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Darktrace’s Detection of a Hive Ransomware-as-Service

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23
May 2023
23
May 2023
This blog investigates a new strain of ransomware, Hive, a ransomware-as-a-service. Darktrace was able to provide full visibility over the attacks.

Update: On January 26, 2023, the Hive ransomware group was dismantled and servers associated with the sale of the ransomware were taken offline following an investigation by the FBI, German law enforcement and the National Crime Agency (NCA). The activity detailed in this blog took place in 2022, whilst the group was still active.

RaaS in Cyber Security

The threat of ransomware continues to be a constant concern for security teams across the cyber threat landscape. With the growing popularity of Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS), it is becoming more and more accessible for even inexperienced would-be attackers. As a result of this low barrier to entry, the volume of ransomware attacks is expected to increase significantly.

What’s more, RaaS is a highly tailorable market in which buyers can choose from varied kits and features to use in their ransomware deployments meaning attacks will rarely behave the same. To effectively detect and safeguard against these differentiations, it is crucial to implement security measures that put the emphasis on detecting anomalies and focusing on deviations in expected behavior, rather than relying on depreciated indicators of compromise (IoC) lists or playbooks that focus on attack chains unable to keep pace with the increasing speed of ransomware evolution.

In early 2022, Darktrace DETECT/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.

Hive Ransomware 

Hive ransomware is a relatively new strain that was first observed in the wild in June 2021. It is known to target a variety of industries including healthcare, energy providers, and retailers, and has reportedly attacked over 1,500 organizations, collecting more than USD 100m in ransom payments [1].

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. Hive uses typical tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with ransomware, though they do vary depending on the Hive affiliate carrying out the attack.

In most cases a double extortion attack is carried out, whereby data is first exfiltrated and then encrypted before a ransom demand is made. This gives attackers extra leverage as victims are at risk of having their sensitive data leaked to the public on websites such as the ‘HiveLeaks’ TOR website.

Attack Timeline

Owing to the highly customizable nature of RaaS, the tactics and methods employed by Hive actors are expected to differ on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless in the majority of Hive ransomware incidents identified on Darktrace customer environments, Darktrace DETECT observed the following general attack stages and features. This is possibly indicative of the attacks originating from the same threat actor(s) or from a widely sold batch with a particular configuration to a variety of actors.

Figure 1: A typical timeline of a Hive attack observed by Darktrace.

Initial Access 

Although Hive actors are known to gain initial access to networks through multiple different vectors, the two primary methods reported by security researchers are the exploitation of Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities, or the distribution of phishing emails with malicious attachments [2][3].

In the early stages of one Hive ransomware attack observed on the network of a Darktrace customer, for example, Darktrace detected a device connecting to the rare external location 23.81.246[.]84, with a PowerShell user agent via HTTP. During this connection, the device attempted to download an executable file named “file.exe”. It is possible that the file was initially accessed and delivered via a phishing email; however, as Darktrace/Email was not enabled at the time of the attack, this was outside of Darktrace’s purview. Fortunately, the connection failed the proxy authentication was thus blocked as seen in the packet capture (PCAP) in Figure 2. 

Shortly after this attempted download, the same device started to receive a high volume of incoming SSL connections from a rare external endpoint, namely 146.70.87[.]132. Darktrace logged that this endpoint was using an SSL certificate signed by Go Daddy CA, an easily obtainable and accessible SSL certificate, and that the increase in incoming SSL connections from this endpoint was unusual behavior for this device. 

It is likely that this highly anomalous activity detected by Darktrace indicates when the ransomware attack began, likely initial payload download.  

Darktrace DETECT models:

  • Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External
  • Anomalous Server Activity / New Internet Facing System
Figure 2: PCAP of the HTTP connection to the rare endpoint 23.81.246[.]84 showing the failed proxy authentication.

C2 Beaconing 

Following the successful initial access, Hive actors begin to establish their C2 infrastructure on infected networks through numerous connections to C2 servers, and the download of additional stagers. 

On customer networks infected by Hive ransomware, Darktrace identified devices initiating a high volume of connections to multiple rare endpoints. This very likely represented C2 beaconing to the attacker’s infrastructure. In one particular example, further open-source intelligence (OSINT) investigation revealed that these endpoints were associated with Cobalt Strike.

Darktrace DETECT models:

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
  • Compromise / Suspicious HTTP Beacons to Dotted Quad 
  • Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
  • Device / Lateral Movement and C2 Activity

Internal Reconnaissance, Lateral Movement and Privilege Escalation

After C2 infrastructure has been established, Hive actors typically begin to uninstall antivirus products in an attempt to remain undetected on the network [3]. They also perform internal reconnaissance to look for vulnerabilities and open channels and attempt to move laterally throughout the network.

Amid the C2 connections, Darktrace was able to detect network scanning activity associated with the attack when a device on one customer network was observed initiating an unusually high volume of connections to other internal devices. A critical network device was also seen writing an executable file “mimikatz.exe” via SMB which appears to be the Mimikatz attack tool commonly used for credential harvesting. 

There were also several detections of lateral movement attempts via RDP and DCE-RPC where the attackers successfully authenticated using an “Administrator” credential. In one instance, a device was also observed performing ITaskScheduler activity. This service is used to remotely control tasks running on machines and is commonly observed as part of malicious lateral movement activity. Darktrace DETECT understood that the above activity represented a deviation from the devices’ normal pattern of behavior and the following models were breached:

Darktrace DETECT models:

  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous DRSGetNCChanges Operation
  • Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control
  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin RDP Session
  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual SMB Version 1 Connectivity
  • Compliance / SMB Drive Write
  • Device / Anomalous ITaskScheduler Activity
  • Device / Attack and Recon Tools
  • Device / Attack and Recon Tools In SMB
  • Device / EXE Files Distributed to Multiple Devices
  • Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity
  • Device / Increase in New RPC Services
  • User / New Admin Credentials on Server

Data Exfiltration

At this stage of the attack, Hive actors have been known to carry out data exfiltration activity on infected networks using a variety of different methods. The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) reported that “Hive actors exfiltrate data likely using a combination of Rclone and the cloud storage service Mega[.]nz” [4]. Darktrace DETECT identified an example of this when a device on one customer network was observed making HTTP connections to endpoints related to Mega, including “w.apa.mega.co[.]nz”, with the user agent “rclone/v1.57.0” with at least 3 GiB of data being transferred externally (Figure 3). The same device was also observed transferring at least 3.6 GiB of data via SSL to the rare external IP, 158.51.85[.]157.

Figure 3: A summary of a device’s external connections to multiple endpoints and the respective amounts of data exfiltrated to Mega storage endpoints.

In another case, a device was observed uploading over 16 GiB of data to a rare external endpoint 93.115.27[.]71 over SSH. The endpoint in question was seen in earlier beaconing activity suggesting that this was likely an exfiltration event. 

However, Hive ransomware, like any other RaaS kit, can differ greatly in its techniques and features, and it is important to note that data exfiltration may not always be present in a Hive ransomware attack. In one incident detected by Darktrace, there were no signs of any data leaving the customer environment, indicating data exfiltration was not part of the Hive actor’s objectives.

Darktrace DETECT models:

  • Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain
  • Anomalous Connection / Lots of New Connections
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname
  • Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL
  • Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound
  • Device / New User Agent and New IP
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data to New Endpoints
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data Transfer
  • Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer

Ransomware Deployment

In the final stage of a typical Hive ransomware attack, the ransomware payload is deployed and begins to encrypt files on infected devices. On one customer network, Darktrace detected several devices connecting to domain controllers (DC) to read a file named “xxx.exe”. Several sources have linked this file name with the Hive ransomware payload [5].

In another example, Darktrace DETECT observed multiple devices downloading the executable files “nua64.exe” and “nua64.dll” from a rare external location, 194.156.90[.]25. OSINT investigation revealed that the files are associated with Hive ransomware.

Figure 4: Security vendor analysis of the malicious file hash [6] associated with Hive ransomware. 

Shortly after the download of this executable, multiple devices were observed performing an unusual amount of file encryption, appending randomly generated strings of characters to file extensions. 

Although it has been reported that earlier versions of Hive ransomware encrypted files with a “.hive” extension [7], Darktrace observed across multiple customers that encrypted files had extensions that were partially-randomized, but consistently 20 characters long, matching the regular expression “[a-zA-Z0-9\-\_]{8}[\-\_]{1}[A-Za-z0-9\-\_]{11}”.

Figure 5: Device Event Log showing SMB reads and writes of encrypted files with a randomly generated extension of 20 characters. 

Following the successful encryption of files, Hive proceeds to drop a ransom note, named “HOW_TO_DECRYPT.txt”, into each affected directory. Typically, the ransom note will contain a link to Hive’s “sales department” and, in the event that exfiltration took place, a link to the “HiveLeaks” site, where attackers threaten to publish exfiltrated data if their demands are not met (Figure 6).  In cases of Hive ransomware detected by Darktrace, multiple devices were observed attempting to contact “HiveLeaks” TOR domains, suggesting that endpoint users had followed links provided to them in ransom notes.

Figure 6: Sample of a Hive ransom note [4].

Examples of file extensions:

  • 36C-AT9-_wm82GvBoCPC
  • 36C-AT9--y6Z1G-RFHDT
  • 36C-AT9-_x2x7FctFJ_q
  • 36C-AT9-_zK16HRC3QiL
  • 8KAIgoDP-wkQ5gnYGhrd
  • kPemi_iF_11GRoa9vb29
  • kPemi_iF_0RERIS1m7x8
  • kPemi_iF_7u7e5zp6enp
  • kPemi_iF_y4u7pB3d3f3
  • U-9Xb0-k__T0U9NJPz-_
  • U-9Xb0-k_6SkA8Njo5pa
  • zm4RoSR1_5HMd_r4a5a9 

Darktrace DETECT models:

  • Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration
  • Anomalous Connection / Sustained MIME Type Conversion
  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin SMB Session
  • Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
  • Compliance / SMB Drive Write
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Possible Ransom Note Write
  • Compromise / High Priority Tor2Web
  • Compromise / Tor2Web
  • Device / EXE Files Distributed to Multiple Devices

Conclusion

As Hive ransomware attacks are carried out by different affiliates using varying deployment kits, the tactics employed tend to vary and new IoCs are regularly identified. Furthermore, in 2022 a new variant of Hive was written using the Rust programming language. This represented a major upgrade to Hive, improving its defense evasion techniques and making it even harder to detect [8]. 

Hive is just one of many RaaS offerings currently on the market, and this market is only expected to grow in usage and diversity of presentations.  As ransomware becomes more accessible and easier to deploy it is essential for organizations to adopt efficient security measures to identify ransomware at the earliest possible stage. 

Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning 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. 

Credit to: Emily Megan Lim, Cyber Analyst, Hyeongyung Yeom, Senior Cyber Analyst & Analyst Team Lead.

Appendices

MITRE AT&CK Mapping

Reconnaissance

T1595.001 – Scanning IP Blocks

T1595.002 – Vulnerability Scanning

Resource Development

T1583.006 – Web Services

Initial Access

T1078 – Valid Accounts

T1190 – Exploit Public-Facing Application

T1200 – Hardware Additions

Execution

T1053.005 – Scheduled Task

T1059.001 – PowerShell

Persistence/Privilege Escalation

T1053.005 – Scheduled Task

T1078 – Valid Accounts

Defense Evasion

T1078 – Valid Accounts

T1207 – Rogue Domain Controller

T1550.002 – Pass the Hash

Discovery

T1018 – Remote System Discovery

T1046 – Network Service Discovery

T1083 – File and Directory Discovery

T1135 – Network Share Discovery

Lateral Movement

T1021.001 – Remote Desktop Protocol

T1021.002 – SMB/Windows Admin Shares

T1021.003 – Distributed Component Object Model

T1080 – Taint Shared Content

T1210 – Exploitation of Remote Services

T1550.002 – Pass the Hash

T1570 – Lateral Tool Transfer

Collection

T1185 – Man in the Browser

Command and Control

T1001 – Data Obfuscation

T1071 – Application Layer Protocol

T1071.001 – Web Protocols

T1090.003 – Multi-hop proxy

T1095 – Non-Application Layer Protocol

T1102.003 – One-Way Communication

T1571 – Non-Standard Port

Exfiltration

T1041 – Exfiltration Over C2 Channel

T1567.002 – Exfiltration to Cloud Storage

Impact

T1486 – Data Encrypted for Impact

T1489 – Service Stop

List of IoCs 

23.81.246[.]84 - IP Address - Likely Malicious File Download Endpoint

146.70.87[.]132 - IP Address - Possible Ransomware Endpoint

5.199.162[.]220 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

23.227.178[.]65 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

46.166.161[.]68 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

46.166.161[.]93 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

93.115.25[.]139 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

185.150.1117[.]189 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

192.53.123[.]202 - IP Address - C2 Endpoint

209.133.223[.]164 - IP Address - Likely C2 Endpoint

cltrixworkspace1[.]com - Domain - C2 Endpoint

vpnupdaters[.]com - Domain - C2 Endpoint

93.115.27[.]71 - IP Address - Possible Exfiltration Endpoint

158.51.85[.]157 - IP Address - Possible Exfiltration Endpoint

w.api.mega.co[.]nz - Domain - Possible Exfiltration Endpoint

*.userstorage.mega.co[.]nz - Domain - Possible Exfiltration Endpoint

741cc67d2e75b6048e96db9d9e2e78bb9a327e87 - SHA1 Hash - Hive Ransomware File

2f9da37641b204ef2645661df9f075005e2295a5 - SHA1 Hash - Likely Hive Ransomware File

hiveleakdbtnp76ulyhi52eag6c6tyc3xw7ez7iqy6wc34gd2nekazyd[.]onion - TOR Domain - Likely Hive Endpoint

References

[1] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/us-department-justice-disrupts-hive-ransomware-variant

[2] https://www.varonis.com/blog/hive-ransomware-analysis

[3] https://www.trendmicro.com/vinfo/us/security/news/ransomware-spotlight/ransomware-spotlight-hive 

[4]https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa22-321a

[5] https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/22/c/nokoyawa-ransomware-possibly-related-to-hive-.html

[6] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/60f6a63e366e6729e97949622abd9de6d7988bba66f85a4ac8a52f99d3cb4764/detection

[7] https://heimdalsecurity.com/blog/what-is-hive-ransomware/

[8] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/blog/2022/07/05/hive-ransomware-gets-upgrades-in-rust/ 

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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Emily Megan Lim
Cyber 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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About the author
Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst

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

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21
Jun 2024

Understanding the Network Security Market

Old tools blind to new threats

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

Advanced threats

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

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

Disparate workforce

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

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

Network Security Challenge 1: Managing trust

What is trust in cybersecurity?

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

Why is trust important in cybersecurity?

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

How do you manage trust in cybersecurity?

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

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

Questions to ask in updating Trusted User policies include:

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

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

Exploiting trust in the network

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

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

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

Use Case: Darktrace spots an insider threat

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

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

Read more about insider threats here

Network Security Challenge 2: Stopping Ransomware at every stage    

What is Ransomware?

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

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

What else is new?

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

Darktrace Cyber AI breaks the ransomware cycle

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

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

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

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

Use Case: Stopping Hive Ransomware attack

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

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

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

Read the full story here

Network Security Challenge 3: Spotting Novel Attacks

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

What are novel attacks?

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

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

Old tools may be blind to new threats

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

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

Darktrace AI spots what other tools miss                                      

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

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

Use Case: Stopping Novel Ransomware Attack

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

Read the full story here

References

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

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

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