Cyber AI Analyst: Cutting Through the Noise to Gain the Security Edge
For cyber security experts, it’s hard enough staying on top of the latest threats and emerging attacks without having to deal with a virtual tsunami of alert noise from systems monitoring email, SaaS environments, and endpoints – in addition to IaaS cloud and on-premises networks. Unfortunately, fatigue from these demands can lead to overworking, burnout, and crucially, high employee turnover.
The worldwide industry shortage of 3.5 million cyber security professionals only exacerbates the problem. Not only does it add pressure to the current stock of skilled and available security professionals, but it also raises the stakes for CISOs and other security leaders to find a way to cut through the alert noise while staying on ahead of threat actors who never stop innovating and applying novel malware strains and attack techniques.
Working Smarter Not Harder
One way to help with retention is to empower security teams to break away from monotony and to think creatively and leverage their expertise where it can really add value. Working smarter, rather than harder, is often easier said than done, but by employing automation and AI-driven tools to take on the heavy lifting of threat detection, investigation, and response, human teams can be given the breathing room needed to focus on long-term objectives and think more deeply about their security approaches.
It is important for security programs to continuously level up alongside evolving threat landscapes by questioning existing security operations, and this cannot be achieved during times of hand-to-hand alert combat.
When alerts are fewer, higher quality, and context-heavy, the background to each can be easily explored, whether that’s reevaluating a policy or configuration, or simply asking useful questions around the company’s broader security approach. Work done at this level empowers security teams and fosters growth.
Less is More
Business risk– or the potential impact of cyber disruption– should be the number one concern driving a security team, but lack of resources is a near-constant constraint. Reducing the volume of alerts doesn’t just mean bringing the noise floor up. You can think of the noise floor as an alert threshold: if it is too high then there are fewer alerts, but more threats may be missed, whereas if it is too low, there are high volumes of unhelpful false positives. Freeing up time for the team must not equate to ignoring alerts; it should instead mean focusing on the alerts that matter.
Darktrace’s technologies make this possible, with Darktrace DETECT™ and Cyber AI Analyst working together to address alert fatigue and burnout for security teams while strengthening an organizations’ overall security posture. Cyber AI Analyst essentially takes over the busy work from the human analysts and elevates a team’s overall decision making. Teams now operate at higher levels, as they’re not stuck in mundane alert management and humans are brought in only after the machine and AI have done the heavy lifting.
“Before AI Analyst, we were barely treading water with all of the alerts, most of which were false positives, our old systems produced daily. With AI Analyst, we’ve been able to exponentially reduce those alerts, harden our environment, and get strategic.”
Dr. Robert Spangler, the CISO and Assistant Executive Director of the New Jersey State Bar Association.
Imagine a scenario in which Darktrace observed around 9.6 billion events over a 28-day period. DETECT and Cyber AI Analyst might distill that huge amount of data down into just, say, 54 critical incidents, or just two per day. Here’s how:
9.6 billion events
When trying to understand the full picture, every single puzzle piece counts. That’s why Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI goes wherever your organization has data, integrating with data sources across the digital estate, including network, email, endpoints, OT, cloud, and SaaS environments. And with an open architecture, Darktrace facilitates quick and easy integrations with everything from SIEMs and SOARs to public clouds and the latest Zero Trust technologies. So, any data can become learnable, whether directly ingested or via integration.
By examining this full and contextualized data set, Self-Learning AI builds a constantly evolving understanding of what ‘normal’ looks like for the entire organization. Every connection, every email, app login, resource accessed, VM spun up, PLC reprogrammed, and more become signals from which Darktrace can learn, evaluate, and improve its understanding.
40,404 model breaches
The billions of events are analyzed by Darktrace DETECT, which uses its extensive knowledge of ‘normal’ to draw out hosts of subtle anomalies or ‘AI model breaches.’ Many of these AI model breaches will be weak indicators of threatening activity, and most will not be sufficient to individually signal a threat. For that reason, no human attention is required at this stage. Darktrace DETECT will continue to draw anomalous behaviors from the ongoing stream of events without the need for intervention.
The Cyber AI Analyst takes the total list of model breaches collated by DETECT and performs the truly sophisticated work of determining distinct threat incidents. By piecing together anomalies which may, in themselves, appear harmless, the AI Analyst draws out subtle and often wide-ranging attacks, tracking their route from the initial compromise to the present moment. This creates a much shorter list of genuine threat incidents, but there is still no need for human attention at this stage.
54 critical incidents
Once it has discovered the threat incidents facing an organization, the Cyber AI Analyst begins the crucial processes of triage to determine which incidents need to be surfaced to the security team, and in what order of priority. This supplies the human team with a highly focused briefing of the most pressing threats, massively reducing their overall workload and minimizing or potentially eradicating alert fatigue. In the above example of a month with over 9.6 billion distinct events, the team are left with just two incidents to address per day. These two incidents are clearly presented with natural language-processing and all the most relevant info, including details, devices, and dates.
“When we had other, noisier systems, we didn’t have the time to have truly in-depth discussions or conduct deep investigations, so there were fewer teachable moments for junior team members and fewer opportunities to inform our cybersecurity strategy as a whole,” Spangler said. “Now, we’re not just a better team, we’re more efficient, responsive, and informed than we’ve ever been. We’re all better cyber security professionals as a result.”
In the event of a breach, CISOs and security leaders want the full incident report, and they want it yesterday. The promise of AI is to handle specific tasks at a speed and scale that humans can’t. Going from 9.6 billion events to 54 incidents demonstrates the scale, but it’s important to consider the impact of speed here as well, as the Cyber AI Analyst works in real time, meaning all relevant events are presented in an easy to consume downloadable report available immediately upon investigation.
This isn’t a black box either; every step of the AI Analyst’s investigation process is visible to the human team. Not only can they see the relevant events and breaches that led to the incident, but if required, they can pivot into them easily with a click. If the investigation requires going all the way down to the metadata level to easily peruse the filtered events of the 9.6 billion overall signals or even to PCAP data, those are available and easy to find too.
Since DETECT and Cyber AI Analyst not only reduce alert fatigue but also simplify incident investigations, security teams feel empowered and experience less burnout.
“We’ve been stable and have had minimal turnover since we started using AI Analyst,” Spangler said. “We’re not scrambling to keep up with noisy and time-consuming false positives, making the investigations that we undertake stimulating and– I say this cautiously– fun! Put simply, the thing we all love about this career, the virtual chess game we play with attackers, is a lot more fun when you know you’re going to win.”
Organizations that deploy Darktrace RESPOND™ can address the incidents raised by DETECT and the Cyber AI Analyst autonomously, and in mere seconds. Using the full context of the organization built up by Self-Learning AI, RESPOND takes the least disruptive measures necessary to disarm threats at machine speed. By the time the security team learns about the attack, it is already contained, continuing to save them from the hand-to-hand combat of threat fighting.
With day-to-day threat detection, response, and analysis taken care of, security teams are free to give full and sustained attention to their overall security posture. Neutralized threats may yet reveal broader security gaps and potential improvements which the team now has the time and headspace to pursue.
For example, discovering a trend that users are uploading potentially sensitive data via third-party file-sharing services might lead to a discussion about whether it should be company policy to block access to this service, reducing to zero the number of future alerts that would have been triggered by this behavior. Importantly, this wouldn’t be altering the aforementioned noise floor, but instead fundamentally altering security policies to align with the needs of the business, which could indirectly affect future alerting, as activities may subside.
As a result, practitioners find more value in their work, security teams efforts are optimized, and organizations are strengthened overall.
“We’re now focused on the items that AI Analyst alerts us to, which are always worth looking into because they either identify an activity that we need to get eyes on and/or provide us with insight into ways we can harden our network,” Spangler said. “The hardening that we’ve done has been incalculably beneficial– it’s one of the reasons we get fewer alerts, and it’s also protected us against a wide variety of threats.”
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How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.