Nahisha Nobregas

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Inside the SOC

PlugX Malware: A RAT’s Race to Adapt and Survive

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06
Nov 2023
06
Nov 2023
This blog details how Darktrace was able to detect and respond to the remote access trojan, PlugX, across its customer base in early 2023. Despite its highly evasive and adaptive nature, Darktrace’s was able to successfully identify PlugX compromises and prevent them from escalating.

What is PlugX Remote Access Trojan?

As malicious actors across the threat landscape continue to pursue more efficient and effective ways of compromising target networks, all while remaining undetected by security measures, it is unsurprising to see an increase in the use of remote access trojans (RATs) in recent years. RATs typically operate stealthily, evading security tools while offering threat actors remote control over infected devices, allowing attackers to execute a wide range of malicious activities like data theft or installing additional malware.

PlugX is one such example of a RAT that has attributed to Chinese threat actors such as Mustang Panda, since it first appeared in the wild back in 2008. It is known for its use in espionage, a modular and plug-in style approach to malware development. It has the ability to evolve with the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that allow it to avoid the detection of traditional security tools as it implants itself target devices.

How Does PlugX Work?

The ultimate goal of any RAT is to remotely control affected devices with a wide range of capabilities, which in PlugX’s case has typically included rebooting systems, keylogging, managing critical system processes, and file upload/downloads. One technique PlugX heavily relies on is dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading to infiltrate devices. This technique involves executing a malicious payload that is embedded within a benign executable found in a data link library (DLL) [1]. The embedded payload within the DLL is often encrypted or obfuscated to prevent detection.

What’s more, a new variant of PlugX was observed in the wild across Papua New Guinea, Ghana, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria in August 2022, that added several new capabilities to its toolbox.

The new variation is reported to continuously monitor affected environments for new USB devices to infect, allowing it to spread further through compromised networks [2]. It is then able to hide malicious files within a USB device by using a novel technique that prevents them from being viewed on Windows operating systems (OS). These hidden files can only be viewed on a Unix-like (.nix) OS, or by analyzing an affected USB devices with a forensic tool [2]. The new PlugX variant also has the ability to create a hidden directory, “RECYCLER.BIN”, containing a collection of stolen documents, likely in preparation for exfiltration via its command and control (C2) channels. [3]

Since December 2022, PlugX has been observed targeting networks in Europe through malware delivery via HTML smuggling campaigns, a technique that has been dubbed SmugX [4].

This evasive tactic allows threat actors to prepare and deploy malware via phishing campaigns by exploiting legitimate HTML5 and JavaScript features [5].

Darktrace Coverage of PlugX

Between January and March 2023, Darktrace observed activity relating to the PlugX RAT on multiple customers across the fleet. While PlugX’s TTPs may have bypassed traditional security tools, the anomaly-based detection capabilities of Darktrace DETECT™ allowed it to identify and alert the subtle deviations in the behavior of affected devices, while Darktrace RESPOND™ was able to take immediate mitigative action against such anomalous activity and stop attackers in their tracks.  

C2 Communication

Between January and March 2023, Darktrace detected multiple suspicious connections related to the PlugX RAT within customer environments. When a device has been infected, it will typically communicate through C2 infrastructure established for the PlugX RAT. In most cases observed by Darktrace, affected devices exhibited suspicious C2 connections to rare endpoints that were assessed with moderate to high confidence to be linked to PlugX.

On the network of one Darktrace customer the observed communication was a mix of successful and unsuccessful connections at a high volume to rare endpoints on ports such as 110, 443, 5938, and 80. These ports are commonly associated with POP3, HTTPS, TeamViewer RDP / DynGate, and HTTP, respectively.  Figure 1 below showcases this pattern of activity.

Figure 1: Model Breach Event Log demonstrating various successful and unsuccessful connections to the PlugX C2 endpoint 103.56.53[.]46 via various destination ports.

On another customer’s network, Darktrace observed C2 communication involving multiple failed connection attempts to another rare external endpoint associated with PlugX. The device in this case was detected attempting connections to the endpoint, 45.142.166[.]112 on ports 110, 80, and 443 which caused the DETECT model ‘Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint’ to breach. This model examines devices attempting connections to a rare external endpoint over a short period of time, and it breached in response to almost all PlugX C2 related activity detected by Darktrace. This highlights Darktrace DETECT’s unique ability to identify anomalous activity which appears benign or uncertain, rather than relying on traditional signature-based detections.

Figure 2: Device Event Log demonstrating various successful and unsuccessful connections to the PlugX C2 endpoint 45.142.166[.]112 via various destination on January 27, 2023.

New User Agent

Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI approach to threat detection also allowed it to recognize connections to PlugX associated endpoints that utilized a new user agent. In almost all connections to PlugX endpoints detected by Darktrace, the same user agent, Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36, was observed, illustrating a clear pattern in PlugX-related activity

In one example from February 2023, an affected device successfully connected to an endpoint associated with PlugX, 45.142.166[.]112, while using the aforementioned new user agent, as depicted in Figure 3.

Figure 3: The Device Event log above showcases a successful connection to the PlugX associated IP address, 45.142.166[.]112 using the new user agent ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36’.

On March 21, 2023, Darktrace observed similar activity on a separate customer’s network affected by connections to PlugX. This activity included connections to the same endpoint, 45.142.166[.]112. The connection was an HTTP POST request made via proxy with the same new user agent, ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36’. When investigated further this user agent actually reveals very little about itself and appears to be missing a couple of common features that are typically contained in a user agent string, such as a web browser and its version or the mention of Safari before its build ID (‘537.36’).

Additionally, for this connection the URI observed consisted of a random string of 8 hexadecimal characters, namely ‘d819f07a’. This is a technique often used by malware to communicate with its C2 servers, while evading the detection of signature-based detection tools. Darktrace, however, recognized that this external connection to an endpoint with no hostname constituted anomalous behavior, and could have been indicative of a threat actor communicating with malicious infrastructure, thus the ‘Anomalous Connection / Possible Callback URI’ model was breached.

Figure 4: An affected device was detected using the new user agent, ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36’ while connecting to the rare external endpoint 45.142.166[.]112 via proxy.

Numeric File Download

Darktrace’s detection of PlugX activity on another customer’s network, in February 2023, helped to demonstrate related patterns of activity within the C2 communication and tooling attack phases. Observed PlugX activity on this network followed the subsequent pattern; a connection to a PlugX endpoints is made, followed by a HTTP POST request to a numeric URI with a random string of 8 hexadecimal characters, as previously highlighted. Darktrace identified that this activity represented unusual ‘New Activity’ for this device, and thus treated it with suspicion.

Figure 5: New activity was identified by Darktrace in the Device Event Log shown above for connections to the endpoint 45.142.166[.]112 followed by HTTP POSTs to URIs “/8891431c” and “/ba12b866” on February 15, 2023.

The device in question continued to connect to the endpoint and make HTTP POST connections to various URIs relating to PlugX. Additionally, the user agent `Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36` was again detected for these connections. Figure 6 details the activity captured by Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst.

Figure 6: The image above showcases activity captured by Darktrace’s AI Analyst for PlugX connections made on February 15, 2023.

Darktrace detected that during these connections, the device in question attempted to download a suspicious file named only with numbers. The use of numeric file names is a technique often used by threat actors to obfuscate the download of malicious files or programs and bypass traditional security tools. Darktrace understood that the download of a numeric file, coupled with the use of an anomalous new user agent, mean the incident should be treated with suspicion. Fortunately, Darktrace RESPOND was enabled in autonomous response mode during this attack, meaning it was able to automatically block the device from downloading the file, or any other files, from the suspicious external location for a two-hour period, potentially preventing the download of PlugX’s malicious tooling.

Conclusion

Amid the continued evolution of PlugX from an espionage tool to a more widely available malware, it is essential that threat detection does not rely on a set of characteristics or indicators, but rather is focused on anomalies. Throughout these cases, Darktrace demonstrated the efficacy of its detection and alerting on emerging activity pertaining to a particularly stealthy and versatile RAT. Over the years, PlugX has continually looked to evolve and survive in the ever-changing threat landscape by adapting new capabilities and TTPs through which it can infect a system and spread to new devices without being noticed by security teams and their tools.

However, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI allows it to gain a strong understanding of customer networks, learning what constitutes expected network behavior which in turn allows it to recognize the subtle deviations indicative of an ongoing compromise.

Darktrace’s ability to identify emerging threats through anomaly-based detection, rather than relying on established threat intelligence, uniquely positions it to detect and respond to highly adaptable and dynamic threats, like the PlugX malware, regardless of how it may evolve in the future.

Credit to: Nahisha Nobregas, SOC Analyst & Dylan Hinz, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

MITRE ATT&CK Framework

Execution

  • T1059.003 Command and Scripting Interpreter: Windows Command Shell

Persistence and Privilege Escalation

  • T1547.001 Boot or Logon AutoStart Execution: Registry Run Keys / Startup Folder
  • T1574.001 Hijack Execution Flow: DLL Search Order Hijacking
  • T1574.002 Hijack Execution Flow: DLL Side-Loading
  • T1543.003 Create or Modify System Process: Windows Service
  • T1140 Deobfuscate / Decode Files or Information
  • T1083 File and Directory Discovery

Defense Evasion

  • T1564.001 Hide Artifacts: Hidden Files and Directories
  • T1036.004 Masquerading: Task or Service
  • T1036.005 Masquerading: Match Legitimate Name or Location
  • T1027.006 Obfuscated Files or Information: HTML Smuggling

Credential Access

  • T1056.001 Input Capture: Keylogging

Collection

  • T1105 Ingress Tool Transfer

Command and Control

  • T1573.001 Encrypted Channel: Symmetric Cryptography
  • T1070.003 Mail Protocols
  • T1071.001 Web Protocol

DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / New User Agent Followed By Numeric File Download
  • Anomalous Connection / Possible Callback URL

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

45.142.166[.]112 - IP - PlugX C2 Endpoint / moderate - high

103.56.53[.]46 - IP - PlugX C2 Endpoint / moderate - high

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0;Win64;x64)AppleWebKit/537.36 - User Agent - PlugX User Agent / moderate – high

/8891431c - URI - PlugX URI / moderate-high

/ba12b866 - URI - PlugX URI / moderate -high

References

1. https://www.crowdstrike.com/blog/dll-side-loading-how-to-combat-threat-actor-evasion-techniques/

2. https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/plugx-variants-in-usbs/

3. https://news.sophos.com/en-us/2023/03/09/border-hopping-plugx-usb-worm/

4. https://thehackernews.com/2023/07/chinese-hackers-use-html-smuggling-to.html

5. https://www.cyfirma.com/outofband/html-smuggling-a-stealthier-approach-to-deliver-malware/

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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Nahisha Nobregas
SOC 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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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
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