Blog

Inside the SOC

Self-Learning AI for Zero-Day and N-Day Attack Defense

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
26
Jul 2022
26
Jul 2022
Explore the differences between zero-day and n-day attacks on different customer servers to learn how Darktrace detects and prevents cyber threats effectively.

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.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Lewis Morgan
Cyber Analyst
Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
USE CASES
PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT
No items found.

More in this series

No items found.

Safeguarding Distribution Centers in the Digital Age

Default blog imageDefault blog image
12
Jun 2024

Challenges securing distribution centers

For large retail providers, e-commerce organizations, logistics & supply chain organizations, and other companies who rely on the distribution of goods to consumers cybersecurity efforts are often focused on an immense IT infrastructure. However, there's a critical, often overlooked segment of infrastructure that demands vigilant monitoring and robust protection: distribution centers.

Distribution centers play a critical role in the business operations of supply chains, logistics, and the retail industry. They serve as comprehensive logistics hubs, with many organizations operating multiple centers worldwide to meet consumer needs. Depending on their size and hours of operation, even just one hour of downtime at these centers can result in significant financial losses, ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.

Due to the time-sensitive nature and business criticality of distribution centers, there has been a rise in applying modern technologies now including AI applications to enhance efficiency within these facilities. Today’s distribution centers are increasingly connected to Enterprise IT networks, the cloud and the internet to manage every stage of the supply chain. Additionally, it is common for organizations to allow 3rd party access to the distribution center networks and data for reasons including allowing them to scale their operations effectively.

However, this influx of new technologies and interconnected systems across IT, OT and cloud introduces new risks on the cybersecurity front. Distribution center networks include industrial operational technologies ICS/OT, IoT technologies, enterprise network technology, and cloud systems working in coordination. The convergence of these technologies creates a greater chance that blind spots exist for security practitioners and this increasing presence of networked technology increases the attack surface and potential for vulnerability. Thus, having cybersecurity measures that cover IT, OT or Cloud alone is not enough to secure a complex and dynamic distribution center network infrastructure.  

The OT network encompasses various systems, devices, hardware, and software, such as:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
  • Warehouse Execution System (WES)
  • Warehouse Control System (WCS)
  • Warehouse Management System (WMS)
  • Energy Management Systems (EMS)
  • Building Management Systems (BMS)
  • Distribution Control Systems (DCS)
  • Enterprise IT devices
  • OT and IoT: Engineering workstations, ICS application and management servers, PLCs, HMI, access control, cameras, and printers
  • Cloud applications

Distribution centers: An expanding attack surface

As these distribution centers have become increasingly automated, connected, and technologically advanced, their attack surfaces have inherently increased. Distribution centers now have a vastly different potential for cyber risk which includes:  

  • More networked devices present
  • Increased routable connectivity within industrial systems
  • Externally exposed industrial control systems
  • Increased remote access
  • IT/OT enterprise to industrial convergence
  • Cloud connectivity
  • Contractors, vendors, and consultants on site or remoting in  

Given the variety of connected systems, distribution centers are more exposed to external threats than ever before. Simultaneously, distribution center’s business criticality has positioned them as interesting targets to cyber adversaries seeking to cause disruption with significant financial impact.

Increased connectivity requires a unified security approach

When assessing the unique distribution center attack surface, the variety of interconnected systems and devices requires a cybersecurity approach that can cover the diverse technology environment.  

From a monitoring and visibility perspective, siloed IT, OT or cloud security solutions cannot provide the comprehensive asset management, threat detection, risk management, and response and remediation capabilities across interconnected digital infrastructure that a solution natively covering IT, cloud, OT, and IoT can provide.  

The problem with using siloed cybersecurity solutions to cover a distribution center is the visibility gaps that are inherently created when using multiple solutions to try and cover the totality of the diverse infrastructure. What this means is that for cross domain and multi-stage attacks, depending on the initial access point and where the adversary plans on actioning their objectives, multiple stages of the attack may not be detected or correlated if they security solutions lack visibility into OT, IT, IoT and cloud.

Comprehensive security under one solution

Darktrace leverages Self-Learning AI, which takes a new approach to cybersecurity. Instead of relying on rules and signatures, this AI trains on the specific business to learn a ‘pattern of life’ that models normal activity for every device, user, and connection. It can be applied anywhere an organization has data, and so can natively cover IT, OT, IoT, and cloud.  

With these models, Darktrace /OT provides improved visibility, threat detection and response, and risk management for proactive hardening recommendations.  

Visibility: Darktrace is the only OT security solution that natively covers IT, IoT and OT in unison. AI augmented workflows ensure OT cybersecurity analysts and operation engineers can manage IT and OT environments, leveraging a live asset inventory and tailored dashboards to optimize security workflows and minimize operator workload.

Threat detection, investigation, and response: The AI facilitates anomaly detection capable of detecting known, unknown, and insider threats and precise response for OT environments that contains threats at their earliest stages before they can jeopardize control systems. Darktrace immediately understands, identifies, and investigates all anomalous activity in OT networks, whether human or machine driven and uses Explainable AI to generate investigation reports via Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst.

Proactive risk identification: Risk management capabilities like attack path modeling can prioritize remediation and mitigation that will most effectively reduce derived risk scores. Rather than relying on knowledge of past attacks and CVE lists and scores, Darktrace AI learns what is ‘normal’ for its environment, discovering previously unknown threats and risks by detecting subtle shifts in behavior and connectivity. Through the application of Darktrace AI for OT environments, security teams can investigate novel attacks, discover blind spots, get live-time visibility across all their physical and digital assets, and reduce the time to detect, respond to, and triage security events.

Continue reading
About the author
Daniel Simonds
Director of Operational Technology

Blog

Inside the SOC

Medusa Ransomware: Looking Cyber Threats in the Eye with Darktrace

Default blog imageDefault blog image
10
Jun 2024

What is Living off the Land attack?

In the face of increasingly vigilant security teams and adept defense tools, attackers are continually looking for new ways to circumvent network security and gain access to their target environments. One common tactic is the leveraging of readily available utilities and services within a target organization’s environment in order to move through the kill chain; a popular method known as living off the land (LotL). Rather than having to leverage known malicious tools or write their own malware, attackers are able to easily exploit the existing infrastructure of their targets.

The Medusa ransomware group in particular are known to extensively employ LotL tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) in their attacks, as one Darktrace customer in the US discovered in early 2024.

What is Medusa Ransomware?

Medusa ransomware (not to be confused with MedusaLocker) was first observed in the wild towards the end of 2022 and has been a popular ransomware strain amongst threat actors since 2023 [1]. Medusa functions as a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) platform, providing would-be attackers, also know as affiliates, with malicious software and infrastructure required to carry out disruptive ransomware attacks. The ransomware is known to target organizations across many different industries and countries around the world, including healthcare, education, manufacturing and retail, with a particular focus on the US [2].

How does medusa ransomware work?

Medusa affiliates are known to employ a number of TTPs to propagate their malware, most prodominantly gaining initial access by exploiting vulnerable internet-facing assets and targeting valid local and domain accounts that are used for system administration.

The ransomware is typically delivered via phishing and spear phishing campaigns containing malicious attachments [3] [4], but it has also been observed using initial access brokers to access target networks [5]. In terms of the LotL strategies employed in Medusa compromises, affiliates are often observed leveraging legitimate services like the ConnectWise remote monitoring and management (RMM) software and PDQ Deploy, in order to evade the detection of security teams who may be unable to distinguish the activity from normal or expected network traffic [2].

According to researchers, Medusa has a public Telegram channel that is used by threat actors to post any data that may have been stolen, likely in an attempt to extort organizations and demand payment [2].  

Darktrace’s Coverage of Medusa Ransomware

Established Foothold and C2 activity

In March 2024, Darktrace /NETWORK identified over 80 devices, including an internet facing domain controller, on a customer network performing an unusual number of activities that were indicative of an emerging ransomware attack. The suspicious behavior started when devices were observed making HTTP connections to the two unusual endpoints, “wizarr.manate[.]ch” and “go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de”, with the PowerShell and JWrapperDownloader user agents.

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ launched an autonomous investigation into the connections and was able to connect the seemingly separate events into one wider incident spanning multiple different devices. This allowed the customer to visualize the activity in chronological order and gain a better understanding of the scope of the attack.

At this point, given the nature and rarity of the observed activity, Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response would have been expected to take autonomous action against affected devices, blocking them from making external connections to suspicious locations. However, autonomous response was not configured to take autonomous action at the time of the attack, meaning any mitigative actions had to be manually approved by the customer’s security team.

Internal Reconnaissance

Following these extensive HTTP connections, between March 1 and 7, Darktrace detected two devices making internal connection attempts to other devices, suggesting network scanning activity. Furthermore, Darktrace identified one of the devices making a connection with the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of the Nmap vulnerability scanning tool. While Nmap is primarily used legitimately by security teams to perform security audits and discover vulnerabilities that require addressing, it can also be leveraged by attackers who seek to exploit this information.

Darktrace / NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.
Figure 1: Darktrace /NETWORK model alert showing the URI “/nice ports, /Trinity.txt.bak”, indicating the use of Nmap.

Darktrace observed actors using multiple credentials, including “svc-ndscans”, which was also seen alongside DCE-RPC activity that took place on March 1. Affected devices were also observed making ExecQuery and ExecMethod requests for IWbemServices. ExecQuery is commonly utilized to execute WMI Query Language (WQL) queries that allow the retrieval of information from WI, including system information or hardware details, while ExecMethod can be used by attackers to gather detailed information about a targeted system and its running processes, as well as a tool for lateral movement.

Lateral Movement

A few hours after the first observed scanning activity on March 1, Darktrace identified a chain of administrative connections between multiple devices, including the aforementioned internet-facing server.

Cyber AI Analyst was able to connect these administrative connections and separate them into three distinct ‘hops’, i.e. the number of administrative connections made from device A to device B, including any devices leveraged in between. The AI Analyst investigation was also able to link the previously detailed scanning activity to these administrative connections, identifying that the same device was involved in both cases.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.
Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the chain of lateral movement activity.

On March 7, the internet exposed server was observed transferring suspicious files over SMB to multiple internal devices. This activity was identified as unusual by Darktrace compared to the device's normal SMB activity, with an unusual number of executable (.exe) and srvsvc files transferred targeting the ADMIN$ and IPC$ shares.

Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Figure 3: Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the suspicious SMB write activity.
Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.
Figure 4: Graph highlighting the number of successful SMB writes and the associated model alerts.

The threat actor was also seen writing SQLite3*.dll files over SMB using a another credential this time. These files likely contained the malicious payload that resulted in the customer’s files being encrypted with the extension “.s3db”.

Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.
Figure 5: Darktrace’s visibility over an affected device performing successful SMB writes.

Encryption of Files

Finally, Darktrace observed the malicious actor beginning to encrypt and delete files on the customer’s environment. More specifically, the actor was observed using credentials previously seen on the network to encrypt files with the aforementioned “.s3db” extension.

Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.
Figure 6: Darktrace’s visibility over the encrypted files.


After that, Darktrace observed the attacker encrypting  files and appending them with the extension “.MEDUSA” while also dropping a ransom note with the file name “!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt”

Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Figure 7: Darktrace’s detection of threat actors deleting files with the extension “.MEDUSA”.
Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.
Figure 8: Darktrace’s detection of the Medusa ransom note.

At the same time as these events, Darktrace observed the attacker utilizing a number of LotL techniques including SSL connections to “services.pdq[.]tools”, “teamviewer[.]com” and “anydesk[.]com”. While the use of these legitimate services may have bypassed traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to detect the activity and distinguish it from ‘normal’’ network activity. It is highly likely that these SSL connections represented the attacker attempting to exfiltrate sensitive data from the customer’s network, with a view to using it to extort the customer.

Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.
Figure 9: Cyber AI Analyst’s detection of “services.pdq[.]tools” usage.

If this customer had been subscribed to Darktrace's Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service at the time of the attack, they would have been promptly notified of these suspicious activities by the Darktrace Security Operation Center (SOC). In this way they could have been aware of the suspicious activities taking place in their infrastructure before the escalation of the compromise. Despite this, they were able to receive assistance through the Ask the Expert service (ATE) whereby Darktrace’s expert analyst team was on hand to assist the customer by triaging and investigating the incident further, ensuring the customer was well equipped to remediate.  

As Darktrace /NETWORK's autonomous response was not enabled in autonomous response mode, this ransomware attack was able to progress to the point of encryption and data exfiltration. Had autonomous response been properly configured to take autonomous action, Darktrace would have blocked all connections by affected devices to both internal and external endpoints, as well as enforcing a previously established “pattern of life” on the device to stop it from deviating from its expected behavior.

Conclusion

The threat actors in this Medusa ransomware attack attempted to utilize LotL techniques in order to bypass human security teams and traditional security tools. By exploiting trusted systems and tools, like Nmap and PDQ Deploy, attackers are able to carry out malicious activity under the guise of legitimate network traffic.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, allows it to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that tend to be indicative of compromise, regardless of whether it appears legitimate or benign on the surface.

Further to the detection of the individual events that made up this ransomware attack, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to correlate the activity and collate it under one wider incident. This allowed the customer to track the compromise and its attack phases from start to finish, ensuring they could obtain a holistic view of their digital environment and remediate effectively.

Credit to Maria Geronikolou, Cyber Analyst, Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Alerts

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / Attack and Recon Tools

Device / Suspicious File Writes to Multiple Hidden SMB Share

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert

Device / Network Scan

Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Possible HTTP Command and Control

Extensive Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Possible SSL Command and Control to Multiple Endpoints

Suspicious Remote WMI Activity

Scanning of Multiple Devices

Possible Ransom Note Accessed over SMB

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type – Description + Confidence

207.188.6[.]17      -     IP address   -      C2 Endpoint

172.64.154[.]227 - IP address -        C2 Endpoint

wizarr.manate[.]ch  - Hostname -       C2 Endpoint

go-sw6-02.adventos[.]de.  Hostname  - C2 Endpoint

.MEDUSA             -        File extension     - Extension to encrypted files

.s3db               -             File extension    -  Created file extension

SQLite3-64.dll    -        File           -               Used tool

!!!Read_me_Medusa!!!.txt - File -   Ransom note

Svc-ndscans         -         Credential     -     Possible compromised credential

Svc-NinjaRMM      -       Credential      -     Possible compromised credential

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Discovery  - File and Directory Discovery - T1083

Reconnaissance    -  Scanning IP            -          T1595.001

Reconnaissance -  Vulnerability Scanning -  T1595.002

Lateral Movement -Exploitation of Remote Service -  T1210

Lateral Movement - Exploitation of Remote Service -   T1210

Lateral Movement  -  SMB/Windows Admin Shares     -    T1021.002

Lateral Movement   -  Taint Shared Content          -            T1080

Execution   - PowerShell     - T1059.001

Execution  -   Service Execution   -    T1059.002

Impact   -    Data Encrypted for Impact  -  T1486

References

[1] https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/medusa-ransomware-escalation-new-leak-site/

[2] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[3] https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/trustwave-blog/unveiling-the-latest-ransomware-threats-targeting-the-casino-and-entertainment-industry/

[4] https://www.sangfor.com/farsight-labs-threat-intelligence/cybersecurity/security-advisory-for-medusa-ransomware

[5] https://thehackernews.com/2024/01/medusa-ransomware-on-rise-from-data.html

[6]https://any.run/report/8be3304fec9d41d44012213ddbb28980d2570edeef3523b909af2f97768a8d85/e4c54c9d-12fd-477f-8cbb-a20f8fb98912

Continue reading
About the author
Maria Geronikolou
Cyber Analyst
Our ai. Your data.

Elevate your cyber defenses with Darktrace AI

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