Unintended consequences: When cyber-attacks go wild
Cyber-attacks are becoming more unpredictable by the day. DarkSide was the latest example, but cyber miscalculations have occurred since the early days of the Internet. This blog discusses the dangers of unintended consequences and how we can guard against them.
In 1988, a Harvard graduate began an experiment to see how many computers were connected to the Internet. 24 hours later, 10% of all computers around the world had been taken down and the damages soared into the millions. Robert Tappan Morris had inadvertently created the first ever computer worm.
Once Morris realized the speed at which his program was replicating, he tried to send instructions to the victims to dismantle the worm and curb the attack. But it was too late. He was indicted one year later and faced fines of over $10,000.
Fast forward to the present day, and we’re facing the most recent example of a cyber-threat miscalculation, or a criminal group that simply did not understand the full impact their attack would have. The DarkSide ransomware group most likely only intended to hit the IT system and corporate business operations of Colonial Pipeline and underestimated the full impact the malware would have. The consequences were disastrous, halting the supply of fuel across the East Coast, leading to gas shortages, hoarding, and spikes in gasoline prices around the world.
In an apparent show of social responsibility, the DarkSide group issued a seemingly heartfelt apology for the attack on social media:
We are apolitical, we do not participate in geopolitics, do not need to tie us with a defined government and look for other our motives. From today, we introduce moderation and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences in the future.
The motivation behind this statement is clear: self-preservation. The aftermath of the attack affected not only Colonial Pipeline but the DarkSide group themselves. They fell into the direct firing line of the full force of the US government, as well as becoming pariahs among other criminal groups for the attention they have drawn. It also appears they lost whatever formal or informal state supervision or protection they may have held.
As a result of the blowback and possible direct actions against them and their operating infrastructure, in less than a week, DarkSide announced that they would close their operations for good. They could however resurface under a different name, or join another group, if allowed in.
Misjudging the impact and collateral damage of a cyber-attack can lead to a range of unintended ramifications, from a cyber-crime group feeling increased heat from law enforcement to a nation state escalating a conflict greater than they intended.
It is for this reason that many ransomware groups historically have tended to keep their affairs under the radar. Over 70% of ransomware attacks target SMBs. Unfortunately, while many cyber-crime groups pledge to avoid larger bodies like hospitals and critical infrastructure, the allure of fast payouts for record-breaking ransoms has led to the healthcare sector, even vaccine efforts, being a heavy target for ransomware actors.
Following the incident at Colonial Pipeline, and no doubt in the fear of moving up the FBI’s Most Wanted list, a major Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) group, REvil, announced the following policy:
Work in the social sector (health care, educational institutions) is prohibited;
It is forbidden to work on the gov-sector (state) of any country.
Organized cyber-crime groups often stress that they are apolitical and motivated solely by financial gain.
But when the boat is pushed too far, attacks can easily spill over into geopolitical tensions, encouraging governments to issue executive orders and pushing cyber-threats into the headlines – all bad business for criminal groups. And if a threat actor gets in over their head, they either need to lay low and rebrand in what is known as an ‘exit scam’, as ransomware groups such as Maze and Jokeroo have done in the past, or they’re shut down completely, as seen in the disruption of the Emotet botnet at the beginning of this year.
The effects of a cyber-attack are becoming increasingly difficult to predict and control. The reason for this is twofold. The first is this idea of interconnectivity. We live in a digitized world which is so interlinked that an attack on one server can have global consequences, whether that’s reverberations down the supply chain, IT converging with OT, or a cyber-threat against one country affecting the world.
More isolated than federal bodies, the private sector will most often take the brunt of this collateral damage. Just take NotPetya – where a targeted attack against Ukrainian infrastructure went into the wild paralyzing factories across the globe and costing shipping company Maersk $300 million.
The second reason is easier access to more sophisticated tools. The commercialization of cyber-crime has enabled less advanced actors to rent state-of-the-art malware and launch campaigns with speed and with ease. In fact, the Colonial Pipeline attack was likely orchestrated by an affiliate who had paid for the DarkSide malware. This makes it far more challenging to monitor who is being targeted. When it comes to RaaS, even the developers probably do not know for certain how their malware will be used.
When preparing any kind of cyber-attack, the intelligence that an actor has going into the target environment is rarely 100%. If the intention is to impact a single component of a bank, for example, but the attacker fails to realize that a nearby hospital relies on that same electrical grid, the situation can escalate very quickly. And when it’s a low-skilled attacker with little regard or understanding of what a high-powered tool can do, miscalculations become alarmingly easy.
As far as we know, DarkSide itself was not a state-sponsored APT, merely a private criminal franchise. Yet they advertised their ransomware as the fastest in the world and managed to pull off one of the most disruptive critical infrastructure cyber-attacks of all time. As history has shown, from the Morris worm to Colonial Pipeline, when malware is fast and designed to propagate, it is unpredictable. It is nearly impossible to put a highly destructive genie back in the bottle.
As automation and AI-powered attacks become a reality, these trends will increase exponentially and transform the threat landscape. Ransomware is no longer a human-scalable problem. Organizational resilience depends not on throwing more people into the mix, or even upskilling existing teams – machine-speed attacks need a machine-speed response which can adapt as fast as an attack propagates. Thwarting ransomware is both a board-level issue and a national security concern. As such, self-learning AI technology proves critical in tackling the unpredictability and speed of the threats of today, and of tomorrow.
Thanks to Lucas Marsden-Smedley for his contributions.
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.
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
SVP, Strategic Engagements and Threats
As SVP of Strategic Engagements and Threats, Marcus works closely with senior security leaders across industries on cyber security strategy and business resilience, including across Darktrace’s Federal Division. Marcus focuses his research and analysis around emerging and next generation cyber threats, trends, and conflicts. Prior to joining Darktrace in 2019, Marcus spent 15 years at the Central Intelligence Agency developing global cyber operations and technical strategies. He has led cyber efforts with various US Intelligence Community elements and global partners. Prior to serving at the CIA, Marcus was an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Marcus has an engineering degree from the United States Naval Academy and a Masters’ Degree in International Security Studies from The Fletcher School. He also completed Harvard Business School’s Executive Education Advanced Management Program.
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PurpleFox in a Henhouse: How Darktrace Hunted Down a Persistent and Dynamic Rootkit
Versatile Malware: PurpleFox
As organizations and security teams across the world move to bolster their digital defenses against cyber threats, threats actors, in turn, are forced to adopt more sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to circumvent them. Rather than being static and predictable, malware strains are becoming increasingly versatile and therefore elusive to traditional security tools.
One such example is PurpleFox. First observed in 2018, PurpleFox is a combined fileless rootkit and backdoor trojan known to target Windows machines. PurpleFox is known for consistently adapting its functionalities over time, utilizing different infection vectors including known vulnerabilities (CVEs), fake Telegram installers, and phishing. It is also leveraged by other campaigns to deliver ransomware tools, spyware, and cryptocurrency mining malware. It is also widely known for using Microsoft Software Installer (MSI) files masquerading as other file types.
The Evolution of PurpleFox
The Original Strain
First reported in March 2018, PurpleFox was identified to be a trojan that drops itself onto Windows machines using an MSI installation package that alters registry values to replace a legitimate Windows system file . The initial stage of infection relied on the third-party toolkit RIG Exploit Kit (EK). RIG EK is hosted on compromised or malicious websites and is dropped onto the unsuspecting system when they visit browse that site. The built-in Windows installer (MSIEXEC) is leveraged to run the installation package retrieved from the website. This, in turn, drops two files into the Windows directory – namely a malicious dynamic-link library (DLL) that acts as a loader, and the payload of the malware. After infection, PurpleFox is often used to retrieve and deploy other types of malware.
Since its initial discovery, PurpleFox has also been observed leveraging PowerShell to enable fileless infection and additional privilege escalation vulnerabilities to increase the likelihood of successful infection . The PowerShell script had also been reported to be masquerading as a .jpg image file. PowerSploit modules are utilized to gain elevated privileges if the current user lacks administrator privileges. Once obtained, the script proceeds to retrieve and execute a malicious MSI package, also masquerading as an image file. As of 2020, PurpleFox no longer relied on the RIG EK for its delivery phase, instead spreading via the exploitation of the SMB protocol . The malware would leverage the compromised systems as hosts for the PurpleFox payloads to facilitate its spread to other systems. This mode of infection can occur without any user action, akin to a worm.
The current iteration of PurpleFox reportedly uses brute-forcing of vulnerable services, such as SMB, to facilitate its spread over the network and escalate privileges. By scanning internet-facing Windows computers, PurpleFox exploits weak passwords for Windows user accounts through SMB, including administrative credentials to facilitate further privilege escalation.
Darktrace detection of PurpleFox
In July 2023, Darktrace observed an example of a PurpleFox infection on the network of a customer in the healthcare sector. This observation was a slightly different method of downloading the PurpleFox payload. An affected device was observed initiating a series of service control requests using DCE-RPC, instructing the device to make connections to a host of servers to download a malicious .PNG file, later confirmed to be the PurpleFox rootkit. The device was then observed carrying out worm-like activity to other external internet-facing servers, as well as scanning related subnets.
Darktrace DETECT™ was able to successfully identify and track this compromise across the cyber kill chain and ensure the customer was able to take swift remedial action to prevent the attack from escalating further.
While the customer in question did have Darktrace RESPOND™, it was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually applied by the customer’s security team. If RESPOND had been enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack, it would have been able to take swift action against the compromise to contain it at the earliest instance.
Initial Scanning over SMB
On July 14, 2023, Darktrace detected the affected device scanning other internal devices on the customer’s network via port 445. The numerous connections were consistent with the aforementioned worm-like activity that has been reported from PurpleFox behavior as it appears to be targeting SMB services looking for open or vulnerable channels to exploit.
This initial scanning activity was detected by Darktrace DETECT, specifically through the model breach ‘Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity’. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ then launched an autonomous investigation into these internal connections and tied them into one larger-scale network reconnaissance incident, rather than a series of isolated connections.
As Darktrace RESPOND was configured in human confirmation mode, it was unable to autonomously block these internal connections. However, it did suggest blocking connections on port 445, which could have been manually applied by the customer’s security team.
The device successfully logged in via NTLM with the credential, ‘administrator’. Darktrace recognized that the endpoint was external to the customer’s environment, indicating that the affected device was now being used to propagate the malware to other networks. Considering the lack of observed brute-force activity up to this point, the credentials for ‘administrator’ had likely been compromised prior to Darktrace’s deployment on the network, or outside of Darktrace’s purview via a phishing attack.
Darktrace then detected a series of service control requests over DCE-RPC using the credential ‘admin’ to make SVCCTL Create Service W Requests. A script was then observed where the controlled device is instructed to launch mshta.exe, a Windows-native binary designed to execute Microsoft HTML Application (HTA) files. This enables the execution of arbitrary script code, VBScript in this case.
There are a few MSIEXEC flags to note:
/i : installs or configures a product
/Q : sets the user interface level. In this case, it is set to ‘No UI’, which is used for “quiet” execution, so no user interaction is required
Evidently, this was an attempt to evade detection by endpoint users as it is surreptitiously installed onto the system. This corresponds to the download of the rootkit that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. At this stage, the infected device continues to be leveraged as an attack device and scans SMB services over external endpoints. The device also appeared to attempt brute-forcing over NTLM using the same ‘administrator’ credential to these endpoints. This activity was identified by Darktrace DETECT which, if enabled in autonomous response mode would have instantly blocked similar outbound connections, thus preventing the spread of PurpleFox.
On August 9, Darktrace observed the device making initial attempts to download a malicious .PNG file. This was a notable change in tactics from previously reported PurpleFox campaigns which had been observed utilizing .MOE files for their payloads . The .MOE payloads are binary files that are more easily detected and blocked by traditional signatured-based security measures as they are not associated with known software. The ubiquity of .PNG files, especially on the web, make identifying and blacklisting the files significantly more difficult.
The first connection was made with the URI ‘/test.png’. It was noted that the HTTP method here was HEAD, a method similar to GET requests except the server must not return a message-body in the response.
The metainformation contained in the HTTP headers in response to a HEAD request should be identical to the information sent in response to a GET request. This method is often used to test hypertext links for validity and recent modification. This is likely a way of checking if the server hosting the payload is still active. Avoiding connections that could possibly be detected by antivirus solutions can help keep this activity under-the-radar.
The server responds with a status code of 200 before the download begins. The HEAD request could be part of the attacker’s verification that the server is still running, and that the payload is available for download. The ‘/test.png’ HEAD request was sent twice, likely for double confirmation to begin the file transfer.
Subsequent analysis using a Packet Capture (PCAP) tool revealed that this connection used the Windows Installer user agent that has previously been associated with PurpleFox. The device then began to download a payload that was masquerading as a Microsoft Word document. The device was thus able to download the payload twice, from two separate endpoints.
By masquerading as a Microsoft Word file, the threat actor was likely attempting to evade the detection of the endpoint user and traditional security tools by passing off as an innocuous text document. Likewise, using a Windows Installer user agent would enable threat actors to bypass antivirus measures and disguise the malicious installation as legitimate download activity.
Darktrace DETECT identified that these were masqueraded file downloads by correctly identifying the mismatch between the file extension and the true file type. Subsequently, AI Analyst was able to correctly identify the file type and deduced that this download was indicative of the device having been compromised.
In this case, the device attempted to download the payload from several different endpoints, many of which had low antivirus detection rates or open-source intelligence (OSINT) flags, highlighting the need to move beyond traditional signature-base detections.
If Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack it would have acted by blocking connections to these suspicious endpoints, thus preventing the download of malicious files. However, as RESPOND was in human confirmation mode, RESPOND actions required manual application by the customer’s security team which unfortunately did not happen, as such the device was able to download the payloads.
The PurpleFox malware is a particularly dynamic strain known to continually evolve over time, utilizing a blend of old and new approaches to achieve its goals which is likely to muddy expectations on its behavior. By frequently employing new methods of attack, malicious actors are able to bypass traditional security tools that rely on signature-based detections and static lists of indictors of compromise (IoCs), necessitating a more sophisticated approach to threat detection.
Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI enables it to confront adaptable and elusive threats like PurpleFox. By learning and understanding customer networks, it is able to discern normal network behavior and patterns of life, distinguishing expected activity from potential deviations. This anomaly-based approach to threat detection allows Darktrace to detect cyber threats as soon as they emerge.
By combining DETECT with the autonomous response capabilities of RESPOND, Darktrace customers are able to effectively safeguard their digital environments and ensure that emerging threats can be identified and shut down at the earliest stage of the kill chain, regardless of the tactics employed by would-be attackers.
Credit to Piramol Krishnan, Cyber Analyst, Qing Hong Kwa, Senior Cyber Analyst & Deputy Team Lead, Singapore
Darktrace Model Detections
Device / Increased External Connectivity
Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints
Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)
Compliance / External Windows Communications
Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control
Compromise / Unusual SVCCTL Activity
Compromise / Rare Domain Pointing to Internal IP
Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer
Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Breaches Over Time Block
$70 Million in Cyber Security Funding for Electric Cooperatives & Utilities
What is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal?
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by congress in 2021 aimed to upgrade power and infrastructure to deliver clean, reliable energy across the US to achieve zero-emissions. To date, the largest investment in clean energy, the deal will fund new programs to support the development and deployment of clean energy technology.
Why is it relevant to electric municipalities?
Section 40124 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $250 million over a 5-year period to create the Rural and Municipal Utility Cybersecurity (RMUC) Program to help electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities protect against, detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity threats.1 This act illuminates the value behind a full life-cycle approach to cyber security. Thus, finding a cyber security solution that can provide all aspects of security in one integrated platform would enhance the overall security posture and ease many of the challenges that arise with adopting multiple point solutions.
On November 16, 2023 the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) released the Advanced Cybersecurity Technology (ACT) for electric utilities offering a $70 million funding opportunity that aims to enhance the cybersecurity posture of electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities.
10 projects will be funded with application submissions due November 29, 2023, 5:00 pm ET with $200,000 each in cash prizes in the following areas:
Direct support for eligible utilities to make investments in cybersecurity technologies, tools, training, and improvements in utility processes and procedures;
Funding to strengthen the peer-to-peer and not-for-profit cybersecurity technical assistance ecosystem currently serving eligible electric utilities; and
Increasing access to cybersecurity technical assistance and training for eligible utilities with limited cybersecurity resources. 2
How can electric municipalities utilize the funding?
While the adoption of hybrid working patterns increase cloud and SaaS usage, the number of industrial IoT devices also continues to rise. The result is decrease in visibility for security teams and new entry points for attackers. Particularly for energy and utility organizations.
Electric cooperatives seeking to enhance their cyber security posture can aim to invest in cyber security tools that provide the following:
Compliance support: Consider finding an OT security solution that maps out how its solutions and features help your organization comply with relevant compliance mandates such as NIST, ISA, FERC, TSA, HIPAA, CIS Controls, and more.
Anomaly based detection: Siloed security solutions also fail to detect attacks that span the entire organization. Anomaly-based detection enhances an organization’s cyber security posture by proactively defending against potential attacks and maintaining a comprehensive view of their attack surface.
Integration capabilities: Implementation of several point solutions that complete individual tasks runs the risk of increasing workloads for operators and creates additional challenges with compliance, budgeting, and technical support. Look for cyber security tools that integrate with your existing technologies.
Passive and active asset tracking: Active Identification offers accurate enumeration, real time updates, vulnerability assessment, asset validation while Passive Identification eliminates the risk of operational disruption, minimizes risk, does not generate additional network traffic. It would be ideal to find a security solution that can do both.
Can secure both IT and OT in unison: Given that most OT cyber-attacks actually start in IT networks before pivoting into OT, a mature security posture for critical infrastructure would include a single solution for both IT and OT. Separate solutions for IT and OT present challenges when defending network boundaries and detecting incidents when an attacker pivots from IT to OT. These independent solutions also significantly increase operator workload and materially diminish risk mitigation efforts.
For smaller teams with just one or two dedicated employees, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst and Investigation features allow end users to spend less time in the platform as it compiles critical incidents into comprehensive actionable event reports. AI Analyst brings all the information into a centralized view with incident reporting in natural language summaries and can be generated for compliance reports specific to regulatory requirements.
For larger teams, Darktrace alerts can be forwarded to 3rd party platforms such as a SIEM, where security team decision making is augmented. Additionally, executive reports and autonomous response reduce the alert fatigue generally associated with legacy tools. Most importantly, Darktrace’s unique understanding of normal allows security teams to detect zero-days and signatureless attacks regardless of the size of the organization and how alerts are consumed.