.

Darktrace identified devices on multiple customer networks connecting to external SMB servers via the SMB protocol. It understood this activity was suspicious as the SMB protocol is typically reserved for internal connections and the endpoint in question had never previously been observed on the network.

The Event Log of a ‘Compliance / External Windows Communication’ model alert showing a connection to an external SMB server on destination port 445.
Figure 4: The Event Log of a ‘Compliance / External Windows Communication’ model alert showing a connection to an external SMB server on destination port 445.
External Sites Summary highlighting the rarity of the external SMB server.
Figure 5: External Sites Summary highlighting the rarity of the external SMB server.
External Sites Summary highlightin that the SMB server is geolocated in Moldova.
Figure 6: External Sites Summary highlightin that the SMB server is geolocated in Moldova.

During these connections, Darktrace observed multiple devices establishing an SMB session to this server via a NTLM challenge/response, representing the potential theft of the credentials used in this session. During this session, some devices also attempted to access an unusually named .txt file, further indicating that the affected devices were trying to access the .txt file hosted on external SMB servers [3].

Packet captures (PCAPs) of these sessions show the default NTLM server challenge, indicating the use of Impacket, suggesting that the captured NTLM hashes were to be used for password cracking or pass-the-hash-attacks [3]

PCAP analysis showing usage of the default NTLM server challenge associated with Impacket.
Figure 7: PCAP analysis showing usage of the default NTLM server challenge associated with Impacket.

Conclusions

Ultimately, Darktrace’s suite of products effectively detected and alerted for multiple aspects of the TA577 attack chain and NTLM hash data theft activity across its customer base. Darktrace/Email was able to uncover the inbound phishing emails that served as the initial access vector for TA577 actors, while Darktrace DETECT identified the subsequent external connections to unusual external locations and suspicious SMB sessions.

Furthermore, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to detect suspicious TA577 activity across the customer base on February 26 and 27, prior to Proofpoint’s report on their new attack chain. This showcases Darktrace’s ability to identify emerging threats based on the subtle deviations in a compromised device’s behavior, rather than relying on a static list of indicators of compromise (IoCs) or ‘known bads’.

This approach allows Darktrace to remain one step ahead of increasingly adaptive threat actors, providing organizations and their security teams with a robust AI-driven solution able to safeguard their networks in an ever-evolving threat landscape.

Credit to Charlotte Thompson, Cyber Analyst, Anna Gilbertson, Cyber Analyst.

References

1)    https://www.sentinelone.com/cybersecurity-101/what-is-credential-theft/

2)    https://malpedia.caad.fkie.fraunhofer.de/actor/ta577

3)    https://www.proofpoint.com/us/blog/threat-insight/ta577s-unusual-attack-chain-leads-ntlm-data-theft

4)    https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/hackers-steal-windows-ntlm-authentication-hashes-in-phishing-attacks/

5)    https://pawanjswal.medium.com/the-power-of-impacket-a-comprehensive-guide-with-examples-1288f3a4c674

6)    https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/openspecs/windows_protocols/ms-nlmp/c083583f-1a8f-4afe-a742-6ee08ffeb8cf

7)    https://www.hivepro.com/threat-advisory/ta577-targeting-windows-ntlm-hashes-in-global-campaigns/

Darktrace Model Detections

Darktrace/Email

·       Attachment / Unsolicited Archive File

·       Attachment / Unsolicited Attachment

·       Link / New Correspondent Classified Link

·       Link / New Correspondent Rare Link

·       Spoof / Internal User Similarities

Darktrace DETECT

·       Compliance / External Windows Communications

Darktrace RESPOND

·       Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block

IoCs

IoC - Type - Description

176.123.2[.]146 - IP address -Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.2[.]33 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.1[.]161 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

104.129.20[.]167 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.1[.]160 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

85.239.33[.]149 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

89.117.2[.]34 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

146.19.213[.]36 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

66.63.188[.]19 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

103.124.104[.]76 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

103.124.106[.]224 - IP address - Likely malicious SMB Server

\5aohv\9mn.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\hvwsuw\udrh.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\zkf2rj4\VmD.txt = SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\naams\p3aV.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\epxq\A.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

\dbna\H.txt - SMB Path and File - SMB Path and File

MAGNAMSB.zip – Filename - Phishing Attachment

e751f9dddd24f7656459e1e3a13307bd03ae4e67 - SHA1 Hash - Phishing Attachment

OMNIS2C.zip  - Filename - Phishing Attachment

db982783b97555232e28d5a333525118f10942e1 - SHA1 Hash - Phishing Attachment

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa - NTLM Server Challenge -Impacket Default NTLM Challenge

MITRE ATT&CK Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs)

Tactic - Technique

TA0001            Initial Access

TA0002            Execution

TA0008            Lateral Movement

TA0003            Persistence

TA0005            Defense Evasion

TA0006            Credential Access

T1021.002       SMB/Windows Admin Shares

T1021  Remote Services

T1566.001       Spearfishing Attachment

T1566  Phishing

T1204.002       Malicious File

T1204  User Execution

T1021.002       SMB/Windows Admin Shares

T1574  Hijack Execution Flow

T1021  Remote Services

T1555.004       Windows Credential Manager

T1555  Credentials from Password Stores

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Charlotte Thompson
Cyber Analyst

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Credential Phishing: Common attack methods and defense strategies 

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08
Jul 2024

Credential theft remains a top cybersecurity threat

Adversaries have many options in their arsenal to gain access into an organization.  

Exploitable vulnerabilities: This can provide access into a system’s processes and allow activity within the context of the service account.  

Weak or misconfigured systems: These can provide direct avenues of access into exposed systems.  

However, the more desirable option is to obtain user or API credentials permitting the adversary to authenticate and operate as one of the organization’s authorized entities.

While 2023 noted a marked increase in vulnerability exploits as the chosen vector of attack, the use of credentials by adversaries still ranked #1 at 24% in the latest Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report. Mandiant’s M-Trends report noted 14% of their investigations involved stolen credentials as the attack vector, and Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report revealed that Credential Access was one of the most observed MITRE ATT&CK tactics.

Credential phishing methods

There are many ways an adversary can obtain a user’s credentials. Some require gaining access to the target system or exploiting an application while others target the end-user directly. 

Joshua (WarGames) | Villains Wiki | Fandom

Social Engineering: Many users have a habit of incorporating things in their life into their passwords. Family members, important dates, hobbies, movies, and music favorites have all been used. Adversaries know this and will scour social media to gain knowledge about their intended target. This method was beautifully demonstrated in the 1983 movie, Wargames, where Matthew Broderick’s character scours articles, papers, and video about Dr. Stephen Falken, finally guessing that the password into the WOPR (War Operations Plan Response) computer is that of his deceased child, Joshua.  

Credential Cracking / Dumping: If the adversary has gained access to a targeted system, they may employ a password cracking, or credential dumping, program. For Unix-based solutions, obtaining the /etc/passwd and /etc/shadow files provides the users, groups, and encrypted passwords. Adversaries can exfiltrate these files and then utilize password crackers such as John the Ripper, Crack, or codebreaker003. Mimikatz(see more below) can also pass cache information for Mac / Unix and Linux systems.

Windows-based solutions: Adversaries have successfully utilized programs such as Mimikatz to dump credentials and hashes. Mimikatz can pass the hash string to the Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS) to authorize user actions, as well as perform “kerberoasting”. Kerberos is how Windows systems authorize users utilizing a 3-entity authentication method and symmetric key cryptography to create “tickets” that authorize requested actions. Mimikatz can use Kerberos tickets to gain non-expiring domain administration credentials (Golden Tickets) or tickets to login as a service on the network (Silver Tickets).

Steve Carell Banana - Imgflip

Post-It Notes: As organizations and applications started requiring stronger passwords that met complexity requirements, users did what you would expect to ensure they didn’t forget them. They wrote them down (this was also demonstrated in Wargames). The modern-day equivalent is to create a text file with all your passwords (or API credentials) in it – something adversaries are delighted to find.

One of the funniest, yet totally on-point, comic routines I’ve seen on this topic is Michael McIntyre’s You Should Probably Change Your Password skit at the London Palladium.

Phishing Alert: Pay attention to NC State login pages and Duo prompts –  Office of Information Technology

Phishing / Smishing: Forged messages requesting users to reset their passwords or directing them to enter their credentials used to be easier to spot. However, the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is allowing adversaries to create very realistic messages and web pages that mimic an organization’s authentication pages. These attempts are not just limited to email, adversaries are utilizing SMS messages and other collaborative communication solutions like Microsoft Teams to transmit fake messages to unsuspecting users. Also, security teams are seeing increased use of Quick Response (QR) codes in scam messages. QR codes are appearing in all aspects of everyday life (I’m finding it hard to go into a restaurant without having to scan a QR code to read the menu) and there is a false sense of security people have in thinking that QR codes are safe to scan.

Vulnerability Exploits: Gaining access to the credential cache or password file is not the only way adversaries can obtain user credentials. Some applications will store the user credentials in process memory (decrypted). If the application is vulnerable to a remote exploit, it can be possible for the adversary to dump the memory of the application process and locate these stored credentials. This was clearly illustrated in the Heartbleed exploit disclosed to the public in 2014.

Air Cracking: Air Cracking is specific to Wi-Fi networks and involves cracking programs that analyze wireless encrypted packets and extracting WEP or WPA/WPA2 PSK passwords (giving the adversary access to the Wi-Fi network).

Dark Web Purchase: Threat groups know how to monetize compromised credentials. Selling compromised credentials on the Dark Web occurs on a regular basis. Sites such as HaveIBeenPwned.com can assist users in determining if a particular password has been found to be compromised. Note: Users should ensure that the sites they are checking to see if their password has been compromised are actual legitimate sites and not a credential harvesting site!

You need a strong, unique password for EVERY account : r/memes

What is credential stuffing and why is it so effective?

Credential Stuffing is so successful because users tend to utilize the same, or very similar, passwords across all the systems and applications they access. This includes both personal and business accounts. Once an adversary harvests credentials from one site, they will try that password on other sites, and if that fails, they can utilize generative AI to predict potential variations of the password.

How to reduce the risk of credential stuffing?

Users can help reduce exposure of their credentials by creating passwords that meet complexity requirements but are also easy to remember. A good approach is to take a phrase and apply a substitution rule. For example, let’s take the start of Charles Dicken’s book A Tale of Two Cities and create a substitution rule for it:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times  

Let’s shorten that to: Best of times Worst of times

Apply the following substitution rule: o = 0, i = 1, e = 3, spaces = @

Now my phrase becomes: B3st@0f@t1m3s@W0rst@0f@t1m3s

New Password - Imgflip

You now have a 28-character password that contains letters, a capital letter, number, and special character. Nobody is cracking that, and the phrase and substitution rule makes it much easier to remember (PS: 12-character passwords are also fine, taking ~34,000 years to crack using current technology).

Organizations can reduce exposure through implementation of two-factor authentication (2FA), so even if the passwords are compromised through the methods described above, another authentication layer stands in the way of the adversary.

Additionally, preventing phishing messages from landing in user’s inboxes (Email or collaborative solutions such as Microsoft Teams) is critical not only for reducing the potential exposure of user credentials, but also user’s opening malicious attachments or links. Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT have resulted in over an 135% increase in novel social engineering attacks.

How Darktrace protects against sophisticated credential phishing attempts

Malicious actors can exploit these leaked credentials to drastically lower the barrier to entry associated with brute-forcing access to their target networks. While implementing well-configured MFA and enforcing regular password changes can help protect organizations, these measures alone may not be enough to fully negate the advantage attackers gain with stolen credentials. 

In early 2024, one Darktrace customer was compromised by a malicious actor after their internal credentials had been leaked on the dark web. Subsequent attack phases were detected by Darktrace/Network and the customer was alerted to the suspicious activity via the Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, following an investigation by Darktrace’s Security Operation Center (SOC). 

Darktrace detected a device on the network of a customer in the US carrying out a string of anomalous activity indicative of network compromise. The device was observed using a new service account to authenticate to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) server, before proceeding to perform a range of suspicious activity including internal reconnaissance and lateral movement. 

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace’s autonomous response was not enabled on the network at the time of the attack. Had it been active, it would have been able to autonomously act against the malicious activity by disabling users, strategically blocking suspicious connections and limiting devices to their expected patterns of activity. 

For the full in depth story with a step-by-step walk through of the attack visit our Inside the SOC blog post.

Conclusion

Head of security, and your password is "password"? | Scattered Quotes |  Funny marvel memes, Marvel funny, Marvel jokes

Adversaries have various methods available to compromise user and API credentials. There is no single silver bullet that will protect users and organizations, but rather, a layered approach that incorporates education, security controls such as 2FA, unsupervised AI to detect novel and sophisticated spear-phishing messages, as well as protection against exploits that give adversaries access to systems.  

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About the author
John Bradshaw
Sr. Director, Technical Marketing
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