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The double extortion business: Conti Ransomware Gang finds new avenues of negotiation

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07
Dec 2021
07
Dec 2021
By constantly shifting tactics, the Conti Ransomware Gang have maintained one of the largest stakes in the increasingly profitable ransomware industry. Discover how Darktrace was able to detect one of their crippling double extortion attacks at its earliest stages.

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

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
Justin Fier
SVP, Red Team Operations

Justin is one of the US’s leading cyber intelligence experts, and holds the position of SVP, Red Team Operations at Darktrace. His insights on cyber security and artificial intelligence have been widely reported in leading media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The Washington Post, and VICELAND. With over 10 years’ experience in cyber defense, Justin has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Justin is also a highly-skilled technical specialist, and works with Darktrace’s strategic global customers on threat analysis, defensive cyber operations, protecting IoT, and machine learning.

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Inside the SOC

Gootloader Malware: Detecting and Containing Multi-Functional Threats with Darktrace

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15
Feb 2024

What is multi-functional malware?

While traditional malware variants were designed with one specific objective in mind, the emergence of multi-functional malware, such as loader malware, means that organizations are likely to be confronted with multiple malicious tools and strains of malware at once. These threats often have non-linear attack patterns and kill chains that can quickly adapt and progress quicker than human security teams are able to react. Therefore, it is more important than ever for organizations to adopt an anomaly approach to combat increasingly versatile and fast-moving threats.

Example of Multi-functional malware

One example of a multi-functional malware recently observed by Darktrace can be seen in Gootloader, a multi-payload loader variant that has been observed in the wild since 2020. It is known to primarily target Windows-based systems across multiple industries in the US, Canada, France, Germany, and South Korea [1].  

How does Gootloader malware work?

Once installed on a target network, Gootloader can download additional malicious payloads that allow threat actors to carry out a range of harmful activities, such as stealing sensitive information or encrypting files for ransom.

The Gootloader malware is known to infect networks via search engine optimization (SEO) poisoning, directing users searching for legitimate documents to compromised websites hosting a malicious payload masquerading as the desired file.

If the malware remains undetected, it paves the way for a second stage payload known as Gootkit, which functions as a banking trojan and information-stealer, or other malware tools including Cobalt Strike and Osiris [2].

Darktrace detection of Gootloader malware

In late 2023, Darktrace observed one instance of Gootloader affecting a customer in the US. Thanks to its anomaly-focused approach, Darktrace DETECT™ quickly identified the anomalous activity surrounding this emerging attack and brought it to the immediate attention of the customer’s security team. All the while, Darktrace RESPOND™ was in place and able to autonomously intervene, containing the suspicious activity and ensuring the Gootloader compromise could not progress any further.

In September 2023, Darktrace identified an instance of the Gootloader malware attempting to propagate within the network of a customer in the US. Darktrace identified the first indications of the compromise when it detected a device beaconing to an unusual external location and performing network scanning. Following this, the device was observed making additional command-and-control (C2) connections, before finally downloading an executable (.exe) file which likely represented the download of a further malicious payload.

As this customer had subscribed to the Proactive Notification Service (PTN), the suspicious activity was escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for further investigation by Darktrace’s expert analysts. The SOC team were able to promptly triage the incident and advise urgent follow-up actions.

Gootloader Attack Overview

Figure 1: Timeline of Anomalous Activities seen on the breach device.

Initial Beaconing and Scanning Activity

On September 21, 2023, Darktrace observed the first indications of compromise on the network when a device began to make regular connections to an external endpoint that was considered extremely rare for the network, namely ‘analyzetest[.]ir’.

Although the endpoint did not overtly seem malicious in nature (it appeared to be related to laboratory testing), Darktrace recognized that it had never previously been seen on the customer’s network and therefore should be treated with caution.  This initial beaconing activity was just the beginning of the malicious C2 communications, with several additional instances of beaconing detected to numerous suspicious endpoints, including funadhoo.gov[.]mv, tdgroup[.]ru’ and ‘army.mil[.]ng.

Figure 2: Initial beaconing activity detected on the breach device.

Soon thereafter, Darktrace detected the device performing internal reconnaissance, with an unusually large number of connections to other internal locations observed. This scanning activity appeared to primarily be targeting the SMB protocol by scanning port 445.

Within seconds of DETECT’s detection of this suspicious SMB scanning activity, Darktrace RESPOND moved to contain the compromise by blocking the device from connecting to port 445 and enforcing its ‘pattern of life’. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to learn a device’s normal behavior and recognize if it deviates from this; by enforcing a pattern of life on an affected device, malicious activity is inhibited but the device is allowed to continue its expected activity, minimizing disruption to business operations.

Figure 3: The breach device Model Breach Event Log showing Darktrace DETECT identifying suspicious SMB scanning activity and the corresponding RESPOND actions.

Following the initial detection of this anomalous activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst launched an autonomous investigation into the beaconing and scanning activity and was able to connect these seemingly separate events into one incident. AI Analyst analyzes thousands of connections to hundreds of different endpoints at machine speed and then summarizes its findings in a single pane of glass, giving customers the necessary information to assess the threat and begin remediation if necessary. This significantly lessens the burden for human security teams, saving them previous time and resources, while ensuring they maintain full visibility over any suspicious activity on their network.

Figure 4: Cyber AI Analyst incident log summarizing the technical details of the device’s beaconing and scanning behavior.

Beaconing Continues

Darktrace continued to observe the device carrying out beaconing activity over the next few days, likely representing threat actors attempting to establish communication with their malicious infrastructure and setting up a foothold within the customer’s environment. In one such example, the device was seen connecting to the suspicious endpoint ‘fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl’. Multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors reported this endpoint to be a known malware delivery host [3].

Once again, Darktrace RESPOND was in place to quickly intervene in response to these suspicious external connection attempts. Over the course of several days, RESPOND blocked the offending device from connecting to suspicious endpoints via port 443 and enforced its pattern of life. These autonomous actions by RESPOND effectively mitigated and contained the attack, preventing it from escalating further along the kill chain and providing the customer’s security team crucial time to take act and employ their own remediation.

Figure 5: A sample of the autonomous RESPOND actions that was applied on the affected device.

Possible Payload Retrieval

A few days later, on September 26, 2023, Darktrace observed the affected device attempting to download a Windows Portable Executable via file transfer protocol (FTP) from the external location ‘ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com’, which had never previously been seen on the network. This download likely represented the next step in the Gootloader infection, wherein additional malicious tooling is downloaded to further cement the malicious actors’ control over the device. In response, Darktrace RESPOND immediately blocked the device from making any external connections, ensuring it could not download any suspicious files that may have rapidly escalated the attackers’ efforts.

Figure 6: DETECT’s identification of the offending device downloading a suspicious executable file via FTP.

The observed combination of beaconing activity and a suspicious file download triggered an Enhanced Monitoring breach, a high-fidelity DETECT model designed to detect activities that are more likely to be indicative of compromise. These models are monitored by the Darktrace SOC round the clock and investigated by Darktrace’s expert team of analysts as soon as suspicious activity emerges.

In this case, Darktrace’s SOC triaged the emerging activity and sent an additional notice directly to the customer’s security team, informing them of the compromise and advising on next steps. As this customer had subscribed to Darktrace’s Ask the Expert (ATE) service, they also had a team of expert analysts available to them at any time to aid their investigations.

Figure 7: Enhanced Monitoring Model investigated by the Darktrace SOC.

Conclusion

Loader malware variants such as Gootloader often lay the groundwork for further, potentially more severe threats to be deployed within compromised networks. As such, it is crucial for organizations and their security teams to identify these threats as soon as they emerge and ensure they are effectively contained before additional payloads, like information-stealing malware or ransomware, can be downloaded.

In this instance, Darktrace demonstrated its value when faced with a multi-payload threat by detecting Gootloader at the earliest stage and responding to it with swift targeted actions, halting any suspicious connections and preventing the download of any additional malicious tooling.

Darktrace DETECT recognized that the beaconing and scanning activity performed by the affected device represented a deviation from its expected behavior and was indicative of a potential network compromise. Meanwhile, Darktrace RESPOND ensured that any suspicious activity was promptly shut down, buying crucial time for the customer’s security team to work with Darktrace’s SOC to investigate the threat and quarantine the compromised device.

Credit to: Ashiq Shafee, Cyber Security Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst and Deputy Analyst Team Lead, Singapore

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous Connection / Young or Invalid Certificate SSL Connections to Rare

Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

Compromise / Beacon for 4 Days

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Expired SSL

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Anomalous File / FTP Executable from Rare External Location

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

RESPOND Models

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Significant Anomaly from Client Block

Antigena / Network/Insider Threat/Antigena Network Scan Block

Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Enhanced Monitoring from Client Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena File then New Outbound Block

Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

Type

Hostname

IoCs + Description

explorer[.]ee - C2 Endpoint

fysiotherapie-panken[.]nl- C2 Endpoint

devcxp2019.theclearingexperience[.]com- C2 Endpoint

campsite.bplaced[.]net- C2 Endpoint

coup2pompes[.]fr- C2 Endpoint

analyzetest[.]ir- Possible C2 Endpoint

tdgroup[.]ru- C2 Endpoint

ciedespuys[.]com- C2 Endpoint

fi.sexydate[.]world- C2 Endpoint

funadhoo.gov[.]mv- C2 Endpoint

geying.qiwufeng[.]com- C2 Endpoint

goodcomix[.]fun- C2 Endpoint

ftp2[.]sim-networks[.]com- Possible Payload Download Host

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique

Reconnaissance - Scanning IP blocks (T1595.001, T1595)

Command and Control - Web Protocols , Application Layer Protocol, One-Way Communication, External Proxy, Non-Application Layer Protocol, Non-Standard Port (T1071.001/T1071, T1071, T1102.003/T1102, T1090.002/T1090, T1095, T1571)

Collection – Man in the Browser (T1185)

Resource Development - Web Services, Malware (T1583.006/T1583, T1588.001/T1588)

Persistence - Browser Extensions (T1176)

References

1.     https://www.blackberry.com/us/en/solutions/endpoint-security/ransomware-protection/gootloader

2.     https://redcanary.com/threat-detection-report/threats/gootloader/

3.     https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fysiotherapie-panken.nl

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Ashiq Shafee
Cyber Security Analyst

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Seven Cyber Security Predictions for 2024

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13
Feb 2024

2024 Cyber Threat Predictions

After analyzing the observed threats and trends that have affected customers across the Darktrace fleet in the second half of 2023, the Darktrace Threat Research team have made a series of predictions. These assessments highlight the threats that are expected to impact Darktrace customers and the wider threat landscape in 2024.  

1. Initial access broker malware, especially loader malware, is likely to be a prominent threat.  

Initial access malware such as loaders, information stealers, remote access trojans (RATs), and downloaders, will probably remain some of the most relevant threats to most organizations, especially when noted in the context that many are interoperable, tailorable Malware-as-a-Service (MaaS) tools.  

These types of malware often serve as a gateway for threat actors to compromise a target network before launching subsequent, and often more severe, attacks. Would-be cyber criminals are now able to purchase and deploy these malware without the need for technical expertise.  

2. Infrastructure complexity will increase SaaS attacks and leave cloud environments vulnerable.

The increasing reliance on SaaS solutions and platforms for business operations, coupled with larger attack surfaces than ever before, make it likely that attackers will continue targeting organizations’ cloud environments with account takeovers granting unauthorized access to privileged accounts. These account hijacks can be further exploited to perform a variety of nefarious activities, such as data exfiltration or launching phishing campaigns.  

It is paramount for organizations to not only fortify their SaaS environments with security strategies including multifactor authentication (MFA), regular monitoring of credential usage, and strict access control, but moreover augment SaaS security using anomaly detection.  

3. The prevalence and evolution of ransomware will surge.

The Darktrace Threat Research team anticipates a surge in Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) attacks, marking a shift away from conventional ransomware. The uptick in RaaS observed in 2023 evidences that ransomware itself is becoming increasingly accessible, lowering the barrier to entry for threat actors. This surge also demonstrates how lucrative RaaS is for ransomware operators in the current threat landscape, further reinforcing a rise in RaaS.  

This development is likely to coincide with a pivot away from traditional encryption-centric ransomware tactics towards more sophisticated and advanced extortion methods. Rather than relying solely on encrypting a target’s data for ransom, malicious actors are expected to employ double or even triple extortion strategies, encrypting sensitive data but also threatening to leak or sell stolen data unless their ransom demands are met.  

4. Threat actors will continue to rely on living-off-the-land techniques.

With evolving sophistication of security tools and greater industry adoption of AI techniques, threat actors have focused more and more on living-off-the-land. The extremely high volume of vulnerabilities discovered in 2023 highlights threat actors’ persistent need to compromise trusted organizational mechanisms and infrastructure to gain a foothold in networks. Although inbox intrusions remain prevalent, the exploitation of edge infrastructure has demonstrably expanded compared to previously endpoint-focused attacks.

Given the prevalence of endpoint evasion techniques and the high proportion of tactics utilizing native programs, threat actors will likely progressively live off the land, even utilizing new techniques or vulnerabilities to do so, rather than relying on unidentified malicious programs which evade traditional detection.

5. The “as-a-Service” marketplace will contribute to an increase in multi-phase compromises.

With the increasing “as-a-Service” marketplaces, it is likely that organizations will face more multi-phase compromises, where one strain of malware is observed stealing information and that data is sold to additional threat actors or utilized for second and/or third-stage malware or ransomware.  

This trend builds on the concept of initial access brokers but utilizes basic browser scraping and data harvesting to make as much profit throughout the compromise process as possible. This will likely result in security teams observing multiple malicious tools and strains of malware during incident response and/or multi-functional malware, with attack cycles and kill chains morphing into less linear and more abstract chains of activity. This makes it more essential than ever for security teams to apply an anomaly approach to stay ahead of asymmetric threats.  

6. Generative AI will let attackers phish across language barriers.

Classic phishing scams play a numbers game, targeting as many inboxes as possible and hoping that some users take the bait, even if there are spelling and grammar errors in the email. Now, Generative AI has reduced the barrier for entry, so malicious actors do not have to speak English to produce a convincing phishing email.  

In 2024, we anticipate this to extend to other languages and regions. For example, many countries in Asia have not yet been greatly impacted by phishing. Yet Generative AI continues to develop, with improved data input yielding improved output. More phishing emails will start to be generated in various languages with increasing sophistication.    

7. AI regulation and data privacy rules will stifle AI adoption.

AI regulation, like the European Union’s AI Act and NIS2, is starting to be implemented around the world. As policies continue to come out about AI and data privacy, practical and pragmatic AI adoption becomes more complex.  

Businesses will likely have to take a second look at AI they are adopting into their tech stacks to consider what may happen if a tool is suddenly deprecated because it is no longer fit for purpose or loses the approvals in place. Many will also have to use completely different supply chain evaluations from their usual ones based on developing compliance registrars. This increased complication may make businesses reticent to adopt innovative AI solutions as legislation scrambles to keep up.  

Learn more about observed threat trends and future predictions in the 2023 End of Year Threat Report

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