Old but still dangerous – Dharma ransomware via RDP intrusion
- In the past few weeks, Darktrace has observed an increase in attacks against internet-facing systems, such as RDP. The initial intrusions usually take place via existing vulnerabilities or stolen, legitimate credentials. The Dharma ransomware attack described in this blog post is one such example.
- Old threats can be damaging – Dharma and its variants have been around for four years. This is a classic example of ‘legacy’ ransomware morphing and adapting to bypass traditional defenses.
- The intrusion shows signs that indicate the threat-actors are aware of – and are actively exploiting – the COVID-19 situation.
- In the current threat landscape surrounding COVID-19, Darktrace recommends monitoring internet-facing systems and critical servers closely – keeping track of administrative credentials and carefully considering security when rapidly deploying internet-facing infrastructure.
In mid-April, Darktrace detected a targeted Dharma ransomware attack on a UK company. The initial point of intrusion was via RDP – this represents a very common attack method of infection that Darktrace has observed in the broader threat landscape over the past few weeks.
This blog post highlights every stage of the attack lifecycle and details the attacker’s techniques, tools and procedures (TTP) – all detected by Darktrace.
Dharma – a varient of the CrySIS malware family – first appeared in 2016 and uses multiple intrusion vectors. It distributes its malware as an attachment in a spam email, by disguising it as an installation file for legitimate software, or by exploiting an open RDP connection through internet-facing servers. When Dharma has finished encrypting files, it drops a ransom note with the contact email address in the encrypted SMB files.
Darktrace had strong, real-time detections of the attack – however the absence of eyes on the user interface prior to the encryption activity, and without Autonomous Response deployed in Active Mode, these alerts were only actioned after the ransomware was unleashed. Fortunately, it was unable to spread within the organization, thanks to human intervention at the peak of the attack. However, Darktrace Antigena in active mode would have significantly slowed down the attack.
The timeline below provides a rough overview of the major attack phases over five days of activity.
Figure 1: A timeline of the attack
Darktrace detected that the main device hit by the attack was an internet-facing RDP server (‘RDP server’). Dharma used network-level encryption here: the ransomware activity takes place over the network protocol SMB.
Below is a chronological overview of all Darktrace detections that fired during this attack: Darktrace detected and reported every single unusual or suspicious event occurring on the RDP server.
Figure 2: An overview of Darktrace detections
On April 7, the RDP server began receiving a large number of incoming connections from rare IP addresses on the internet.
On April 7, the RDP server began receiving a large number of incoming connections from rare IP addresses on the internet. This means a lot of IP addresses on the internet that usually don’t connect to this company started connection attempts over RDP. The top five cookies used to authenticate show that the source IPs were located in Russia, the Netherlands, Korea, the United States, and Germany.
It is highly likely that the RDP credential used in this attack had been compromised prior to the attack – either via common brute-force methods, credential stuffing attacks, or phishing. Indeed, a TTP growing in popularity is to buy RDP credentials on marketplaces and skip to initial access.
Attempted privilege escalation
The following day, the malicious actor abused the SMB version 1 protocol, notorious for always-on null sessions which offer unauthenticated users’ information about the machine – such as password policies, usernames, group names, machine names, user and host SIDs. What followed was very unusual: the server connected externally to a rare IP address located in Morocco.
Next, the attacker attempted a failed SMB session to the external IP over an unusual port. Darktrace detected this activity as highly anomalous, as it had previously learned that SMB is usually not used in this fashion within this organization – and certainly not for external communication over this port.
Figure 3: Darktrace detecting the rare external IP address
Figure 4: The SMB session failure and the rare connection over port 1047
Command and control traffic
As the entire attack occurred over five days, this aligns with a smash-and-grab approach, rather than a highly covert, low-and-slow operation.
Two hours later, the server initiated a large number of anomalous and rare connections to external destinations located in India, China, and Italy – amongst other destinations the server had never communicated with before. The attacker was now attempting to establish persistence and create stronger channels for command and control (C2). As the entire attack occurred over five days, this aligns with a smash-and-grab approach, rather than a highly covert, low-and-slow operation.
Actions on target
Notwithstanding this approach, the malicious actor remained dormant for two days, biding their time until April 10 — a public holiday in the UK — when security teams would be notably less responsive. This pause in activity provides supporting evidence that the attack was human-driven.
Figure 5: The unusual RDP connections detected by Darktrace
The RDP server then began receiving incoming remote desktop connections from 100% rare IP addresses located in the Netherlands, Latvia, and Poland.
The IP address 85.93.20[.]6, hosted at the time of investigation in Panama, made two connections to the server, using an administrative credential. On April 12, as other inbound RDP connections scanned the network, the volume of data transferred by the RDP server to this IP address spiked. The RDP server never scans the internal network. Darktrace identified this as highly unusual activity.
Figure 6: Darktrace detects the anomalous external data transfer
Lateral movement and payload execution
Finally, on April 12, the attackers executed the Dharma payload at 13:45. The RDP server wrote a number of files over the SMB protocol, appended with a file extension containing a throwaway email account possibly evoking the current COVID-19 pandemic, ‘cov2020@aol[.]com’. The use of string ‘…@aol.com].ROGER’ and presence of a file named ‘FILES ENCRYPTED.txt’ resembles previous Dharma compromises.
Parallel to the encryption activity, the ransomware tried to spread and infect other machines by initiating successful SMB authentications using the same administrator credential seen during the internal reconnaissance. However, the destination devices did not encrypt any files themselves.
It was during the encryption activity that the internal IT staff pulled the plug from the compromised RDP server, thus ending the ransomware activity.
This incident supports the idea that ‘legacy’ ransomware may morph to resurrect itself to exploit vulnerabilities in remote working infrastructure during this pandemic.
Dharma executed here a fast-acting, planned, targeted, ransomware attack. The attackers used off-the-shelf tools (RDP, abusing SMB1 protocol) blurring detection and attribution by blending in with typical administrator activity.
Darktrace detected every stage of the attack without having to depend on threat intelligence or rules and signatures, and the internal security team acted on the malicious activity to prevent further damage.
This incident supports the idea that ‘legacy’ ransomware may morph to resurrect itself to exploit vulnerabilities in remote working infrastructure during this pandemic. Poorly-secured public-facing systems have been rushed out and security is neglected as companies prioritize availability – sacrificing security in the process. Financially-motivated actors weaponize these weak points.
The use of the COVID-related email ‘cov2020@aol[.]com’ during the attack indicates that the threat-actor is aware of and abusing the current global pandemic.
Recent attacks, such as APT41’s exploitation of the Zoho Manage Engine vulnerability last March, show that attacks against internet-facing infrastructure are gaining popularity as the initial intrusion vector. Indeed, as many as 85% of ransomware attacks use RDP as an entry vector. Ensuring that backups are isolated, configurations are hardened, and systems are patched is not enough – real-time detection of every anomalous action can help protect potential victims of ransomware.
Some of the detections on the RDP server:
- Compliance / Internet Facing RDP server – exposure of critical server to Internet
- Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port – external connections using an unusual port to rare endpoints
- Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints – indicative of peer-to-peer or scanning activity
- Compliance / Incoming Remote Desktop – device is remotely controlled from an external source, increased rick of bruteforce
- Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity – reading and writing similar volumes of data to remote file shares, indicative of files being overwritten and encrypted
- Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File – device is renaming network share files with an added extension, seen during ransomware activity
The graph below shows the timeline of Darktrace detections on the RDP server. The attack lifecycle is clearly observable.
Figure 7: The model breaches occurring over time
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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.