Blog

Inside the SOC

Stemming the Citrix Bleed Vulnerability with Darktrace’s ActiveAI Security Platform

Default blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog imageDefault blog image
28
May 2024
28
May 2024
This blog delves into Darktrace’s investigation into the exploitation of the Citrix Bleed vulnerability on the network of a customer in late 2023. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI ensured the customer was well equipped to track the post-compromise activity and identify affected devices.

What is Citrix Bleed?

Since August 2023, cyber threat actors have been actively exploiting one of the most significant critical vulnerabilities disclosed in recent years: Citrix Bleed. Citrix Bleed, also known as CVE-2023-4966, remained undiscovered and even unpatched for several months, resulting in a wide range of security incidents across business and government sectors [1].

How does Citrix Bleed vulnerability work?

The vulnerability, which impacts the Citrix Netscaler Gateway and Netscaler ADC products, allows for outside parties to hijack legitimate user sessions, thereby bypassing password and multifactor authentication (MFA) requirements.

When used as a means of initial network access, the vulnerability has resulted in the exfiltration of sensitive data, as in the case of Xfinity, and even the deployment of ransomware variants including Lockbit [2]. Although Citrix has released a patch to address the vulnerability, slow patching procedures and the widespread use of these products has resulted in the continuing exploitation of Citrix Bleed into 2024 [3].

How Does Darktrace Handle Citrix Bleed?

Darktrace has demonstrated its proficiency in handling the exploitation of Citrix Bleed since it was disclosed back in 2023; its anomaly-based approach allows it to efficiently identify and inhibit post-exploitation activity as soon as it surfaces.  Rather than relying upon traditional rules and signatures, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to understand the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that would indicate an emerging compromise, thus allowing it to detect anomalous activity related to the exploitation of Citrix Bleed.

In late 2023, Darktrace identified an instance of Citrix Bleed exploitation on a customer network. As this customer had subscribed to the Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, the suspicious network activity surrounding the compromise was escalated to Darktrace’s Security Operation Center (SOC) for triage and investigation by Darktrace Analysts, who then alerted the customer’s security team to the incident.

Darktrace’s Coverage

Initial Access and Beaconing of Citrix Bleed

Darktrace’s initial detection of indicators of compromise (IoCs) associated with the exploitation of Citrix Bleed actually came a few days prior to the SOC alert, with unusual external connectivity observed from a critical server. The suspicious connection in question, a SSH connection to the rare external IP 168.100.9[.]137, lasted several hours and utilized the Windows PuTTY client. Darktrace also identified an additional suspicious IP, namely 45.134.26[.]2, attempting to contact the server. Both rare endpoints had been linked with the exploitation of the Citrix Bleed vulnerability by multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors [4] [5].

Darktrace model alert highlighting an affected device making an unusual SSH connection to 168.100.9[.]137 via port 22.
Figure 1: Darktrace model alert highlighting an affected device making an unusual SSH connection to 168.100.9[.]137 via port 22.

As Darktrace is designed to identify network-level anomalies, rather than monitor edge infrastructure, the initial exploitation via the typical HTTP buffer overflow associated with this vulnerability fell outside the scope of Darktrace’s visibility. However, the aforementioned suspicious connectivity likely constituted initial access and beaconing activity following the successful exploitation of Citrix Bleed.

Command and Control (C2) and Payload Download

Around the same time, Darktrace also detected other devices on the customer’s network conducting external connectivity to various endpoints associated with remote management and IT services, including Action1, ScreenConnect and Fixme IT. Additionally, Darktrace observed devices downloading suspicious executable files, including “tniwinagent.exe”, which is associated with the tool Total Network Inventory. While this tool is typically used for auditing and inventory management purposes, it could also be leveraged by attackers for the purpose of lateral movement.

Defense Evasion

In the days surrounding this compromise, Darktrace observed multiple devices engaging in potential defense evasion tactics using the ScreenConnect and Fixme IT services. Although ScreenConnect is a legitimate remote management tool, it has also been used by threat actors to carry out C2 communication [6]. ScreenConnect itself was the subject of a separate critical vulnerability which Darktrace investigated in early 2024. Meanwhile, CISA observed that domains associated with Fixme It (“fixme[.]it”) have been used by threat actors attempting to exploit the Citrix Bleed vulnerability [7].

Reconnaissance and Lateral Movement

A few days after the detection of the initial beaconing communication, Darktrace identified several devices on the customer’s network carrying out reconnaissance and lateral movement activity. This included SMB writes of “PSEXESVC.exe”, network scanning, DCE-RPC binds of numerous internal devices to IPC$ shares and the transfer of compromise-related tools. It was at this point that Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI deemed the activity to be likely indicative of an ongoing compromise and several Enhanced Monitoring models alerted, triggering the aforementioned PTNs and investigation by Darktrace’s SOC.

Darktrace observed a server on the network initiating a wide range of connections to more than 600 internal IPs across several critical ports, suggesting port scanning, as well as conducting unexpected DCE-RPC service control (svcctl) activity on multiple internal devices, amongst them domain controllers. Additionally, several binds to server service (srvsvc) and security account manager (samr) endpoints via IPC$ shares on destination devices were detected, indicating further reconnaissance activity. The querying of these endpoints was also observed through RPC commands to enumerate services running on the device, as well as Security Account Manager (SAM) accounts.  

Darktrace also identified devices performing SMB writes of the WinRAR data compression tool, in what likely represented preparation for the compression of data prior to data exfiltration. Further SMB file writes were observed around this time including PSEXESVC.exe, which was ultimately used by attackers to conduct remote code execution, and one device was observed making widespread failed NTLM authentication attempts on the network, indicating NTLM brute-forcing. Darktrace observed several devices using administrative credentials to carry out the above activity.

In addition to the transfer of tools and executables via SMB, Darktrace also identified numerous devices deleting files through SMB around this time. In one example, an MSI file associated with the patch management and remediation service, Action1, was deleted by an attacker. This legitimate security tool, if leveraged by attackers, could be used to uncover additional vulnerabilities on target networks.

A server on the customer’s network was also observed writing the file “m.exe” to multiple internal devices. OSINT investigation into the executable indicated that it could be a malicious tool used to prevent antivirus programs from launching or running on a network [8].

Impact and Data Exfiltration

Following the initial steps of the breach chain, Darktrace observed numerous devices on the customer’s network engaging in data exfiltration and impact events, resulting in additional PTN alerts and a SOC investigation into data egress. Specifically, two servers on the network proceeded to read and download large volumes of data via SMB from multiple internal devices over the course of a few hours. These hosts sent large outbound volumes of data to MEGA file storage sites using TLS/SSL over port 443. Darktrace also identified the use of additional file storage services during this exfiltration event, including 4sync, file[.]io, and easyupload[.]io. In total the threat actor exfiltrated over 8.5 GB of data from the customer’s network.

Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst investigation highlighting the details of a data exfiltration attempt.
Figure 2: Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst investigation highlighting the details of a data exfiltration attempt.

Finally, Darktrace detected a user account within the customer’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment conducting several suspicious Office365 and AzureAD actions from a rare IP for the network, including uncommon file reads, creations and the deletion of a large number of files.

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled on the network and the post-exploitation activity was able to progress until the customer was made aware of the attack by Darktrace’s SOC team. Had RESPOND been active and configured in autonomous response mode at the time of the attack, it would have been able to promptly contain the post-exploitation activity by blocking external connections, shutting down any C2 activity and preventing the download of suspicious files, blocking incoming traffic, and enforcing a learned ‘pattern of life’ on offending devices.

Conclusion

Given the widespread use of Netscaler Gateway and Netscaler ADC, Citrix Bleed remains an impactful and potentially disruptive vulnerability that will likely continue to affect organizations who fail to address affected assets. In this instance, Darktrace demonstrated its ability to track and inhibit malicious activity stemming from Citrix Bleed exploitation, enabling the customer to identify affected devices and enact their own remediation.

Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allows it to identify such post-exploitation activity resulting from the exploitation of a vulnerability, regardless of whether it is a known CVE or a zero-day threat. Unlike traditional security tools that rely on existing threat intelligence and rules and signatures, Darktrace’s ability to identify the subtle deviations in a compromised device’s behavior gives it a unique advantage when it comes to identifying emerging threats.

Credit to Vivek Rajan, Cyber Analyst, Adam Potter, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace Model Coverage

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Device / ICMP Address Scan

Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance

Device / Network Scan

Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Brute Force

Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity

User / New Admin Credentials on Server

Anomalous File / Internal::Unusual Internal EXE File Transfer

Compliance / SMB Drive Write

Device / New or Unusual Remote Command Execution

Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control

Anomalous Connection / Rare WinRM Incoming

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Admin SMB Session

Device / Unauthorised Device

User / New Admin Credentials on Server

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Device / Long Agent Connection to New Endpoint

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

Device / New or Uncommon SMB Named Pipe

Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

Compliance / Remote Management Tool On Server

Device / Anomalous RDP Followed By Multiple Model Breaches

Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)

Device / New User Agent

Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data Transfer

Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer

Device / Increased External Connectivity

Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data to New Endpoints

Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain

Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound

Anomalous Connection / Active Remote Desktop Tunnel

Anomalous Server Activity / Anomalous External Activity from Critical Network Device

Compliance / Possible Unencrypted Password File On Server

Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Read Write Ratio and Rare External

Device / Reverse DNS Sweep]

Unusual Activity / Possible RPC Recon Activity

Anomalous File / Internal::Executable Uploaded to DC

Compliance / SMB Version 1 Usage

Darktrace AI Analyst Incidents

Scanning of Multiple Devices

Suspicious Remote Service Control Activity

SMB Writes of Suspicious Files to Multiple Devices

Possible SSL Command and Control to Multiple Devices

Extensive Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity

Internal Downloads and External Uploads

Unusual External Data Transfer

Unusual External Data Transfer to Multiple Related Endpoints

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Technique – Tactic – ID – Sub technique of

Network Scanning – Reconnaissance - T1595 - T1595.002

Valid Accounts – Defense Evasion, Persistence, Privilege Escalation, Initial Access – T1078 – N/A

Remote Access Software – Command and Control – T1219 – N/A

Lateral Tool Transfer – Lateral Movement – T1570 – N/A

Data Transfers – Exfiltration – T1567 – T1567.002

Compressed Data – Exfiltration – T1030 – N/A

NTLM Brute Force – Brute Force – T1110 - T1110.001

AntiVirus Deflection – T1553 - NA

Ingress Tool Transfer   - COMMAND AND CONTROL - T1105 - NA

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

204.155.149[.]37 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

199.80.53[.]177 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

168.100.9[.]137 – IP – Malicious Endpoint

45.134.26[.]2 – IP – Malicious Endpoint

13.35.147[.]18 – IP – Likely Malicious Endpoint

13.248.193[.]251 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

76.223.1[.]166 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

179.60.147[.]10 – IP – Likely Malicious Endpoint

185.220.101[.]25 – IP – Likely Malicious Endpoint

141.255.167[.]250 – IP – Malicious Endpoint

106.71.177[.]68 – IP – Possible Malicious Endpoint

cat2.hbwrapper[.]com – Hostname – Likely Malicious Endpoint

aj1090[.]online – Hostname – Likely Malicious Endpoint

dc535[.]4sync[.]com – Hostname – Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.149[.]140 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.149[.]132 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.145[.]52 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

204.155.145[.]49 – IP - Likely Malicious Endpoint

References

  1. https://www.axios.com/2024/01/02/citrix-bleed-security-hacks-impact
  2. https://www.csoonline.com/article/1267774/hackers-steal-data-from-millions-of-xfinity-customers-via-citrix-bleed-vulnerability.html
  3. https://www.cybersecuritydive.com/news/citrixbleed-security-critical-vulnerability/702505/
  4. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/168.100.9.137
  5. https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/45.134.26.2
  6. https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/24/b/threat-actor-groups-including-black-basta-are-exploiting-recent-.html
  7. https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa23-325a
  8. https://www.file.net/process/m.exe.html
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
Vivek Rajan
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

More in this series

No items found.

Blog

Inside the SOC

The Price of Admission: Countering Stolen Credentials with Darktrace

Default blog imageDefault blog image
03
Jun 2024

Using leaked credentials to gain unauthorized access

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

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

Darktrace coverage of leaked credentials

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

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

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

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

Attack timeline of leaked credentials spotted by darktrace

Network Scanning Activity

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

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

Brute Force Login Attempts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share Enumeration

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

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

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

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

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

Attack and Reconnaissance Tool Usage

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

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

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

Further Lateral Movement

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Coverage

-       Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity (Model Alert)

-       Device / ICMP Address Scan (Model Alert)

-       Device / Network Scan (Model Alert)

-       Device / Suspicious LDAP Search Operation (Model Alert)

-       User / Kerberos Username Brute Force (Model Alert)

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

-       Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration (Model Alert)

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

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

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

-       Device / Attack and Recon Tools (Model Alert)

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique - Code

INITIAL ACCESS - Hardware Additions     -T1200

DISCOVERY - Network Service Scanning -T1046

DISCOVERY - Remote System Discovery - T1018

DISCOVERY - Domain Trust Discovery      - T1482

DISCOVERY - File and Directory Discovery - T1083

DISCOVERY - Network Share Discovery - T1135

RECONNAISSANCE - Scanning IP Blocks - T1595.001

RECONNAISSANCE - Vulnerability Scanning - T1595.002

RECONNAISSANCE - Client Configurations - T1592.004

RECONNAISSANCE - IP Addresses - T1590.005

CREDENTIAL ACCESS - Brute Force - T1110

LATERAL MOVEMENT - Exploitation of Remote Services -T1210

References

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

Blog

No items found.

Exploring the Benefits and Risks of Third-Party Data Solutions

Default blog imageDefault blog image
03
Jun 2024

Why do companies allow third parties to handle their data?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security risks of entrusted data to third-party vendors

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

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

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

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

Why do cyber-criminals target third parties?

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

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

Common third-party security risks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benefits of using AI tools to aid in managing sensitive data

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

Example of third-party security incidents

Sumo data breach

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

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

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

How Darktrace helps monitor third-party data usage

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

Benefits of Darktrace/Cloud:

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

Elevate your cyber defenses with Darktrace AI

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