Blog

OT

Threat Finds

What the EKANS ransomware attack reveals about the future of OT cyber-attacks

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
24
Jun 2020
24
Jun 2020
The EKANS ransomware attack that disrupted Honda’s operations across the globe this month has opened old wounds in the OT security world – and highlighted the importance of a unified security strategy across the entire digital estate.

In recent weeks, the security industry has become acutely aware of the challenges surrounding OT protection, with the EKANS ransomware attacks on Honda and the Enel Group demonstrating how novel threats continue to slip through the cracks of security systems in ICS environments. What’s more, with such attacks resulting in loss of productivity and damage to critical infrastructure, the need for a cyber security strategy that bridges both OT and IT technology is increasingly urgent.

The recent EKANS ransomware has been making waves in security circles because of its ability to target 64 specific ICS mechanisms in its ‘kill chain’. Standard attacks target ICS environments through vulnerabilities in IT infrastructure, pivoting through unpatched software to reach OT machinery, rather than heading straight for the jugular. The EKANS ransomware targeted ICS vulnerabilities directly and can be considered the first of its kind – marking a significant evolution in attacker techniques. Before now, ICS machinery-specific ransomware had either been an academic theory or a marketing tool.

Technical analysis

Written in the Go programming language, EKANS has additional obfuscation abilities compared to other ransomware strains, which enable it to better evade detection. As will be seen in this analysis, the power of EKANS ransomware is two-fold – it is able to disguise its attack in the beginning stages, and when it does strike, it is targeted at industrial pain points.

The ransomware’s first port of call is to check if the victim has already been encrypted. If not, standard encryption library functions ensue. These involve both the execution of encryption operations and the deletion of Volume Shadow Copy back-ups – meaning the victim cannot simply retrieve duplicated data copies and circumvent the ransom.

Before the relevant files are encrypted, EKANS ransomware kills various ICS processes listed in a pre-programmed, hard-coded list. The affected applications include GE’s Proficy data historian, GE Fanuc automation software, FLEXNet licensing server instance, Thingworx monitoring and management software, and Honeywell’s HMIWeb application – all specific to ICS environments.

proficyclient.exe
vmacthlp.exe
msdtssrvr.exe
sqlservr.exe
msmdsrv.exe
reportingservicesservice.exe
dsmcsvc.exe
winvnc4.exe
client.exe
collwrap.exe
bluestripecollector.exe

Figure 1: A small excerpt of the ICS-related processes targeted in the EKANS ‘kill list’

While stalling these processes doesn’t necessarily bring industrial plants crashing to a halt, it does reduce visibility and potentially make machine operations unpredictable. In the case of Honda’s attack, manufacturing operations across the US, the UK, and Turkey were suspended. With a workforce of 220,000 people worldwide, shutting down several factories and sending employees home results in a dramatic loss of production hours and employee salaries – not to mention the costs of getting systems up and running without giving in to ransom demands.

EKANS then goes one stage further. Once this initial kill chain has been executed, the ransomware starts encrypting data. Five randomly generated letters are added at the end of each original file extension. This in itself is unusual, as most ransomware encrypts data with a specific key.

Figure 2: Encryption results of EKANS ransomware

Rather than targeting specific devices or systems, EKANS ransomware looks to take down the entire network, which is part of what makes it such an aggressive style of ransomware. However, it lacks a self-propagating mechanism, so it has to be manually introduced to ICS environments. Malicious payloads hidden in links and attachments within emails are the primary mechanism used to introduce the ransomware. From there, EKANS exploits vulnerable and unpatched services, seeding itself across the entire business via script.

When the encryption process has been completed, a ransom note is displayed, requesting a covert financial exchange for a decryption key over the encrypted email platform CTemplar. In the case of both Honda and the Enel Group, they were told to contact CarrolBidell@tutanota[.]com for further information. The attackers also offered to send several decrypted files to prove the legitimacy of the encryption key.

| What happened to your files?
--------------------------------------------
We breached your corporate network and encrypted the data on your computers. The encrypted data includes documents, databases, photos and more –
all were encrypted using a military grade encryption algorithms (AES-256 and RSA-2048). You cannot access those files right now. But dont worry!
You can still get those files back and be up and running again in no time.
--------------------------------------------
| How to contact us to get your files back?
--------------------------------------------
The only way to restore your files is by purchasing a decryption tool loaded with a private key we created specifically for your network.
Once run on an effected computer, the tool will decrypt all encrypted files – and you resume day-to-day operations, preferably with
better cyber security in mind. If you are interested in purchasing the decryption tool contact us at %s
--------------------------------------------
| How can you be certain we have the decryption tool?
--------------------------------------------
In your mail to us attach up to 3 files (up to 3MB, no databases or spreadsheets).

Figure 3: Partial view of EKANS ransomware note

Honda has refrained from stating what specific plant capabilities were affected by the EKANS attack, however it has publicly affirmed that production operations have been affected in multiple factories across the world. Their visibility and control systems were disrupted significantly enough to suspend manufacturing.

Becoming immune to ransomware

While the EKANS ransomware leverages fairly crude techniques and is only able to halt processes rather than control ICS mechanisms, it represents a new frontier in OT cyber-attacks. ICS offensives will continue to evolve – with greater control over machinery a likely avenue of exploration for cyber-criminals.

What is clear from the Honda attack is that even some of the world’s largest global conglomerates are susceptible to these kind of ransomware attacks. What is needed to protect factory floors from such attacks is a cyber security solution that can detect the most subtle signals of threat, learning on the job to understand what is ‘normal’ for each unique ICS environment.

Darktrace’s AI learns the normal ‘patterns of life’ for every user, device, and controller across both OT and IT. By continuously analyzing data across organizations’ systems, the AI’s unique understanding of how each facet of a business and a dynamic workforce interacts ensures that any malicious activity is detected seconds after it emerges. In the case of EKANS, this self-learning approach would have identified a number of anomalous behaviors pertaining to the originally infected device, including beaconing to a rare destination and the unusual connections to encryption software.

Complementing Darktrace’s threat detection is the AI’s Autonomous Response abilities, which neutralize threats with surgical precision – allowing business activity to continue as normal. Autonomous Response has already proven itself successful in stopping ransomware attacks, preventing damaging operational outages at manufacturing facilities, hospitals, and municipalities around the world.

Conclusion

EKANS revealed that attackers are beginning to successfully target both IT and OT systems with one attack, making the need for security programs that can bridge this gap more urgent than ever. The ability to defend both environments with a single security solution ensures holistic protection for the entire organization. By correlating disparate data points across SaaS, email, cloud, traditional network, and OT environments, Cyber AI can identify and stop even the most sophisticated attacks.

The reality is that threats in the OT sphere will continue to evolve, becoming faster and more furious than ever. Given the potential damage ransomware can cause, security that can defend industrial systems along with dynamic workforces – detecting and stopping fast-acting threats across a complex business – has become more important than ever. The functionality of industrial systems depends on it.

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
David Masson
Director of Enterprise Security

David Masson is Darktrace’s Director of Enterprise Security, and has over two decades of experience working in fast moving security and intelligence environments in the UK, Canada and worldwide. With skills developed in the civilian, military and diplomatic worlds, he has been influential in the efficient and effective resolution of various unique national security issues. David is an operational solutions expert and has a solid reputation across the UK and Canada for delivery tailored to customer needs. At Darktrace, David advises strategic customers across North America and is also a regular contributor to major international and national media outlets in Canada where he is based. He holds a master’s degree from Edinburgh University.

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

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

No items found.

Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

Default blog imageDefault blog image
04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

Continue reading
About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

Blog

Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

Default blog imageDefault blog image
29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

Continue reading
About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Good news for your business.
Bad news for the bad guys.

Start your free trial

Start your free trial

Flexible delivery
Cloud-based deployment.
Fast install
Just 1 hour to set up – and even less for an email security trial.
Choose your journey
Try out Self-Learning AI wherever you most need it — including cloud, network or email.
No commitment
Full access to the Darktrace Threat Visualizer and three bespoke Threat Reports, with no obligation to purchase.
For more information, please see our Privacy Notice.
Thanks, your request has been received
A member of our team will be in touch with you shortly.
YOU MAY FIND INTERESTING
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get a demo

Flexible delivery
You can either install it virtually or with hardware.
Fast install
Just 1 hour to set up – and even less for an email security trial.
Choose your journey
Try out Self-Learning AI wherever you most need it — including cloud, network or email.
No commitment
Full access to the Darktrace Threat Visualizer and three bespoke Threat Reports, with no obligation to purchase.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.