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

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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.

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Email

Looking Beyond Secure Email Gateways with the Latest Innovations to Darktrace/Email

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09
Apr 2024

Organizations Should Demand More from their Email Security

In response to a more intricate threat landscape, organizations should view email security as a critical component of their defense-in-depth strategy, rather than defending the inbox alone with a traditional Secure Email Gateway (SEG). Organizations need more than a traditional gateway – that doubles, instead of replaces, the capabilities provided by native security vendor – and require an equally granular degree of analysis across all messaging, including inbound, outbound, and lateral mail, plus Teams messages.  

Darktrace/Email is the industry’s most advanced cloud email security, powered by Self-Learning AI. It combines AI techniques to exceed the accuracy and efficiency of leading security solutions, and is the only security built to elevate, not duplicate, native email security.  

With its largest update ever, Darktrace/Email introduces the following innovations, finally allowing security teams to look beyond secure email gateways with autonomous AI:

  • AI-augmented data loss prevention to stop the entire spectrum of outbound mail threats
  • an easy way to deploy DMARC quickly with AI
  • major enhancements to streamline SOC workflows and increase the detection of sophisticated phishing links
  • expansion of Darktrace’s leading AI prevention to lateral mail, account compromise and Microsoft Teams

What’s New with Darktrace/Email  

Data Loss Prevention  

Block the entire spectrum of outbound mail threats with advanced data loss prevention that builds on tags in native email to stop unknown, accidental, and malicious data loss

Darktrace understands normal at individual user, group and organization level with a proven AI that detects abnormal user behavior and dynamic content changes. Using this understanding, Darktrace/Email actions outbound emails to stop unknown, accidental and malicious data loss.  

Traditional DLP solutions only take into account classified data, which relies on the manual input of labelling each data piece, or creating rules to catch pattern matches that try to stop data of certain types leaving the organization. But in today’s world of constantly changing data, regular expression and fingerprinting detection are no longer enough.

  • Human error – Because it understands normal for every user, Darktrace/Email can recognize cases of misdirected emails. Even if the data is correctly labelled or insensitive, Darktrace recognizes when the context in which it is being sent could be a case of data loss and warns the user.  
  • Unclassified data – Whereas traditional DLP solutions can only take action on classified data, Darktrace analyzes the range of data that is either pending labels or can’t be labeled with typical capabilities due to its understanding of the content and context of every email.  
  • Insider threat – If a malicious actor has compromised an account, data exfiltration may still be attempted on encrypted, intellectual property, or other forms of unlabelled data to avoid detection. Darktrace analyses user behaviour to catch cases of unusual data exfiltration from individual accounts.

And classification efforts already in place aren’t wasted – Darktrace/Email extends Microsoft Purview policies and sensitivity labels to avoid duplicate workflows for the security team, combining the best of both approaches to ensure organizations maintain control and visibility over their data.

End User and Security Workflows

Achieve more than 60% improvement in the quality of end-user phishing reports and detection of sophisticated malicious weblinks1

Darktrace/Email improves end-user reporting from the ground up to save security team resource. Employees will always be on the front line of email security – while other solutions assume that end-user reporting is automatically of poor quality, Darktrace prioritizes improving users’ security awareness to increase the quality of end-user reporting from day one.  

Users are empowered to assess and report suspicious activity with contextual banners and Cyber AI Analyst generated narratives for potentially suspicious emails, resulting in 60% fewer benign emails reported.  

Out of the higher-quality emails that end up being reported, the next step is to reduce the amount of emails that reach the SOC. Darktrace/Email’s Mailbox Security Assistant automates their triage with secondary analysis combining additional behavioral signals – using x20 more metrics than previously – with advanced link analysis to detect 70% more sophisticated malicious phishing links.2 This directly alleviates the burden of manual triage for security analysts.

For the emails that are received by the SOC, Darktrace/Email uses automation to reduce time spent investigating per incident. With live inbox view, security teams gain access to a centralized platform that combines intuitive search capabilities, Cyber AI Analyst reports, and mobile application access. Analysts can take remediation actions from within Darktrace/Email, eliminating console hopping and accelerating incident response.

Darktrace takes a user-focused and business-centric approach to email security, in contrast to the attack-centric rules and signatures approach of secure email gateways

Microsoft Teams

Detect threats within your Teams environment such as account compromise, phishing, malware and data loss

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services, particularly Teams and SharePoint.3

Darktrace now leverages the same behavioral AI techniques for Microsoft customers across 365 and Teams, allowing organizations to detect threats and signals of account compromise within their Teams environment including social engineering, malware and data loss.  

The primary use case for Microsoft Teams protection is as a potential entry vector. While messaging has traditionally been internal only, as organizations open up it is becoming an entry vector which needs to be treated with the same level of caution as email. That’s why we’re bringing our proven AI approach to Microsoft Teams, that understands the user behind the message.  

Anomalous messaging behavior is also a highly relevant indicator of whether a user has been compromised. Unlike other solutions that analyze Microsoft Teams content which focus on payloads, Darktrace goes beyond basic link and sandbox analysis and looks at actual user behavior from both a content and context perspective. This linguistic understanding isn’t bound by the requirement to match a signature to a malicious payload, rather it looks at the context in which the message has been delivered. From this analysis, Darktrace can spot the early symptoms of account compromise such as early-stage social engineering before a payload is delivered.

Lateral Mail Analysis

Detect and respond to internal mailflow with multi-layered AI to prevent account takeover, lateral phishing and data leaks

The industry’s most robust account takeover protection now prevents lateral mail account compromise. Darktrace has always looked at internal mail to inform inbound and outbound decisions, but will now elevate suspicious lateral mail behaviour using the same AI techniques for inbound, outbound and Teams analysis.

Darktrace integrates signals from across the entire mailflow and communication patterns to determine symptoms of account compromise, now including lateral mailflow

Unlike other solutions which only analyze payloads, Darktrace analyzes a whole range of signals to catch lateral movement before a payload is delivered. Contributing yet another layer to the AI behavioral profile for each user, security teams can now use signals from lateral mail to spot the early symptoms of account takeover and take autonomous actions to prevent further compromise.

DMARC

Gain in-depth visibility and control of 3rd parties using your domain with an industry-first AI-assisted DMARC

Darktrace has created the easiest path to brand protection and compliance with the new Darktrace/DMARC. This new capability continuously stops spoofing and phishing from the enterprise domain, while automatically enhancing email security and reducing the attack surface.

Darktrace/DMARC helps to upskill businesses by providing step by step guidance and automated record suggestions provide a clear, efficient road to enforcement. It allows organizations to quickly achieve compliance with requirements from Google, Yahoo, and others, to ensure that their emails are reaching mailboxes.  

Meanwhile, Darktrace/DMARC helps to reduce the overall attack surface by providing visibility over shadow-IT and third-party vendors sending on behalf of an organization’s brand, while informing recipients when emails from their domains are sent from un-authenticated DMARC source.

Darktrace/DMARC integrates with the wider Darktrace product platform, sharing insights to help further secure your business across Email Attack Path and Attack Surface management.

Conclusion

To learn more about the new innovations to Darktrace/Email download the solution brief here.

All of the new updates to Darktrace/Email sit within the new Darktrace ActiveAI Security Platform, creating a feedback loop between email security and the rest of the digital estate for better protection. Click to read more about the Darktrace ActiveAI Security Platform or to hear about the latest innovations to Darktrace/OT, the most comprehensive prevention, detection, and response solution purpose built for critical infrastructures.  

Learn about the intersection of cyber and AI by downloading the State of AI Cyber Security 2024 report to discover global findings that may surprise you, insights from security leaders, and recommendations for addressing today’s top challenges that you may face, too.

References

[1] Internal Darktrace Research

[2] Internal Darktrace Research

[3] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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Managing Risk Beyond CVE Scores With the Latest Innovations to Darktrace/OT

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09
Apr 2024

Identifying Cyber Risk in Industrial Organizations

Compromised OT devices in ICS and SCADA environments pose significant physical risks, even endangering lives. However, identifying CVEs in the multitude of complex OT devices is labor-intensive and time-consuming, draining valuable resources.

Even after identifying a vulnerability, implementing a patch presents its own challenges limited maintenance windows and the need for uninterrupted operations strain IT and OT teams often leading organizations to prioritize availability over security leading vulnerabilities remaining unresolved for over 5 years on average. (1)

Darktrace’s New Innovation

Darktrace is an industry leader in cybersecurity with 10+ years of experience securing OT environments where we take a fundamentally different approach using Self-Learning AI to enhance threat detection and response.

Continuing to combat the expanding threat landscape, Darktrace is excited to announce new capabilities that enable a contextualized and proactive approach to managing cyber risk at industrial organizations.

Today we launch an innovation to our OT Cybersecurity solution, Darktrace/OT, that will add a layer of proactivity, enabling a comprehensive approach to risk management. This industry leading innovation for Darktrace/OT moves beyond CVE scores to redefine vulnerability management for critical infrastructure, tackling the full breadth of risks not limited by traditional controls.  

Darktrace/OT is the only OT security solution with comprehensive Risk Management which includes:

  • Contextualized risk analysis unique to your organization
  • The most realistic evaluation and prioritization of OT risk
  • Effectively mitigate risk across your OT infrastructure, with and without patching.
  • The only OT security solution that evaluates your defenses against Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) Groups.

The most comprehensive prevention, detection, and response solution purpose built for Critical Infrastructures

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI technology is a cutting-edge innovation that implements real time prevention, detection, response, and recovery for operational technologies and enables a fundamental shift from the traditional approach to cyber defense by learning a ‘pattern of life’ for every network, device, and user.  

Rather than relying on knowledge of past attacks, AI technology learns what is ‘normal’ for its environment, discovering previously unknown threats by detecting subtle shifts in behavior. Through identifying these unexpected anomalies, security teams can investigate novel attacks, discover blind spots, have live time visibility across all their physical and digital assets, and reduce time to detect, respond to, and triage security events.  

  • Achieve greater visibility of OT and IT devices across all levels of the Purdue Model.
  • The industry's only OT security to scale threat detection and response, with a 92% time saving from triage to recovery.  
  • The only OT focused security solution to provide bespoke Risk Management.

To learn more about how Darktrace/OT approaches unique use cases for industrial organizations visit the Darktrace/OT Webpage or join us LIVE at a city near you.

Read more below to discover how new innovations to Darktrace/OT are bringing a new, contextualized approach to Risk Management for Industrial organizations.

For more information on the entire Darktrace/OT Solution read our solution brief here.

Darktrace/OT and New Risk Management

Risk Identification

Leveraging the visibility of Darktrace/OT which identifies individual systems throughout the Purdue Model and the relationship between them, Darktrace/OT identifies high-risk CVEs and presents potential attack routes that go beyond techniques requiring a known exploit, such as misuse of legitimate services. Each attack path will have a mathematical evaluation of difficulty and impact from initial access to the high value objectives.  

Together this gives comprehensive coverage over your real and potential risks from both an attacker and known vulnerability perspectives. OT attack paths as seen here even leverage insights between the industrial and corporate communications to reveal ways threat actors may take advantage of IT-OT convergence. This revelation of imperceptible risks fills gaps in traditional risk analysis like remote access and insider threats.

Figure 1: Darktrace/OT visualizing the most critical attack paths at an organization
Figure 1: Darktrace/OT visualizing the most critical attack paths at an organization
Figure 2: A specific Attack Path identified by Darktrace/OT

Risk Prioritization

Darktrace/OT prioritizes remediations and mitigations based on difficulty and damage to your unique organization, using the established Attack Paths.

We ascertain the priorities that apply to your organization beyond pure theoretical damage answering questions like:

  • How difficult is a particular vulnerability to exploit considering the steps an attacker would require to reach it?
  • And, how significant would the impact be if it was exploited within this particular network?

This expanded approach to risk prioritization has a much more comprehensive evaluation of your organization's unique risk than has ever been possible before. Traditional approaches of ranking only known vulnerabilities with isolated scores using CVSS and exploitability metrics, often leaves gaps in IT-OT risks and is blind to legitimate service exploitation.

Figure 3: Darktrace/OT leverages its contextual understand of the organization’s network to prioritize remediation that will have the positive impact on the risk score

Darktrace provides mitigation strategies associated with each identified risk and the relevant impact it has on your overall risk posture, across all MITRE ATT&CK techniques.

What sets Darktrace apart is our ability to contextualize these mitigations within the broader business. When patching vulnerabilities directly isn’t possible, Darktrace identifies alternative actions that harden attack paths leading to critical assets. Hardening the surrounding attack path increases the difficulty and therefore reduces the likelihood and impact of a breach.

That means unpatched vulnerabilities and vulnerable devices aren’t left unprotected. This also has an added bonus, those hardening techniques work for all devices in that network segment, so apply one change, secure many.

Figure 4: Darktrace prioritizes mitigation reducing accessibility of vulnerability and the overall risk score when patches aren’t available

Communicate Board Level Risk with APT Threat Mapping

Darktrace/OT bridges theory and practice as the only security solution that maps MITRE techniques, frequently used by APT Groups, onto AI-assessed critical Attack Paths. This unique solution provides unparalleled insights including sector and location intelligence, possible operating platforms, common techniques, exploited CVEs, and the number of potential devices affected in your environment, supporting holistic risk assessment and proactive defense measures.

Ultimately, this becomes a power dashboard to communicate board level risk, using both metric based evidence and industry standard threat mapping.

Conclusion

Darktrace/OT is part of the Darktrace ActiveAI Security Platform a native, holistic, AI-driven platform built on over ten years of AI research. It helps security teams shift to more a productive mode, finding the known and the unknown attacks and transforming the SOC with the various Darktrace products to drive efficiency gains. It does this across the whole incident lifecycle to lower risk, reduce time spent on active incidents, and drive return on investment.

Discover more about Darktrace's ever-strengthening platform with the upcoming changes coming to our Darktrace/Email product and other launch day blogs.

Join Darktrace LIVE half-day event to understand the reality versus the hype surrounding AI and how to achieve cyber resilience.

Learn about the intersection of cyber and AI by downloading the State of AI Cyber Security 2024 report to discover global findings that may surprise you, insights from security leaders, and recommendations for addressing today’s top challenges that you may face, too.  

References

1. https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/313646831/Catch_Me_if_You_Can.pdf

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About the author
Mitchell Bezzina
VP, Product and Solutions Marketing
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