Threat Finds


Quick off the blocks: Darktrace AI detects Egregor ransomware attack on day one of deployment

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Dec 2021
Dec 2021
A utility services company was one day into its Darktrace deployment when the AI detected the early signs of a ransomware attack. This blog explores the detections.

It’s no secret that ransomware has shaped conversations in the SOC this year more than any other topic, as attackers use new malware variants and other sophisticated techniques, tools and procedures to bypass conventional security tools. Not only are these attacks becoming more advanced and difficult to stop, but the ransom demands are growing, with one source suggesting the average ransom demand has grown by over 500% since last year.

To stop novel ransomware attacks, security teams need to turn away from ‘rear-view mirror’ tools trained on previous attacks, and towards AI technology that learns the business from the ground up and autonomously responds with targeted action to contain the threat.

This blog showcases how defenders can fight back against even the most sophisticated attacks, dissecting a recent ransomware attack uncovered by Darktrace’s AI from its first day of deployment at a utility services company. This was a particularly devastating ransomware strain known as Egregor, which has likely been disrupted by a joint effort between law enforcement agencies in Ukraine, France and the US, but wreaked havoc in the winter of 2020/21, affecting 150 companies and demanding ransoms of up to $4 million.

Anatomy of an Egregor attack

Figure 1: A timeline of the attack.

The initial intrusion occurred prior to Darktrace’s deployment, via Emotet, a trojan malware typically spread via spam emails – that has also been disrupted since this attack happened. Had Antigena Email been installed, Darktrace’s AI would have picked up on subtle deviations within malicious emails and actioned a response, containing the ransomware attack in its earliest stages. In this case, Antigena Email was not installed, and so the attack was allowed to proceed.

On November 27, 2020, Darktrace’s AI was deployed and began learning the ‘patterns of life’ for every user and device in the organization. On the first day of learning the organization, the technology detected suspicious external connections on a laptop that was deviating from the ‘pattern of life’ of its peer group of similar devices, beaconing to unusual rare domains that were later associated with malware activity.

Lateral movement and privilege escalation indicators were then observed, as well as possible attempted email hijacking. Darktrace’s AI detected new and unusual svcctl requests, new remote procedure calls, and suspicious executable file writes over SMBv2, as well as new external connections over email-related ports.

Connecting the dots: Cyber AI Analyst investigates

Triggered by this unusual activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst launched an investigation into all observable stages of the kill chain including command and control connections, suspicious executable SMB writes and privilege escalation.

It then automatically generated an incident summary showcasing every stage of the attack, surfacing all the information the security team needed for a fast response.

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst triaged and reported on the malicious activity from the device, surfacing useful metrics and natural language summaries for each stage of the kill chain.

Figure 3: This graph from the Darktrace UI displays how Cyber AI Analyst detected the various stages of the kill chain and correlated the timeline of events.

Figure 4: Darktrace reveals the spike in external connections in blue for the device and the DCE-RPC requests in green. The dots represent model breaches triggered by the unusual suspicious activity originating from the device. The external connection spikes match the internal DC-RPC request spikes indicating the device is attempting to move laterally during the C2 connections.

In this case, real-time detections from Darktrace’s AI coupled with a high-confidence alert from Darktrace’s SOC team enabled the company’s security team to isolate the device from the network, successfully containing the attack before encryption began.

While having AI-powered detection was enough to stop the attack in this scenario, relying on detection alone is playing with fire. With the average dwell time of attacks shrinking – particularly in the case of ransomware – Autonomous Response is becoming critical in taking action on behalf of human teams. Attackers are increasingly striking out of hours, when these teams aren’t available to respond, and performing exfiltration and encryption rapidly. In these cases, detection without immediate response is futile.

Autonomous Response: Revolutionizing ransomware defense

Recent galvanizing attacks have propelled us into a new era of ransomware. 65% of C-suite and other executives say that ransomware will be a major issue they face over the next twelve months.

An over-reliance on security defenses that depend on rules, signatures, and historical data has proven to leave organizations vulnerable to novel ransomware. Failure to prepare for the unknown often forces businesses into a difficult dilemma when it comes to ransomware: either pull the plug to stop the encryption by taking everything offline, or face encrypted systems, and be confronted with a hefty ransom.

But there is a third way, one which uses Self-Learning AI to understand your organization from the ground up to spot subtle deviations indicative of a cyber-threat, regardless of whether it has been seen before. Moreover, Autonomous Response ensures that fast, precise action will be taken against attacks whenever they occur. While even the most attentive human teams cannot hope to match the machine speed of modern ransomware attacks, Autonomous Response halts these sophisticated threats the moment they emerge. It really is the only way to truly level the playing field against today’s ransomware attacks.

Thanks to Darktrace analyst Dylan Evans for his insights on the above threat find.

Darktrace model breaches:

  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname
  • Experimental / Possible Emotet Callback URL
  • Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
  • Device / Lateral Movement and C2 Activity
  • Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
  • Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches
  • Compromise / Suspicious SSL Activity
  • Compromise / Unusual SMB Session and DRS
  • Compromise / Suspicious Spam Activity
  • Compromise / Unusual DRS Activity
  • Anomalous Connection / High Volume of New or Uncommon Service Control
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compliance / SMB Drive Write
  • Experimental / Anomalous GetNCChanges and Kerberos Ticket
  • Experimental / New or Uncommon SMB Named Pipe V4
  • Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints
  • Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control
  • User / New Admin Credentials on Client
  • Anomalous Connection / Possible Outbound Spam
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Experimental / New or Uncommon SMB Named Pipe V3
  • Experimental / Anomalous DRSGetNCChanges Operation
  • Anomalous Connection / Possible Callback URL
  • Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple SMB Admin Session
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname
  • Device / New Failed External Connections
  • Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL
  • Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Experimental / Rare Device TLS Agent

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.
Max Heinemeyer
Chief Product Officer

Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works with the R&D team at Darktrace, shaping research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited



Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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