Inside the SOC
The double extortion business: Conti Ransomware Gang finds new avenues of negotiation
In a previous blog, we outlined how the Ryuk ransomware strain developed by Russian hacking group ‘Wizard Spider’ has fallen into the hands of small-time cyber criminals.
Wizard Spider – who allegedly operate with support from the Russian government and remain under investigation by the FBI and Interpol – adopted Ryuk ransomware’s successor ‘Conti’ in 2020. Conti affects all Windows operating systems and has been involved in more than 400 incidents. Wizard Spider were soon rebranded in cyber press as the ‘Conti Ransomware Gang’, though the group does not necessarily see itself as a ‘gang’. It prefers to present itself as a business.
The ransomware bubble
Ransomware has become a multibillion-dollar industry – and the Conti Ransomware Gang reportedly made up 15% of it in 2020. With this scale of income, groups like Conti find themselves adopting some crude imitations of legitimate business practice. This corporate mimicry dictates that their victims be called ‘customers’, their extortion attempts ‘negotiations’ and their criminal peers ‘affiliates’. They even publish ‘press releases’ via a dedicated Dark Web site.
The gang’s Ransomware-as-a-Service ‘business model’ consists of employing affiliates, training them in Conti ransomware’s deployment and management, and then taking 30% of the profits themselves. With exact profits known only to the malware writers and not the affiliates, however, the percentage Conti takes is often much higher than the 30% they claim.
There may not be checks and regulations in place to address fraud in the cyber underworld, but one business complication which Conti have not been able to escape is that of the disgruntled employee.
Unhappy with the malpractice of their superiors, an underpaid affiliate leaked the Conti Ransomware Gang’s training materials and the IP addresses for their Cobalt Strike C2 servers in August 2021, declaring, “they recruit suckers and divide the money among themselves”.
Meanwhile, the US Government has also been taking action to try to disrupt the profit margins of groups like the Conti Ransomware Gang, going as far as to impose sanctions on cryptocurrency exchanges seen as facilitating ransomware transactions. However, leaks and legislation have proved far from fatal for Conti.
The reality is that these actions have not lost the Conti Ransomware Gang any of its so-called “customers”, and where there are customers there is profit. Any individual or organization entrusting their cyber security to conventional, rules-based measures is in their target market.
Darktrace’s AI recently detected a Conti attack conducted along the lines of one of the methods outlined in the August leak. The target organization – a US transportation company – was trialing Darktrace but, without Darktrace’s Autonomous Response set in active mode, the attack was allowed to go ahead. In examining how it progressed, however, it should become clear not only how threatening double extortion ransomware attacks like this one can be, but also how effectively they can be stopped by Darktrace at each stage of the attack.
Figure 1: Timeline of the attack
Conti Ransomware Gang diversifies the ransomware playbook
A single uninstalled Microsoft patch had left the target organization with dangerous ProxyShell vulnerabilities. Conti exploited these vulnerabilities, quickly gaining the rights to remotely execute Exchange PowerShell commands on the company’s server and steadily broadened its presence within the digital environment. This is a relatively new approach for the Conti Ransomware Gang, who previously relied upon phishing attacks and firewall exploits. By diversifying its approach, it stays ahead of patches and intelligence.
Two weeks after the initial breach, C2 connections were made to an unusual endpoint located in Finland using an SSL client which appeared innocuous but was 100% rare for the organization. Had Autonomous Response been set in active mode, Darktrace would have shut the connections down at this very early stage.
The IP address of this suspicious endpoint has since been identified as a Conti IoC (Indicator of Compromise), allowing it to be incorporated into rules-based security solutions. This would have done little good for the company in question, however, which was breached weeks before this intelligence was made available.
As Conti continued to conduct internal reconnaissance and move laterally through the company’s digital environment, Darktrace detected further unusual activity. The suspicious Finnish endpoint then employed new ‘Living off the Land’ techniques, installing the usually legitimate tools AnyDesk and Cobalt Strike onto various parts of the environment.
A series of SSL connections were made to AnyDesk endpoints and external hosts, one of which lasted 95 hours, indicating an active remote session conducted by one of Conti’s affiliates. At this stage, Darktrace had 10 distinct reasons to suspect an imminent attack.
Conti News: Closing the deal with double extortion ransomware
Double extortion has become the Conti Ransomware Gang’s new favourite sales tactic. If you refuse to pay its ransom, Conti will not only take your most important files from you, but also exfiltrate and publish them using its dedicated ‘Conti News’ website, or sell them directly to your competitors.
Having expanded their reach across the transport company’s network, the Conti affiliate began rapidly exfiltrating large quantities of company data to Conti’s preferred cloud storage site, MEGA. Over four days, more than 3TB of data was uploaded, and then encrypted.
To avoid detection by a human security team, encryption was launched at close to midnight – Conti’s ‘business’ does not respect business hours. When the company’s security team returned to work the next day, they were met with a ransom note.
This attack was able to progress because Darktrace was only being trialed at this stage and was therefore allowed to detect threats but not to take action against them. With Autonomous Response employed in active mode, this ransomware attack would have ended in the very early stages, when Darktrace detected its first suspicious connections.
Nonetheless, the Cyber AI Analyst was able to investigate and connect the dots of the attack automatically, making the organization’s remediation efforts drastically quicker and easier than they would have been without even this partial Darktrace deployment.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst generated this incident report following the initiation of data exfiltration
How the Conti Ransomware Gang evades cyber intelligence
Security systems that rely on human intelligence to detect threats fit Conti’s ideal customer profile perfectly. By adapting and diversifying their approach, moving from Ryuk to Conti, and from spear phishing and firewall exploits to this new ProxyShell approach, Conti stay ahead of regulations and hold on to their vulnerable customer base.
Even if the Conti Ransomware Gang is brought down by leaks or legislation, other groups will rise to fill the gap in the market, eager for their own cut of the illicit gains. If these groups are to be truly stopped, they must be made unprofitable.
The US government has tried to do this by imposing fines upon ransom payers, but companies still often consider the losses involved in not recovering their data too great. As I have argued previously, ‘to pay or not to pay,’ is not the question we should be asking.
If you’re deciding whether to pay or not to pay, you’re already too far down the line. Darktrace stops groups like Conti at the first encounter. As this case has shown, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI is able to identify threats weeks before human analysts and threat intelligence can do the same, and neutralize them at every stage of an attack with Autonomous Response.
Thanks to Darktrace analyst Sam Lister for his insights on the above threat find.
Darktrace model detections:
- Device / Long Agent Connection to New Endpoint
- Device / ICMP Address Scan
- Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration
- Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server
- Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint
- Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server
- Compromise / Fast Beaconing to DGA
- Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
- Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
- Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days
- Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname
- Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer
- Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain
- Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound
- Compliance / SMB Drive Write
- Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
- Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Read Write Ratio
- Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Read Write Ratio and Unusual SMB
- Anomalous Connection / Sustained MIME Type Conversion
- Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Move & Write
- Unusual Activity / Unusual Internal Data Volume as Client or Server
- Device / Suspicious File Writes to Multiple Hidden SMB Shares
- Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity
- Anomalous File / Internal / Unusual SMB Script Write
- Anomalous File / Internal / Masqueraded Executable SMB Write
- Device / SMB Lateral Movement
- Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.