Blog

Threat Finds

Ransomware

Inside the SOC

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

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
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.

Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
COre coverage
No items found.

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

Email

Looking Beyond Secure Email Gateways with the Latest Innovations to Darktrace/Email

Default blog imageDefault blog image
09
Apr 2024

Organizations Should Demand More from their Email Security

In response to a more intricate threat landscape, organizations should view email security as a critical component of their defense-in-depth strategy, rather than defending the inbox alone with a traditional Secure Email Gateway (SEG). Organizations need more than a traditional gateway – that doubles, instead of replaces, the capabilities provided by native security vendor – and require an equally granular degree of analysis across all messaging, including inbound, outbound, and lateral mail, plus Teams messages.  

Darktrace/Email is the industry’s most advanced cloud email security, powered by Self-Learning AI. It combines AI techniques to exceed the accuracy and efficiency of leading security solutions, and is the only security built to elevate, not duplicate, native email security.  

With its largest update ever, Darktrace/Email introduces the following innovations, finally allowing security teams to look beyond secure email gateways with autonomous AI:

  • AI-augmented data loss prevention to stop the entire spectrum of outbound mail threats
  • an easy way to deploy DMARC quickly with AI
  • major enhancements to streamline SOC workflows and increase the detection of sophisticated phishing links
  • expansion of Darktrace’s leading AI prevention to lateral mail, account compromise and Microsoft Teams

What’s New with Darktrace/Email  

Data Loss Prevention  

Block the entire spectrum of outbound mail threats with advanced data loss prevention that builds on tags in native email to stop unknown, accidental, and malicious data loss

Darktrace understands normal at individual user, group and organization level with a proven AI that detects abnormal user behavior and dynamic content changes. Using this understanding, Darktrace/Email actions outbound emails to stop unknown, accidental and malicious data loss.  

Traditional DLP solutions only take into account classified data, which relies on the manual input of labelling each data piece, or creating rules to catch pattern matches that try to stop data of certain types leaving the organization. But in today’s world of constantly changing data, regular expression and fingerprinting detection are no longer enough.

  • Human error – Because it understands normal for every user, Darktrace/Email can recognize cases of misdirected emails. Even if the data is correctly labelled or insensitive, Darktrace recognizes when the context in which it is being sent could be a case of data loss and warns the user.  
  • Unclassified data – Whereas traditional DLP solutions can only take action on classified data, Darktrace analyzes the range of data that is either pending labels or can’t be labeled with typical capabilities due to its understanding of the content and context of every email.  
  • Insider threat – If a malicious actor has compromised an account, data exfiltration may still be attempted on encrypted, intellectual property, or other forms of unlabelled data to avoid detection. Darktrace analyses user behaviour to catch cases of unusual data exfiltration from individual accounts.

And classification efforts already in place aren’t wasted – Darktrace/Email extends Microsoft Purview policies and sensitivity labels to avoid duplicate workflows for the security team, combining the best of both approaches to ensure organizations maintain control and visibility over their data.

End User and Security Workflows

Achieve more than 60% improvement in the quality of end-user phishing reports and detection of sophisticated malicious weblinks1

Darktrace/Email improves end-user reporting from the ground up to save security team resource. Employees will always be on the front line of email security – while other solutions assume that end-user reporting is automatically of poor quality, Darktrace prioritizes improving users’ security awareness to increase the quality of end-user reporting from day one.  

Users are empowered to assess and report suspicious activity with contextual banners and Cyber AI Analyst generated narratives for potentially suspicious emails, resulting in 60% fewer benign emails reported.  

Out of the higher-quality emails that end up being reported, the next step is to reduce the amount of emails that reach the SOC. Darktrace/Email’s Mailbox Security Assistant automates their triage with secondary analysis combining additional behavioral signals – using x20 more metrics than previously – with advanced link analysis to detect 70% more sophisticated malicious phishing links.2 This directly alleviates the burden of manual triage for security analysts.

For the emails that are received by the SOC, Darktrace/Email uses automation to reduce time spent investigating per incident. With live inbox view, security teams gain access to a centralized platform that combines intuitive search capabilities, Cyber AI Analyst reports, and mobile application access. Analysts can take remediation actions from within Darktrace/Email, eliminating console hopping and accelerating incident response.

Darktrace takes a user-focused and business-centric approach to email security, in contrast to the attack-centric rules and signatures approach of secure email gateways

Microsoft Teams

Detect threats within your Teams environment such as account compromise, phishing, malware and data loss

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services, particularly Teams and SharePoint.3

Darktrace now leverages the same behavioral AI techniques for Microsoft customers across 365 and Teams, allowing organizations to detect threats and signals of account compromise within their Teams environment including social engineering, malware and data loss.  

The primary use case for Microsoft Teams protection is as a potential entry vector. While messaging has traditionally been internal only, as organizations open up it is becoming an entry vector which needs to be treated with the same level of caution as email. That’s why we’re bringing our proven AI approach to Microsoft Teams, that understands the user behind the message.  

Anomalous messaging behavior is also a highly relevant indicator of whether a user has been compromised. Unlike other solutions that analyze Microsoft Teams content which focus on payloads, Darktrace goes beyond basic link and sandbox analysis and looks at actual user behavior from both a content and context perspective. This linguistic understanding isn’t bound by the requirement to match a signature to a malicious payload, rather it looks at the context in which the message has been delivered. From this analysis, Darktrace can spot the early symptoms of account compromise such as early-stage social engineering before a payload is delivered.

Lateral Mail Analysis

Detect and respond to internal mailflow with multi-layered AI to prevent account takeover, lateral phishing and data leaks

The industry’s most robust account takeover protection now prevents lateral mail account compromise. Darktrace has always looked at internal mail to inform inbound and outbound decisions, but will now elevate suspicious lateral mail behaviour using the same AI techniques for inbound, outbound and Teams analysis.

Darktrace integrates signals from across the entire mailflow and communication patterns to determine symptoms of account compromise, now including lateral mailflow

Unlike other solutions which only analyze payloads, Darktrace analyzes a whole range of signals to catch lateral movement before a payload is delivered. Contributing yet another layer to the AI behavioral profile for each user, security teams can now use signals from lateral mail to spot the early symptoms of account takeover and take autonomous actions to prevent further compromise.

DMARC

Gain in-depth visibility and control of 3rd parties using your domain with an industry-first AI-assisted DMARC

Darktrace has created the easiest path to brand protection and compliance with the new Darktrace/DMARC. This new capability continuously stops spoofing and phishing from the enterprise domain, while automatically enhancing email security and reducing the attack surface.

Darktrace/DMARC helps to upskill businesses by providing step by step guidance and automated record suggestions provide a clear, efficient road to enforcement. It allows organizations to quickly achieve compliance with requirements from Google, Yahoo, and others, to ensure that their emails are reaching mailboxes.  

Meanwhile, Darktrace/DMARC helps to reduce the overall attack surface by providing visibility over shadow-IT and third-party vendors sending on behalf of an organization’s brand, while informing recipients when emails from their domains are sent from un-authenticated DMARC source.

Darktrace/DMARC integrates with the wider Darktrace product platform, sharing insights to help further secure your business across Email Attack Path and Attack Surface management.

Conclusion

To learn more about the new innovations to Darktrace/Email download the solution brief here.

All of the new updates to Darktrace/Email sit within the new Darktrace ActiveAI Security Platform, creating a feedback loop between email security and the rest of the digital estate for better protection. Click to read more about the Darktrace ActiveAI Security Platform or to hear about the latest innovations to Darktrace/OT, the most comprehensive prevention, detection, and response solution purpose built for critical infrastructures.  

Learn about the intersection of cyber and AI by downloading the State of AI Cyber Security 2024 report to discover global findings that may surprise you, insights from security leaders, and recommendations for addressing today’s top challenges that you may face, too.

References

[1] Internal Darktrace Research

[2] Internal Darktrace Research

[3] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

Continue reading
About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Blog

No items found.

Managing Risk Beyond CVE Scores With the Latest Innovations to Darktrace/OT

Default blog imageDefault blog image
09
Apr 2024

Identifying Cyber Risk in Industrial Organizations

Compromised OT devices in ICS and SCADA environments pose significant physical risks, even endangering lives. However, identifying CVEs in the multitude of complex OT devices is labor-intensive and time-consuming, draining valuable resources.

Even after identifying a vulnerability, implementing a patch presents its own challenges limited maintenance windows and the need for uninterrupted operations strain IT and OT teams often leading organizations to prioritize availability over security leading vulnerabilities remaining unresolved for over 5 years on average. (1)

Darktrace’s New Innovation

Darktrace is an industry leader in cybersecurity with 10+ years of experience securing OT environments where we take a fundamentally different approach using Self-Learning AI to enhance threat detection and response.

Continuing to combat the expanding threat landscape, Darktrace is excited to announce new capabilities that enable a contextualized and proactive approach to managing cyber risk at industrial organizations.

Today we launch an innovation to our OT Cybersecurity solution, Darktrace/OT, that will add a layer of proactivity, enabling a comprehensive approach to risk management. This industry leading innovation for Darktrace/OT moves beyond CVE scores to redefine vulnerability management for critical infrastructure, tackling the full breadth of risks not limited by traditional controls.  

Darktrace/OT is the only OT security solution with comprehensive Risk Management which includes:

  • Contextualized risk analysis unique to your organization
  • The most realistic evaluation and prioritization of OT risk
  • Effectively mitigate risk across your OT infrastructure, with and without patching.
  • The only OT security solution that evaluates your defenses against Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) Groups.

The most comprehensive prevention, detection, and response solution purpose built for Critical Infrastructures

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI technology is a cutting-edge innovation that implements real time prevention, detection, response, and recovery for operational technologies and enables a fundamental shift from the traditional approach to cyber defense by learning a ‘pattern of life’ for every network, device, and user.  

Rather than relying on knowledge of past attacks, AI technology learns what is ‘normal’ for its environment, discovering previously unknown threats by detecting subtle shifts in behavior. Through identifying these unexpected anomalies, security teams can investigate novel attacks, discover blind spots, have live time visibility across all their physical and digital assets, and reduce time to detect, respond to, and triage security events.  

  • Achieve greater visibility of OT and IT devices across all levels of the Purdue Model.
  • The industry's only OT security to scale threat detection and response, with a 92% time saving from triage to recovery.  
  • The only OT focused security solution to provide bespoke Risk Management.

To learn more about how Darktrace/OT approaches unique use cases for industrial organizations visit the Darktrace/OT Webpage or join us LIVE at a city near you.

Read more below to discover how new innovations to Darktrace/OT are bringing a new, contextualized approach to Risk Management for Industrial organizations.

For more information on the entire Darktrace/OT Solution read our solution brief here.

Darktrace/OT and New Risk Management

Risk Identification

Leveraging the visibility of Darktrace/OT which identifies individual systems throughout the Purdue Model and the relationship between them, Darktrace/OT identifies high-risk CVEs and presents potential attack routes that go beyond techniques requiring a known exploit, such as misuse of legitimate services. Each attack path will have a mathematical evaluation of difficulty and impact from initial access to the high value objectives.  

Together this gives comprehensive coverage over your real and potential risks from both an attacker and known vulnerability perspectives. OT attack paths as seen here even leverage insights between the industrial and corporate communications to reveal ways threat actors may take advantage of IT-OT convergence. This revelation of imperceptible risks fills gaps in traditional risk analysis like remote access and insider threats.

Figure 1: Darktrace/OT visualizing the most critical attack paths at an organization
Figure 1: Darktrace/OT visualizing the most critical attack paths at an organization
Figure 2: A specific Attack Path identified by Darktrace/OT

Risk Prioritization

Darktrace/OT prioritizes remediations and mitigations based on difficulty and damage to your unique organization, using the established Attack Paths.

We ascertain the priorities that apply to your organization beyond pure theoretical damage answering questions like:

  • How difficult is a particular vulnerability to exploit considering the steps an attacker would require to reach it?
  • And, how significant would the impact be if it was exploited within this particular network?

This expanded approach to risk prioritization has a much more comprehensive evaluation of your organization's unique risk than has ever been possible before. Traditional approaches of ranking only known vulnerabilities with isolated scores using CVSS and exploitability metrics, often leaves gaps in IT-OT risks and is blind to legitimate service exploitation.

Figure 3: Darktrace/OT leverages its contextual understand of the organization’s network to prioritize remediation that will have the positive impact on the risk score

Darktrace provides mitigation strategies associated with each identified risk and the relevant impact it has on your overall risk posture, across all MITRE ATT&CK techniques.

What sets Darktrace apart is our ability to contextualize these mitigations within the broader business. When patching vulnerabilities directly isn’t possible, Darktrace identifies alternative actions that harden attack paths leading to critical assets. Hardening the surrounding attack path increases the difficulty and therefore reduces the likelihood and impact of a breach.

That means unpatched vulnerabilities and vulnerable devices aren’t left unprotected. This also has an added bonus, those hardening techniques work for all devices in that network segment, so apply one change, secure many.

Figure 4: Darktrace prioritizes mitigation reducing accessibility of vulnerability and the overall risk score when patches aren’t available

Communicate Board Level Risk with APT Threat Mapping

Darktrace/OT bridges theory and practice as the only security solution that maps MITRE techniques, frequently used by APT Groups, onto AI-assessed critical Attack Paths. This unique solution provides unparalleled insights including sector and location intelligence, possible operating platforms, common techniques, exploited CVEs, and the number of potential devices affected in your environment, supporting holistic risk assessment and proactive defense measures.

Ultimately, this becomes a power dashboard to communicate board level risk, using both metric based evidence and industry standard threat mapping.

Conclusion

Darktrace/OT is part of the Darktrace ActiveAI Security Platform a native, holistic, AI-driven platform built on over ten years of AI research. It helps security teams shift to more a productive mode, finding the known and the unknown attacks and transforming the SOC with the various Darktrace products to drive efficiency gains. It does this across the whole incident lifecycle to lower risk, reduce time spent on active incidents, and drive return on investment.

Discover more about Darktrace's ever-strengthening platform with the upcoming changes coming to our Darktrace/Email product and other launch day blogs.

Join Darktrace LIVE half-day event to understand the reality versus the hype surrounding AI and how to achieve cyber resilience.

Learn about the intersection of cyber and AI by downloading the State of AI Cyber Security 2024 report to discover global findings that may surprise you, insights from security leaders, and recommendations for addressing today’s top challenges that you may face, too.  

References

1. https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/313646831/Catch_Me_if_You_Can.pdf

Continue reading
About the author
Mitchell Bezzina
VP, Product and Solutions Marketing
Our ai. Your data.

Elevate your cyber defenses with Darktrace AI

Start your free trial
Darktrace AI protecting a business from cyber threats.