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Ransomware

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9 Stages of Ransomware & How AI Responds

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22
Dec 2021
22
Dec 2021
Discover the 9 stages of ransomware attacks and how AI responds at each stage. Learn how you can protect your business from cyber threats.

Ransomware gets its name by commandeering and holding assets ransom, extorting their owner for money in exchange for discretion and full cooperation in returning exfiltrated data and providing decryption keys to allow business to resume.

Average ransom demands are skyrocketing, rising to $5.3 million in 2021, a 518% increase from the previous year. But the cost of recovering from a ransomware attack typically far exceeds the ransom payments: the average downtime after a ransomware attack is 21 days; and 66% of ransomware victims report a significant loss of revenue following a successful attack.

In this series, we break down this huge topic step by step. Ransomware is a multi-stage problem, requiring a multi-stage solution that autonomously and effectively contains the attack at any stage. Read on to discover how Self-Learning AI and Autonomous Response stops ransomware in its tracks.

1. Initial intrusion (email)

Initial entry – the first stage of a ransomware attack – can be achieved through RDP brute-forcing (exposed Internet service), malicious websites and drive-by downloads, an insider threat with company credentials, system and software vulnerabilities, or any number of other attack vectors.

But the most common initial attack vector is email. An organization’s biggest security weakness is often their people – and attackers are good at finding ways of exploiting this. Well-researched, targeted, legitimate-looking emails are aimed at employees attempting to solicit a reaction: a click of a link, an opening of an attachment, or persuading them to divulge credentials or other sensitive information.

Gateways: Stops what has been seen before

Most conventional email tools rely on past indicators of attack to try and spot the next threat. If an email comes in from a blocklisted IP address or email domain, and uses known malware that has previously been seen in the wild, the attack may be blocked.

But the reality is, attackers know the majority of defenses take this historical approach, and so constantly update their attack infrastructure to bypass these tools. By buying new domains for a few pennies each, or creating bespoke malware with just small adaptions to the code, they can outpace and outsmart the legacy approach taken by a typical email gateway.

Real-world example: Supply chain phishing attack

By contrast, Darktrace’s evolving understanding of ‘normal’ for every email user in the organization enables it to detect subtle deviations that point to a threat – even if the sender or any malicious contents of the email are unknown to threat intelligence. This is what enabled the technology to stop an attack that recently targeted McLaren Racing, with emails sent to a dozen employees in the organization each containing a malicious link. This possible precursor to ransomware bypassed conventional email tools – largely because it was sent from a known supplier – however Darktrace recognized the account hijack and held the email back.

Figure 1: A snapshot of Darktrace’s Threat Visualizer surfacing the malicious email

Read the full case study

2. Initial intrusion (server-side)

With organizations rapidly expanding their Internet-facing perimeter, this increased attack surface has paved the way for a surge in brute-force and server-side attacks.

A number of vulnerabilities against such Internet-facing servers and systems have been disclosed this year, and for attackers, targeting and exploiting public-facing infrastructure is easier than ever – scanning the Internet for vulnerable systems is made simple with tools like Shodan or MassScan.

Attackers may also achieve initial intrusion via RDP brute-forcing or stolen credentials, with attackers often reusing legitimate credentials from previous data dumps. This has much higher precision and is less noisy than a classic brute-force attack.

A lot of ransomware attacks use RDP as an entry vector. This is part of a wider trend of ‘Living off the Land’: using legitimate off-the-shelf tools (abusing RDP, SMB1 protocol, or various command line tools WMI or Powershell) to blur detection and attribution by blending in with typical administrator activity. Ensuring that backups are isolated, configurations are hardened, and systems are patched is not enough – real-time detection of every anomalous action is needed.

Antivirus, firewalls and SIEMs

In cases of malware downloads, endpoint antivirus will detect these if, and only if, the malware has been seen and fingerprinted before. Firewalls typically require configuration on a per-organization basis, and often need to be modified based on the needs of the business. If the attack hits the firewall where a rule or signature does not match it, again, it will bypass the firewall.

SIEM and SOAR tools also look for known malware being downloaded, leverage pre-programmed rules and use pre-programmed responses. While these tools do look for patterns, these patterns are defined in advance, and this approach relies on a new attack to have sufficiently similar traits to attacks that have been seen before.

Real-world example: Dharma ransomware

Darktrace detected a targeted Dharma ransomware attack against a UK organization exploiting an open RDP connection through Internet-facing servers. The RDP server began receiving a large number of incoming connections from rare IP addresses on the Internet. It is highly likely that the RDP credential used in this attack had been compromised at a previous stage – either via common brute-force methods, credential stuffing attacks, or phishing. Indeed, a technique growing in popularity is to buy RDP credentials on marketplaces and skip to initial access.

Figure 2: The model breaches that fired over the course of this attack, including anomalous RDP activity

Unfortunately, in this case, without Autonomous Response installed, the Dharma ransomware attack continued until its final stages, where the security team were forced into the heavy-handed and disruptive action of pulling the plug on the RDP server midway through encryption.

Read the full case study

3. Establish foothold and C2

Whether through a successful phish, a brute-force attack, or some other method, the attacker is in. Now, they make contact with the breached device(s) and establish a foothold.

This stage allows attackers to control subsequent stages of the attack remotely. During these command and control (C2) communications, further malware may also pass from the attacker to the devices. This helps them to establish an even greater foothold within the organization and readies them for lateral movement.

Attackers can adapt malware functionality with an assortment of ready-made plug-ins, allowing them to lie low inside the business undetected. More modern and sophisticated ransomware is able to adapt by itself to the surrounding environment, and operate autonomously, blending in to regular activity even when cut off from its command and control server. These ‘self-sufficient’ ransomware strains pose a big problem for traditional defenses reliant on stopping threats solely on the grounds of its malicious external connections.

Viewing connections in isolation vs understanding the business

Conventional security tools like IDS and firewalls tend to look at connections in isolation rather than in the context of previous and potentially relevant connections, making command and control very difficult to spot.

IDS and firewalls may block ‘known-bad’ domains or use some geo-blocking, but this is where an attacker would likely leverage new infrastructure.

These tools also don’t tend to analyze for things like the periodicity, such as whether a connection is beaconing at a regular or irregular interval, or the age and rarity of the domain in the context of the environment.

With Darktrace’s evolving understanding of the digital enterprise, suspicious C2 connections and the downloads which follow them are spotted, even when conducted using regular programs or methods. The AI technology correlates multiple subtle signs of threat – a small subset of which includes anomalous connections to young and/or unusual endpoints, anomalous file downloads, incoming remote desktop, and unusual data uploads and downloads.

Once they are detected as a threat, Darktrace RESPOND halts these connections and downloads, while allowing normal business activity to continue.

Real-world example: WastedLocker attack

When a WastedLocker ransomware attack hit a US agricultural organization, Darktrace immediately detected the initial unusual SSL C2 activity (based on a combination of destination rarity, JA3 unusualness and frequency analysis). Antigena (on this occasion configured in passive mode, and therefore not granted permission to take autonomous action) suggested instantly blocking the C2 traffic on port 443 and parallel internal scanning on port 135.

Figure 3: The Threat Visualizer reveals the action Antigena would have taken

When beaconing was later observed to bywce.payment.refinedwebs[.]com, this time over HTTP to /updateSoftwareVersion, Antigena escalated its response by blocking the further C2 channels.

Figure 4: Antigena escalates its response

Read the full case study

4. Lateral movement

Once an attacker has established a foothold within an organization, they begin to increase their knowledge of the wider digital estate and their presence within it. This is how they will find and access the files which they will ultimately attempt to exfiltrate and encrypt. It begins reconnaissance: scanning the network; building up a picture of its component devices; identifying the location of the most valuable assets.

Then the attacker begins moving laterally. They infect more devices and look to escalate their privileges – for instance, by obtaining admin credentials – thereby increasing their control over the environment. Once they have obtained authority and presence within the digital estate, they can progress to the final stages of the attack.

Modern ransomware has built-in functions that allow it to search automatically for stored passwords and spread through the network. More sophisticated strains are designed to build themselves differently in different environments, so the signature is constantly changing and it’s harder to detect.

Legacy tools: A blunt response to known threats

Because they rely upon static rules and signatures, legacy solutions struggle to prevent lateral movement and privilege escalation without also impeding essential business operations. Whilst in theory, an organization leveraging firewalls and NAC internally with proper network segmentation and a perfect configuration could prevent cross-network lateral movement, maintaining a perfect balance between protective and disruptive controls is near impossible.

Some organizations rely on Intrusion Prevent Systems (IPS) to deny network traffic when known threats are detected in packets, but as with previous stages, novel malware will evade detection, and this requires the database to be constantly updated. These solutions also sit at the ingress/egress points, limiting their network visibility. An Intrusion Detection System (IDS) may sit out-of-line, but doesn’t have response capabilities.

A self-learning approach

Darktrace’s AI learns ‘self’ for the organization, enabling it to detect suspicious activity indicative of lateral movement, regardless of whether the attacker uses new infrastructure or ‘lives off the land’. Potential unusual activity that Darktrace detects includes unusual scanning activity, unusual SMB, RDP, and SSH activity. Other models that fire at this stage include:

  • Suspicious Activity on High-Risk Device
  • Numeric EXE in SMB Write
  • New or Uncommon Service Control

Autonomous Response then takes targeted action to stop the threat at this stage, blocking anomalous connections, enforcing the infected device’s ‘pattern of life’, or enforcing the group ‘pattern of life’ – automatically clustering devices into peer groups and preventing a device from doing anything its peer group hasn’t done.

Where malicious behavior persists, and only if necessary, Darktrace will quarantine an infected device.

Real-world example: Unusual chain of RDP connections

At an organization in Singapore, one compromised server led to the creation of a botnet, which began moving laterally, predominantly by establishing chains of unusual RDP connections. The server then started making external SMB and RPC connections to rare endpoints on the Internet, in an attempt to find further vulnerable hosts.

Other lateral movement activities detected by Darktrace included the repeated failing attempts to access multiple internal devices over the SMB file-sharing protocol with a range of different usernames, implying brute-force network access attempts.

Figure 5: Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst reveals suspicious TCP scanning followed by a suspicious chain of administrative RDP connections

Read the full case study

5. Data exfiltration

In the past, ransomware was simply about encrypting an operating system and network files.

In a modern attack, as organizations insure against malicious encryption by becoming increasingly diligent with data backups, threat actors have moved towards ‘double extortion’, where they exfiltrate key data and destroy backups before the encryption takes place. Exfiltrated data is used to blackmail organizations, with attackers threatening to publish sensitive information online or sell it on to the organization’s competitors if they are not paid.

Modern ransomware variants also look for cloud file storage repositories such as Box, Dropbox, and others.

Many of these incidents aren’t public, because if IP is stolen, organizations are not always legally required to disclose it. However, in the case of customer data, organizations are obligated by law to disclose the incident and face the additional burden of compliance files – and we’ve seen these mount in recent years (Marriot, $23.8 million; British Airways, $26 million; Equifax, $575 million). There’s also the reputational blow associated with having to inform customers that a data breach has occurred.

Legacy tools: The same old story

For those that have been following, the narrative by now will sound familiar: to stop a ransomware attack at this stage, most defenses rely on either pre-programmed definitions of 'bad' or have rules constructed to combat different scenarios put organizations in a risky, never-ending game of cat and mouse.

A firewall and proxy might block connections based on pre-programmed policies based on specific endpoints or data volumes, but it’s likely an attacker will ‘live off the land’ and utilize a service that is generally allowed by the business.

The effectiveness of these tools will vary according to data volumes: they might be effective for ‘smash and grab’ attacks using known malware, and without employing any defense evasion techniques, but are unlikely to spot ‘low and slow’ exfiltration and novel or sophisticated strains.

On the other hand, because by nature it involves a break from expected behavior, even less conspicuous, low and slow data exfiltration is detected by Darktrace and stopped with Darktrace RESPOND. No confidential files are lost, and attackers are unable to extort a ransom payment through blackmail.

Real-world example: Unusual chain of RDP connections

It becomes more difficult to find examples of Darktrace RESPOND stopping ransomware at these later stages, as the threat is usually contained before it gets this far. This is the double-edged sword of effective security – early containment makes for bad storytelling! However, we can see the effects of a double extortion ransomware attack on an energy company in Canada. The organization had the Enterprise Immune System but no Antigena, and without anyone actively monitoring Darktrace’s AI detections, the attack was allowed to unfold.

The attacker managed to connect to an internal file server and download 1.95TB of data. The device was also seen downloading Rclone software – an open-source tool, which was likely applied to sync data automatically to the legitimate file storage service pCloud. Following the completion of the data exfiltration, the device ‘serverps’ finally began encrypting files on 12 devices with the extension *.06d79000. As with the majority of ransomware incidents, the encryption happened outside of office hours – overnight in local time – to minimize the chance of the security team responding quickly.

Read the full details of the attack

It should be noted that the exact order of the stages 3–5 above is not set in stone, and varies according to attack. Sometimes data is exfiltrated and then there is further lateral movement, and additional C2 beaconing. This entire period is known as the ‘dwell time’. Sometimes it takes place over only a few days, other times attackers may persist for months, slowly gathering more intel and exfiltrating data in a ‘low and slow’ fashion so as to avoid detection from rule-based tools that are configured to flag any single data transfer over a certain threshold. Only through a holistic understanding of malicious activity over time can a technology spot this level of activity and allow the security team to remove the threat before it reaches the latter and most damaging stages of ransomware.

6. Data encryption

Using either symmetric encryption, asymmetric encryption, or a combination of the two, attackers attempt to render as much data unusable in the organization’s network as they can before the attack is detected.

As the attackers alone have access to the relevant decryption keys, they are now in total control of what happens to the organization’s data.

Pre-programmed response and disruption

There are many families of tools that claim to stop encryption in this manner, but each contain blind spots which enable a sophisticated attacker to evade detection at this crucial stage. Where they do take action, it is often highly disruptive, causing major shutdowns and preventing a business from continuing its usual operations.

Internal firewalls prevent clients from accessing servers, so once an attacker has penetrated to servers using any of the techniques outlined above, they have complete freedom to act as they want.

Similarly, antivirus tools look only for known malware. If the malware has not been detected until this point, it is highly unlikely the antivirus will act here.

Stopping encryption autonomously

Even if familiar tools and methods are used to conduct it, Autonomous Response can enforce the normal ‘pattern of life’ for devices attempting encryption, without using static rules or signatures. This action can be taken independently or via integrations with native security controls, maximizing the return on other security investments. With a targeted Autonomous Response, normal business operations can continue while encryption is prevented.

7. Ransom note

It is important to note that in the stages before encryption, this ransomware attack is not yet “ransomware”. Only at this stage does it gets its name.

A ransom note is deployed. The attackers request payment in return for a decryption key and threaten the release of sensitive exfiltrated data. The organization must decide whether to pay the ransom or lose their data, possibly to their competition or the public. The average demand made by ransomware threat actors rose in 2021 to $5.3 million, with meat processing company JBS paying out $11 million and DarkSide receiving over $90 million in Bitcoin payments following the Colonial Pipeline incident.

All of the stages up until this point represent a typical, traditional ransomware attack. But ransomware is shifting from indiscriminate encryption of devices to attackers targeting business disruption in general, using multiple techniques to hold their victims to ransom. Additional methods of extortion include not only data exfiltration, but corporate domain hijack, deletion or encryption of backups, attacks against systems close to industrial control systems, targeting company VIPs… the list goes on.

Sometimes, attackers will just skip straight from stage 2 to 6 and jump straight to extortion. Darktrace recently stopped an email attack which showed an attacker bypassing the hard work and attempting to jump straight to extortion in an email. The attacker claimed to have compromised the organization’s sensitive data, requesting payment in bitcoin for its same return. Whether or not the claims were true, this attack shows that encryption is not always necessary for extortion, and this type of harassment exists in multiple forms.

Figure 6: Darktrace holds back the offending email, protecting the recipient and organization from harm

As with the email example we explored in the first post of this series, Darktrace/Email was able to step in and stop this email where other email tools would have let it through, stopping this potentially costly extortion attempt.

Whether through encryption or some other kind of blackmail, the message is the same every time. Pay up, or else. At this stage, it’s too late to start thinking about any of the options described above that were available to the organization, that would have stopped the attack in its earliest stages. There is only one dilemma. “To pay or not to pay” – that is the question.

Often, people believe their payment troubles are over after the ransom payment stage, but unfortunately, it’s just beginning to scratch the surface…

8. Clean-up

Efforts are made to try to secure the vulnerabilities which allowed the attack to happen initially – the organization should be conscious that approximately 80% of ransomware victims will in fact be targeted again in the future.

Legacy tools largely fail to shed light on the vulnerabilities which allowed the initial breach. Like searching for a needle in an incomplete haystack, security teams will struggle to find useful information within the limited logs offered by firewalls and IDSs. Antivirus solutions may reveal some known malware but fail to spot novel attack vectors.

With Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst, organizations are given full visibility over every stage of the attack, across all coverage areas of their digital estate, taking the mystery out of ransomware attacks. They are also able to see the actions that would have been taken to halt the attack by Darktrace RESPOND.

9. Recovery

The organization begins attempts to return its digital environment to order. Even if it has paid for a decryption key, many files may remain encrypted or corrupted. Beyond the costs of the ransom payment, network shutdowns, business disruption, remediation efforts, and PR setbacks all incur hefty financial losses.

The victim organization may also suffer additional reputation costs, with 66% of victims reporting a significant loss of revenue following a ransomware attack, and 32% reporting losing C-level talent as a direct result from ransomware.

Conclusion

While the high-level stages described above are common in most ransomware attacks, the minute you start looking at the details, you realize every ransomware attack is different.

As many targeted ransomware attacks come through ransomware affiliates, the Tools, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) displayed during intrusions vary widely, even when the same ransomware malware is used. This means that even comparing two different ransomware attacks using the same ransomware family, you are likely to encounter completely different TTPs. This makes it impossible to predict what tomorrow’s ransomware will look like.

This is the nail in the coffin for traditional tooling which is based on historic attack data. The above examples demonstrate that Self-Learning technology and Autonomous Response is the only solution that stops ransomware at every stage, across email and network.

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
Dan Fein
VP, Product

Based in New York, Dan joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s product suite. Dan has a particular focus on Darktrace/Email, ensuring that it is effectively deployed in complex digital environments, and works closely with the development, marketing, sales, and technical teams. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from New York University.

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Inside the SOC

A Busy Agenda: Darktrace’s Detection of Qilin Ransomware-as-a-Service Operator

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04
Jul 2024

Qilin ransomware has recently dominated discussions across the cyber security landscape following its deployment in an attack on Synnovis, a UK-based medical laboratory company. The ransomware attack ultimately affected patient services at multiple National Health Service (NHS) hospitals that rely on Synnovis diagnostic and pathology services. Qilin’s origins, however, date back further to October 2022 when the group was observed seemingly posting leaked data from its first known victim on its Dedicated Leak Site (DLS) under the name Agenda[1].

The Darktrace Threat Research team investigated network artifacts related to Qilin and identified three probable cases of the ransomware across the Darktrace customer base between June 2022 and May 2024.

Qilin Ransomware-as-a-Service Operator

Qilin operates as a Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) that employs double extortion tactics, whereby harvested data is exfiltrated and threatened of publication on the group's DLS, which is hosted on Tor. Qilin ransomware has samples written in both the Golang and Rust programming languages, making it compilable with various operating systems, and is highly customizable. When building Qilin ransomware variants to be used on their target(s), affiliates can configure settings such as the encryption mode (i.e., skip-step, percent, and speed), the file extension being appended, files, extensions and directories to be skipped during the encryption, and the processes and services to be terminated, among others[1] [2].  

Trend Micro analysts, who were the first to discover Qilin samples in August 2022, when the name "Agenda" was still used in ransom notes, found that each analyzed sample was customized for the intended victims and that "unique company IDs were used as extensions of encrypted files" [3]. This information is configurable from within the Qilin's affiliate panel's 'Targets' section, shown below. The panel's background image features the eponym Chinese legendary chimerical creature Qilin (pronounced “Ke Lin”). Despite this Chinese mythology reference, Russian language was observed being used by a Qilin operator in an underground forum post aimed at hiring affiliates and advertising their RaaS operation[2].

Figure 1: Qilin ransomware’s affiliate panel.

Qilin's RaaS program purportedly has an attractive affiliates' payment structure, with affiliates allegedly able to earn 80% of ransom payments of USD 3m or less and 85% for payments above that figure[2], making it a possibly appealing option in the RaaS ecosystem.  Publication of stolen data and ransom payment negotiations are purportedly handled by Qilin operators. Qilin affiliates have been known to target companies located around the world and within a variety of industries, including critical sectors such as healthcare and energy.

As Qilin is a RaaS operation, the choice of targets does not necessarily reflect Qilin operators' intentions, but rather that of its affiliates.  Similarly, the tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs) and indicators of compromise (IoC) identified by Darktrace are associated with the given affiliate deploying Qilin ransomware for their own purpose, rather than TTPs and IoCs of the Qilin group. Likewise, initial vectors of infection may vary from affiliate to affiliate. Previous studies show that initial access to networks were gained via spear phishing emails or by leveraging exposed applications and interfaces.

Differences have been observed in terms of data exfiltration and potential C2 external endpoints, suggesting the below investigations are not all related to the same group or actor(s).

Darktrace’s Threat Research Investigation

June 2022

Darktrace first detected an instance of Qilin ransomware back in June 2022, when an attacker was observed successfully accessing a customer’s Virtual Private Network (VPN) and compromising an administrative account, before using RDP to gain access to the customer’s Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) server

From there, an attack against the customer's VMware ESXi hosts was launched. Fortunately, a reboot of their virtual machines (VM) caught the attention of the security team who further uncovered that custom profiles had been created and remote scripts executed to change root passwords on their VM hosts. Three accounts were found to have been compromised and three systems encrypted by ransomware.  

Unfortunately, Darktrace was not configured to monitor the affected subnets at the time of the attack. Despite this, the customer was able to work directly with Darktrace analysts via the Ask the Expert (ATE) service to add the subnets in question to Darktrace’s visibility, allowing it to monitor for any further unusual behavior.

Once visibility over the compromised SCCM server was established, Darktrace observed a series of unusual network scanning activities and the use of Kali (a Linux distribution designed for digital forensics and penetration testing). Furthermore, the server was observed making connections to multiple rare external hosts, many using the “[.]ru” Top Level Domain (TLD). One of the external destinations the server was attempting to connect was found to be related to SystemBC, a malware that turns infected hosts into SOCKS5 proxy bots and provides command-and-control (C2) functionality.

Additionally, the server was observed making external connections over ports 993 and 143 (typically associated with the use of the Interactive Message Access Protocol (IMAP) to multiple rare external endpoints. This was likely due to the presence of Tofsee malware on the device.

After the compromise had been contained, Darktrace identified several ransom notes following the naming convention “README-RECOVER-<extension/company_id>.txt”” on the network. This naming convention, as well as the similar “<company_id>-RECOVER-README.txt” have been referenced by open-source intelligence (OSINT) providers as associated with Qilin ransom notes[5] [6] [7].

April 2023

The next case of Qilin ransomware observed by Darktrace took place in April 2023 on the network of a customer in the manufacturing sector in APAC. Unfortunately for the customer in this instance, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not active on their environment and no autonomous response actions were taken to contain the compromise.

Over the course of two days, Darktrace identified a wide range of malicious activity ranging from extensive initial scanning and lateral movement attempts to the writing of ransom notes that followed the aforementioned naming convention (i.e., “README-RECOVER-<extension/company_id>.txt”).

Darktrace observed two affected devices attempting to move laterally through the SMB, DCE-RPC and RDP network protocols. Default credentials (e.g., UserName, admin, administrator) were also observed in the large volumes of SMB sessions initiated by these devices. One of the target devices of these SMB connections was a domain controller, which was subsequently seen making suspicious WMI requests to multiple devices over DCE-RPC and enumerating SMB shares by binding to the ‘server service’ (srvsvc) named pipe to a high number of internal devices within a short time frame. The domain controller was further detected establishing an anomalously high number of connections to several internal devices, notably using the RDP administrative protocol via a default admin cookie.  

Repeated connections over the HTTP and SSL protocol to multiple newly observed IPs located in the 184.168.123.0/24 range were observed, indicating C2 connectivity.  WebDAV user agent and a JA3 fingerprint potentially associated with Cobalt Strike were notably observed in these connections. A few hours later, Darktrace detected additional suspicious external connections, this time to IPs associated with the MEGA cloud storage solution. Storage solutions such as MEGA are often abused by attackers to host stolen data post exfiltration. In this case, the endpoints were all rare for the network, suggesting this solution was not commonly used by legitimate users. Around 30 GB of data was exfiltrated over the SSL protocol.

Darktrace did not observe any encryption-related activity on this customer’s network, suggesting that encryption may have taken place locally or within network segments not monitored by Darktrace.

May 2024

The most recent instance of Qilin observed by Darktrace took place in May 2024 and involved a customer in the US. In this case, Darktrace initially detected affected devices using unusual administrative and default credentials, before additional internal systems were observed making extensive suspicious DCE-RPC requests to a range of internal locations, performing network scanning, making unusual internal RDP connections, and transferring suspicious executable files like 'a157496.exe' and '83b87b2.exe'.  SMB writes of the file "LSM_API_service" were also observed, activity which was considered 100% unusual by Darktrace; this is an RPC service that can be abused to enumerate logged-in users and steal their tokens. Various repeated connections likely representative of C2 communications were detected via both HTTP and SSL to rare external endpoints linked in OSINT to Cobalt Strike use. During these connections, HTTP GET requests for the following URIs were observed:

/asdffHTTPS

/asdfgdf

/asdfgHTTP

/download/sihost64.dll

Notably, this included a GET request a DLL file named "sihost64.dll" from a domain controller using PowerShell.  

Over 102 GB of data may have been transferred to another previously unseen endpoint, 194.165.16[.]13, via the unencrypted File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Additionally, many non-FTP connections to the endpoint could be observed, over which more than 783 GB of data was exfiltrated. Regarding file encryption activity, a wide range of destination devices and shares were targeted.

Figure 2: Advanced Search graph displaying the total volume of data transferred over FTP to a malicious IP.

During investigations, Darktrace’s Threat Research team identified an additional customer, also based in the United States, where similar data exfiltration activity was observed in April 2024. Although no indications of ransomware encryption were detected on the network, multiple similarities were observed with the case discussed just prior. Notably, the same exfiltration IP and protocol (194.165.16[.]13 and FTP, respectively) were identified in both cases. Additional HTTP connectivity was further observed to another IP using a self-signed certificate (i.e., CN=ne[.]com,OU=key operations,O=1000,L=,ST=,C=KM) located within the same ASN (i.e., AS48721 Flyservers S.A.). Some of the URIs seen in the GET requests made to this endpoint were the same as identified in that same previous case.

Information regarding another device also making repeated connections to the same IP was described in the second event of the same Cyber AI Analyst incident. Following this C2 connectivity, network scanning was observed from a compromised domain controller, followed by additional reconnaissance and lateral movement over the DCE-RPC and SMB protocols. Darktrace again observed SMB writes of the file "LSM_API_service", as in the previous case, activity which was also considered 100% unusual for the network. These similarities suggest the same actor or affiliate may have been responsible for activity observed, even though no encryption was observed in the latter case.

Figure 3. First event of the Cyber AI Analyst investigation following the compromise activity.

According to researchers at Microsoft, some of the IoCs observed on both affected accounts are associated with Pistachio Tempest, a threat actor reportedly associated with ransomware distribution. The Microsoft threat actor naming convention uses the term "tempest" to reference criminal organizations with motivations of financial gain that are not associated with high confidence to a known non-nation state or commercial entity. While Pistachio Tempest’s TTPs have changed over time, their key elements still involve ransomware, exfiltration, and extortion. Once they've gained access to an environment, Pistachio Tempest typically utilizes additional tools to complement their use of Cobalt Strike; this includes the use of the SystemBC RAT and the SliverC2 framework, respectively. It has also been reported that Pistacho Tempest has experimented with various RaaS offerings, which recently included Qilin ransomware[4].

Conclusion

Qilin is a RaaS group that has gained notoriety recently due to high-profile attacks perpetrated by its affiliates. Despite this, the group likely includes affiliates and actors who were previously associated with other ransomware groups. These individuals bring their own modus operandi and utilize both known and novel TTPs and IoCs that differ from one attack to another.

Darktrace’s anomaly-based technology is inherently threat-agnostic, treating all RaaS variants equally regardless of the attackers’ tools and infrastructure. Deviations from a device’s ‘learned’ pattern of behavior during an attack enable Darktrace to detect and contain potentially disruptive ransomware attacks.

Credit to: Alexandra Sentenac, Emma Foulger, Justin Torres, Min Kim, Signe Zaharka for their contributions.

References

[1] https://www.sentinelone.com/anthology/agenda-qilin/  

[2] https://www.group-ib.com/blog/qilin-ransomware/

[3] https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/22/h/new-golang-ransomware-agenda-customizes-attacks.html

[4] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/security-insider/pistachio-tempest

[5] https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/22/h/new-golang-ransomware-agenda-customizes-attacks.html

[6] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/forums/t/790240/agenda-qilin-ransomware-id-random-10-char;-recover-readmetxt-support/

[7] https://github.com/threatlabz/ransomware_notes/tree/main/qilin

Darktrace Model Detections

Internal Reconnaissance

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / Network Scan

Device / RDP Scan

Device / ICMP Address Scan

Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity

Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

Device / New or Uncommon WMI Activity

Device / Attack and Recon Tools

Lateral Movement

Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches from Critical Network Device

Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin RDP Session

Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Compliance / SMB Drive Write

Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control

Anomalous Connection / Anomalous DRSGetNCChanges Operation

Anomalous Server Activity / Domain Controller Initiated to Client

User / New Admin Credentials on Client

C2 Communication

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External

Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

Device / Increased External Connectivity

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint

Device / Suspicious Domain

Device / Increased External Connectivity

Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

Compromise / Botnet C2 Behaviour

Anomalous Connection / POST to PHP on New External Host

Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname

Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

Exfiltration

Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer

Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data Transfer

Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data to New Endpoint

Compliance / FTP / Unusual Outbound FTP

File Encryption

Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity

Anomalous Connection / Sustained MIME Type Conversion

Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File

Compromise / Ransomware / Possible Ransom Note Write

Compromise / Ransomware / Possible Ransom Note Read

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Read Write Ratio

IoC List

IoC – Type – Description + Confidence

93.115.25[.]139 IP C2 Server, likely associated with SystemBC

194.165.16[.]13 IP Probable Exfiltration Server

91.238.181[.]230 IP C2 Server, likely associated with Cobalt Strike

ikea0[.]com Hostname C2 Server, likely associated with Cobalt Strike

lebondogicoin[.]com Hostname C2 Server, likely associated with Cobalt Strike

184.168.123[.]220 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]219 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]236 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]241 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]247 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]251 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]252 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]229 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]246 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.168.123[.]230 IP Possible C2 Infrastructure

gfs440n010.userstorage.me ga.co[.]nz Hostname Possible Exfiltration Server. Not inherently malicious; associated with MEGA file storage.

gfs440n010.userstorage.me ga.co[.]nz Hostname Possible Exfiltration Server. Not inherently malicious; associated with MEGA file storage.

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About the author
Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst

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Elevating Network Security: Confronting Trust, Ransomware, & Novel Attacks

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21
Jun 2024

Understanding the Network Security Market

Old tools blind to new threats

With the rise of GenAI and novel attacks, organizations can no longer rely solely on traditional network security solutions that depend on historical attack data, such as signatures and detection rules, to identify threats. However, in many cases network security vendors and traditional solutions like IDS/IPS focus on detecting known attacks using historical data. What happens is organizations are left vulnerable to unknown and novel threats, as these approaches only detect known malicious behavior and cannot keep up with unknown threats or zero-day attacks.

Advanced threats

Darktrace's End of Year Threat Report for 2023 highlights significant changes in the cyber threat landscape, particularly due to advancements in technology such as generative AI. The report notes a substantial increase in sophisticated attacks, including those utilizing generative AI, which have made it more challenging for traditional security measures to keep up. The report also details the rise of multi-functional malware, like Black Basta ransomware, which not only encrypts data for ransom but also spreads other types of malware such as the Qbot banking trojan. These complex attacks are increasingly being deployed by advanced cybercriminal groups, underscoring the need for organizations to adopt advanced security measures that can detect and respond to novel threats in real-time.

Defenders need a solution that can level the playing field, especially when they are operating with limited resources and getting overloaded with endless alerts. Most network security tools on the market have a siloed approach and do not integrate with the rest of an organization’s digital estate, but attackers don’t operate in a single domain.

Disparate workforce

With so many organizations continuing to support a remote or hybrid working environment, the need to secure devices that are outside the corporate network or off-VPN is increasingly important. While endpoint protection or endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools are a fundamental part of any security stack, it’s not possible to install an agent on every device, which can leave blind spots in an organization’s attack surface. Managing trust and access policies is also necessary to protect identities, however this comes with its own set of challenges in terms of implementation and minimizing business disruption.

This blog will dive into these challenges and show examples of how Darktrace has helped mitigate risk and stop novel and never-before-seen threats.

Network Security Challenge 1: Managing trust

What is trust in cybersecurity?

Trust in cybersecurity means that an entity can be relied upon. This can involve a person, organization, or system to be authorized or authenticated by proving their identity is legitimate and can be trusted to have access to the network or sensitive information.

Why is trust important in cybersecurity?

Granting access and privileges to your workforce and select affiliates has profound implications for cybersecurity, brand reputation, regulatory compliance, and financial liability. In a traditional network security model, traffic gets divided into two categories — trusted and untrusted — with some entities and segments of the network deemed more creditable than others.

How do you manage trust in cybersecurity?

Zero trust is too little, but any is too much.

Modern network security challenges point to an urgent need for organizations to review and update their approaches to managing trust. External pressure to adopt zero trust security postures literally suggests trusting no one, but that impedes your freedom
to do business. IT leaders need a proven but practical process for deciding who should be allowed to use your network and how.

Questions to ask in updating Trusted User policies include:

  • What process should you follow to place trust in third
    parties and applications?
  • Do you subject trusted entities to testing and other due
    diligence first?
  • How often do you review this process — and trusted
    relationships themselves — after making initial decisions?
  • How do you tell when trusted users should no longer be
    trusted?

Once trust has been established, security teams need new and better ways to autonomously verify that those transacting within your network are indeed those trusted users that they claim to be, taking only the authorized actions you’ve allowed them to take.

Exploiting trust in the network

Insider threats have a major head start. The opposite of attacks launched by nameless, faceless strangers, insider threats originate through parties once deemed trustworthy. That might mean a current or former member of your workforce or a partner, vendor, investor, or service provider authorized by IT to access corporate systems and data. Threats also arise when a “pawn” gets unwittingly tricked into disclosing credentials or downloading malware.

Common motives for insider attacks include revenge, stealing or leaking sensitive data, taking down IT systems, stealing assets or IP, compromising your organization’s credibility, and simply harassing your workforce. Put simply, rules and signatures based security solutions won’t flag insider threats because an insider does not immediately present themselves as an intruder. Insider threats can only be stopped by an evolving understanding of ‘normal’ for every user that immediately alerts your team when trusted users do something strange.

“By 2026, 10% of large enterprises will have a comprehensive, mature and measurable zero-trust program in place, up from less than 1% today.” [1]

Use Case: Darktrace spots an insider threat

Darktrace/OT detected a subtle deviation from normal behavior when a reprogram command was sent by an engineering workstation to a PLC controlling a pump, an action an insider threat with legitimized access to OT systems would take to alter the physical process without any malware involved. In this instance, AI Analyst, Darktrace’s investigation tool that triages events to reveal the full security incident, detected the event as unusual based on multiple metrics including the source of the command, the destination device, the time of the activity, and the command itself.  

As a result, AI Analyst created a complete security incident, with a natural language summary, the technical details of the activity, and an investigation process explaining how it came to its conclusion. By leveraging Explainable AI, a security team can quickly triage and escalate Darktrace incidents in real time before it becomes disruptive, and even when performed by a trusted insider.

Read more about insider threats here

Network Security Challenge 2: Stopping Ransomware at every stage    

What is Ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts valuable files on a victim’s device, denying the account holder access, and demanding money in exchange for the encryption key. Ransomware has been increasingly difficult to deal with, especially with ransom payments being made in crypto currency which is untraceable. Ransomware can enter a system by clicking a link dangerous or downloading malicious files.

Avoiding ransomware attacks ranks at the top of most CISOs’ and risk managers’ priority lists, and with good reason. Extortion was involved in 25% of all breaches in 2022, with front-page attacks wreaking havoc across healthcare, gas pipelines, food processing plants, and other global supply chains. [2]

What else is new?

The availability of “DIY” toolkits and subscription-based ransom- ware-as-a-service (RaaS) on the dark web equips novice threat actors to launch highly sophisticated attacks at machine speed. For less than $500, virtually anyone can acquire and tweak RaaS offerings such as Philadelphia that come with accessible customer interfaces, reviews, discounts, and feature updates — all the signature features of commercial SaaS offerings.                  

Darktrace Cyber AI breaks the ransomware cycle

The preeminence of ransomware keeps security teams on high alert for indicators of attack but hypervigilance — and too many tools churning out too many alerts — quickly exhausts analysts’ bandwidth. To reverse this trend, AI needs to help prioritize and resolve versus merely detect risk.

Darktrace uses AI to recognize and contextualize possible signs of ransomware attacks as they appear in your network and across multiple domains. Viewing behaviors in the context of your organization’s normal ‘pattern of life’ updates and enhances detection that watches for a repeat of previous techniques.

Darktrace's AI brings the added advantage of continuously analyzing behavior in your environment at machine speed.

Darktrace AI also performs Autonomous Response, shutting down attacks at every stage of the ransomware cycle, including the first telltale signs of exfiltration and encryption of data for extortion purposes.

Use Case: Stopping Hive Ransomware attack

Hive is distributed via a RaaS model where its developers update and maintain the code, in return for a percentage of the eventual ransom payment, while users (or affiliates) are given the tools to carry out attacks using a highly sophisticated and complex malware they would otherwise be unable to use.

In early 2022, Darktrace/Network identified several instances of Hive ransomware on the networks of multiple customers. Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace was able to successfully detect the attacks and multiple stages of the kill chain, including command and control (C2) activity, lateral movement, data exfiltration, and ultimately data encryption and the writing of ransom notes.

Darktrace’s AI understands customer networks and learns the expected patterns of behavior across an organization’s digital estate. Using its anomaly-based detection Darktrace is able to identify emerging threats through the detection of unusual or unexpected behavior, without relying on rules and signatures, or known IoCs.

Read the full story here

Network Security Challenge 3: Spotting Novel Attacks

You can’t predict tomorrow’s weather by reading yesterday’s forecast, yet that’s essentially what happens when network security tools only look for known attacks.

What are novel attacks?

“Novel attacks” include unknown or previously unseen exploits such as zero-days, or new variations of known threats that evade existing detection rules.

Depending on how threats get executed, the term “novel” can refer to brand new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), or to subtle new twists on perennial threats like DoS, DDoS, and Domain Name Server (DNS) attacks.

Old tools may be blind to new threats

Stopping novel threats is less about deciding whom to trust than it is about learning to spot something brand new. As we’ve seen with ransomware, the growing “aaS” attack market creates a profound paradigm shift by allowing non-technical perpetrators to tweak, customize, and coin never-before-seen threats that elude traditional network, email, VPN, and cloud security.

Tools based on traditional rules and signatures lack a frame of reference. This is where AI’s ability to spot and analyze abnormalities in the context of normal patterns of life comes into play.                        

Darktrace AI spots what other tools miss                                      

Instead of training in cloud data lakes that pool data from unrelated attacks worldwide, Darktrace AI learns about your unique environment from your environment. By flagging and analyzing everything unusual — instead of only known signs of compromise — Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI keeps security stacks from missing less obvious but potentially more dangerous events.

The real challenge here is achieving faster “time to meaning” and contextualizing behavior that might — or might not — be part of a novel attack. Darktrace/Network does not require a “patient zero” to identify a novel attack, or one exploiting a zero-day vulnerability.

Use Case: Stopping Novel Ransomware Attack

In late May 2023, Darktrace observed multiple instances of Akira ransomware affecting networks across its customer base. Thanks to its anomaly-based approach to threat detection Darktrace successfully identified the novel ransomware attacks and provided full visibility over the cyber kill chain, from the initial compromise to the eventual file encryptions and ransom notes. Darktrace identified Akira ransomware on multiple customer networks, even when threat actors were utilizing seemingly legitimate services (or spoofed versions of them) to carry out malicious activity. While this may have gone unnoticed by traditional security tools, Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection enabled it to recognize malicious activity for what it was. In cases where Darktrace’s autonomous response was enabled these attacks were mitigated in their early stages, thus minimizing any disruption or damage to customer networks.

Read the full story here

References

[1] Gartner, “Gartner Unveils Top Eight Cybersecurity Predictions for 2023-2024,” 28 March 2023.                    

[2] TechTarget, “Ransomware trends, statistics and facts in 2023,” Sean Michael Kerner, 26 January 2023.

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About the author
Mikey Anderson
Product Manager, Network Detection & Response
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