Blog

Inside the SOC

Balada Injector: Darktrace’s Investigation into the Malware Exploiting WordPress Vulnerabilities

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
08
Apr 2024
08
Apr 2024
This blog explores Darktrace’s detection of Balada Injector, a malware known to exploit vulnerabilities in WordPress to gain unauthorized access to networks. Darktrace was able to define numerous use-cases within customer environments which followed previously identified patterns of activity spikes across multiple weeks.

Introduction

With millions of users relying on digital platforms in their day-to-day lives, and organizations across the world depending on them for their business operations, they have inevitably also become a prime target for threat actors. The widespread exploitation of popular services, websites and platforms in cyber-attacks highlights the pervasive nature of malicious actors in today’s threat landscape.

A prime illustration can be seen within the content management system WordPress. Its widespread use and extensive plug-in ecosystem make it an attractive target for attackers aiming to breach networks and access sensitive data, thus leading to routine exploitation attempts. In the End of Year Threat Report for 2023, for example, Darktrace reported that a vulnerability in one WordPress plug-in, namely an authentication bypass vulnerability in miniOrange's Social Login and Register. Darktrace observed it as one of the most exploited vulnerabilities observed across its customer base in the latter half of 2023.

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace observed a string of campaign-like activity associated with Balada Injector, a malware strain known to exploit vulnerabilities in popular plug-ins and themes on the WordPress platform in order to inject a backdoor to provide further access to affected devices and networks. Thanks to its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to promptly identify suspicious connections associated with the Balada Injector, ensuring that security teams had full visibility over potential post-compromise activity and allowing them to act against offending devices.

What is Balada Injector?

The earliest signs of the Balada Injector campaign date back to 2017; however, it was not designated the name Balada Injector until December 2022 [1]. The malware utilizes plug-ins and themes in WordPress to inject a backdoor that redirects end users to malicious and fake sites. It then exfiltrates sensitive information, such as database credentials, archive files, access logs and other valuable information which may not be properly secured [1]. Balada Injector compromise activity is also reported to arise in spikes of activity that emerge every couple of weeks [4].

In its most recent attack activity patterns, specifically in September 2023, Balada Injector exploited a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in CVE-2023-3169 associated with the tagDiv composer plug-in. Some of the injection methods observed included HTML injections, database injections, and arbitrary file injections. In late September 2023, a similar pattern of behavior was observed, with the ability to plant a backdoor that could execute PHP code and install a malicious WordPress plug-in, namely ‘wp-zexit’.

According to external security researchers [2], the most recent infection activity spikes for Balada Injector include the following:

Pattern 1: ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ injections

Pattern 2: Autogenerated malicious WordPress users

Pattern 3: Backdoors in the Newspaper theme’s 404.php file

Pattern 4: Malicious ‘wp-zexit’ plug-in installation

Pattern 5: Three new Balada Injector domains (statisticscripts[.]com, dataofpages[.]com, and listwithstats[.]com)

Pattern 6: Promsmotion[.]com domain

Darktrace’s Coverage of Balada Injector

Darktrace detected devices across multiple customer environments making external connections to the malicious Balada Injector domains, including those associated with aforementioned six infection activity patterns. Across the incidents investigated by Darktrace, much of the activity appeared to be associated with TLS/SSL connectivity, related to Balada Injector endpoints, which correlated with the reported infection patterns of this malware. The observed hostnames were all recently registered and, in most cases, had IP geolocations in either the Netherlands or Ukraine.

In the observed cases of Balada Injector across the Darktrace fleet, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not active on the affected customer environments. If RESPOND had been active and enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of these attacks, it would have been able to quickly block connections to malicious Balada Injector endpoints as soon as they were identified by DETECT, thereby containing the threat.

Looking within the aforementioned activity patterns, Darktrace identified a Balada Injector activity within a customer’s environment on October 16, 2023, when a device was observed making a total of 9 connection attempts to ‘sleep[.]stratosbody[.]com’, a domain that had previously been associated with the malware [2]. Darktrace recognized that the endpoint had never been seen on the network, with no other devices having connected to it previously, thus treated it as suspicious.

Figure 1: The connection details above demonstrate 100% rare external connections were made from the internal device to the ‘sleep[.]stratosbody[.]com’ endpoint.

Similarly, on September 21, 2023, Darktrace observed a device on another customer network connecting to an external IP that had never previously been observed on the environment, 111.90.141[.]193. The associated server name was a known malicious endpoint, ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’, known to be utilized by Balada Injector to host malicious scripts used to compromise WordPress sites. Although the ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ domain was only registered in September 2023, it was reportedly used in the redirect chain of the aforementioned stratosbody[.com] domain [2]. Such scripts can be used to upload backdoors, including malicious plug-ins, and create blog administrators who can perform administrative tasks without having to authenticate [2].

Figure 2: Advance Search results displaying the metadata logs surrounding the unusual connections to ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’. A total of nine HTTP CONNECT requests were observed, with status messages “Proxy Authorization Required” and “Connection established”.

Darktrace observed additional connections within the same customer’s environment on October 10 and October 18, specifically SSL connections from two distinct source devices to the ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ endpoint. Within these connections, Darktrace observed the normalized JA3 fingerprints, “473f0e7c0b6a0f7b049072f4e683068b” and “aa56c057ad164ec4fdcb7a5a283be9fc”, the latter of which corresponds to GitHub results mentioning a Python client (curl_cffi) that is able to impersonate the TLS signatures of browsers or JA3 fingerprints [8].

Figure 3: Advanced Search query results showcasing Darktrace’s detection of SSL connections to ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com over port 443.

On September 29, 2023, a device on a separate customer’s network was observed connecting to the hostname ‘cdn[.]dataofpages[.]com’, one of the three new Balada Injector domains identified as part of the fifth pattern of activity outlined above, using a new SSL certificate via port 443. Multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors flagged this domain as malicious and associated with Balada Injector malware [9].

Figure 4: The Model Breach Event Log detailing the Balada Injector-related connections observed causing the ‘Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device’ DETECT model to breach.

On October 2, 2023, Darktrace observed the device of another customer connecting to the rare hostname, ‘js.statisticscripts[.]com’ with the IP address 185.39.206[.]161, both of which had only been registered in late September and are known to be associated with the Balada Injector.

Figure 5: Model Breach Event Log detailing connections to the hostname ‘js.statisticscripts[.]com’ over port 137.

On September 13, 2023, Darktrace identified a device on another customer’s network connecting to the Balada Injector endpoint ‘stay.decentralappps[.]com’ endpoint, with the destination IP 1.1.1[.]1, using the SSL protocol. This time, however, Darktrace also observed the device making subsequent connections to ‘get.promsmotion[.]com’ a subdomain of the ‘promsmotion[.]com’ domain. This domain is known to be used by Balada Injector actors to host malicious scripts that can be injected into the WordPress Newspaper theme as potential backdoors to be leveraged by attackers.

In a separate case observed on September 14, Darktrace identified a device on another environment connecting to the domain ‘collect[.]getmygateway[.]com’ with the IP 88.151.192[.]254. No other device on the customer’s network had visited this endpoint previously, and the device in question was observed repeatedly connecting to it via port 443 over the course of four days. While this specific hostname had not been linked with a specific activity pattern of Balada Injector, it was reported as previously associated with the malware in September 2023 [2].

Figure 6: Model Breach Event Log displaying a customer device making repeated connections to the endpoint ‘collect[.]getmygateway[.]com’, breaching the DETECT model ‘Repeating Connections Over 4 Days’.

In addition to DETECT’s identification of this suspicious activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst™ also launched its own autonomous investigation into the connections. AI Analyst was able to recognize that these separate connections that took place over several days were, in fact, connected and likely represented command-and-control (C2) beaconing activity that had been taking place on the customer networks.

By analyzing the large number of external connections taking place on a customer’s network at any one time, AI Analyst is able to view seemingly isolated events as components of a wider incident, ensuring that customers maintain full visibility over their environments and any emerging malicious activity.

Figure 7: Cyber AI Analyst investigation detailing the SSL connectivity observed, including endpoint details and overall summary of the beaconing activity.

Conclusion

While Balada Injector’s tendency to interchange C2 infrastructure and utilize newly registered domains may have been able to bypass signature-based security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach enabled it to swiftly identify affected devices across multiple customer environments, without needing to update or retrain its models to keep pace with the evolving iterations of WordPress vulnerabilities.

Unlike traditional measures, Darktrace DETECT’s Self-Learning AI focusses on behavioral analysis, crucial for identifying emerging threats like those exploiting commonly used platforms such as WordPress. Rather than relying on historical threat intelligence or static indicators of compromise (IoC) lists, Darktrace identifies the subtle deviations in device behavior, such as unusual connections to newly registered domains, that are indicative of network compromise.

Darktrace’s suite of products, including DETECT+RESPOND, is uniquely positioned to proactively identify and contain network compromises from the onset, offering vital protection against disruptive cyber-attacks.

Credit to: Justin Torres, Cyber Analyst, Nahisha Nobregas, Senior Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Coverage

  • Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compliance / Possible DNS Over HTTPS/TLS
  • Compliance / External Windows Communications
  • Compromise / Repeating Connections Over 4 Days
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External
  • Compromise / Large DNS Volume for Suspicious Domain
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server
  • Device / Suspicious Domain

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

collect[.]getmygateway[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

cdn[.]dataofpages[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

stay[.]decentralappps[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

get[.]promsmotion[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

js[.]statisticscripts[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

sleep[.]stratosbody[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

trend[.]stablelightway[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

cdn[.]specialtaskevents[.]com - Hostname - Balada C2 Endpoint

88.151.192[.]254 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

185.39.206[.]160 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

111.90.141[.]193 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

185.39.206[.]161 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

2.59.222[.]121 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

80.66.79[.]253 - IP Address - Balada C2 Endpoint

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64; rv:68.0) - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Gecko/20100101 Firefox/68.0 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Chrome/117.0.0.0 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Safari/537.36 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

Edge/117.0.2045.36 - User Agent - Observed User Agent in Balada C2 Connections

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Technique - Tactic - ID - Sub Technique

Exploit Public-Facing Application

INITIAL ACCESS

T1190

Web Protocols

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1071.001

T1071

Protocol Tunneling

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1572


Default Accounts

DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, INITIAL ACCESS

T1078.001

T1078

Domain Accounts

DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, INITIAL ACCESS

T1078.002

T1078

External Remote Services

PERSISTENCE, INITIAL ACCESS

T1133

NA

Local Accounts

DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, INITIAL ACCESS

T1078.003

T1078

Application Layer Protocol

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1071

NA

Browser Extensions

PERSISTENCE

T1176

NA

Encrypted Channel

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1573

Fallback Channels

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1008

Multi-Stage Channels

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1104

Non-Standard Port

COMMAND AND CONTROL

T1571

Supply Chain Compromise

INITIAL ACCESS ICS

T0862

Commonly Used Port

COMMAND AND CONTROL ICS

T0885

References

[1] https://blog.sucuri.net/2023/04/balada-injector-synopsis-of-a-massive-ongoing-wordpress-malware-campaign.html

[2] https://blog.sucuri.net/2023/10/balada-injector-targets-unpatched-tagdiv-plugin-newspaper-theme-wordpress-admins.html

[3] https://securityboulevard.com/2021/05/wordpress-websites-redirecting-to-outlook-phishing-pages-travelinskydream-ga-track-lowerskyactive/

[4] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/over-17000-wordpress-sites-compromised.html

[5] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/over-17-000-wordpress-sites-hacked-in-balada-injector-attacks-last-month/

[6]https://nvd.nist.gov/vuln/detail/CVE-2023-3169

[7] https://www.geoedge.com/balda-injectors-2-0-evading-detection-gaining-persistence/

[8] https[:]//github[.]com/yifeikong/curl_cffi/blob/master/README.md

[9] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cdn.dataofpages.com

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
AUTHOR
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
Justin Torres
Cyber Analyst
Book a 1-1 meeting with one of our experts
share this article
USE CASES
No items found.
PRODUCT SPOTLIGHT
No items found.
COre coverage
No items found.

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

Inside the SOC

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

Default blog imageDefault blog image
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.

Continue reading
About the author
Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst

Blog

No items found.

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

Default blog imageDefault blog image
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.

Continue reading
About the author
Mikey Anderson
Product Manager, Network Detection & Response
Our ai. Your data.

Elevate your cyber defenses with Darktrace AI

Start your free trial
Darktrace AI protecting a business from cyber threats.