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Shamoon 3: Data-Wiping Malware & Takeaways for the Future

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09
Jul 2019
09
Jul 2019
Read how Darktrace discovered a Shamoon-powered cyber-attack and how Darktrace stresses the importance of constant surveillance and protection. Learn more!

Responsible for some of the “most damaging cyber-attacks in history” since 2012, the Shamoon malware wipes compromised hard drives and overwrites key system processes, intending to render infected machines unusable. During a trial period in the network of a global company, Darktrace observed a Shamoon-powered cyber-attack on December 10, 2018 — when several Middle Eastern firms were impacted by a new variant of the malware.

While there has been detailed reporting on the malware files and wiper modules that these latest Shamoon attacks employed, the complete cyber kill chain involved remains poorly understood, while the intrusions that led to the malware’s eventual “detonation” last December has not received nearly as much coverage. As a consequence, this blog post will focus on the insights that Darktrace’s cyber AI generated regarding (a) the activity of the infected devices during the “detonation” and (b) the indicators of compromise that most likely represent lateral movement activity during the weeks prior.

A high-level overview of major events leading up to the detonation on December 10th.

In the following, we will dive into that timeline more deeply in reverse chronological order, going back in time to trace the origins of the attack. Let’s begin with zero hour.

December 10: 42 devices “detonate”

A bird's-eye perspective of how Darktrace identified the alerts in December 2018.

What immediately strikes the analyst’s eye is the fact that a large accumulation of alerts, indicated by the red rectangle above, took place on December 10, followed by complete network silence over the subsequent four days.

These highlighted alerts represent Darktrace’s detection of unusual network scans on remote port 445 that were conducted by 42 infected devices. These devices proceeded to scan more machines — none of which were among those already infected. Such behavior indicates that the compromised devices started scanning and were wiped independently from each other, instead of conducting worming-style activity during the detonation of the malware. The initial scanning device started its scan at 12:56 p.m. UTC, while the last scanning device started its scan at 2:07 p.m. UTC.

Not only was this activity readily apparent from the bird’s-eye perspective shown above, the detonating devices also created the highest-priority Darktrace alerts over a several day period: “Device / Network Scan” and “Device / Expanded Network Scan”:

Moreover, when investigating “Devices — Overall Score,” the detonating devices rank as the most critical assets for the time period December 8–11:

Darktrace AI generated all of the above alerts because they represented significant anomalies from the normal ‘pattern of life’ that the AI had learned for each user and device on the company’s network. Crucially, none of the alerts were the product of predefined ‘rules and signatures’ — the mechanism that conventional security tools rely on to detect cyber-threats. Rather, the AI revealed the activity because the scans were unusual for the devices given their precise nature and timing, demonstrating the necessity of the such a nuanced approach in catching elusive threats like Shamoon. Of further importance is that the company’s network consists of around 15,000 devices, meaning that a rules-based approach without the ability to prioritize the most serious threats would have drowned out the Shamoon alerts in noise.

Now that we’ve seen how cyber AI sounded the alarms during the detonation itself, let’s investigate the various indicators of suspicious lateral movement that precipitated the events of December 10. Most of this activity happened in brief bursts, each of which could have been spotted and remediated if Darktrace had been closely monitored.

November 19: Unusual Remote Powershell Usage (WinRM)

One such burst of unusual activity occurred on November 19, when Darktrace detected 14 devices — desktops and servers alike — that all successfully used the WinRM protocol. None of these devices had previously used WinRM, which is also unusual for the organization’s environment as a whole. Conversely, Remote PowerShell is quite often abused in intrusions during lateral movement. The devices involved did not classify as traditional administrative devices, making their use of WinRM even more suspicious.

Note the clustering of the WinRM activity as indicated by the timestamp on the left.

October 29–31: Scanning, Unusual PsExec & RDP Brute Forcing

Another burst of likely lateral movement occurred between October 29 and 31, when two servers were seen using PsExec in an unusual fashion. No PsExec activity had been observed in the network before or after these detections, prompting Darktrace to flag the behavior. One of the servers conducted an ICMP Ping sweep shortly before the lateral movement. Not only did both servers start using PsExec on the same day, they also used SMBv1 — which, again, was very unusual for the network.

Most legitimate administrative activity involving PsExec these days uses SMBv2. The graphic below shows several Darktrace alerts on one of the involved servers — take note of the chronology of detections at the bottom of the graphic. This clearly reads like an attacker’s diary: ICMP scan, SMBv1 usage, and unusual PsExec usage, followed by new remote service controls. This server was among the top five highest ranking devices during the analyzed time period and was easy to identify.

Following the PsExec use, the servers also started an anomalous amount of remote services via the srvsvc and svcctl pipes over SMB. They did so by starting services on remote devices with which they usually did not communicate — using SMBv1, of course. Some of the attempted communication failed due to access violation and access permission errors. Both are often seen during malicious lateral movement.

Additional context around the SMBv1 and remote srvsvc pipe activity. Note the access failure.

Thanks to Darktrace’s deep packet inspection, we can see exactly what happened on the application layer. Darktrace highlights any unusual or new activity in italics below the connections — we can easily see that the SMB activity is not only unusual because of SMBv1 being used, but also because this server had never used this type of SMB activity remotely to those particular destinations before. We can also observe remote access to the winreg pipe — likely indicating more lateral movement and persistence mechanisms being established.

The other server conducted some targeted address scanning on the network on October 29, employing typical lateral movement ports 135, 139 and 445:

Another device was observed to conduct RDP brute forcing on October 29 around the same time as the above address scan. The desktop made an unusual amount of RDP connections to another internal server.

A clear plateau in increased internal connections (blue) can be seen. Every colored dot on top represents an RDP brute force detection. This was again a clear-cut detection not drowned in other noise — these were the only RDP brute force detections for a several-month monitoring time window.

October 9–11: Unusual Credential Usage

Darktrace identifies the unusual use of credentials — for instance, if administrative credentials are used on client device on which they are not commonly used. This might indicate lateral movement where service accounts or local admin accounts have been compromised.

Darktrace identified another cluster of activity that is likely representing lateral movement, this time involving unusual credential usage. Between October 9 and 11, Darktrace identified 17 cases of new administrative credentials being used on client devices. While new administrative credentials were being used from time to time on devices as part of normal administrative activity, this strong clustering of unusual admin credential usage was outstanding. Additionally, Darktrace also identified the source of some of the credentials being used as unusual.

Conclusion

Having observed a live Shamoon infection within Darktrace, there are a few key takeaways. While the actual detonation on December 10 was automated, the intrusion that built up to it was most likely manual. The fact that all detonating devices started their malicious activity roughly at the same time — without scanning each other — indicates that the payload went off based on a trigger like a scheduled task. This is in line with other reporting on Shamoon 3.

In the weeks leading up to December 10, there were various significant signs of lateral movement that occurred in disparate bursts — indicating a ‘low-and-slow’ manual intrusion.

The adversaries used classic lateral movement techniques like RDP brute forcing, PsExec, WinRM usage, and the abuse of stolen administrative credentials.

While the organization in question had a robust security posture, an attacker only needs to exploit one vulnerability to bring down an entire system. During the lifecycle of the attack, the Darktrace Enterprise Immune System identified the threatening activity in real time and provided numerous suggested actions that could have prevented the Shamoon attack at various stages. However, human action was not taken, while the organization had yet to activate Antigena, Darktrace’s autonomous response solution, which could have acted in the security team’s stead.

Despite having limited scope during the trial period, the Enterprise Immune System was able to detect the lateral movement and detonation of the payload, which was indicative of the malicious Shamoon virus activity. A junior analyst could have easily identified the activity, as high-severity alerts were consistently generated, and the likely infected devices were at the top of the suspicious devices list.

Darktrace Antigena would have prevented the movement responsible for the spread of the virus, while also sending high-severity alerts to the security team to investigate the activity. Even the scanning on port 445 from the detonating devices would have been shut down, as it presented a significant deviation from the known behavior of all scanning devices, which would have further limited the virus’s spread, and ultimately, spared the company and its devices from attack.


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
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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Blog

Email

How to Protect your Organization Against Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks

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21
May 2024

The problem: Microsoft Teams phishing attacks are on the rise

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services1, with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft SharePoint in particular emerging as critical platforms to the business operations of the everyday workplace. Researchers across the threat landscape have begun to observe these legitimate services being leveraged more and more by malicious actors as an initial access method.

As Teams becomes a more prominent feature of the workplace many employees rely on it for daily internal and external communication, even surpassing email usage in some organizations. As Microsoft2 states, "Teams changes your relationship with email. When your whole group is working in Teams, it means you'll all get fewer emails. And you'll spend less time in your inbox, because you'll use Teams for more of your conversations."

However, Teams can be exploited to send targeted phishing messages to individuals either internally or externally, while appearing legitimate and safe. Users might receive an external message request from a Teams account claiming to be an IT support service or otherwise affiliated with the organization. Once a user has accepted, the threat actor can launch a social engineering campaign or deliver a malicious payload. As a primarily internal tool there is naturally less training and security awareness around Teams – due to the nature of the channel it is assumed to be a trusted source, meaning that social engineering is already one step ahead.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)
Figure 1: Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)

Microsoft Teams Phishing Examples

Microsoft has identified several major phishing attacks using Teams within the past year.

In July 2023, Microsoft announced that the threat actor known as Midnight Blizzard – identified by the United States as a Russian state-sponsored group – had launched a series of phishing campaigns via Teams with the aim of stealing user credentials. These attacks used previously compromised Microsoft 365 accounts and set up new domain names that impersonated legitimate IT support organizations. The threat actors then used social engineering tactics to trick targeted users into sharing their credentials via Teams, enabling them to access sensitive data.  

At a similar time, threat actor Storm-0324 was observed sending phishing lures via Teams containing links to malicious SharePoint-hosted files. The group targeted organizations that allow Teams users to interact and share files externally. Storm-0324’s goal is to gain initial access to hand over to other threat actors to pursue more dangerous follow-on attacks like ransomware.

For a more in depth look at how Darktrace stops Microsoft Teams phishing read our blog: Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

The market: Existing Microsoft Teams security solutions are insufficient

Microsoft’s native Teams security focuses on payloads, namely links and attachments, as the principal malicious component of any phishing. These payloads are relatively straightforward to detect with their experience in anti-virus, sandboxing, and IOCs. However, this approach is unable to intervene before the stage at which payloads are delivered, before the user even gets the chance to accept or deny an external message request. At the same time, it risks missing more subtle threats that don’t include attachments or links – like early stage phishing, which is pure social engineering – or completely new payloads.

Equally, the market offering for Teams security is limited. Security solutions available on the market are always payload-focused, rather than taking into account the content and context in which a link or attachment is sent. Answering questions like:

  • Does it make sense for these two accounts to speak to each other?
  • Are there any linguistic indicators of inducement?

Furthermore, they do not correlate with email to track threats across multiple communication environments which could signal a wider campaign. Effectively, other market solutions aren’t adding extra value – they are protecting against the same types of threats that Microsoft is already covering by default.

The other aspect of Teams security that native and market solutions fail to address is the account itself. As well as focusing on Teams threats, it’s important to analyze messages to understand the normal mode of communication for a user, and spot when a user’s Teams activity might signal account takeover.

The solution: How Darktrace protects Microsoft Teams against sophisticated threats

With its biggest update to Darktrace/Email ever, Darktrace now offers support for Microsoft Teams. With that, we are bringing the same AI philosophy that protects your email and accounts to your messaging environment.  

Our Self-Learning AI looks at content and context for every communication, whether that’s sent in an email or Teams message. It looks at actual user behavior, including language patterns, relationship history of sender and recipient, tone and payloads, to understand if a message poses a threat. This approach allows Darktrace to detect threats such as social engineering and payloadless attacks using visibility and forensic capabilities that Microsoft security doesn’t currently offer, as well as early symptoms of account compromise.  

Unlike market solutions, Darktrace doesn’t offer a siloed approach to Teams security. Data and signals from Teams are shared across email to inform detection, and also with the wider Darktrace ActiveAI security platform. By correlating information from email and Teams with network and apps security, Darktrace is able to better identify suspicious Teams activity and vice versa.  

Interested in the other ways Darktrace/Email augments threat detection? Read our latest blog on how improving the quality of end-user reporting can decrease the burden on the SOC. To find our more about Darktrace's enduring partnership with Microsoft, click here.

References

[1] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

[2] Microsoft blog, Microsoft Teams and email, living in harmony, 2024

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Blog

Inside the SOC

Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

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20
May 2024

Social Engineering in Phishing Attacks

Faced with increasingly cyber-aware endpoint users and vigilant security teams, more and more threat actors are forced to think psychologically about the individuals they are targeting with their phishing attacks. Social engineering methods like taking advantage of the human emotions of their would-be victims, pressuring them to open emails or follow links or face financial or legal repercussions, and impersonating known and trusted brands or services, have become common place in phishing campaigns in recent years.

Phishing with Microsoft Teams

The malicious use of the popular communications platform Microsoft Teams has become widely observed and discussed across the threat landscape, with many organizations adopting it as their primary means of business communication, and many threat actors using it as an attack vector. As Teams allows users to communicate with people outside of their organization by default [1], it becomes an easy entry point for potential attackers to use as a social engineering vector.

In early 2024, Darktrace/Apps™ identified two separate instances of malicious actors using Microsoft Teams to launch a phishing attack against Darktrace customers in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. Interestingly, in this case the attackers not only used a well-known legitimate service to carry out their phishing campaign, but they were also attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

Despite these attempts to evade endpoint users and traditional security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly detection enabled it to identify the suspicious phishing messages and bring them to the customer’s attention. Additionally, Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, was able to follow-up these detections with targeted actions to contain the suspicious activity in the first instance.

Darktrace Coverage of Microsoft Teams Phishing

Chats Sent by External User and Following Actions by Darktrace

On February 29, 2024, Darktrace detected the presence of a new external user on the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment of an EMEA customer for the first time. The user, “REDACTED@InternationalHotelChain[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” was only observed on this date and no further activities were detected from this user after February 29.

Later the same day, the unusual external user created its first chat on Microsoft Teams named “New Employee Loyalty Program”. Over the course of around 5 minutes, the user sent 63 messages across 21 different chats to unique internal users on the customer’s SaaS platform. All these chats included the ‘foreign tenant user’ and one of the customer’s internal users, likely in an attempt to remain undetected. Foreign tenant user, in this case, refers to users without access to typical internal software and privileges, indicating the presence of an external user.

Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Figure 1: Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.
Figure 2: Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.

Darktrace identified that the external user had connected from an unusual IP address located in Poland, 195.242.125[.]186. Darktrace understood that this was unexpected behavior for this user who had only previously been observed connecting from the United Kingdom; it further recognized that no other users within the customer’s environment had connected from this external source, thereby deeming it suspicious. Further investigation by Darktrace’s analyst team revealed that the endpoint had been flagged as malicious by several open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors.

External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.
Figure 3: External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.

Following Darktrace’s initial detection of these suspicious Microsoft Teams messages, Darktrace's autonomous response was able to further support the customer by providing suggested mitigative actions that could be applied to stop the external user from sending any additional phishing messages.

Unfortunately, at the time of this attack Darktrace's autonomous response capability was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any autonomous response actions had to be manually actioned by the customer. Had it been enabled in autonomous response mode, it would have been able promptly disrupt the attack, disabling the external user to prevent them from continuing their phishing attempts and securing precious time for the customer’s security team to begin their own remediation procedures.

Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.
Figure 4: Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.

External URL Sent within Teams Chats

Within the 21 Teams chats created by the threat actor, Darktrace identified 21 different external URLs being sent, all of which included the domain "cloud-sharcpoint[.]com”. Many of these URLs had been recently established and had been flagged as malicious by OSINT providers [3]. This was likely an attempt to impersonate “cloud-sharepoint[.]com”, the legitimate domain of Microsoft SharePoint, with the threat actor attempting to ‘typo-squat’ the URL to convince endpoint users to trust the legitimacy of the link. Typo-squatted domains are commonly misspelled URLs registered by opportunistic attackers in the hope of gaining the trust of unsuspecting targets. They are often used for nefarious purposes like dropping malicious files on devices or harvesting credentials.

Upon clicking this malicious link, users were directed to a similarly typo-squatted domain, “InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpoInte-docs[.]com”. This domain was likely made to appear like the SharePoint URL used by the international hotel chain being impersonated.

Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.
Figure 5: Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

This fake SharePoint page used the branding of the international hotel chain and contained a document named “New Employee Loyalty Program”; the same name given to the phishing messages sent by the attacker on Microsoft Teams. Upon accessing this file, users would be directed to a credential harvester, masquerading as a Microsoft login page, and prompted to enter their credentials. If successful, this would allow the attacker to gain unauthorized access to a user’s SaaS account, thereby compromising the account and enabling further escalation in the customer’s environment.

Figure 6: A fake Microsoft login page that popped-up when attempting to open the ’New Employee Loyalty Program’ document.

This is a clear example of an attacker attempting to leverage social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their targets and convince them to inadvertently compromise their account. Many corporate organizations partner with other companies and well-known brands to offer their employees loyalty programs as part of their employment benefits and perks. As such, it would not necessarily be unexpected for employees to receive such an offer from an international hotel chain. By impersonating an international hotel chain, threat actors would increase the probability of convincing their targets to trust and click their malicious messages and links, and unintentionally compromising their accounts.

In spite of the attacker’s attempts to impersonate reputable brands, platforms, Darktrace/Apps was able to successfully recognize the malicious intent behind this phishing campaign and suggest steps to contain the attack. Darktrace recognized that the user in question had deviated from its ‘learned’ pattern of behavior by connecting to the customer’s SaaS environment from an unusual external location, before proceeding to send an unusually large volume of messages via Teams, indicating that the SaaS account had been compromised.

A Wider Campaign?

Around a month later, in March 2024, Darktrace observed a similar incident of a malicious actor impersonating the same international hotel chain in a phishing attacking using Microsoft Teams, suggesting that this was part of a wider phishing campaign. Like the previous example, this customer was also based in the EMEA region.  

The attack tactics identified in this instance were very similar to the previously example, with a new external user identified within the network proceeding to create a series of Teams messages named “New Employee Loyalty Program” containing a typo-squatted external links.

There were a few differences with this second incident, however, with the attacker using the domain “@InternationalHotelChainExpeditions[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” to send their malicious Teams messages and using differently typo-squatted URLs to imitate Microsoft SharePoint.

As both customers targeted by this phishing campaign were subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, this suspicious SaaS activity was promptly escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for immediate triage and investigation. Following their investigation, the SOC team sent an alert to the customers informing them of the compromise and advising urgent follow-up.

Conclusion

While there are clear similarities between these Microsoft Teams-based phishing attacks, the attackers here have seemingly sought ways to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), leveraging new connection locations and creating new malicious URLs in an effort to outmaneuver human security teams and conventional security tools.

As cyber threats grow increasingly sophisticated and evasive, it is crucial for organizations to employ intelligent security solutions that can see through social engineering techniques and pinpoint suspicious activity early.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands customer environments and is able to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavioral pattern, enabling it to effectively identify suspicious activity even when attackers adapt their strategies. In this instance, this allowed Darktrace to detect the phishing messages, and the malicious links contained within them, despite the seemingly trustworthy source and use of a reputable platform like Microsoft Teams.

Credit to Min Kim, Cyber Security Analyst, Raymond Norbert, Cyber Security Analyst and Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendix

Darktrace Model Detections

SaaS Model

Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type - Description

https://cloud-sharcpoint[.]com/[a-zA-Z0-9]{15} - Example hostname - Malicious phishing redirection link

InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpolnte-docs[.]com – Hostname – Redirected Link

195.242.125[.]186 - External Source IP Address – Malicious Endpoint

MITRE Tactics

Tactic – Technique

Phishing – Initial Access (T1566)

References

[1] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/trusted-organizations-external-meetings-chat?tabs=organization-settings

[2] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/195.242.125.186/detection

[3] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cloud-sharcpoint.com

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About the author
Min Kim
Cyber Security Analyst
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