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Using Self-Learning AI to defend against zero-day and N-day attacks

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26
Jul 2022
26
Jul 2022
N-days are often overlooked by security teams yet often attract just as much attention as their zero-day counterpart. This blog explores both a zero-day and n-day attack on two different customer’s SonicWall VPN server and Atlassian Confluence server, respectively, detailing how Darktrace was able to detect and intervene before any irreparable damage occurred.

Key Terms:

Zero-day | A recently discovered security vulnerability in computer software that has no currently available fix or patch. Its name come from the reality that vendors have “zero days” to act and respond.

N-day | A vulnerability that emerges in computer software in which a vendor is aware and may have already issued (or are currently working on) a patch or fix. Active exploits often already exist and await abuse by nefarious actors.

Traditional security solutions often apply signature-based-detection when identifying cyber threats, helping to defend against legacy attacks but consequently missing novel ones. Therefore, security teams often lend a lot of focus to ensuring that the risk of zero-day vulnerabilities is reduced [1]. As explored in this blog, however, organizations can face just as much of a risk from n-day attacks, since they invite the most attention from malicious actors [2]. This is due in part to the reduced complexity, cost and time invested in researching and finding new exploits compared with that found when attackers exploit zero-days. 

This blog will examine both a zero-day and n-day attack that two different Darktrace customers faced in the fall of 2021. This will include the activity Darktrace detected, along with the steps taken by Darktrace/Network to intervene. It will then compare the incidents, discuss the possible dangers of third-party integrations, and assess the deprecation of legacy security tools.

Revisiting zero-day attacks 

Zero-days are among the greatest concerns security teams face in the era of modern technology and networking. Defending critical systems from zero-day compromises is a task most legacy security solutions are often unable to handle. Due to the complexity of uncovering new security flaws and developing elaborate code that can exploit them, these attacks are often carried out by funded or experienced groups such as nation-state actors and APTs. One of history’s most prolific zero-days, ‘Stuxnet’, sent security teams worldwide into a global panic in 2010. This involved a widespread attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure and was widely accepted to be a result of nation-state actors [3]. The Stuxnet worm took advantage of four zero-day exploits, compromising over 200,000 devices and physically damaging around 10% of the 9,000 critical centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site. 

More recently, 2021 saw the emergence of several critical zero-day vulnerabilities within SonicWall’s product suite [4]. SonicWall is a security hardware manufacturer that provides hardware firewall devices, unified threat management, VPN gateways and network security solutions. Some of these vulnerabilities lie within their Secure Mobile Access (SMA) 100 series (for example, CVE-2019-7481, CVE-2021-20016 and CVE-2021-20038 to name a few). These directly affected VPN devices and often allowed attackers easy remote access to company devices. CVE-2021-20016 in particular incorporates an SQL-Injection vulnerability within SonicWall’s SSL VPN SMA 100 product line [5]. If exploited, this defect would allow an unauthenticated remote attacker to perform their own malicious SQL query in order to access usernames, passwords and other session related information. 

The N-day underdog

The shadow cast by zero-day attacks often shrouds that of n-day attacks. N-days, however, often pose an equal - if not greater - risk to the majority of organizations, particularly those in industrial sectors. Since these vulnerabilities have fixes available, all of the hard work around research is already done; malicious actors only need to view proof of concepts (POCs) or, if proficient in coding, reverse-engineer software to reveal code-changes (binary diffing) in order to exploit these security flaws in the wild. These vulnerabilities are typically attributed to opportunistic hackers and script-kiddies, where little research or heavy lifting is required.  

August 2021 gave rise to a critical vulnerability in Atlassian Confluence servers, namely CVE-2021-26084 [6]. Confluence is a widely used collaboration wiki tool and knowledge-sharing platform. As introduced and discussed a few months ago in a previous Darktrace blog, this vulnerability allows attackers to remotely execute code on internet-facing servers after exploiting injection vulnerabilities in Object-Graph Navigation Language (OGNL). Whilst Confluence had patches and fixes available to users, attackers still jumped on this opportunity and began scanning the internet for signs of critical devices serving this outdated software [7]. Once identified, they would  exploit the vulnerability, often installing crypto mining software onto the device. More recently, Darktrace explored a new vulnerability (CVE-2022-26134), disclosed midway through 2022, that affected Confluence servers and data centers using similar techniques to that found in CVE-2021-26084 [8]. 

SonicWall in the wild – 1. Zero-day attack

At the beginning of August 2021, Darktrace prevented an attack from taking place within a European automotive customer’s environment (Figure 1). The attack targeted a vulnerable internet-facing SonicWall VPN server, and while the attacker’s motive remains unclear, similar historic events suggest that they intended to perform ransomware encryption or data exfiltration. 

Figure 1: Timeline of the SonicWall attack 

Darktrace was unable to confirm the definite tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) used by the attacker to compromise the customer’s environment, as the device was compromised before Darktrace installation and coverage. However, from looking at recently disclosed SonicWall VPN vulnerabilities and patterns of behaviour, it is likely CVE-2021-20016 played a part. At some point after this initial infection, it is also believed the device was able to move laterally to a domain controller (DC) using administrative credentials; it was this server that then initiated the anomalous activity that Darktrace detected and alerted on. 

On August 5th 2021 , Darktrace observed this compromised domain controller engaging in unusual ICMP scanning - a protocol used to discover active devices within an environment and create a map of an organization’s network topology. Shortly after, the infected server began scanning devices for open RDP ports and enumerating SMB shares using unorthodox methods. SMB delete and HTTP requests (over port 445 and 80 respectively) were made for files named delete.me in the root directory of numerous network shares using the user agent Microsoft WebDAV. However, no such files appeared to exist within the environment. This may have been the result of an attacker probing devices in the network in an effort to see their responses and gather information on properties and vulnerabilities they could later exploit. 

Soon the infected DC began establishing RDP tunnels back to the VPN server and making requests to an internal DNS server for multiple endpoints relating to exploit kits, likely in an effort to strengthen the attacker’s foothold within the environment. Some of the endpoints requested relate to:

-       EternalBlue vulnerability 

-       Petit Potam NTLM hash attack tool

-       Unusual GitHub repositories

-       Unusual Python repositories  

The DC made outgoing NTLM requests to other internal devices, implying the successful installation of Petit Potam exploitation tools. The server then began performing NTLM reconnaissance, making over 1,000 successful logins under ‘Administrator’ to several other internal devices. Around the same time, the device was also seen making anonymous SMBv1 logins to numerous internal devices, (possibly symptomatic of the attacker probing machines for EternalBlue vulnerabilities). 

Interestingly, the device also made numerous failed authentication attempts using a spoofed credential for one of the organization’s security managers. This was likely in an attempt to hide themselves using ‘Living off the Land’ (LotL) techniques. However, whilst the attacker clearly did their research on the company, they failed to acknowledge the typical naming convention used for credentials within the environment. This ultimately backfired and made the compromise more obvious and unusual. 

In the morning of the following day, the initially compromised VPN server began conducting further reconnaissance, engaging in similar activity to that observed by the domain controller. Until now, the customer had set Darktrace RESPOND to run in human confirmation mode, meaning interventions were not made autonomously but required confirmation by a member of the internal security team. However, thanks to Proactive Threat Notifications (PTNs) delivered by Darktrace’s dedicated SOC team, the customer was made immediately aware of this unusual behaviour, allowing them to apply manual Darktrace RESPOND blocks to all outgoing connections (Figure 2). This gave the security team enough time to respond and remediate before serious damage could be done.

Figure 2: Darktrace RESPOND model breach showing the manually applied “Quarantine Device” action taken against the compromised VPN server. This screenshot displays the UI from Darktrace version 5.1

Confluence in the wild – 2. N-day attack

Towards the end of 2021, Darktrace saw a European broadcasting customer leave an Atlassian Confluence internet-facing server unpatched and vulnerable to crypto-mining malware using CVE-2021-26084. Thanks to Darktrace, this attack was entirely immobilized within only a few hours of the initial infection, protecting the organization from damage (Figure 3). 

Figure 3: Timeline of the Confluence attack

On midday on September 1st 2021, an unpatched Confluence server was seen receiving SSL connections over port 443 from a suspicious new endpoint, 178.238.226[.]127.  The connections were encrypted, meaning Darktrace was unable to view the contents and ascertain what requests were being made. However, with the disclosure of CVE-2021-26084 just 7 days prior to this activity, it is likely that the TTPs used involved injecting OGNL expressions to Confluence server memory; allowing the attacker to remotely execute code on the vulnerable server.

Immediately after successful exploitation of the Confluence server, the infected device was observed making outgoing HTTP GET requests to several external endpoints using a new user agent (curl/7.61.1). Curl was used to silently download and configure multiple suspicious files relating to XMRig cryptocurrency miner, including ld.sh, XMRig and config.json. Subsequent outgoing connections were then made to europe.randomx-hub.miningpoolhub[.]com · 172.105.210[.]117 using the JSON-RPC protocol, seen alongside the mining credential maillocal.confluence (Figure 4). Only 3 seconds after initial compromise, the infected device began attempting to mine cryptocurrency using the Minergate protocol but was instantly and autonomously blocked by Darktrace RESPOND. This prevented the server from abusing system resources and generating profits for the attacker.

Figure 4: A graph showing the frequency of external connections using the JSON-RPC protocol made by the breach device over a 48-hour window. The orange-red dots represent models that breached as a result of this activity, demonstrating the “waterfall” effect commonly seen when a device suffers a compromise. This screenshot displays the UI from Darktrace version 5.1

In the afternoon, the malware persisted with its infection. The compromised server began making successive HTTP GET requests to a new rare endpoint 195.19.192[.]28 using the same curl user agent (Figures 5 & 6). These requests were for executable and dynamic library files associated with Kinsing malware (but fortunately were also blocked by Darktrace RESPOND). Kinsing is a malware strain found in numerous attack campaigns which is often associated with crypto-jacking, and has appeared in previous Darktrace blogs [9].

Figure 5: Cyber AI Analyst summarising the unusual download of Kinsing software using the new curl user agent. This screenshot displays the UI from Darktrace version 5.1

The attacker then began making HTTP POST requests to an IP 185.154.53[.]140, using the same curl user agent; likely a method for the attacker to maintain persistence within the network and establish a foothold using its C2 infrastructure. The Confluence server was then again seen attempting to mine cryptocurrency using the Minergate protocol. It made outgoing JSON-RPC connections to a different new endpoint, 45.129.2[.]107, using the following mining credential: ‘42J8CF9sQoP9pMbvtcLgTxdA2KN4ZMUVWJk6HJDWzixDLmU2Ar47PUNS5XHv4Kmfdh8aA9fbZmKHwfmFo8Wup8YtS5Kdqh2’. This was once again blocked by Darktrace RESPOND (Figure 7). 

Figure 6: VirusTotal showing the unusualness of one of these external IPs [10]
Figure 7: Log data showing the action taken by Darktrace RESPOND in response to the device breaching the “Crypto Currency Mining Activity” model. This screenshot displays the UI from Darktrace version 5.1

The final activity seen from this device involved the download of additional shell scripts over HTTP associated with Kinsing, namely spre.sh and unk.sh, from 194.38.20[.]199 and 195.3.146[.]118 respectively (Figure 8). A new user agent (Wget/1.19.5 (linux-gnu)) was used when connecting to the latter endpoint, which also began concurrently initiating repeated connections indicative of C2 beaconing. These scripts help to spread the Kinsing malware laterally within the environment and may have been the attacker's last ditch efforts at furthering their compromise before Darktrace RESPOND blocked all connections from the infected Confluence server [11]. With Darktrace RESPOND's successful actions, the customer’s security team were then able to perform their own response and remediation. 

Figure 8: Cyber AI Analyst revealing the last ditch efforts made by the threat actor to download further malicious software. This screenshot displays the UI from Darktrace version 5.1

Darktrace Coverage: N- vs Zero-days

In the SonicWall case the attacker was unable to achieve their actions on objectives (thanks to Darktrace's intervention). However, this incident displayed tactics of a more stealthy and sophisticated attacker - they had an exploited machine but waited for the right moment to execute their malicious code and initiate a full compromise. Due to the lack of visibility over attacker motive, it is difficult to deduce what type of actor led to this intrusion. However, with the disclosure of a zero-day vulnerability (CVE-2021-20016) not long before this attack, along with a seemingly dormant initially compromised device, it is highly possible that it was carried out by a sophisticated cyber criminal or gang. 

On the other hand, the Confluence case engaged in a slightly more noisy approach; it dropped crypto mining malware on vulnerable devices in the hope that the target’s security team did not maintain visibility over their network or would merely turn a blind eye. The files downloaded and credentials observed alongside the mining activity heavily imply the use of Kinsing malware [11]. Since this vulnerability (CVE-2021-26084) emerged as an n-day attack with likely easily accessible POCs, as well as there being a lack of LotL techniques and the motive being long term monetary gain, it is possible this attack was conducted by a less sophisticated or amateur actor (script-kiddie); one that opportunistically exploits known vulnerabilities in internet-facing devices in order to make a quick profit [12].

Whilst Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in human confirmation mode only during the start of the SonicWall attack, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst still offered invaluable insight into the unusual activity associated with the infected machines during both the Confluence and SonicWall compromises. SOC analysts were able to see these uncharacteristic behaviours and escalate the incident through Darktrace’s PTN and ATE services. Analysts then worked through these tickets with the customers, providing support and guidance and, in the SonicWall case, quickly helping to configure Darktrace RESPOND. In both scenarios, Darktrace RESPOND was able to block abnormal connections and enforce a device’s pattern of life, affording the security team enough time to isolate the infected machines and prevent further threats such as ransomware detonation or data exfiltration. 

Concluding thoughts and dangers of third-party integrations 

Organizations with internet-facing devices will inevitably suffer opportunistic zero-day and n-day attacks. While little can be done to remove the risk of zero-days entirely, ensuring that organizations keep their systems up to date will at the very least help prevent opportunistic and script-kiddies from exploiting n-day vulnerabilities.  

However, it is often not always possible for organizations to keep their systems up to date, especially for those who require continuous availability. This may also pose issues for organizations that rely on, and put their trust in, third party integrations such as those explored in this blog (Confluence and SonicWall), as enforcing secure software is almost entirely out of their hands. Moreover, with the rising prevalence of remote working, it is essential now more than ever that organizations ensure their VPN devices are shielded from external threats, guidance on which has been released by the NSA/CISA [13].

These two case studies have shown that whilst organizations can configure their networks and firewalls to help identify known indicators of compromise (IoC), this ‘rearview mirror’ approach will not account for, or protect against, any new and undisclosed IoCs. With the aid of Self-Learning AI and anomaly detection, Darktrace can detect the slightest deviation from a device’s normal pattern of life and respond autonomously without the need for rules and signatures. This allows for the disruption and prevention of known and novel attacks before irreparable damage is caused- reassuring security teams that their digital estates are secure. 

Thanks to Paul Jennings for his contributions to this blog.

Appendices: SonicWall (Zero-day)

Darktrace model detections

·      AIA / Suspicious Chain of Administrative Credentials

·      Anomalous Connection / Active Remote Desktop Tunnel

·      Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

·      Anomalous Connection / Unusual Internal Remote Desktop

·      Compliance / High Priority Compliance Model Breach

·      Compliance / Outgoing NTLM Request from DC

·      Device / Anomalous RDP Followed By Multiple Model Breaches

·      Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Breaches

·      Device / ICMP Address Scan

·      Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

·      Device / Large Number of Model Breaches from Critical Network Device

·      Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches (PTN/Enhanced Monitoring model)

·      Device / Network Scan

·      Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance

·      Device / RDP Scan

·      Device / Reverse DNS Sweep

·      Device / SMB Session Bruteforce

·      Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity (PTN/Enhanced Monitoring model)

·      Unusual Activity / Possible RPC Recon Activity

Darktrace RESPOND (Antigena) actions (as displayed in example)

·      Antigena / Network / Manual / Quarantine Device

MITRE ATT&CK Techniques Observed
IoCs

Appendices: Confluence (N-day)

Darktrace model detections

·      Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

·      Anomalous Connection / Posting HTTP to IP Without Hostname

·      Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

·      Anomalous File / Script from Rare Location

·      Compliance / Crypto Currency Mining Activity

·      Compromise / High Priority Crypto Currency Mining (PTN/Enhanced Monitoring model)

·      Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise (PTN/Enhanced Monitoring model)

·      Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

·      Device / New User Agent

Darktrace RESPOND (Antigena) actions (displayed in example)

·      Antigena / Network / Compliance / Antigena Crypto Currency Mining Block

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

·      Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious Activity Block

·      Antigena / Network / External Threat / Antigena Suspicious File Block

·      Antigena / Network / Significant Anomaly / Antigena Block Enhanced Monitoring

MITRE ATT&CK Techniques Observed
IOCs

References:

[1] https://securitybrief.asia/story/why-preventing-zero-day-attacks-is-crucial-for-businesses

[2] https://electricenergyonline.com/energy/magazine/1150/article/Security-Sessions-More-Dangerous-Than-Zero-Days-The-N-Day-Threat.htm

[3] https://www.wired.com/2014/11/countdown-to-zero-day-stuxnet/

[4] https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvekey.cgi?keyword=SonicWall+2021 

[5] https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2021-20016

[6] https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2021-26084

[7] https://www.zdnet.com/article/us-cybercom-says-mass-exploitation-of-atlassian-confluence-vulnerability-ongoing-and-expected-to-accelerate/

[8] https://cve.mitre.org/cgi-bin/cvename.cgi?name=CVE-2022-26134

[9] https://attack.mitre.org/software/S0599/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/195.19.192.28/detection 

[11] https://sysdig.com/blog/zoom-into-kinsing-kdevtmpfsi/

[12] https://github.com/alt3kx/CVE-2021-26084_PoC

[13] https://www.nsa.gov/Press-Room/Press-Releases-Statements/Press-Release-View/Article/2791320/nsa-cisa-release-guidance-on-selecting-and-hardening-remote-access-vpns/

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.
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Inside the SOC

Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

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About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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22
Feb 2024

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.

Phishing Attempts  

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.  

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: A phishing email actioned by Darktrace, sent to multiple VIP and non-VIP entities

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.  

Conclusion

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.  

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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