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Stop the clock: How Autonomous Response contains cyber-threats in seconds

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Dec 2019
Dec 2019
Darktrace Antigena’s surgical intervention affords security teams the time they needed to investigate malicious behavior.
“The next phase in our journey toward autonomous security is Autonomous Response decision-making.”

Lawrence Pingree, Research Vice President, Gartner

We’ve talked extensively on this blog about Autonomous Response: the AI-powered technology that, according to Gartner, represents a paradigm shift in cyber defense. As the first such Autonomous Response tool, Darktrace Antigena has already thwarted countless cyber-attacks, from a spear phishing campaign against a major city to an IoT smart locker attack targeting a popular amusement park. Antigena’s surgical intervention afforded their security teams the time they needed to investigate — stopping the clock in seconds by containing just the malicious behavior.

For all its benefits, however, Autonomous Response does have one drawback: it can make for slightly anticlimactic blog posts. In place of captivating, step-by-step descriptions of malware spreading throughout the enterprise and inflicting irrevocable damage, Antigena case studies end a mere moment after they start, with the “patient zero” employee completely unaware of the compromise that could have been.

In this particular case, however, Antigena was deployed in Human Confirmation Mode — a starter mode wherein the AI’s actions must first be approved by the security team. Absent such approval, the result was both an in-depth look at a sophisticated ransomware attack, as well as a remarkable illustration of how Antigena reacted in real time to every stage of that attack’s lifecycle:

Initial download

Patient zero here was a device that Darktrace detected downloading an executable file from a server with which no other devices on the network had ever communicated. Downloads like this one regularly bypass conventional endpoint tools, since they cannot be programmed in advance to catch the full range of unpredictable future threats. By contrast, because Darktrace AI learned the typical behavior of the company’s unique users and devices while ‘on the job’, it easily determined the download to be anomalous.

Figure 1: Darktrace alerts on the 100% rare connection and subsequent download — as it occurs.

Had Antigena been in Active Mode at the time, this would have marked the end of the blog post. By blocking all connections to the associated IP and port, Antigena would have instantly stopped the download — without otherwise impacting the device at all.

Figure 2: Antigena, in Human Confirmation Mode, recommends that it block the suspicious activity.

Command and control

Following the download, Darktrace observed the device making an HTTP GET request to the same rare endpoint. The continuation of this suspicious activity precipitated an escalation in Antigena’s recommended response, which would now have blocked all outgoing traffic from the breached device to prevent any infection from spreading.

Darktrace then detected the device making yet more unusual external connections to endpoints that, in many cases, had self-signed SSL certificates. Such self-signed certificates do not require verification by a trusted authority and are therefore frequently utilized by cyber-criminals. As a consequence, the outgoing connections from our infected device are likely the installed malware communicating with its command and control infrastructure, as Darktrace flagged below:

Figure 3: Darktrace alerts on the suspicious SSL certificates.

Figure 4: Antigena recommends taking action to block the connections in question.

Internal reconnaissance

Beyond the unusual external activity observed from the breached device, it also began to deviate significantly from its typical pattern of internal behavior. Indeed, Darktrace detected the device making over 160,000 failed internal connections on two key ports: Remote Desktop Protocol port 3389 and SMB port 445. This activity — known as network scanning — provides crucial reconnaissance, giving the attacker insight into the network structure, the services available on each device, and any potential vulnerabilities. Ports 3389 and 445 are especially common targets.

Figure 5: Darktrace tracks this ransomware attack at every step, though the security team does not mount a response in time.

The unusual external connections to self-signed SSL certificates, combined with the highly anomalous internal connectivity from the device, would have caused Antigena to escalate further. Alas, the attack proceeds.

Darktrace detected no further anomalous activity from patient zero for the next four days — perhaps a mechanism to remain under the radar. Yet this period of dormancy concluded when, once again, the device connected to a rare domain with a self-signed SSL certificate, likely reaching out to its command and control infrastructure for additional instructions.

Lateral movement

A day later — in a sign that suggests the prior scanning was somewhat fruitful — the infected device performed a large amount of unusual SMB activity consistent with the malware attempting to move laterally across the network. Darktrace picked up on the breached device sending unusual outgoing SMB writes to the remote administration tool PsExec to a total of 38 destination devices, 28 of which it compromised with a malicious file.

Darktrace recognized this activity as highly anomalous for the particular device, as it doesn’t usually communicate with these destination devices in this manner. Antigena would therefore would have surgically blocked the remote administration behavior by first containing the patient zero device to its normal ‘pattern of life’, and then by escalating to blocking all outgoing connections from the device if lateral movement had continued. Antigena’s escalation can be seen below: the first action is taken at 08:03, the second, more severe action at 08:43.

Figure 6: Darktrace repeatedly alerts on the unusual SMB traffic with high confidence — thanks to its evolving understanding of the device’s typical ‘pattern of life’.
Figure 7: Antigena again recommends immediate intervention, this time to impede lateral movement.


Darktrace observed the first sign of the ransomware’s ultimate objective — encrypting files — on a different device, which also performed a large volume of unusual SMB activity. After accessing a multitude of SMB shares that it hadn’t accessed previously, it systematically appended those files with the .locked extension. When all was said and done, this encryption activity was seen from no less than 40 internal devices.

In Active Mode, Antigena Ransomware Block would have fully quarantined the devices — a culmination of increasingly severe Antigena actions from the initial infection of patient zero, to the command and control communication, to the internal reconnaissance, to the lateral movement, and finally to the file encryption.

Figure 8: Antigena Ransomware Block was fully armed and prepared to fight back against the infection.

The case for boring blog posts

No other approach to cyber security is able to track ransomware so comprehensively throughout its lifecycle, as programming legacy tools to flag all remote administration behavior, for instance, would inundate security teams with thousands of false positive alerts. Thus, only Darktrace’s understanding ‘self’ for each infected device can shed light on such activities — in the rare cases when they are anomalous.

Figure 9: An overview of Darktrace’s myriad warnings throughout the five-day attack with each colored dot representing a high-confidence alert.

However, intriguing though it may be to track this lifecycle to conclusion, the technology to write far less intriguing blog posts already exists and is already proven. Autonomous Response will render this kind of threat story a relic of the past, and for organizations with sensitive data and critical intellectual property to safeguard, the days of boring security blogs cannot come soon enough.

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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