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Phishing with QR Codes: How Darktrace Detected and Blocked the Bait

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06
Jul 2023
06
Jul 2023
This blog explores Darktrace’s successful detection of a recent phishing campaign against a tech customer, which employed a relatively novel technique – QR Code exploitation. Thanks to Darktrace/Email the attack was thwarted in the first instance.

What is a QR Code?

Invented by a Japanese company in 1994 to label automobile parts, Quick Response codes, best known as QR codes, are rapidly becoming ubiquitous everywhere in the world. Their design, inspired by the board and black and white pieces of the game of Go, permits the storage of more information than regular barcodes and to access that information more quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to their increased popularity as it conveniently replaced physical media of all types for the purpose of content sharing. It is now common to see them in restaurant menus, plane tickets, advertisements and even in stickers containing minimal to no text pasted on lamp posts and other surfaces, enticing passers-by to scan its content. 

QR Code Phishing Attacks (Quishing)

Recently, threat actors have been identified using QR codes too to embed malicious URLs leading the unsuspecting user to compromised websites containing malware or designed to harvest credentials. In the past month, Darktrace has observed an increase in the number of phishing emails leveraging malicious QR codes for malware distribution and/or credential harvesting, a new form of social engineering attack labelled “Quishing” (i.e., QR code phishing).

Between June 13 and June 22, 2023, Darktrace protected a tech company against one such Quishing attack when five of its senior employees were sent malicious emails impersonating the company’s IT department. The emails contained a QR code that led to a login page designed to harvest the credentials of these senior staff members. Fortunately for the customer, Darktrace/Email thwarted this phishing campaign in the first instance and the emails never reached the employee inboxes. 

Trends in Quishing Attacks

The Darktrace/Email team have noticed a recent and rapid increase in QR code abuse, suggesting that it is a growing tactic used by threat actors to deliver malicious payload links. This trend has also been observed by other security solutions [1] [2] [3] [4]. The Darktrace/Email team has identified malicious emails abusing QR codes in multiple ways. Examples include embedded image links which load a QR code and QR code images being delivered as attachments, such as those explored in this case study. Darktrace/Email is continually refining its detection of malicious QR codes and QR code extraction capabilities so that it can detect and block them regardless of their size and location within the email.   

Quishing Attack Overview

The attack consisted of five emails, each sent from different sender and envelope addresses, displayed common points between them. The emails all conveyed a sense of urgency, either via the use of words such as “urgent”, “now”, “required” or “important” in the subject field or by marking the email as high priority, thus making the recipient believe the message is pressing and requires immediate attention. 

Additionally, the subject of three of the emails directly referred to two factor authentication (2FA) enabling or QR code activation. Another particularity of these emails was that three of them attempted to impersonate the internal IT team of the company by inserting the company domain alongside strings, such as “it-desk” and “IT”, into the personal field of the emails. Email header fields like this are often abused by attackers to trick users by pretending to be an internal department or senior employee, thus avoiding more thorough validation checks. Both instilling a sense of urgency and including a known domain or name in the personal field are techniques that help draw attention to the email and maximize the chances that it is opened and engaged by the recipient. 

However, threat actors also need to make sure that the emails actually reach the intended inboxes, and this can be done in several ways. In this case, several tactics were employed. Two of the five emails were sent from legitimate sender addresses that successfully passed SPF validation, suggesting they were sent from compromised accounts. SPF is a standard email authentication method that tells the receiving email servers whether emails have been sent from authorized servers for a given domain. Without SPF validation, emails are more likely to be categorized as spam and be sent to the junk folder as they do not come from authorized sources.

Another of the malicious emails, which also passed SPF checks, used a health care facility company domain in the header-from address field but was actually sent from a different domain (i.e., envelope domain), which lowers the value of the SPF authentication. However, the envelope domain observed in this instance belonged to a company recently acquired by the tech company targeted by the campaign.

This shows a high level of targeting from the attackers, who likely hoped that this detail would make the email more familiar and less suspicious. In another case, the sender domain (i.e., banes-gn[.]com) had been created just 6 days prior, thus lowering the chances of there being open-source intelligence (OSINT) available on the domain. This reduces the chances of the email being detected by traditional email security solutions relying on signatures and known-bad lists.

Darktrace Detects Quishing Attack

Despite its novelty, the domain was detected and assessed as highly suspicious by Darktrace. Darktrace/Email was able to recognize all of the emails as spoofing and impersonation attempts and applied the relevant tags to them, namely “IT Impersonation” and “Fake Account Alert”, depending on the choice of personal field and subject. The senders of the five emails had no prior history or association with the recipient nor the company as no previous correspondence had been observed between the sender and recipient. The tags applied informed on the likely intent and nature of the suspicious indicators present in the email, as shown in Figure 1. 

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: Email log overview page, displaying important information clearly and concisely. 

Quishing Attack Tactics

Minimal Plain Text

Another characteristic shared by these emails was that they had little to no text included in the body of the email and they did not contain a plain text portion, as shown in Figure 2. For most normal emails sent by email clients and most automated programs, an email will contain an HTML component and a text component, in addition to any potential attachments present. All the emails had one image attachment, suggesting the bulk of the message was displayed in the image rather than the email body. This hinders textual analysis and filtering of the email for suspicious keywords and language that could reveal its phishing intent. Additionally, the emails were well-formatted and used the logo of the well-known corporation Microsoft, suggesting some level of technical ability on the part of the attackers. 

Figure 2: Email body properties giving additional insights into the content of the email. 

Attachment and link payloads

The threat actors employed some particularly innovative and novel techniques with regards to the attachments and link payloads within these emails. As previously stated, all emails contained an image attachment and one or two links. Figure 3 shows that Darktrace/Email detected that the malicious links present in these emails were located in the attachments, rather than the body of the email. This is a technique often employed by threat actors to bypass link analysis by security gateways. Darktrace/Email was also able to detect this link as a QR code link, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 3: Further properties and metrics regarding the location of the link within the email. 
Figure 4: Darktrace/Email analyses multiple metrics and properties related to links, some of which are detailed here. 

The majority of the text, as well as the malicious payload, was contained within the image attachment, which for one of the emails looked like this: 

example of quishing email
Figure 5: Redacted screenshot of the image payload contained in one of the emails. 

Convincing Appearance

As shown, the recipient is asked to setup 2FA authentication for their account within two days if they don’t want to be locked out. The visual formatting of the image, which includes a corporate logo and Privacy Statement and Acceptable Use Policy notices, is well balanced and convincing. The payload, in this case the QR code containing a malicious link, is positioned in the centre so as to draw attention and encourage the user to scan and click. This is a type of email employees are increasingly accustomed to receiving in order to log into corporate networks and applications. Therefore, recipients of such malicious emails might assume represents expected business activity and thus engage with the QR code without questioning it, especially if the email is claiming to be from the IT department.  

Malicious Redirection

Two of the Quishing emails contained links to legitimate file storage and sharing solutions Amazon Web Services (AWS) and and InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), whose domains are less likely to be blocked by traditional security solutions. Additionally, the AWS domain link contained a redirect to a different domain that has been flagged as malicious by multiple security vendors [5]. Malicious redirection was observed in four of the five emails, initially from well-known and benign services’ domains such as bing[.]com and login[.]microsoftonline[.]com. This technique allows attackers to hide the real destination of the link from the user and increase the likelihood that the link is clicked. In two of the emails, the redirect domain had only recently been registered, and in one case, the redirect domain observed was hosted on the new .zip top level domain (i.e., docusafe[.]zip). The domain name suggests it is attempting to masquerade as a compressed file containing important documentation. As seen in Figure 6, a new Darktrace/Email feature allows customers to safely view the final destination of the link, which in this case was a seemingly fake Microsoft login page which could be used to harvest corporate credentials.

Figure 6: Safe preview available from the Darktrace/Email Console showing the destination webpage of one of the redirect links observed.

Gathering Account Credentials

Given the nature of the landing page, it is highly likely that this phishing campaign had the objective of stealing the recipients’ credentials, as further indicated by the presence of the recipients’ email addresses in the links. Additionally, these emails were sent to senior employees, likely in an attempt to gather high value credentials to use in future attacks against the company. Had they succeeded, this would have represented a serious security incident, especially considering that 61% of attacks in 2023 involved stolen or hacked credentials according to Verizon’s 2023 data breach investigations report [6]. However, these emails received the highest possible anomaly score (100%) and were held by Darktrace/Email, thus ensuring that their intended recipients were never exposed to them. 

Looking at the indicators of compromise (IoCs) identified in this campaign, it appears that several of the IPs associated with the link payloads have been involved in previous phishing campaigns. Exploring the relations tab for these IPs in Virus Total, some of the communicating files appear to be .eml files and others have generic filenames including strings such as “invoice” “remittance details” “statement” “voice memo”, suggesting they have been involved in other phishing campaigns seemingly related to payment solicitation and other fraud attempts.

Figure 7: Virus Total’s relations tab for the IP 209.94.90[.]1 showing files communicating with the IP. 

Conclusion

Even though the authors of this Quishing campaign used all the tricks in the book to ensure that their emails would arrive unactioned by security tools to the targeted high value recipients’ inboxes, Darktrace/Email was able to immediately recognize the phishing attempts for what they were and block the emails from reaching their destination. 

This campaign used both classic and novel tactics, techniques, and procedures, but ultimately were detected and thwarted by Darktrace/Email. It is yet another example of the increasing attack sophistication mentioned in a previous Darktrace blog [7], wherein the attack landscape is moving from low-sophistication, low-impact, and generic phishing tactics to more targeted, sophisticated and higher impact attacks. Darktrace/Email does not rely on historical data nor known-bad lists and is best positioned to protect organizations from these highly targeted and sophisticated attacks.

References

[1] https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/opinions/qr-codes-vulnerability-cybercrimes/ 

[2] https://www.helpnetsecurity.com/2023/03/21/qr-scan-scams/ 

[3] https://www.techtarget.com/searchsecurity/feature/Quishing-on-the-rise-How-to-prevent-QR-code-phishing 

[4] https://businessplus.ie/tech/qr-code-phishing-hp/ 

[5] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/fistulacure.com

[6] https://www.verizon.com/business/en-gb/resources/reports/dbir/ ; https://www.verizon.com/business/en-gb/resources/reports/dbir/

[7] https://darktrace.com/blog/shifting-email-conversation 

Darktrace Model Detections 

Association models

No Sender or Content Association

New Sender

Unknown Sender

Low Sender Association

Link models

Focused Link to File Storage

Focused Rare Classified Links

New Unknown Hidden Redirect

High Risk Link + Low Sender Association

Watched Link Type

High Classified Link

File Storage From New

Hidden Link To File Storage

New Correspondent Classified Link

New Unknown Redirect

Rare Hidden Classified Link

Rare Hidden Link

Link To File Storage

Link To File Storage and Unknown Sender

Open Redirect

Unknown Sender Isolated Rare Link

Visually Prominent Link

Visually Prominent Link Unexpected For Sender

Low Link Association

Low Link Association and Unknown Sender

Spoof models

Fake Support Style

External Domain Similarities

Basic Known Entity Similarities

Unusual models

Urgent Request Banner

Urgent Request Banner + Basic Suspicious Sender

Very Young Header Domain

Young Header Domain

Unknown User Tracking

Unrelated Personal Name Address

Unrelated Personal Name Address + Freemail

Unusual Header TLD

Unusual Connection From Unknown

Unbroken Personal

Proximity models

Spam + Unknown Sender

Spam

Spam models

Unlikely Freemail Correspondence

Unlikely Freemail Personalization

General Indicators models

Incoming Mail Security Warning Message

Darktrace Model Tags

Credential Harvesting

Internal IT Impersonation

Multistage payload

Lookalike Domain

Phishing Link

Email Account Takeover

Fake Account Alert

Low Mailing History

No Association

Spoofing Indicators

Unknown Correspondent

VIP

Freemail

IoC - Type - Description & Confidence

fistulacure[.]com

domain

C2 Infrastructure

docusafe[.]zip

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

mwmailtec[.]com

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

czeromedia[.]com

domain

Possible C2 Infrastructure

192.40.165[.]109

IP address

Probable C2 Infrastructure

209.94.90[.]1

IP address

C2 Infrastructure

52.61.107[.]58

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

40.126.32[.]133

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

211.63.158[.]157

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

119.9.27[.]129

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

184.25.204[.]33

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

40.107.8[.]107

IP address

Probable C2 Infrastructure

40.107.212[.]111

IP address

Possible Infrastructure

27.86.113[.]2

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

192.40.191[.]19

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

157.205.202[.]217

IP address

Possible C2 Infrastructure

a31f1f6063409ecebe8893e36d0048557142cbf13dbaf81af42bf14c43b12a48

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

4c4fb35ab6445bf3749b9d0ab1b04f492f2bc651acb1bbf7af5f0a47502674c9

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

f9c51d270091c34792b17391017a09724d9a7890737e00700dc36babeb97e252

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

9f8ccfd616a8f73c69d25fd348b874d11a036b4d2b3fc7dbb99c1d6fa7413d9a

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

b748894348c32d1dc5702085d70d846c6dd573296e79754df4857921e707c439

SHA256 hash

Possible Malicious File

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.
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ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst
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Inside the SOC

The Price of Admission: Countering Stolen Credentials with Darktrace

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03
Jun 2024

Using leaked credentials to gain unauthorized access

Dark web marketplaces selling sensitive data have increased accessibility for malicious actors, similar to Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS), lowering the barrier to entry usually associated with malicious activity. By utilizing leaked credentials, malicious actors can easily gain unauthorized access to accounts and systems which they can leverage to carry out malicious activities like data exfiltration or malware deployment.

Usage of leaked credentials by malicious actors is a persistent concern for both organizations and security providers. Google Cloud’s ‘H1 2024 Threat Horizons Report’ details that initial access seen in 2.9% of cloud compromises observed on Google Cloud resulted from leaked credential usage [1], with the ‘IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2024’ reporting 71% year-on-year increase in cyber-attacks which utilize stolen or compromised credentials [2].

Darktrace coverage of leaked credentials

In early 2024, one Darktrace customer was compromised by a malicious actor after their internal credentials had been leaked on the dark web. Subsequent attack phases were detected by Darktrace/Network and the customer was alerted to the suspicious activity via the Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, following an investigation by Darktrace’s Security Operation Center (SOC).

Darktrace detected a device on the network of a customer in the US carrying out a string of anomalous activity indicative of network compromise. The device was observed using a new service account to authenticate to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) server, before proceeding to perform a range of suspicious activity including internal reconnaissance and lateral movement.

Malicious actors seemingly gained access to a previously unused service account for which they were able to set up multi-factor authentication (MFA) to access the VPN. As this MFA setup was made possible by the configuration of the customer’s managed service provider (MSP), the initial access phase of the attack fell outside of Darktrace’s purview.

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled on the network at the time of the attack. Had RESPOND been active, it would have been able to autonomously act against the malicious activity by disabling users, strategically blocking suspicious connections and limiting devices to their expected patterns of activity.

Attack timeline of leaked credentials spotted by darktrace

Network Scanning Activity

On February 22, 2024, Darktrace detected the affected device performing activity indicative of network scanning, namely initiating connections on multiple ports, including ports 80, 161 389 and 445, to other internal devices. While many of these internal connection attempts were unsuccessful, some successful connections were observed.

Devices on a network can gather information about other internal devices by performing network scanning activity. Defensive scanning can be used to support network security, allowing internal security teams to discover vulnerabilities and potential entry points that require their attention, however attackers are also able to take advantage of such information, such as open ports and services available on internal devices, with offensive scanning.

Brute Force Login Attempts

Darktrace proceeded to identify the malicious actor attempting to access a previously unused service account for which they were able to successfully establish MFA to access the organization’s VPN. As the customer’s third-party MSP had been configured to allow all users to login to the organization’s VPN using MFA, this login was successful. Moreover, the service account had never previously been used and MFA and never been established, allowing the attacker to leverage it for their own nefarious means.

Darktrace/Network identified the attacker attempting to authenticate over the Kerberos protocol using a total of 30 different usernames, of which two were observed successfully authenticating. There was a total of 6 successful Kerberos logins identified from two different credentials.  Darktrace also observed over 100 successful NTLM attempts from the same device for multiple usernames including “Administrator” and “mail”. These credentials were later confirmed by the customer to have been stolen and leaked on the dark web.

Advanced Search query results showing the usernames that successfully authenticated via NTLM.
Figure 1: Advanced Search query results showing the usernames that successfully authenticated via NTLM.

Even though MFA requirements had been satisfied when the threat actor accessed the organization’s VPN, Darktrace recognized that this activity represented a deviation from its previously learned behavior.

Malicious actors frequently attempt to gain unauthorized access to accounts and internal systems by performing login attempts using multiple possible usernames and passwords. This type of brute-force activity is typically accomplished using computational power via the use of software or scripts to attempt different username/password combinations until one is successful.

By purchasing stolen credentials from dark web marketplaces, attackers are able to significantly increase the success rate of brute-force attacks and, if they do gain access, they can easily act on their objectives, be that exfiltrating sensitive data or moving through their target networks to further the compromise.

Share Enumeration

Around 30 minutes after the initial network scanning activity, the compromised device was observed performing SMB enumeration using one of the aforementioned accounts. Darktrace understood that this activity was suspicious as the device had never previously been used to perform SMB activity and had not been tagged as a security device.

Darktrace/Network identifying the suspicious SMB enumeration performed by the compromised device.
Figure 2: Darktrace/Network identifying the suspicious SMB enumeration performed by the compromised device.

Such enumeration can be used by malicious actors to gain insights into the structures and configurations of a target device, view permissions associated with shared resources, and also view general identifying information about the system.

Darktrace further identified that the device connected to the named pipe “srvsvc”. By enumerating over srvsvc, a threat actor is able to request a list of all available SMB shares on a destination device, enabling further data gathering as part of network reconnaissance. Srvsvc also provides access to remote procedure call (RPC) for various services on a destination device.

At this stage, a Darktrace/Network Enhanced Monitoring model was triggered for lateral movement activity taking place on the customer’s network. As this particular customer was subscribed to the PTN service, the Enhanced Monitoring model alert was promptly triaged and investigated by the Darktrace SOC. The customer was alerted to the emerging activity and given full details of the incident and the SOC team’s investigation.

Attack and Reconnaissance Tool Usage

A few minutes later, Darktrace observed the device making a connection with a user agent associated with the Nmap network scanning tool, “Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Nmap Scripting Engine; https://nmap.org/book/nse[.]html)”. While these tools are often used legitimately by an organization’s security team, they can also be used maliciously by attackers to exploit vulnerabilities that attackers may have unearthed during earlier reconnaissance activity.

As such services are often seen as normal network traffic, attackers can often use them to bypass traditional security measures. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, was able to recognize that the affected device was not a security device and therefore not expected to carry out such activity, even if it was using a legitimate Nmap service.

Darktrace/Network identifying the compromised device using the Nmap scanning tool.
Figure 3: Darktrace/Network identifying the compromised device using the Nmap scanning tool.

Further Lateral Movement

Following this suspicious Nmap usage, Darktrace observed a range of additional anomalous SMB activity from the aforementioned compromised account. The affected device attempted to establish almost 900 SMB sessions, as well as performing 65 unusual file reads from 29 different internal devices and over 300 file deletes for the file “delete.me” from over 100 devices using multiple paths, including ADMIN$, C$, print$.

Darktrace also observed the device making several DCE-RPC connections associated with Active Directory Domain enumeration, including DRSCrackNames and DRSGetNCChanges; a total of more than 1000 successful DCE-RPC connection were observed to a domain controller.

As this customer did not have Darktrace/Network's autonomous response deployed on their network, the above detailed lateral movement and network reconnaissance activity was allowed to progress unfettered, until Darktrace’s SOC alerted the customer’s security team to take urgent action. The customer also received follow-up support through Darktrace’s Ask the Expert (ATE) service, allowing them to contact the analyst team directly for further details and support on the incident.

Thanks to this early detection, the customer was able to quickly identify and disable affected user accounts, effectively halting the attack and preventing further escalation.

Conclusions

Given the increasing trend of ransomware attackers exfiltrating sensitive data for double extortion and the rise of information stealers, stolen credentials are commonplace across dark web marketplaces. Malicious actors can exploit these leaked credentials to drastically lower the barrier to entry associated with brute-forcing access to their target networks.

While implementing well-configured MFA and enforcing regular password changes can help protect organizations, these measures alone may not be enough to fully negate the advantage attackers gain with stolen credentials.

In this instance, an attacker used leaked credentials to compromise an unused service account, allowing them to establish MFA and access the customer’s VPN. While this tactic may have allowed the attacker to evade human security teams and traditional security tools, Darktrace’s AI detected the unusual use of the account, indicating a potential compromise despite the organization’s MFA requirements being met. This underscores the importance of adopting an intelligent decision maker, like Darktrace, that is able to identify and respond to anomalies beyond standard protective measures.

Credit to Charlotte Thompson, Cyber Security Analyst, Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Coverage

-       Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity (Model Alert)

-       Device / ICMP Address Scan (Model Alert)

-       Device / Network Scan (Model Alert)

-       Device / Suspicious LDAP Search Operation (Model Alert)

-       User / Kerberos Username Brute Force (Model Alert)

-       Device / Large Number of Model Breaches (Model Alert)

-       Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration (Model Alert)

-       Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches (Enhanced Monitoring Model Alert)

-       Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance (Model Alert)

-       Anomalous Connection / Possible Share Enumeration Activity (Model Alert)

-       Device / Attack and Recon Tools (Model Alert)

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique - Code

INITIAL ACCESS - Hardware Additions     -T1200

DISCOVERY - Network Service Scanning -T1046

DISCOVERY - Remote System Discovery - T1018

DISCOVERY - Domain Trust Discovery      - T1482

DISCOVERY - File and Directory Discovery - T1083

DISCOVERY - Network Share Discovery - T1135

RECONNAISSANCE - Scanning IP Blocks - T1595.001

RECONNAISSANCE - Vulnerability Scanning - T1595.002

RECONNAISSANCE - Client Configurations - T1592.004

RECONNAISSANCE - IP Addresses - T1590.005

CREDENTIAL ACCESS - Brute Force - T1110

LATERAL MOVEMENT - Exploitation of Remote Services -T1210

References

  1. 2024 Google Cloud Threat Horizons Report
    https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/threat_horizons_report_h12024.pdf
  2. IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2024
    https://www.ibm.com/reports/threat-intelligence
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About the author
Charlotte Thompson
Cyber Analyst

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Exploring the Benefits and Risks of Third-Party Data Solutions

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03
Jun 2024

Why do companies allow third parties to handle their data?

Companies seek out third parties to handle their data for operational efficiency.

The scale and cost of maintaining in-house infrastructure can be outsourced to third parties who specialize in data management or in certain business functions.

Third parties who handle an organization’s data can range from large public cloud providers such as Azure or AWS, to boutique companies who handle specific business functions such as telemarketing, payment systems, or webpage hosting.

The operational efficiencies gained through third-party data management can be summarized by three key benefits:

  • Global accessibility: Third-party data storage enables data access across the globe, allowing businesses to access data from anywhere.
  • Enhanced collaboration: Third-party data storage allows for file sharing, real-time editing, and integration with other applications and services enhancing a business’s collaboration efforts.
  • Reliability and uptime: Reputable third-party storage providers offer high reliability and uptime guarantees, ensuring that data is available whenever needed. They typically have robust disaster recovery and backup systems in place to prevent data loss.

Given these benefits, it is no surprise that businesses are using these services to expand their operations and scale efforts with the need of a growing business. This strategic move not only optimizes resource allocation but also enhances operational agility, enabling businesses to adapt swiftly to evolving data demands and maintain a competitive edge in a dynamic market.

Security risks of entrusted data to third-party vendors

Entrusting data to third parties can expose businesses to supply chain risks and increase the risk of data breaches and unauthorized access. A business has less control over its data and becomes dependent on the third party's policies, practices, and uptime. Many third-party vendors are the target of hackers who specialize in monetizing sensitive data and exploiting gray areas around who is responsible for securing the data.

Thus, businesses are vulnerable when they entrust sensitive data to third-party platforms, which often lack transparency about data usage and security. The platforms, chosen mainly for cost, efficiency, and user experience, are frequent targets for cyber criminals, hacktivists, and opportunistic lone hackers looking for sensitive data accidentally exposed due to misconfigurations or poor data management policies.

Consumers are putting pressure on businesses to improve cybersecurity when handling their personal data. Businesses who suffer a data breach face a high level of scrutiny from customers, investors, the media, and governments, even when the data breach is the result of a third party’s being hacked. For example, Uber made headlines in 2022 for a data breach which was the result of a compromised vendor who had access to data regarding Uber’s employees.

Similarly, the UK’s Ministry of Defence was the victim of a data breach earlier this year when hackers targeted a third party payroll system used by the government department.

Why do cyber-criminals target third parties?

Cyber-criminals can potentially gain access to multiple networks when targeting a third-party storage provider. A successful attack could give attackers access to the networks and systems of all its clients, amplifying the impact of a single breach.

For example, when Illuminate Education was the target of a cyber-attack, the data of 23 US School Districts was stolen via its student-tracking software. It included student data from the country's two largest school systems - New York City Public Schools and Los Angeles Unified School District.

Common third-party security risks

When collaborating with third parties, organizations should be aware of the most common types of security risks posed to their cybersecurity.

  • Software supply chain attacks: Software supply chain attacks occur when cyber criminals infiltrate and compromise software products or updates at any point in the development or distribution process. This allows attackers to insert malicious code into legitimate software, which then gets distributed to users through trusted channels.
  • Human error: Human error in cybersecurity refers to mistakes made by individuals that lead to security breaches or vulnerabilities. These errors can result from lack of awareness, insufficient training, negligence, or simple mistakes.
  • Privileged access misuse: Privileged access misuse involves the inappropriate or unauthorized use of elevated access rights by individuals within an organization. This can include intentionally malicious actions or unintentional misuse of administrative privileges.

What to look for in a security solution when using third parties to store or manage data

Understanding the security posture of a third party is important when partnering with it and entrusting it with your organization’s data. Understanding how basic cyber hygiene policies are implemented is a good place to start, such as data retention policies, use of encryption for data in storage, and how identity and access are managed.

In some circumstances, it is important to understand who is responsible for the data’s security. For example, when using public cloud infrastructure, it is generally the responsibility of the data owner to manage how the data is accessed and stored.

In that situation, an organization needs to ensure it has solutions in place which gives it full visibility of that third-party environment, and which can proactively identify misconfigurations and detect and respond to suspicious activity in real time.

Benefits of using AI tools to aid in managing sensitive data

According to research performed by IBM, organizations with extensive use of security AI and automation identified and contained a data breach 108 days faster in 2023 than organizations that did not use AI for cybersecurity. (1) This figure is only likely to improve as companies mature in their adoption of AI for cyber security and can be a key indicator in the security posture of a third-party vendor.

Example of third-party security incidents

Sumo data breach

Sumo, an Australian energy and internet provider, suffered a data breach which they became aware of on May 13th, 2024. Further investigation into the cyber incident has found that “the personal details of approximately 40,000 customers were compromised, including approximately 3,000 Australian passport numbers.” (2)

While none of Sumo’s systems were allegedly accessed or affected and the third-party application also worked as designed (3), the incident was blamed on an unnamed third party. The breach may have been the result of a misconfiguration or human error.

This incident underscores the importance of not only selecting third-party providers with robust security measures but also continuously monitoring and assessing their security practices.

How Darktrace helps monitor third-party data usage

Darktrace/Cloud uses Self-Learning AI to provide complete cyber resilience for multi-cloud environments.

Benefits of Darktrace/Cloud:

Architectural awareness: Gives users an understanding of their cloud footprint, including real-time visibility into cloud assets, architectures, users and permissions. Combines asset enumeration, modeled architectures, and flow log analysis. Cost insights give a better understanding of resource allocation, helping teams contextualize resources.

Cloud-native detection and response: AI understands ‘normal’ for your unique business and stops cyber-threats with autonomous response. Near-real-time response goes beyond simple email alerts or opening a ticket; and includes cloud-native actions like detaching EC2 instances and applying security groups to contain risky assets.

Cloud protection and compliance: Identify compliance issues and potential misconfigurations with attack path modeling and prioritized remediation steps. Darktrace’s attack surface management (ASM) adds a critical external view of your organization, highlighting vulnerabilities most impactful to your specific situation and revealing shadow IT.

Learn more about securing cloud environments by reading: The CISO’s Guide to Cloud Security here.

References

1.    https://www.ibm.com/reports/data-breach

2.    https://www.passports.gov.au/news/sumo-data-breach

3.    https://www.smh.com.au/technology/sumo-slammed-by-data-breach-as-energy-and-internet-customers-have-details-leaked-20240515-p5jdwp.html

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About the author
Oakley Cox
Analyst Technical Director, APAC
Our ai. Your data.

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