The Florida water plant attack signals a new era of digital warfare — it's time to fight back
Earlier this month, cyber-criminals broke into the systems of a water treatment facility in Florida and altered the chemical levels of the water supply. This incident serves as a reminder that attacks in the digital space are having an increasing impact on the physical world.
United States Municipalities & Cyber Risk
Carried out in the shadows with ones and zeros, there’s a new age of attack against public authorities and critical public services up and down the United States. Municipalities are regularly infiltrated by criminals and hostile nation states – in many cases, they are held to ransom and blackmailed until they pay a hefty cost. And, the perpetrators will likely never be brought to justice.
Earlier this month, news broke that hackers had tampered with a water treatment facility in Florida. In doing so, the cyber-criminals were able to remotely control a computer to change the chemical levels of the water supply, increasing the amount of sodium hydroxide before a supervisor was able to catch the act in real time and revert the changes.
The attack on the City of Oldsmar is not the first of its kind. Last year, Israel’s water management facilities, specifically its agricultural water pumps, were hit by two cyber-attacks: one in Upper Galilee and one in the central province of Mateh Yehuda. The attacks were played down, but reports claimed that hackers did attempt to alter water chlorine levels before being detected and stopped.
Cyber-attacks exist in the digital space, but today they can have a real and tangible effect on the physical world. I worry that we face a ticking time bomb.
Defending Critical Infrastructure from Cyber Attacks
This isn’t because defenders of critical national infrastructure aren’t good at their jobs – it’s because the challenge we face is incredibly vast and complex; it is no longer a problem that humans can deal with alone.
It’s a rule of thumb in cyber security that the more sensitive your system, the less you want it to touch the Internet. However, ‘air-gapping’ – a security measure used to ensure a secure network is physically isolated from unsecured networks – is now widely accepted to be neither fool proof against today’s constantly-mutating hacker, nor a practical option.
Rapid digital transformation of critical national infrastructure in recent years means that there is now a path for attackers to run from spoof emails in an employee’s inbox right through to critical gas compressors and turbines. Importantly, this path doesn’t even need to be direct for the attack to succeed – in February last year a US Gas Pipeline was shut down for two days because of a ransomware attack that only managed to spread as far as the control panels used by operators to monitor the process. But by taking these systems offline, the attackers forced the operators to deliberately shut down the process to preserve safety.
In the case of the Florida attack, an obvious move gave the game away and, thankfully, none of the 15,000 residents were harmed. But incidents like this keep defenders of critical national infrastructure awake at night – I know, because they used to be my biggest concern too.
Critical Infrastructure Threat Trends
Over the last 12 months, we have seen a sharp rise in sophisticated, stealthy attackers that slip under the radar unnoticed. What will happen the next time an attacker breaks into critical systems, but there is no obvious move that gives them away, to warn security teams of foul play before it's too late?
We can’t put the brakes on digital transformation across heavy industry – nor would we want to since economies flounder if they are not constantly accelerating. But it’s time for a fundamental shift in how we think about the cyber challenge. No city or local government is immune to similar attacks and this is not a one-off.
The future of OT security for critical national infrastructure
The next generation of attacks we face requires next generation security solutions, which have the intelligence to act swiftly on behalf of humans. Over the last decade, I have learned that simply trying to stop attackers from getting in is futile – that only just about works for low-level attacks. Building taller walls is no longer enough against sophisticated attacks like those deployed against critical national infrastructure. Today, artificial intelligence is so advanced that it is capable of spotting the early warning signs of sophisticated attacks as they emerge and stopping them before they escalate – crucially, identifying the subtle indicators that are often imperceivable to the human eye.
Critical environments cannot afford to fail. An operational outage of even a few seconds when public safety is at stake is not tolerable. There isn’t the option of reverting to pen and paper and muddling along. We need to build in cyber resilience so these systems are able to resist and fight back against cyber-attacks.
Now that industrial environments cannot simply be air-gapped to keep them safe, we need to invest in artificial intelligence systems that can work in the background to automatically and dynamically block attacks that bleed from IT and defend critical systems 24/7.
Attackers, both criminal and state-sponsored, will continue to see critical national infrastructure as an attractive target – but today we have advanced technology available to us that can stop their attempts in their tracks. All we have to do is embrace it.
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.
Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy
What is VIP impersonation?
VIP impersonation involves a threat actor impersonating a trusted, prominent figure at an organization in an attempt to solicit sensitive information from an employee.
VIP impersonation is a high-priority issue for security teams, but it can be difficult to assess the exact risks, and whether those are more critical than other types of compromise. Looking across a range of Darktrace/Email™ customer deployments, this blog explores the patterns of individuals targeted for impersonation and evaluates if these target priorities correspond with security teams' focus on protecting attack pathways to critical assets.
How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?
Protecting VIP entities within an organization has long been a traditional focus for security teams. The assumption is that VIPs, due to their prominence, possess the greatest access to critical assets, making them prime targets for cyber threats.
Email remains the predominant vector for attacks, with over 90% of breaches originating from malicious emails. However, the dynamics of email-based attacks are shifting, as the widespread use of generative AI is lowering the barrier to entry by allowing adversaries to create hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors.
Given these developments, it's worth asking the question – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are most targeted by threat actors via email? And, more importantly – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are more valuable if they are successfully compromised?
There are two types of VIPs:
1. When referring to emails and phishing, VIPs are the users in an organization who are well known publicly.
2. When referring to attack paths, VIPs are users in an organization that are known publicly and have access to highly privileged assets.
Not every prominent user has access to critical assets, and not every user that has access to critical assets is prominent.
Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation
We analyzed patterns of attack pathways and phishing attempts across 20 customer deployments from a large, randomized pool encompassing a diverse range of organizations.
Understanding Attack Pathways
Our observations revealed that 57% of low-difficulty attack paths originated from VIP entities, while 43% of observed low-difficulty attack paths towards critical assets or entities began through non-VIP users. This means that targeting VIPs is not the only way attackers can reach critical assets, and that non-VIP users must be considered as well.
While the sample size prevents us from establishing statistical significance across all customers, the randomized selection lends credence to the generalizability of these findings to other environments.
On average, 1.35% of total emails sent to these customers exhibited significantly malicious properties associated with phishing or some form of impersonation. Strikingly, nearly half of these malicious emails (49.6%) were directed towards VIPs, while the rest were sent to non-VIPs. This near-equal split is worth noting, as attack paths show that non-VIPs also serve as potential entry points for targeting critical assets.
For example, a recent phishing campaign targeted multiple customers across deployments, with five out of 13 emails specifically aimed at VIP users. Darktrace/Email actioned the malicious emails by double locking the links, holding the messages, and stripping the attachments.
Given that non-VIP users receive nearly half of the phishing or impersonation emails, it underscores the critical importance for security teams to recognize their blind spots in protecting critical assets. Overlooking the potential threat originating from non-VIP entities could lead to severe consequences. For instance, if a non-VIP user falls victim to a phishing attack or gets compromised, their credentials could be exploited to move laterally within the organization, potentially reaching critical assets.
This highlights the necessity for a sophisticated security tool that can identify targeted users, without the need for extensive customization and regardless of VIP status. By deploying a solution capable of promptly responding to email threats – including solicitation, phishing attempts, and impersonation – regardless of the status of the targeted user, security teams can significantly enhance their defense postures.
Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods
Traditional rules and signatures-based detection mechanisms fall short in identifying the evolving threats we’ve observed, due to their reliance on knowledge of past attacks to categorize emails.
Secure Email Gateway (SEG) or Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) tools categorize emails based on previous or known attacks, operating on a known-good or known-bad model. Even if tools use AI to automate this process, the approach is still fundamentally looking to the past and therefore vulnerable to unknown and zero-day threats.
Darktrace uses AI to understand each unique organization and how its email environment interoperates with each user and device on the network. Consequently, it is able to identify the subtle deviations from normal behavior that qualify as suspicious. This approach goes beyond simplistic categorizations, considering factors such as the sender’s history and recipient’s exposure score.
This nuanced analysis enables Darktrace to differentiate between genuine communications and malicious impersonation attempts. It automatically understands who is a VIP, without the need for manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails based on a user’s status.
Email does determine who is a VIP, without a need of manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails.
Darktrace/Email also feeds into Darktrace’s preventative security tools, giving the interconnected AI engines further context for assessing the high-value targets and pathways to vital internal systems and assets that start via the inbox.
Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise
The efficacy of AI-driven security solutions lies in their ability to make informed decisions and recommendations based on real-time business data. By leveraging this data, AI driven solutions can identify exploitable attack pathways and an organizations most critical assets. Darktrace uniquely uses several forms of AI to equip security teams with the insights needed to make informed decisions about which pathways to secure, reducing human bias around the importance of protecting VIPs.
With the emergence of tools like AutoGPT, identifying potential targets for phishing attacks has become increasingly simplified. However, the real challenge lies in gaining a comprehensive understanding of all possible and low-difficulty attack paths leading to critical assets and identities within the organization.
At the same time, organizations need email tools that can leverage the understanding of users to prevent email threats from succeeding in the first instance. For every email and user, Darktrace/Email takes into consideration changes in behavior from the sender, recipient, content, and language, and many other factors.
Integrating Darktrace/Email with Darktrace’s attack path modeling capabilities enables comprehensive threat contextualization and facilitates a deeper understanding of attack pathways. This holistic approach ensures that all potential vulnerabilities, irrespective of the user's status, are addressed, strengthening the overall security posture.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis suggests that the distinction between VIPs and non-VIPs in terms of susceptibility to impersonation and low-difficulty attack paths is not as pronounced as presumed. Therefore, security teams must adopt a proactive stance in safeguarding all pathways, rather than solely focusing on VIPs.
Attack path modeling enhances Darktrace/Email's capabilities by providing crucial metrics on potential impact, damage, exposure, and weakness, enabling more targeted and effective threat mitigation strategies. For example, stronger email actions can be enforced for users who are known to have a high potential impact in case of compromise.
In an era where cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity, an adaptive and non-siloed approach to securing inboxes, high-priority individuals, and critical assets is indispensable.
Gootloader Malware: Detecting and Containing Multi-Functional Threats with Darktrace
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 .
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 .
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
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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