A new sheriff in town: why the city of St. Catharines turned to Darktrace to protect its digital assets
Hear from Wayne Racey, Manager of IT Operations for the City of St Catharines, Canada, as he explains how Darktrace DETECT + RESPOND buys back time for his security team and provides them with some much-needed peace of mind.
The City of St. Catharines is the largest city in Ontario, Canada’s Niagara Region. We strive to meet the needs of our over 140,000 residents. Cyber disruption could stop our municipality from functioning, so having a strong security stack is critical to our mission.
Globally, 44% of ransomware attacks target municipalities. In Canada, smaller cities have had to deal with increased attempts by threat actors to access information, without significant increases in security staff or budgets.
Data breaches incur an average cost totaling $6.35 million CAD because of ransomware payments, fines for leaked personally identifiable information, or recovery costs. That number does not quantify the additional reputational damage, PR setbacks, and other repercussions. Instead of resigning ourselves to accepting a greater cyber-risk, we turned to Darktrace to protect our network, email, and Microsoft 365 Suite.
How Self-Learning AI buys back time
I’m sure we as a municipality are grappling with the same issues that other cities of a similar size face from a budgetary standpoint. We do not have enough boots on the ground and our IT team is stretched thin. Investigating cyber security incidents takes a lot of time. We must find correlations between several old systems and manually go through security event logs to determine which incidents require follow-up. These factors greatly increased our response time.
When we first implemented Darktrace, we immediately saw that it does all the heavy lifting for us when it comes to the analysis of breach events. The Cyber AI Analyst shows a granular breakdown of the digital traffic coming into and out of the City, all on a single screen. This helps us separate the meaningful data from the noise.
I now start all my investigations with the Cyber AI Analyst. It sets me up with actionable insights that ensure I focus my time and energy in the most productive ways.
Darktrace also saves my team time and labor when it comes to responding to incidents. When it does detect attacks, it autonomously responds in seconds to contain them without interfering with any normal business operations.
We have been able to configure Darktrace’s settings to further streamline our workload. We’ve made several adjustments that reduce the number of helpdesk tickets my team receives, which ensures we’re spending our time on high-value work.
Darktrace not only makes up for the limited resources of our IT team, but also augments us. By simplifying our investigations and autonomously stopping attacks, Darktrace gives us more time to work on our other IT responsibilities without worrying about our security.
Darktrace/Network brings visibility and defense
Before Darktrace, we didn’t have visibility into the east-west traffic on our network. Once installed, it provided a view of traffic we had never anticipated, and we saw connections that we never even knew existed.
Darktrace/Network has insight into every laptop, server, phone, and user. The Self-Learning AI learns the “pattern of life” of our organization, so that it can recognize unusual activity that indicates a cyber-attack. In the case of a serious emerging attack, Darktrace RESPOND can take precise actions to stop it while otherwise allowing normal digital operations.
Darktrace/Network maps connections made within our network, whether between users and servers or between devices. It sorts users into groups that behave similarly, making it more obvious if one acts unusually. Darktrace/Email and Darktrace/Apps extend this coverage to our email and Microsoft 365 Suite, respectively. In this way, Darktrace allows us to see comprehensively into end-user traffic.
Darktrace can stop attempts to download malicious software, move malware laterally, upload private data, and everything in between. This means we are protected from attacks that are notoriously difficult to find, such as stealth attacks, machine speed ransomwares, insider threats, and zero-days.
Darktrace brings peace of mind
The Self-Learning AI has transformed my skepticism of AI into enthusiasm. I now see the possibilities with AI are limited only by one’s imagination, and the Darktrace team has harnessed it to create a great security tool.
Darktrace has proven to be the addition we needed to keep our digital landscape secure while contending with the limitations of budget and staffing during a time of increasingly frequent attacks targeting municipalities. My team’s support for Darktrace has been outstanding, and we have no regrets.
Darktrace gives us the assurance that no matter what rules we put in place regarding the flow of traffic on our network, it will always be present to reconfigure our defenses and safeguard our digital assets should an attack occur. It works 24/7, at machine speed, and augments our IT team. That defines peace of mind!
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Os analistas cibernéticos da Darktrace são especialistas de classe mundial em inteligência de ameaças, caça de ameaças e resposta a incidentes, e fornecem suporte 24/7 SOC a milhares de Darktrace clientes em todo o mundo. Dentro do SOC é de autoria exclusiva desses especialistas, fornecendo análises de incidentes cibernéticos e tendências de ameaças, com base na experiência do mundo real na área.
SOBRE O AUTOR
Manager of IT Operations, City of St Catharines (Guest Contributor)
Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security
Email threat landscape
Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.
Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.
What is DMARC?
DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.
Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.
DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.
How does DMARC work?
DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.
DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.
These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:
Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.
Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
Increased visibility: DMARC providesenhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.
Understanding DMARC’s Limitations
DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.
As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:
Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.
Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.
Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.
Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.
Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.
Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.
With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.
As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.
DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.
Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.
Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog
No Bad Luck for Darktrace: Combatting ALPHV BlackCat Ransomware
As-a-Service malware trending
Throughout the course of 2023, “as-a-Service” strains of malware remained the most consistently observed threat type to affect Darktrace customers, mirroring their overall prominence across the cyber threat landscape. With this trend expected to continue throughout 2024, organizations and their security teams should be prepared to defend their network against increasingly versatile and tailorable malware-as-a-service (MaaS) and ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) strains .
What is ALPHV ransomware?
The ALPHV ransomware, also known as ‘BlackCat’ or ‘Noberus’, is one example of a RaaS strain that has been prominent across the threat landscape over the last few years.
ALPHV is a ransomware strain coded in the Rust programming language. The ransomware is sold as part of the RaaS economy , with samples of the ransomware being provided and sold by a criminal group (the RaaS ‘operator’) to other cybercriminals (the RaaS ‘affiliates’) who then gain entry to organizations' networks with the intention of detonating the ransomware and demanding ransom payments.
ALPHV was likely first used in the wild back in November 2021 . Since then, it has become one of the most prolific ransomware strains, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reporting nearly USD 300 million in ALPHV ransom payments as of September 2023 .
In December 2023, the FBI and the US Department of Justice announced a successful disruption campaign against the ALPHV group, which included a takedown of the their data leak site, and the release of a decryption tool for the ransomware strain , and in February 2024, the US Department of State announced a reward of up to USD 10 million for information leading to the identification or location of anyone occupying a key leadership position in the group operating the ALPHV ransomware strain .
The disruption campaign against the ransomware group appeared to have been successful, as evidenced by the recent, significant decline in ALPHV attacks, however, it would not be surprising for the group to simply return with new branding, in a similar vein to its apparent predecessors, DarkSide and BlackMatter .
How does ALPHV ransomware work?
ALPHV affiliates have been known to employ a variety of methods to progress towards their objective of detonating ALPHV ransomware . In the latter half of 2023, ALPHV affiliates were observed using malicious advertising (i.e, malvertising) to deliver a Python-based backdoor-dropper known as 'Nitrogen' to users' devices . These malvertising operations consisted in affiliates setting up malicious search engine adverts for tools such as WinSCP and AnyDesk.
Users' interactions with these adverts led them to sites resembling legitimate software distribution sites. Users' attempts to download software from these spoofed sites resulted in the delivery of a backdoor-dropping malware sample dubbed 'Nitrogen' to their devices. Nitrogen has been observed dropping a variety of command-and-control (C2) implants onto users' devices, including Cobalt Strike Beacon and Sliver C2. ALPHV affiliates often used the backdoor access afforded to them by these C2 implants to conduct reconnaissance and move laterally, in preparation for detonating ALPHV ransomware payloads.
Darktrace Detection of ALPHV Ransomware
During October 2023, Darktrace observed several cases of ALPHV affiliates attempting to infiltrate organizations' networks via the use of malvertising to socially engineer users into downloading and installing Nitrogen from impersonation websites such as 'wireshhark[.]com' and wìnscp[.]net (i.e, xn--wnscp-tsa[.]net).
While the attackers managed to bypass traditional security measures and evade detection by using a device from the customer’s IT team to perform its malicious activity, Darktrace DETECT™ swiftly identified the subtle indicators of compromise (IoCs) in the first instance. This swift detection of ALPHV, along with Cyber AI Analyst™ autonomously investigating the wide array of post-compromise activity, provided the customer with full visibility over the attack enabling them to promptly initiate their remediation and recovery efforts.
Unfortunately, in this incident, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not fully deployed within their environment, hindering its ability to autonomously counter emerging threats. Had RESPOND been fully operational here, it would have effectively contained the attack in its early stages, avoiding the eventual detonation of the ALPHV ransomware.
In mid-October, a member of the IT team at a US-based Darktrace customer attempted to install the network traffic analysis software, Wireshark, onto their desktop. Due to the customer’s configuration, Darktrace's visibility over this device was limited to its internal traffic, despite this it was still able to identify and alert for a string of suspicious activity conducted by the device.
Initially, Darktrace observed the device making type A DNS requests for 'wiki.wireshark[.]org' immediately before making type A DNS requests for the domain names 'www.googleadservices[.]com', 'allpcsoftware[.]com', and 'wireshhark[.]com' (note the two 'h's). This pattern of activity indicates that the device’s user was redirected to the website, wireshhark[.]com, as a result of the user's interaction with a sponsored Google Search result pointing to allpcsoftware[.]com.
At the time of analysis, navigating to wireshhark[.]com directly from the browser search bar led to a YouTube video of Rick Astley's song "Never Gonna Give You Up". This suggests that the website, wireshhark[.]com, had been configured to redirect users to this video unless they had arrived at the website via the relevant sponsored Google Search result .
Although it was not possible to confirm this with certainty, it is highly likely that users who visited the website via the appropriate sponsored Google Search result were led to a fake website (wireshhark[.]com) posing as the legitimate website, wireshark[.]com. It seems that the actors who set up this fake version of wireshark[.]com were inspired by the well-known bait-and-switch technique known as 'rickrolling', where users are presented with a desirable lure (typically a hyperlink of some kind) which unexpectedly leads them to a music video of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up".
After being redirected to wireshhark[.]com, the user unintentionally installed a malware sample which dropped what appears to be Cobalt Strike onto their device. The presence of Cobalt Strike on the user's desktop was evidenced by the subsequent type A DNS requests which the device made for the domain name 'pse[.]ac'. These DNS requests were responded to with the likely Cobalt Strike C2 server address, 194.169.175[.]132. Given that Darktrace only had visibility over the device’s internal traffic, it did not observe any C2 connections to this Cobalt Strike endpoint. However, the desktop's subsequent behavior suggests that a malicious actor had gained 'hands-on-keyboard' control of the device via an established C2 channel.
Since the malicious actor had gained control of an IT member's device, they were able to abuse the privileged account credentials to spread Python payloads across the network via SMB and the Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) service. The actor was also seen distributing the Windows Sys-Internals tool, PsExec, likely in an attempt to facilitate their lateral movement efforts. It was normal for this IT member's desktop to distribute files across the network via SMB, which meant that this malicious SMB activity was not, at first glance, out of place.
However, Darktrace DETECT recognized that the significant spike in file writes being performed here was suspicious, even though, on the surface, it seemed ‘normal’ for the device. Furthermore, Darktrace identified that the executable files being distributed were attempting to masquerade as a different file type, potentially in an attempt to evade the detection of traditional security tools.
An addition to DETECT’s identification of this unusual activity, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst launched an autonomous investigation into the ongoing compromise and was able to link the SMB writes and the sharing of the executable Python payloads, viewing the connections as one lateral movement incident rather than a string of isolated events. After completing its investigation, Cyber AI Analyst was able to provide a detailed summary of events on one pane of glass, ensuring the customer could identify the affected device and begin their remediation.
The Python payloads distributed by the IT member’s device were likely related to the Nitrogen malware, as evidenced by the payloads’ names and by the network behaviours which they engendered.
The internal devices to which these Nitrogen payloads were distributed immediately went on to contact C2 infrastructure associated with Cobalt Strike. These C2 connections were made over SSL on ports 443 and 8443. Darktrace identified the attacker moving laterally to an internal SQL server and an internal domain controller.
Once more, Cyber AI Analyst launched its own investigation into this activity and was able to successfully identify a series of separate SSL connections, linking them together into one wider C2 incident.
Darktrace observed the attacker using their 'hands-on-keyboard' access to these systems to elevate their privileges, conduct network reconnaissance (primarily port scanning), spread Python payloads further across the network, exfiltrate data from the domain controller and transfer a payload from GitHub to the domain controller.
After conducting extensive reconnaissance and lateral movement activities, the attacker was observed detonating ransomware with the organization's VMware environment, resulting in the successful encryption of the customer’s VMware vCenter server and VMware virtual machines. In this case, the attacker took around 24 hours to progress from initial access to ransomware detonation.
If the targeted organization had been signed up for Darktrace's Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, they would have been promptly notified of these suspicious activities by the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) in the first instance, allowing them to quickly identify affected devices and quarantine them before the compromise could escalate.
Additionally, given the quantity of high-severe alerts that triggered in response to this attack, Darktrace RESPOND would, under normal circumstances, have inhibited the attacker's activities as soon as they were identified by DETECT. However, due to RESPOND not being configured to act on server devices within the customer’s network, the attacker was able to seamlessly move laterally through the organization's server environment and eventually detonate the ALPHV ransomware.
Nevertheless, Darktrace was able to successfully weave together multiple Cyber AI Analyst incidents which it generated into a thread representing the chain of behavior that made up this attack. The thread of Incident Events created by Cyber AI Analyst provided a substantial account of the attack and the steps involved in it, which significantly facilitated the customer’s post-incident investigation efforts.
It is expected for malicious cyber actors to revise and upgrade their methods to evade organizations’ improving security measures. The continued improvement of email security tools, for example, has likely created a need for attackers to develop new means of Initial Access, such as the use of Microsoft Teams-based malware delivery.
This fast-paced ALPHV ransomware attack serves as a further illustration of this trend, with the actor behind the attack using malvertising to convince an unsuspecting user to download the Python-based malware, Nitrogen, from a fake Wireshark site. Unbeknownst to the user, this stealthy malware dropped a C2 implant onto the user’s device, giving the malicious actor the ‘hands-on-keyboard’ access they needed to move laterally, conduct network reconnaissance, and ultimately detonate ALPHV ransomware.
Despite the non-traditional initial access methods used by this ransomware actor, Darktrace DETECT was still able to identify the unusual patterns of network traffic caused by the attacker’s post-compromise activities. The large volume of alerts created by Darktrace DETECT were autonomously investigated by Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst, which was able to weave together related activities of different devices into a comprehensive timeline of the attacker’s operation. Given the volume of DETECT alerts created in response to this ALPHV attack, it is expected that Darktrace RESPOND would have autonomously inhibited the attacker’s operation had the capability been appropriately configured.
As the first post-compromise activities Darktrace observed in this ALPHV attack were seemingly performed by a member of the customer’s IT team, it may have looked normal to a human or traditional signature and rules-based security tools. To Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, the observed activities represented subtle deviations from the device’s normal pattern of life. This attack, and Darktrace’s detection of it, is therefore a prime illustration of the value that Self-Learning AI can bring to the task of detecting anomalies within organizations’ digital estates.
Credit to Sam Lister, Senior Cyber Analyst, Emma Foulger, Principal Cyber Analyst
Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches
- Compliance / SMB Drive Write
- Compliance / High Priority Compliance Model Breach