Blog

Inside the SOC

PlugX Malware: A RAT’s Race to Adapt and Survive

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
06
Nov 2023
06
Nov 2023
This blog details how Darktrace was able to detect and respond to the remote access trojan, PlugX, across its customer base in early 2023. Despite its highly evasive and adaptive nature, Darktrace’s was able to successfully identify PlugX compromises and prevent them from escalating.

What is PlugX Remote Access Trojan?

As malicious actors across the threat landscape continue to pursue more efficient and effective ways of compromising target networks, all while remaining undetected by security measures, it is unsurprising to see an increase in the use of remote access trojans (RATs) in recent years. RATs typically operate stealthily, evading security tools while offering threat actors remote control over infected devices, allowing attackers to execute a wide range of malicious activities like data theft or installing additional malware.

PlugX is one such example of a RAT that has attributed to Chinese threat actors such as Mustang Panda, since it first appeared in the wild back in 2008. It is known for its use in espionage, a modular and plug-in style approach to malware development. It has the ability to evolve with the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that allow it to avoid the detection of traditional security tools as it implants itself target devices.

How Does PlugX Work?

The ultimate goal of any RAT is to remotely control affected devices with a wide range of capabilities, which in PlugX’s case has typically included rebooting systems, keylogging, managing critical system processes, and file upload/downloads. One technique PlugX heavily relies on is dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading to infiltrate devices. This technique involves executing a malicious payload that is embedded within a benign executable found in a data link library (DLL) [1]. The embedded payload within the DLL is often encrypted or obfuscated to prevent detection.

What’s more, a new variant of PlugX was observed in the wild across Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria in August 2022, that added several new capabilities to its toolbox.

The new variation is reported to continuously monitor affected environments for new USB devices to infect, allowing it to spread further through compromised networks [2]. It is then able to hide malicious files within a USB device by using a novel technique that prevents them from being viewed on Windows operating systems (OS). These hidden files can only be viewed on a Unix-like (.nix) OS, or by analyzing an affected USB devices with a forensic tool [2]. The new PlugX variant also has the ability to create a hidden directory, “RECYCLER.BIN”, containing a collection of stolen documents, likely in preparation for exfiltration via its command and control (C2) channels. [3]

Since December 2022, PlugX has been observed targeting networks in Europe through malware delivery via HTML smuggling campaigns, a technique that has been dubbed SmugX [4].

This evasive tactic allows threat actors to prepare and deploy malware via phishing campaigns by exploiting legitimate HTML5 and JavaScript features [5].

Darktrace Coverage of PlugX

Between January and March 2023, Darktrace observed activity relating to the PlugX RAT on multiple customers across the fleet. While PlugX’s TTPs may have bypassed traditional security tools, the anomaly-based detection capabilities of Darktrace DETECT™ allowed it to identify and alert the subtle deviations in the behavior of affected devices, while Darktrace RESPOND™ was able to take immediate mitigative action against such anomalous activity and stop attackers in their tracks.  

C2 Communication

Between January and March 2023, Darktrace detected multiple suspicious connections related to the PlugX RAT within customer environments. When a device has been infected, it will typically communicate through C2 infrastructure established for the PlugX RAT. In most cases observed by Darktrace, affected devices exhibited suspicious C2 connections to rare endpoints that were assessed with moderate to high confidence to be linked to PlugX.

On the network of one Darktrace customer the observed communication was a mix of successful and unsuccessful connections at a high volume to rare endpoints on ports such as 110, 443, 5938, and 80. These ports are commonly associated with POP3, HTTPS, TeamViewer RDP / DynGate, and HTTP, respectively.  Figure 1 below showcases this pattern of activity.

Figure 1: Model Breach Event Log demonstrating various successful and unsuccessful connections to the PlugX C2 endpoint 103.56.53[.]46 via various destination ports.

On another customer’s network, Darktrace observed C2 communication involving multiple failed connection attempts to another rare external endpoint associated with PlugX. The device in this case was detected attempting connections to the endpoint, 45.142.166[.]112 on ports 110, 80, and 443 which caused the DETECT model ‘Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint’ to breach. This model examines devices attempting connections to a rare external endpoint over a short period of time, and it breached in response to almost all PlugX C2 related activity detected by Darktrace. This highlights Darktrace DETECT’s unique ability to identify anomalous activity which appears benign or uncertain, rather than relying on traditional signature-based detections.

Figure 2: Device Event Log demonstrating various successful and unsuccessful connections to the PlugX C2 endpoint 45.142.166[.]112 via various destination on January 27, 2023.

New User Agent

Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI approach to threat detection also allowed it to recognize connections to PlugX associated endpoints that utilized a new user agent. In almost all connections to PlugX endpoints detected by Darktrace, the same user agent, Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36, was observed, illustrating a clear pattern in PlugX-related activity

In one example from February 2023, an affected device successfully connected to an endpoint associated with PlugX, 45.142.166[.]112, while using the aforementioned new user agent, as depicted in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The Device Event log above showcases a successful connection to the PlugX associated IP address, 45.142.166[.]112 using the new user agent ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36’.

On March 21, 2023, Darktrace observed similar activity on a separate customer’s network affected by connections to PlugX. This activity included connections to the same endpoint, 45.142.166[.]112. The connection was an HTTP POST request made via proxy with the same new user agent, ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36’. When investigated further this user agent actually reveals very little about itself and appears to be missing a couple of common features that are typically contained in a user agent string, such as a web browser and its version or the mention of Safari before its build ID (‘537.36’).

Additionally, for this connection the URI observed consisted of a random string of 8 hexadecimal characters, namely ‘d819f07a’. This is a technique often used by malware to communicate with its C2 servers, while evading the detection of signature-based detection tools. Darktrace, however, recognized that this external connection to an endpoint with no hostname constituted anomalous behavior, and could have been indicative of a threat actor communicating with malicious infrastructure, thus the ‘Anomalous Connection / Possible Callback URI’ model was breached.

Figure 4: An affected device was detected using the new user agent, ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36’ while connecting to the rare external endpoint 45.142.166[.]112 via proxy.

Numeric File Download

Darktrace’s detection of PlugX activity on another customer’s network, in February 2023, helped to demonstrate related patterns of activity within the C2 communication and tooling attack phases. Observed PlugX activity on this network followed the subsequent pattern; a connection to a PlugX endpoints is made, followed by a HTTP POST request to a numeric URI with a random string of 8 hexadecimal characters, as previously highlighted. Darktrace identified that this activity represented unusual ‘New Activity’ for this device, and thus treated it with suspicion.

Figure 5: New activity was identified by Darktrace in the Device Event Log shown above for connections to the endpoint 45.142.166[.]112 followed by HTTP POSTs to URIs “/8891431c” and “/ba12b866” on February 15, 2023.

The device in question continued to connect to the endpoint and make HTTP POST connections to various URIs relating to PlugX. Additionally, the user agent `Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36` was again detected for these connections. Figure 6 details the activity captured by Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst.

Figure 6: The image above showcases activity captured by Darktrace’s AI Analyst for PlugX connections made on February 15, 2023.

Darktrace detected that during these connections, the device in question attempted to download a suspicious file named only with numbers. The use of numeric file names is a technique often used by threat actors to obfuscate the download of malicious files or programs and bypass traditional security tools. Darktrace understood that the download of a numeric file, coupled with the use of an anomalous new user agent, mean the incident should be treated with suspicion. Fortunately, Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode during this attack, meaning it was able to automatically block the device from downloading the file, or any other files, from the suspicious external location for a two-hour period, potentially preventing the download of PlugX’s malicious tooling.

Conclusion

Amid the continued evolution of PlugX from an espionage tool to a more widely available malware, it is essential that threat detection does not rely on a set of characteristics or indicators, but rather is focused on anomalies. Throughout these cases, Darktrace demonstrated the efficacy of its detection and alerting on emerging activity pertaining to a particularly stealthy and versatile RAT. Over the years, PlugX has continually looked to evolve and survive in the ever-changing threat landscape by adapting new capabilities and TTPs through which it can infect a system and spread to new devices without being noticed by security teams and their tools.

However, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI allows it to gain a strong understanding of customer networks, learning what constitutes expected network behavior which in turn allows it to recognize the subtle deviations indicative of an ongoing compromise.

Darktrace’s ability to identify emerging threats through anomaly-based detection, rather than relying on established threat intelligence, uniquely positions it to detect and respond to highly adaptable and dynamic threats, like the PlugX malware, regardless of how it may evolve in the future.

Credit to: Nahisha Nobregas, SOC Analyst & Dylan Hinz, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

MITRE ATT&CK Framework

Execution

  • T1059.003 Command and Scripting Interpreter: Windows Command Shell

Persistence and Privilege Escalation

  • T1547.001 Boot or Logon AutoStart Execution: Registry Run Keys / Startup Folder
  • T1574.001 Hijack Execution Flow: DLL Search Order Hijacking
  • T1574.002 Hijack Execution Flow: DLL Side-Loading
  • T1543.003 Create or Modify System Process: Windows Service
  • T1140 Deobfuscate / Decode Files or Information
  • T1083 File and Directory Discovery

Defense Evasion

  • T1564.001 Hide Artifacts: Hidden Files and Directories
  • T1036.004 Masquerading: Task or Service
  • T1036.005 Masquerading: Match Legitimate Name or Location
  • T1027.006 Obfuscated Files or Information: HTML Smuggling

Credential Access

  • T1056.001 Input Capture: Keylogging

Collection

  • T1105 Ingress Tool Transfer

Command and Control

  • T1573.001 Encrypted Channel: Symmetric Cryptography
  • T1070.003 Mail Protocols
  • T1071.001 Web Protocol

DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / New User Agent Followed By Numeric File Download
  • Anomalous Connection / Possible Callback URL

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

45.142.166[.]112 - IP - PlugX C2 Endpoint / moderate - high

103.56.53[.]46 - IP - PlugX C2 Endpoint / moderate - high

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36 - User Agent - PlugX User Agent / moderate – high

/8891431c - URI - PlugX URI / moderate-high

/ba12b866 - URI - PlugX URI / moderate -high

References

1. https://www.crowdstrike.com/blog/dll-side-loading-how-to-combat-threat-actor-evasion-techniques/

2. https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/plugx-variants-in-usbs/

3. https://news.sophos.com/en-us/2023/03/09/border-hopping-plugx-usb-worm/

4. https://thehackernews.com/2023/07/chinese-hackers-use-html-smuggling-to.html

5. https://www.cyfirma.com/outofband/html-smuggling-a-stealthier-approach-to-deliver-malware/

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
Nahisha Nobregas
SOC Analyst
Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
COre coverage
No items found.

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

No items found.

Elevating Network Security: Confronting Trust, Ransomware, & Novel Attacks

Default blog imageDefault blog image
21
Jun 2024

Understanding the Network Security Market

Old tools blind to new threats

With the rise of GenAI and novel attacks, organizations can no longer rely solely on traditional network security solutions that depend on historical attack data, such as signatures and detection rules, to identify threats. However, in many cases network security vendors and traditional solutions like IDS/IPS focus on detecting known attacks using historical data. What happens is organizations are left vulnerable to unknown and novel threats, as these approaches only detect known malicious behavior and cannot keep up with unknown threats or zero-day attacks.

Advanced threats

Darktrace's End of Year Threat Report for 2023 highlights significant changes in the cyber threat landscape, particularly due to advancements in technology such as generative AI. The report notes a substantial increase in sophisticated attacks, including those utilizing generative AI, which have made it more challenging for traditional security measures to keep up. The report also details the rise of multi-functional malware, like Black Basta ransomware, which not only encrypts data for ransom but also spreads other types of malware such as the Qbot banking trojan. These complex attacks are increasingly being deployed by advanced cybercriminal groups, underscoring the need for organizations to adopt advanced security measures that can detect and respond to novel threats in real-time.

Defenders need a solution that can level the playing field, especially when they are operating with limited resources and getting overloaded with endless alerts. Most network security tools on the market have a siloed approach and do not integrate with the rest of an organization’s digital estate, but attackers don’t operate in a single domain.

Disparate workforce

With so many organizations continuing to support a remote or hybrid working environment, the need to secure devices that are outside the corporate network or off-VPN is increasingly important. While endpoint protection or endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools are a fundamental part of any security stack, it’s not possible to install an agent on every device, which can leave blind spots in an organization’s attack surface. Managing trust and access policies is also necessary to protect identities, however this comes with its own set of challenges in terms of implementation and minimizing business disruption.

This blog will dive into these challenges and show examples of how Darktrace has helped mitigate risk and stop novel and never-before-seen threats.

Network Security Challenge 1: Managing trust

What is trust in cybersecurity?

Trust in cybersecurity means that an entity can be relied upon. This can involve a person, organization, or system to be authorized or authenticated by proving their identity is legitimate and can be trusted to have access to the network or sensitive information.

Why is trust important in cybersecurity?

Granting access and privileges to your workforce and select affiliates has profound implications for cybersecurity, brand reputation, regulatory compliance, and financial liability. In a traditional network security model, traffic gets divided into two categories — trusted and untrusted — with some entities and segments of the network deemed more creditable than others.

How do you manage trust in cybersecurity?

Zero trust is too little, but any is too much.

Modern network security challenges point to an urgent need for organizations to review and update their approaches to managing trust. External pressure to adopt zero trust security postures literally suggests trusting no one, but that impedes your freedom
to do business. IT leaders need a proven but practical process for deciding who should be allowed to use your network and how.

Questions to ask in updating Trusted User policies include:

  • What process should you follow to place trust in third
    parties and applications?
  • Do you subject trusted entities to testing and other due
    diligence first?
  • How often do you review this process — and trusted
    relationships themselves — after making initial decisions?
  • How do you tell when trusted users should no longer be
    trusted?

Once trust has been established, security teams need new and better ways to autonomously verify that those transacting within your network are indeed those trusted users that they claim to be, taking only the authorized actions you’ve allowed them to take.

Exploiting trust in the network

Insider threats have a major head start. The opposite of attacks launched by nameless, faceless strangers, insider threats originate through parties once deemed trustworthy. That might mean a current or former member of your workforce or a partner, vendor, investor, or service provider authorized by IT to access corporate systems and data. Threats also arise when a “pawn” gets unwittingly tricked into disclosing credentials or downloading malware.

Common motives for insider attacks include revenge, stealing or leaking sensitive data, taking down IT systems, stealing assets or IP, compromising your organization’s credibility, and simply harassing your workforce. Put simply, rules and signatures based security solutions won’t flag insider threats because an insider does not immediately present themselves as an intruder. Insider threats can only be stopped by an evolving understanding of ‘normal’ for every user that immediately alerts your team when trusted users do something strange.

“By 2026, 10% of large enterprises will have a comprehensive, mature and measurable zero-trust program in place, up from less than 1% today.” [1]

Use Case: Darktrace spots an insider threat

Darktrace/OT detected a subtle deviation from normal behavior when a reprogram command was sent by an engineering workstation to a PLC controlling a pump, an action an insider threat with legitimized access to OT systems would take to alter the physical process without any malware involved. In this instance, AI Analyst, Darktrace’s investigation tool that triages events to reveal the full security incident, detected the event as unusual based on multiple metrics including the source of the command, the destination device, the time of the activity, and the command itself.  

As a result, AI Analyst created a complete security incident, with a natural language summary, the technical details of the activity, and an investigation process explaining how it came to its conclusion. By leveraging Explainable AI, a security team can quickly triage and escalate Darktrace incidents in real time before it becomes disruptive, and even when performed by a trusted insider.

Read more about insider threats here

Network Security Challenge 2: Stopping Ransomware at every stage    

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts valuable files on a victim’s device, denying the account holder access, and demanding money in exchange for the encryption key. Ransomware has been increasingly difficult to deal with, especially with ransom payments being made in crypto currency which is untraceable. Ransomware can enter a system by clicking a link dangerous or downloading malicious files.

Avoiding ransomware attacks ranks at the top of most CISOs’ and risk managers’ priority lists, and with good reason. Extortion was involved in 25% of all breaches in 2022, with front-page attacks wreaking havoc across healthcare, gas pipelines, food processing plants, and other global supply chains. [2]

What else is new?

The availability of “DIY” toolkits and subscription-based ransom- ware-as-a-service (RaaS) on the dark web equips novice threat actors to launch highly sophisticated attacks at machine speed. For less than $500, virtually anyone can acquire and tweak RaaS offerings such as Philadelphia that come with accessible customer interfaces, reviews, discounts, and feature updates — all the signature features of commercial SaaS offerings.                  

Darktrace Cyber AI breaks the ransomware cycle

The preeminence of ransomware keeps security teams on high alert for indicators of attack but hypervigilance — and too many tools churning out too many alerts — quickly exhausts analysts’ bandwidth. To reverse this trend, AI needs to help prioritize and resolve versus merely detect risk.

Darktrace uses AI to recognize and contextualize possible signs of ransomware attacks as they appear in your network and across multiple domains. Viewing behaviors in the context of your organization’s normal ‘pattern of life’ updates and enhances detection that watches for a repeat of previous techniques.

Darktrace's AI brings the added advantage of continuously analyzing behavior in your environment at machine speed.

Darktrace AI also performs Autonomous Response, shutting down attacks at every stage of the ransomware cycle, including the first telltale signs of exfiltration and encryption of data for extortion purposes.

Use Case: Stopping Hive Ransomware attack

Hive is distributed via a RaaS model where its developers update and maintain the code, in return for a percentage of the eventual ransom payment, while users (or affiliates) are given the tools to carry out attacks using a highly sophisticated and complex malware they would otherwise be unable to use.

In early 2022, Darktrace/Network identified several instances of Hive ransomware on the networks of multiple customers. Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace was able to successfully detect the attacks and multiple stages of the kill chain, including command and control (C2) activity, lateral movement, data exfiltration, and ultimately data encryption and the writing of ransom notes.

Darktrace’s AI understands customer networks and learns the expected patterns of behavior across an organization’s digital estate. Using its anomaly-based detection Darktrace is able to identify emerging threats through the detection of unusual or unexpected behavior, without relying on rules and signatures, or known IoCs.

Read the full story here

Network Security Challenge 3: Spotting Novel Attacks

You can’t predict tomorrow’s weather by reading yesterday’s forecast, yet that’s essentially what happens when network security tools only look for known attacks.

What are novel attacks?

“Novel attacks” include unknown or previously unseen exploits such as zero-days, or new variations of known threats that evade existing detection rules.

Depending on how threats get executed, the term “novel” can refer to brand new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), or to subtle new twists on perennial threats like DoS, DDoS, and Domain Name Server (DNS) attacks.

Old tools may be blind to new threats

Stopping novel threats is less about deciding whom to trust than it is about learning to spot something brand new. As we’ve seen with ransomware, the growing “aaS” attack market creates a profound paradigm shift by allowing non-technical perpetrators to tweak, customize, and coin never-before-seen threats that elude traditional network, email, VPN, and cloud security.

Tools based on traditional rules and signatures lack a frame of reference. This is where AI’s ability to spot and analyze abnormalities in the context of normal patterns of life comes into play.                        

Darktrace AI spots what other tools miss                                      

Instead of training in cloud data lakes that pool data from unrelated attacks worldwide, Darktrace AI learns about your unique environment from your environment. By flagging and analyzing everything unusual — instead of only known signs of compromise — Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI keeps security stacks from missing less obvious but potentially more dangerous events.

The real challenge here is achieving faster “time to meaning” and contextualizing behavior that might — or might not — be part of a novel attack. Darktrace/Network does not require a “patient zero” to identify a novel attack, or one exploiting a zero-day vulnerability.

Use Case: Stopping Novel Ransomware Attack

In late May 2023, Darktrace observed multiple instances of Akira ransomware affecting networks across its customer base. Thanks to its anomaly-based approach to threat detection Darktrace successfully identified the novel ransomware attacks and provided full visibility over the cyber kill chain, from the initial compromise to the eventual file encryptions and ransom notes. Darktrace identified Akira ransomware on multiple customer networks, even when threat actors were utilizing seemingly legitimate services (or spoofed versions of them) to carry out malicious activity. While this may have gone unnoticed by traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection enabled it to recognize malicious activity for what it was. In cases where Darktrace’s autonomous response was enabled these attacks were mitigated in their early stages, thus minimizing any disruption or damage to customer networks.

Read the full story here

References

[1] Gartner, “Gartner Unveils Top Eight Cybersecurity Predictions for 2023-2024,” 28 March 2023.                    

[2] TechTarget, “Ransomware trends, statistics and facts in 2023,” Sean Michael Kerner, 26 January 2023.

Continue reading
About the author
Mikey Anderson
Product Manager, Network Detection & Response

Blog

Inside the SOC

Post-Exploitation Activities on PAN-OS Devices: A Network-Based Analysis

Default blog imageDefault blog image
20
Jun 2024

Introduction

Perimeter devices such as firewalls, virtual private networks (VPNs), and intrusion prevention systems (IPS), have long been the target of adversarial actors attempting to gain access to internal networks. However, recent publications and public service announcements by leading public institutions underscore the increased emphasis threat actors are putting on leveraging such products to initiate compromises.

A blog post by the UK National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) released in early 2024 notes that as improvements are made in the detection of phishing email payloads, threat actors have again begun re-focusing efforts to exploiting network edge devices, many of which are not secure by design, as a means of breach initiation.[i] As such, it comes as no surprise that new Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) are constantly discovered that exploit such internet-exposed systems.

Darktrace analysts frequently observe the impacts of such CVEs first through their investigations via Darktrace’s Security Operations Center (SOC), sometimes even before the public disclosure of proof of concepts for such exploits.  Beginning April 2024, Darktrace’s SOC began handling alerts and customer requests for potential incidents involving Palo Alto Networks firewall devices.  It was during this time that external researchers publicly disclosed what would later be classified as PAN-OS CVE-2024-3400, a form of remote command execution vulnerability that affects several versions of Palo Alto Networks’ firewall operating System (PAN-OS), namely PAN-OS 11.1, 11.0 and 10.2.

The increase in observed SOC activity for Palo Alto firewall devices, coupled with the public announcement of the new CVE, prompted Darktrace researchers to look for evidence of PAN-OS exploitation on customer networks. Researchers also focused on documenting post-exploitation activity from threat actors leveraging the recently disclosed vulnerability.

As such, this blog highlights the network-based behaviors involved in the CVE-2024-3400 attack chains investigated by Darktrace’s SOC and Threat Research teams. Moreover, this investigation also provides a deeper insight into the post-compromise activities of threat actors leveraging the novel CVE.  Such insights will not only prove relevant for cybersecurity teams looking to inhibit compromises in this specific instance, but also highlights general patterns of behavior by threat actors utilizing such CVEs to target internet-facing systems.

CVE-2024-3400

In April 2024, the Darktrace SOC observed an uptick in activity involving recurring patterns of malicious activity from Palo Alto firewall appliances. In response to this trend, Darktrace initiated a Threat Research investigation into such activity to try and identify common factors and indicators across seemingly parallel events. As the Threat Research team opened their investigation, external researchers concurrently provided public details of CVE-2024-3400, a form of remote command execution vulnerability in the GlobalProtect feature on Palo Alto Network firewall devices running PAN-OS versions: 10.2, 11.0, and 11.1.[ii]

In their proof of concept, security researchers at watchTowr demonstrated how an attacker can pass session ID (SESSID) values to these PAN-OS devices to request files that do not exist. In response, the system creates a zero-byte file with root privileges with the same name.[iii] Log data is passed on devices running telemetry services to external servers through command line functionality.[iv] Given this functionality, external actors could then request non-existent files in the SESSID containing command parameters which then be interpreted by the command line functionality.[v] Although researchers first believed the exploit could only be used against devices running telemetry services, this was later discovered to be untrue.[vi]

As details of CVE-2024-3400 began to surface, Darktrace’s Threat Research analysts quickly identified distinct overlaps in the observed activity on specific customer deployments and the post-exploitation behavior reported by external researchers. Given the parallels, Darktrace correlated the patterns of activity observed by the SOC team to exploitation of the newly discovered vulnerability in PAN-OS firewall appliances.

Campaign Analysis

Between the April and May 2024, Darktrace identified four main themes of post-exploitation activity involving Palo Alto Network firewall devices likely targeted via CVE-2024-3400: exploitation validation, shell command and tool retrieval, configuration data exfiltration, and ongoing command and control through encrypted channels and application protocols.

1. Exploit Validation and Further Vulnerability Enumeration

Many of the investigated attack chains began with malicious actors using out-of-band application security testing (OAST) services such as Interactsh to validate exploits against Palo Alto firewall appliances. This exploit validation activity typically resulted in devices attempting to contact unusual external endpoints (namely, subdomains of ‘oast[.]pro’, ‘oast[.]live’, ‘oast[.]site’, ‘oast[.]online’, ‘oast[.]fun’, ‘oast[.]me’, and ‘g3n[.]in’) associated with OAST services such as Interactsh. These services can be used by developers to inspect and debug internet traffic, but also have been easily abused by threat actors.

While attempted connections to OAST services do not alone indicate CVE-2024-3400 exploitation, the prevalence of such activities in observed Palo Alto firewall attack chains suggests widespread usage of these OAST services to validate initial access methods and possibly further enumerate systems for additional vulnerabilities.

Figure 1: Model alert log details showcasing a PAN-OS device making DNS queries for Interactsh domain names in what could be exploit validation, and/or further host enumeration.

2. Command and Payload Transmission

The most common feature across analyzed incidents was HTTP GET requests for shell scripts and Linux executable files (ELF) from external IPs associated with exploitation of the CVE. These HTTP requests were frequently initiated using the utilities, cURL and wget. On nearly every device likely targeted by threat actors leveraging the CVE, Darktrace analysts highlighted the retrieval of shell scripts that either featured enumeration commands, the removal of evidence of compromise activity, or commands to retrieve and start binaries on the destination device.

a) Shell Script Retrieval

Investigated devices commonly performed HTTP GET requests to retrieve shell command scripts. Despite this commonality, there was some degree of variety amongst the retrieved payloads and their affiliation with certain command tools. Several distinct types of shell commands and files were identified during the analyzed breaches. For example, some firewall devices were seen requesting .txt files associated with both Sliver C2, whose malicious use has previously been investigated by Darktrace, and Cobalt Strike. The target URIs of devices’ HTTP requests for these files included, “36shr.txt”, “2.txt”, “bin.txt”, and “data.txt”.

More interestingly, though, was the frequency with which analyzed systems requested bash scripts from rare external IP addresses, sometimes over non-standard ports for the HTTP protocol. These bash scripts would feature commands usually for the recipient system to check for certain existing files and or running processes. If the file did not exist, the system would then use cURL or wget to obtain content from external sites, change the permissions of the file, and then execute, sending output to dev/null as a means of likely defense evasion. In some scripts, the system would first make a new folder, and change directories prior to acquiring external content. Additionally, some samples highlighted multiple attempts at enumeration of the host system.

Figure 2: Packet capture (PCAP) data highlighting the incoming shell scripts providing instructions to use cURL to obtain external content, change the permissions of the file to execute, and then run the binary using the credentials and details provided.
Figure 3: PCAP data highlighting a variation of a shell script seen in an HTTP response processed by compromised devices. The script provides instructions to make a directory, retrieve and execute external content, and to hide the output.

Not every retrieved file that was not explicitly a binary featured bash scripts. Model alerts on some deployments also included file masquerading attempts by threat actors, whereby the Palo Alto firewall device would request content with a misleading extension in the URI. In one such instance, the requested URI, and HTTP response header suggests the returned content is an image/png, but the actual body response featured configuration parameters for a new daemon service to be run on the system.

Figure 4: PCAP data indicating configuration details likely for a new daemon on an investigated host. Such HTTP body content differs from the image/png extension within the request URI and declared content type in the HTTP response header.

Bash scripts analyzed across customer deployments also mirrored those identified by external security teams. External researchers previously reported on a series of identifiable shell commands in some cases of CVE-2024-3400 exploitation analyzed by their teams. Commands frequently involved a persistence mechanism they later labeled as the “UPSTYLE” backdoor.[vii]  This python-based program operates by reading commands hidden in error logs generated by 404 requests to the compromised server. The backdoor interprets the requests and writes the output to CSS files on the device. In many cases, Darktrace’s Threat Research team noted clear parallels between shell commands retrieved via HTTP GET request with those directly involving UPSTYLE. There were also matches with some URI patterns identified with the backdoor and requests observed on Darktrace deployments.

Figure 5: HTTP response data containing shell commands potentially relating to the UPSTYLE backdoor.

The presence of these UPSTYLE-related shell commands in response to Palo Alto firewall devices’ HTTP requests provides further evidence for initial exploitation of the CVE. Many bash scripts in examined cases interacted with folders and files likely related to CVE-2024-3400 exploitation. These scripts frequently sought to delete contents of certain folders, such as “/opt/panlogs/tmp/device_telemetry/minute/*” where evidence of exploitation would likely reside. Moreover, recursive removal and copy commands were frequently seen targeting CSS files within the GlobalProtect folder, already noted as the vulnerable element within PAN-OS versions. This evidence is further corroborated by host-based forensic analysis conducted by external researchers.[viii]

Figure 6: PCAP data from investigated system indicating likely defense evasion by removing content on folders where CVE exploitation occurred.

b) Executable File Retrieval

Typically, following command processing, compromised Palo Alto firewall devices proceeded to make web requests for several unusual and potentially malicious files. Many such executables would be retrieved via processed scripts. While there a fair amount of variety in specific executables and binaries obtained, overall, these executables involved either further command tooling such as Sliver C2 or Cobalt Strike payloads, or unknown executables. Affected systems would also employ uncommon ports for HTTP connections, in a likely attempt to evade detection. Extensions featured within the URI, when visible, frequently noted ‘.elf’ (Linux executable) or ‘.exe’ payloads. While most derived hashes did not feature identifiable open-source intelligence (OSINT) details, some samples did have external information tying the sample to specific malware. For example, one such investigation featured a compromised system requesting a file with a hash identified as the Spark malware (backdoor) while another investigated case included a host requesting a known crypto-miner.

Figure 7: PCAP data highlighting compromised system retrieving ELF content from a rare external server running a simple Python HTTP server.
Figure 8: Darktrace model alert logs highlighting a device labeled “Palo Alto” making a HTTP request on an uncommon port for an executable file following likely CVE exploitation.

3. Configuration Data Exfiltration and Unusual HTTP POST Activity

During Darktrace’s investigations, there were also several instances of sensitive data exfiltration from PAN-OS firewall devices. Specifically, targeted systems were observed making HTTP POST requests via destination port 80 to rare external endpoints that OSINT sources associate with CVE-2024-3400 exploitation and activity. PCAP analysis of such HTTP requests revealed that they often contained sensitive configuration details of the targeted Palo Alto firewall devices, including the IP address, default gateway, domain, users, superusers, and password hashes, to name only a few. Threat actors frequently utilized Target URIs such as “/upload” in their HTTP POST requests of this multi-part boundary form data. Again, the User-Agent headers of these HTTP requests largely involved versions of cURL, typically 7.6.1, and wget.

Figure 9: PCAP datahighlighting Palo Alto Firewall device running vulnerable version of PAN-OSposting configuration details to rare external services via HTTP.
Figure 10: Model alert logs highlighting a Palo Alto firewall device performing HTTP POSTs to a rare external IP, without a prior hostname lookup, on an uncommon port using a URI associated with configuration data exfiltration across analyzed incidents
Figure 11: Examples of TargetURIs of HTTP POST requests involving base64 encoded IPs and potential dataegress.

4. Ongoing C2 and Miscellaneous Activity

Lastly, a smaller number of affected Palo Alto firewall devices were seen engaging in repeated beaconing and/or C2 communication via both encrypted and unencrypted protocols during and following the initial series of kill chain events. Such encrypted channels typically involved protocols such as TLS/SSL and SSH. This activity likely represented ongoing communication of targeted systems with attacker infrastructure. Model alerts typically highlighted unusual levels of repeated external connectivity to rare external IP addresses over varying lengths of time. In some investigated incidents, beaconing activity consisted of hundreds of thousands of connections over several days.

Figure 12:  Advanced search details highlighting high levels of ongoing external communication to endpoints associated with C2 infrastructure exploiting CVE-2024-3400.

Some beaconing activity appears to have involved the use of the WebSocket protocol, as indicated by the appearance of “/ws” URIs and validated within packet captures. Such connections were then upgraded to an encrypted connection.

Figure 13:  PCAP highlighting use of WebSocket protocol to engage in ongoing external connectivity to likely C2 infrastructure following CVE-2024-3400 compromise.

While not directly visible in all the deployments, some investigations also yielded evidence of attempts at further post-exploitation activity. For example, a handful of the analyzed binaries that were downloaded by examined devices had OSINT information suggesting a relation to crypto-mining malware strains. However, crypto-mining activity was not directly observed at this time. Furthermore, several devices also triggered model alerts relating to brute-forcing activity via several authentication protocols (namely, Keberos and RADIUS) during the time of compromise. This brute-force activity likely represented attempts to move laterally from the affected firewall system to deeper parts of the network.

Figure 14: Model alert logs noting repeated SSL connectivity to a Sliver C2-affiliated endpoint in what likely constitutes C2 connectivity.
Figure 15: Model alert logs featuring repeated RADIUS login failures from a compromised PAN-OS device using generic usernames, suggesting brute-force activity.

Conclusion

Between April and late May 2024, Darktrace’s SOC and Threat Research teams identified several instances of likely PAN-OS CVE-2024-3400 exploitation across the Darktrace customer base. The subsequent investigation yielded four major themes that categorize the observed network-based post-exploitation activity. These major themes were exploit validation activity, retrieval of binaries and shell scripts, data exfiltration via HTTP POST activity, and ongoing C2 communication with rare external endpoints. The insights shared in this article will hopefully contribute to the ongoing discussion within the cybersecurity community about how to handle the likely continued exploitation of this vulnerability. Moreover, this article may also help cybersecurity professionals better respond to future exploitation of not only Palo Alto PAN-OS firewall devices, but also of edge devices more broadly.

Threat actors will continue to discover and leverage new CVEs impacting edge infrastructure. Since it is not yet known which CVEs threat actors will exploit next, relying on rules and signatures for the detection of exploitation of such CVEs is not a viable approach. Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection, however, is well positioned to robustly adapt to threat actors’ changing methods, since although threat actors can change the CVEs they exploit, they cannot change the fact that their exploitation of CVEs results in highly unusual patterns of activity.

Credit to Adam Potter, Cyber Analyst, Sam Lister, Senior Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Indicators of Compromise

Indicator – Type – Description

94.131.120[.]80              IP             C2 Endpoint

94.131.120[.]80:53/?src=[REDACTED]=hour=root                  URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

134.213.29[.]14/?src=[REDACTED]min=root             URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

134.213.29[.]14/grep[.]mips64            URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/grep[.]x86_64             URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/?deer               URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/?host=IDS   URL        Payload

134.213.29[.]14/ldr[.]sh           URL        Payload

91ebcea4e6d34fd6e22f99713eaf67571b51ab01  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

185.243.115[.]250/snmpd2[.]elf        URL        Payload

23.163.0[.]111/com   URL        Payload

80.92.205[.]239/upload            URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

194.36.171[.]43/upload            URL        C2/Exfiltration Endpoint

update.gl-protect[.]com          Hostname         C2 Endpoint

update.gl-protect[.]com:63869/snmpgp      URL        Payload

146.70.87[.]237              IP address         C2 Endpoint

146.70.87[.]237:63867/snmpdd         URL        Payload

393c41b3ceab4beecf365285e8bdf0546f41efad   SHA1 File Hash               Payload

138.68.44[.]59/app/r URL        Payload

138.68.44[.]59/app/clientr     URL        Payload

138.68.44[.]59/manage            URL        Payload

72.5.43[.]90/patch      URL        Payload

217.69.3[.]218                 IP             C2 Endpoint

5e8387c24b75c778c920f8aa38e4d3882cc6d306                  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

217.69.3[.]218/snmpd[.]elf   URL        Payload

958f13da6ccf98fcaa270a6e24f83b1a4832938a    SHA1 File Hash               Payload

6708dc41b15b892279af2947f143af95fb9efe6e     SHA1 File Hash               Payload

dc50c0de7f24baf03d4f4c6fdf6c366d2fcfbe6c       SHA1 File Hash               Payload

109.120.178[.]253:10000/data[.]txt                  URL        Payload

109.120.178[.]253:10000/bin[.]txt   URL        Payload

bc9dc2e42654e2179210d98f77822723740a5ba6                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

109.120.178[.]253:10000/123              URL        Payload

65283921da4e8b5eabb926e60ca9ad3d087e67fa                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

img.dxyjg[.]com/6hiryXjZN0Mx[.]sh                  URL        Payload

149.56.18[.]189/IC4nzNvf7w/2[.]txt                 URL        Payload

228d05fd92ec4d19659d71693198564ae6f6b117 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

54b892b8fdab7c07e1e123340d800e7ed0386600                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

165.232.121[.]217/rules          URL        Payload

165.232.121[.]217/app/request          URL        Payload

938faec77ebdac758587bba999e470785253edaf SHA1 File Hash               Payload

165.232.121[.]217/app/request63   URL        Payload

165.232.121[.]217:4443/termite/165.232.121[.]217             URL        Payload

92.118.112[.]60/snmpd2[.]elf               URL        Payload

2a90d481a7134d66e8b7886cdfe98d9c1264a386                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

92.118.112[.]60/36shr[.]txt   URL        Payload

d6a33673cedb12811dde03a705e1302464d8227f                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

c712712a563fe09fa525dfc01ce13564e3d98d67  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

091b3b33e0d1b55852167c3069afcdb0af5e5e79 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

5eebf7518325e6d3a0fd7da2c53e7d229d7b74b6                  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

183be7a0c958f5ed4816c781a2d7d5aa8a0bca9f SHA1 File Hash               Payload

e7d2f1224546b17d805617d02ade91a9a20e783e                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

e6137a15df66054e4c97e1f4b8181798985b480d SHA1 File Hash               Payload

95.164.7[.]33:53/sea[.]png    URL        Payload

95.164.7[.]33/rules     URL        Payload

95.164.7[.]33:53/lb64                URL        Payload

c2bc9a7657bea17792048902ccf2d77a2f50d2d7 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

923369bbb86b9a9ccf42ba6f0d022b1cd4f33e9d SHA1 File Hash               Payload

52972a971a05b842c6b90c581b5c697f740cb5b9                 SHA1 File Hash               Payload

95d45b455cf62186c272c03d6253fef65227f63a    SHA1 File Hash               Payload

322ec0942cef33b4c55e5e939407cd02e295973e                  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

6335e08873b4ca3d0eac1ea265f89a9ef29023f2  SHA1 File Hash               Payload

134.213.29[.]14              IP             C2 Endpoint

185.243.115[.]250       IP             C2 Endpoint

80.92.205[.]239              IP             C2 Endpoint

194.36.171[.]43              IP             C2 Endpoint

92.118.112[.]60              IP             C2 Endpoint

109.120.178[.]253       IP             C2 Endpoint

23.163.0[.]111                 IP             C2 Endpoint

72.5.43[.]90     IP             C2 Endpoint

165.232.121[.]217       IP             C2 Endpoint

8.210.242[.]112              IP             C2 Endpoint

149.56.18[.]189              IP             C2 Endpoint

95.164.7[.]33  IP             C2 Endpoint

138.68.44[.]59                 IP             C2 Endpoint

Img[.]dxyjg[.]com         Hostname         C2 Endpoint

Darktrace Model Alert Coverage

·      Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

·      Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

·      Anomalous File / Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations

·      Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location

·      Anomalous File / Script and EXE from Rare External

·      Anomalous File / Suspicious Octet Stream Download

·      Anomalous File / Numeric File Download

·      Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port

·      Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

·      Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname

·      Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

·      Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

·      Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External

·      Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

·      Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

·      Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

·      Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server

·      Compromise / SSH Beacon

·      Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days

·      Compromise / Sustained TCP Beaconing Activity To Rare Endpoint

·      Compromise / High Priority Tunnelling to Bin Services

·      Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

·      Compromise / Connection to Suspicious SSL Server

·      Compromise / Suspicious File and C2

·      Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

·      Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to New Endpoint

·      Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon

·      Compromise / Suspicious HTTP and Anomalous Activity

·      Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

·      Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

·      Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behaviour

·      Compliance / SSH to Rare External Destination

·      Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination

·      Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Device::New User Agent

·      Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

·      Device / Multiple C2 Model Breaches

MITRE ATTACK Mapping

Tactic – Technique

Initial Access  T1190 – Exploiting Public-Facing Application

Execution           T1059.004 – Command and Scripting Interpreter: Unix Shell

Persistence      T1543.002 – Create or Modify System Processes: Systemd Service

Defense Evasion           T1070.004 – Indicator Removal: File Deletion

Credential Access       T1110.001 – Brute Force: Password Guessing

Discovery           T1083 – File and System Discovery

T1057 – Process Discovery

Collection         T1005 – Data From Local System

Command and Control             T1071.001 – Application Layer Protocol:  Web Protocols

T1573.002 – Encrypted Channel: Asymmetric Cryptography

T1571 – Non-Standard Port

T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer

Exfiltration         T1041 – Exfiltration over C2 Protocol

T1048.002 - Exfiltration Over Alternative Protocol: Exfiltration Over Asymmetric Encrypted Non-C2 Protocol

References

[i]  https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/blog-post/products-on-your-perimeter

[ii] https://security.paloaltonetworks.com/CVE-2024-3400

[iii] https://labs.watchtowr.com/palo-alto-putting-the-protecc-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[iv] https://labs.watchtowr.com/palo-alto-putting-the-protecc-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[v] https://labs.watchtowr.com/palo-alto-putting-the-protecc-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[vi] https://security.paloaltonetworks.com/CVE-2024-3400

[vii] https://www.volexity.com/blog/2024/04/12/zero-day-exploitation-of-unauthenticated-remote-code-execution-vulnerability-in-globalprotect-cve-2024-3400/

[viii] https://www.volexity.com/blog/2024/05/15/detecting-compromise-of-cve-2024-3400-on-palo-alto-networks-globalprotect-devices/

Continue reading
About the author
Adam Potter
Cyber Analyst
Our ai. Your data.

Elevate your cyber defenses with Darktrace AI

Start your free trial
Darktrace AI protecting a business from cyber threats.