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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

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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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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