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Speed of weaponization: From vulnerability disclosure to crypto-mining campaign in a week

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07
Jul 2020
07
Jul 2020
Darktrace recently detected a series of crypto-mining campaigns in its customers just a week after SaltStack revealed a vulnerability. This blog details the initial infection, payload execution and command and control, describing how AI identified the threat in real time.

Introduction

The speed with which attackers can weaponize vulnerabilities is steadily increasing. While technology is rapidly evolving and cyber-attacks are becoming more sophisticated, the advantages of exploiting software vulnerabilities over devising a more elaborate and lengthy attack plan have not been overlooked by hackers. These vulnerabilities are also a quick way to gain access into a businesses’ infrastructure. In recent years, attackers have found great benefit and substantial success through quickly weaponizing vulnerabilities in web-facing systems.

Just recently, critical vulnerabilities in Citrix Gateway resulted in a spate of activity targeting Darktrace customers, as reported earlier this year. Without an immediate patch released upon the public announcement of the discovered flaws in Citrix, exploits quickly followed. Similarly, in late April, SaltStack developers reported vulnerabilities in Salt, an open source framework used to monitor and update the state of servers in cloud environments and data centers.

The vulnerabilities found in Salt would allow hackers to bypass authentication and authorization controls and execute code in Salt master servers exposed to the internet. The Salt master is responsible for sending commands to Salt minions and can manage thousands of minions at once. Due to this structure, one exposed Salt master can lead to a compromise of all underlying minions.

On May 2, Darktrace detected successful crypto-miner infections across a number of its customers exploiting the CVE-2020-11651 and CVE-2020-11652 vulnerabilities in SaltStack server management software. In the same weekend, LineageOS — an Android mobile operating system – and Ghost — a blogging platform – both reported suffering a crypto-mining attack due to exposed, unpatched Salt servers. Most notable about these attacks was the sheer speed from a vulnerability being published to a widespread attack campaign.

Timeline

Figure 1: A timeline of events identified by Darktrace on May 3

Technical analysis

Initial compromise

Darktrace initially detected that a number of customer servers running SaltStack were making external connections to endpoints previously not seen on the network. The connections used the curl or wget utilities to download and execute a bash script, which would install a secondary-stage payload containing a cryptocurrency miner.

The systems were targeted directly utilizing 2020-11651 and CVE-2020-11652 vulnerabilities in the ZeroMQ protocol running on SaltStack. These vulnerabilities would allow direct remote code execution as root on the targeted systems, allowing the script to be downloaded and executed successfully with highest system privileges.

The downloader script is almost identical to the one utilized in March in H2Miner infections targeting exposed Docker APIs and Redis instances.

Before downloading the secondary stage payload, the script cleans the target system of a number of pre-existing infections and miners, as well as disabling a number of known security tools and software.

Figure 2: The downloader script

Following the initial clean up, the script would iterate through three functions to download the crypto-miner payload — salt-storer

SHA256 837d768875417578c0b1cab4bd0aa38146147799f643bb7b3c6c6d3d82d7aa2a

— from three different hard-coded servers. An MD5 check for the downloaded executable would be performed prior to execution. The below screenshot illustrates two out of the three downloader functions that would be invoked.

Figure 3: Two of the downloader functions

Second stage payload

Following the cryptographic checks, the downloaded ELF LSB executable kicks into action. No payload analysis was carried out, however it’s execution would result in a crypto-miner being installed and a C2 channel opened.

OSINT indicates that several new versions of the payload were observed carrying additional capabilities, including database dumping and advanced persistence methods. The variants detected by Darktrace’s AI included the more advanced “Version 5” payload purported to have worming capabilities, but in this case they were not observed directly.

Command and control

Upon the execution of an LSB executable, a plaintext HTTP C2 channel would be established, sending basic metadata about the infected host such as processor architecture, available resources, and whether root execution was achieved. This indicates that the C2 mechanisms were likely repurposed from other infections, as this particular infection would execute as root, making the respective component redundant.

Figure 4: A Command and control channel

The complete attack lifecycle was investigated and reported on by Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst, which automatically surfaced some crucial details regarding the C2 communication, including other servers that were seen making similar communication patterns, as seen in the bottom right below.

Figure 5: The Cyber AI Analyst automatically generating a natural-language summary of the overall security incident

Figure 6: Further information on the suspicious endpoints

Actions on target

Lastly, devices began mining for cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency mining demands a substantial proportion of a device’s processing power, such as CPU and GPU, in order to calculate hashes. However, except for the occasional increase in CPU or RAM usage, it can go undetected for months as traditional security products do not normally detect its pattern of behavior as malicious.

Conclusion

Failing to patch vulnerabilities quickly and decisively can have serious consequences. Sometimes, however, the window of opportunity before an attack hits is too short for patching to be feasible. This example demonstrates how quickly unpatched vulnerabilities can be exploited following an initial public disclosure. And yet, even two months after SaltStack published the updates, many Salt servers remain unpatched and run the risk of becoming compromised.

In the case of Citrix, some exploits led to a ransomware attack. Darktrace’s AI-powered Immune System technology not only detected every stage of these ransomware attacks, but its autonomous response was able to halt any anomalous event and contain further damage.

Because new vulnerabilities are, by nature, unexpected, traditional security tools relying on rules and signatures don’t know to look for malicious activity that arises as a result. However, with its constantly evolving understanding of ‘normal’, Darktrace’s AI detects and investigates any unusual behavior, regardless of its origin or whether an attack has been seen before.

Crypto-mining is still favored among many threat actors due to its ability to generate profits, and a successfully infection can have a serious impact on the confidentiality and integrity of the corporate network. The need for Cyber AI that can detect new vulnerabilities and novel threats, and autonomously respond to stop an attack in its tracks, are critical to ensuring businesses remain secure in the face of cyber-criminals who are mobilizing to exploit vulnerabilities more quickly than ever.

IoCs:

IoCComment144.217.129[.]111Likely C2, URIs: /ms /h /s91.215.152[.]69Likely C2, URI: /h89.223.121[.]139Download of payload sa.sh217.12.210[.]192Download of payload sa.sh45.147.201[.]62Destination for crypto-mining217.12.210[.]245Download of payload salt_storer

Darktrace model breaches:

  • Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise
  • Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
  • Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / Script from Rare External
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
  • Compliance / Crypto Currency Mining Activity

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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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
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

Blog

Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
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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