Why the 'Air Gap' is Not Enough to Keep Your OT Systems Resilient
At a Glance:
- Air gaps reduce cyber risk, but they do not prevent modern cyber attacks
- Having visibility into an air-gapped network is better than assuming your defenses are impenetrable and having zero visibility
- Darktrace can provide visibility and resiliency without jeopardizing the integrity of the air gap
What is an 'Air Gap'?
Information technology (IT) needs to fluidly connect with the outside world in order channel a flow of digital information across everything from endpoints and email systems to cloud and hybrid infrastructures. At the same time, this high level of connectivity makes IT systems particularly vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
Operational technology (OT), which controls the operations of physical processes, are considerably more sensitive. OT often relies on a high degree of regularity to maintain continuity of operations. Even the slightest disturbance can lead to disastrous results. Just a few seconds of delay on a programmable logic controller (PLC), for example, can significantly disrupt a manufacturing assembly line, leading to downtime at a considerable cost. In worst-case scenarios, disruptions to OT can even threaten human safety.
Organizations with OT have traditionally tried to reconcile this conflict between IT and OT by attempting to separate them completely. Essentially, the idea is to let IT do what IT does best — facilitate activities like communication and data transfer at rapid speeds, thus allowing people to connect with each other and access information and applications in an efficient capacity. But at the same time, erect an air gap between IT and OT so that any cyber threats that slip into IT systems do not then spread laterally into highly sensitive, mission-critical OT systems. This air gap is essentially a ‘digital moat’ where data cannot enter or leave OT environments unless it is transferred manually.
Limitations of the Air Gap
The air gap approach makes sense, but it is far from perfect. First, many organizations that believe they have completely air-gapped systems in fact have unknown points of IT/OT convergence, that is, connections between IT and OT networks of which they are unaware.
Many organizations today are also intentionally embracing IT/OT convergence to reap the benefits of digital transformation of their OT, in what is often called Industry 4.0. Examples include the industrial cloud (or ICSaaS), the industrial internet of things (IIoT), and other types of cyber-physical systems that offer increased efficiency and expanded capabilities when compared to more traditional forms of OT. Organizations may also embrace IT/OT convergence due to a lack of human capital, as convergence can make processes simpler and more efficient.
Even when an organization does have a true air gap (which is nearly impossible to confirm without full visibility across IT and OT environments), the fact is that there are a variety of ways for attackers to ‘jump the air gap'. Full visibility across IT and OT ecosystems in a single pane of glass is thus essential for organizations seeking to secure their OT. This is not only to illuminate any points of IT/OT convergence and validate the fact that an air gap exists in the first place, but also to see when an attack slips through the air gap.
Air Gap Attack Vectors
Even a perfect air gap will be vulnerable to a variety of different attack vectors, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Physical compromise: An adversary bypasses physical security and gains access directly to the air-gapped network devices. Physical access is by far the most effective and obvious technique.
- Insider threats: Someone who is part of an organization and has access to air-gapped secure systems intentionally or unintentionally compromises a system.
- Supply chain compromise: A vendor with legitimate access to air-gapped systems unwittingly is compromised and brings infected devices into a network.
- Misconfiguration: Misconfiguration of access controls or permissions allows an attacker to access the air-gapped system through a separate device on the network.
- Social engineering (media drop): If an attacker was able to successfully conduct a malicious USB/media drop and an employee was to use that media within the air-gapped system, the network could be compromised.
- Other advanced tactics: Thermal manipulation, covert surface vibrations, LEDs, ultrasonic transmissions, radio signals, and magnetic fields are among a range of advanced tactics documented and demonstrated by researchers at Ben Gurion University.
Vulnerabilities of Air-Gapped Systems
Aside from susceptibility to advanced techniques, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) such as thermal manipulation and magnetic fields, more common vulnerabilities associated with air-gapped environments include factors such as unpatched systems going unnoticed, lack of visibility into network traffic, potentially malicious devices coming on the network undetected, and removable media being physically connected within the network.
Once the attack is inside OT systems, the consequences can be disastrous regardless of whether there is an air gap or not. However, it is worth considering how the existence of the air gap can affect the time-to-triage and remediation in the case of an incident. For example, the existence of an air gap may seriously limit an incident response vendor’s ability to access the network for digital forensics and response.
Kremlin Hackers Jumping the Air Gap
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an alert documenting the TTPs used by Russian threat actors known as Dragonfly and Energetic Bear. Further reporting alleged that these groups ‘jumped the air gap,’ and, concerningly, gained the ability to disable the grid at the time of their choosing.
These attackers successfully gained access to sensitive air-gapped systems across the energy sector and other critical infrastructure sectors by targeting vendors and suppliers through spear-phishing emails and watering hole attacks. These vendors had legitimate access to air-gapped systems, and essentially brought the infection into these systems unintentionally when providing support services such as patch deployment.
This incident reveals that even if a sensitive OT system has complete digital isolation, this robust air gap still cannot fully eliminate one of the greatest vulnerabilities of any system—human error. Human error would still hold if an organization went to the extreme of building a faraday cage to eliminate electromagnetic radiation. Air-gapped systems are still vulnerable to social engineering, which exploits human vulnerabilities, as seen in the tactics that Dragonfly and Energetic Bear used to trick suppliers, who then walked the infection right through the front door.
Ideally, a technology would be able to identify an attack regardless of whether it is caused by a compromised supplier, radio signal, or electromagnetic emission. By spotting subtle deviations from a device, human, or network’s normal ‘pattern of life’, Self-Learning AI detects even the most nuanced forms of threatening behavior as they emerge — regardless of the source or cause of the threat.
Darktrace/OT for Air-Gapped Environments
Darktrace/OT for air-gapped environments is a physical appliance that deploys directly to the air-gapped system. Using raw digital data from an OT network to understand the normal pattern of life, Darktrace/OT does not need any data or threat feeds from external sources because the AI builds an innate understanding of self without third-party support.
Because all data-processing and analytics are performed locally on the Darktrace appliance, there is no requirement for Darktrace to have a connection out to the internet. As a result, Darktrace/OT provides visibility and threat detection to air-gapped or highly segmented networks without jeopardizing their integrity. If a human or machine displays even the most nuanced forms of threatening behavior, the solution can illuminate this in real time.
Security professionals can then securely access Darktrace alerts from anywhere within the network, using a web browser and encrypted HTTPS, and in line with your organization’s network policies.
With this deployment, Darktrace offers all the critical insights demonstrated in other Darktrace/OT deployments, including (but not limited to) the following:
- Illuminating all points of IT/OT convergence, including unknown points of IT/OT convergence in ‘air gapped’ environments
- OT network visibility across all Purdue Levels to the field controller level
- OT asset inventory
- CVE tracking
- Identification of new devices on the network, first seen devices, and last seen active devices
- Threat response and incident reporting that the IT team, security professionals, operators, and engineering can easily read
Organizations seeking to validate whether they have an air gap in the first place and maintain the air gap as their IT and OT environments evolve will greatly benefit from the comprehensive visibility and continuous situational awareness offered by Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI. Also, organizations looking to poke holes in their air gap to embrace the benefits of IT/OT convergence will find that Self-Learning AI’s vigilance spots cyber-attacks that slip through.
Whatever your organizations goals—be it embracing IIoT or creating a full-blown DMZ—by learning ‘you’, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI can help you achieve them safely and securely.
Credit to: Daniel Simonds and Oakley Cox for their contribution to this blog.
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.