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Detectando e respondendo ao Log4Shell na natureza

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14
Dec 2021
14
Dec 2021
Darktrace’s AI has detected attackers exploiting the Log4Shell vulnerabilities across multiple customer environments. This blog breaks down two real-world attack scenarios and highlights the autonomous actions taken by AI.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at the Log4Shell vulnerability and provide real-world examples of how Darktrace detects and responds to attacks attempting to leverage Log4Shell in the wild.

Log4Shell is now the well-known name for CVE-2021-44228 – a severity 10 zero-day exploiting a well-known Java logging utility known as Log4j. Vulnerabilities are discovered daily, and some are more severe than others, but the fact that this open source utility is nested into nearly everything, including the Mars Ingenuity drone, makes this that much more menacing. Details and further updates about Log4Shell are still emerging at the publication date of this blog.

Typically, zero-days with the power to reach this many systems are held close to the chest and only used by nation states for high value targets or operations. This one, however, was first discovered being used against Minecraft gaming servers, shared in chat amongst gamers.

While all steps should be taken to deploy mitigations to the Log4Shell vulnerability, these can take time. As evidenced here, behavioral detection can be used to look for signs of post-exploitation activity such as scanning, coin mining, lateral movement, and other activities.

Darktrace initially detected the Log4Shell vulnerability targeting one of our customers’ Internet-facing servers, as you will see in detail in an actual anonymized threat investigation below. This was highlighted and reported using Cyber AI Analyst, unpacked here by our SOC team. Please take note that this was using pre-existing algorithms without retraining classifiers or adjusting response mechanisms in reaction to Log4Shell cyber-attacks.

How Log4Shell works

The vulnerability works by taking advantage of improper input validation by the Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI). A command comes in from an HTTP user-agent, encrypted HTTPS connection, or even a chat room message, and the JNDI sends that to the target system in which it gets executed. Most libraries and applications have checks and protections in place to prevent this from happening, but as seen here, they get missed at times.

Various threat actors have started to leverage the vulnerability in attacks, ranging from indiscriminate crypto-mining campaigns to targeted, more sophisticated attacks.

Real-world example 1: Log4Shell exploited on CVE ID release date

Darktrace saw this first example on December 10, the same day the CVE ID was released. We often see publicly documented vulnerabilities being weaponized within days by threat actors. This attack hit an Internet-facing device in an organization’s demilitarized zone (DMZ). Darktrace had automatically classified the server as an Internet-facing device based on its behavior.

The organization had deployed Darktrace in the on-prem network as one of many coverage areas that include cloud, email and SaaS. In this deployment, Darktrace had good visibility of the DMZ traffic. Antigena was not active in this environment, and Darktrace was in detection-mode only. Despite this fact, the client in question was able to identify and remediate this incident within hours of the initial alert. The attack was automated and had the goal of deploying a crypto-miner known as Kinsing.

In this attack, the attacker made it harder to detect the compromise by encrypting the initial command injection using HTTPS over the more common HTTP seen in the wild. Despite this method being able to bypass traditional rules and signature-based systems Darktrace was able to spot multiple unusual behaviors seconds after the initial connection.

Initial compromise details

Through peer analysis Darktrace had previously learned what this specific DMZ device and its peer group normally do in the environment. During the initial exploitation, Darktrace detected various subtle anomalies that taken together made the attack obvious.

  1. 15:45:32 Inbound HTTPS connection to DMZ server from rare Russian IP — 45.155.205[.]233;
  2. 15:45:38 DMZ server makes new outbound connection to the same rare Russian IP using two new user agents: Java user agent and curl over a port that is unusual to serve HTTP compared to previous behavior;
  3. 15:45:39 DMZ server uses an HTTP connection with another new curl user agent (‘curl/7.47.0’) to the same Russian IP. The URI contains reconnaissance information from the DMZ server.

All this activity was detected not because Darktrace had seen it before, but because it strongly deviated from the regular ‘pattern of life’ for this and similar servers in this specific organization.

This server never reached out to rare IP addresses on the Internet, using user agents it never used before, over protocol and port combinations it never uses. Every point-in-time anomaly itself may have presented slightly unusual behavior – but taken together and analyzed in the context of this particular device and environment, the detections clearly tell a bigger story of an ongoing cyber-attack.

Darktrace detected this activity with various models, for example:

  • Conexão anômala / Novo agente de usuário para IP sem nome de host
  • Conexão anômala / Dispositivo de retorno de chamada em frente à Web

Further tooling and crypto-miner download

Less than 90 minutes after the initial compromise, the infected server started downloading malicious scripts and executables from a rare Ukrainian IP 80.71.158[.]12.

The following payloads were subsequently downloaded from the Ukrainian IP in order:

  • hXXp://80.71.158[.]12//lh.sh
  • hXXp://80.71.158[.]12/Expl[REDACTED].class
  • hXXp://80.71.158[.]12/kinsing
  • hXXp://80.71.158[.]12//libsystem.so
  • hXXp://80.71.158[.]12/Expl[REDACTED].class

Using no threat intelligence or detections based on static indicators of compromise (IoC) such as IPs, domain names or file hashes, Darktrace detected this next step in the attack in real time.

The DMZ server in question never communicated with this Ukrainian IP address in the past over these uncommon ports. It is also highly unusual for this device and its peers to download scripts or executable files from this type of external destination, in this fashion. Shortly after these downloads, the DMZ server started to conduct crypto-mining.

Darktrace detected this activity with various models, for example:

  • Arquivo Anomalous / Script de Localização Externa Rara
  • Arquivo Anomalous / Internet Facing System File Download
  • Device / Internet Facing System with High Priority Alert

Surfacing the Log4Shell incident immediately

In addition to Darktrace detecting each individual step of this attack in real time, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst also surfaced the overarching security incident, containing a cohesive narrative for the overall attack, as the most high-priority incident within a week’s worth of incidents and alerts in Darktrace. This means that this incident was the most obvious and immediate item highlighted to human security teams as it unfolded. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst found each stage of this incident and asked the very questions you would expect of your human SOC analysts. From the natural language report generated by the Cyber AI Analyst, a summary of each stage of the incident followed by the vital data points human analysts need, is presented in an easy to digest format. Each tab signifies a different part of this incident outlining the actual steps taken during each investigative process.

The result of this is no sifting through low-level alerts, no need to triage point-in-time detections, no putting the detections into a bigger incident context, no need to write a report. All of this was automatically completed by the AI Analyst saving human teams valuable time.

The below incident report was automatically created and could be downloaded as a PDF in various languages.

Figure 1: Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst surfaces multiple stages of the attack and explains its investigation process

Real-world example 2: Responding to a different attack using Log4Shell

On December 12, another organization’s Internet-facing server was initially compromised via Log4Shell. While the details of the compromise are different – other IoCs are involved – Darktrace detected and surfaced the attack similarly to the first example.

Interestingly, this organization had Darktrace Antigena in autonomous mode on their server, meaning the AI can take autonomous actions to respond to ongoing cyber-attacks. These responses can be delivered via a variety of mechanisms, for instance, API interactions with firewalls, other security tools, or native responses issued by Darktrace.

In this attack the rare external IP 164.52.212[.]196 was used for command and control (C2) communication and malware delivery, using HTTP over port 88, which was highly unusual for this device, peer group and organization.

Antigena reacted in real time in this organization, based on the specific context of the attack, without any human in the loop. Antigena interacted with the organization’s firewall in this case to block any connections to or from the malicious IP address – in this case 164.52.212[.]196 – over port 88 for 2 hours with the option of escalating the block and duration if the attack appears to persist. This is seen in the illustration below:

Figure 2: Antigena’s response

Here comes the trick: thanks to Self-Learning AI, Darktrace knows exactly what the Internet-facing server usually does and does not do, down to each individual data point. Based on the various anomalies, Darktrace is certain that this represents a major cyber-attack.

Antigena now steps in and enforces the regular pattern of life for this server in the DMZ. This means the server can continue doing whatever it normally does – but all the highly anomalous actions are interrupted as they occur in real time, such as speaking to a rare external IP over port 88 serving HTTP to download executables.

Of course the human can change or lift the block at any given time. Antigena can also be configured to be in human confirmation mode, having the human in the loop at certain times during the day (e.g. office hours) or at all times, depending on an organization’s needs and requirements.

Conclusão

This blog illustrates further aspects of cyber-attacks leveraging the Log4Shell vulnerability. It also demonstrates how Darktrace detects and responds to zero-day attacks if Darktrace has visibility of the attacked entities.

While Log4Shell is dominating the IT and security news, similar vulnerabilities have surfaced in the past and will appear in the future. We’ve spoken about our approach to detecting and responding to similar vulnerabilities and surrounding cyber-attacks before, for instance:

As always, companies should aim for a defense-in-depth strategy combining preventative security controls with detection and response mechanisms, as well as strong patch management.

Thanks to Brianna Leddy (Darktrace’s Director of Analysis) for her insights on the above threat find.

DENTRO DO SOC
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.
AUTOR
SOBRE O AUTOR
Max Heinemeyer
Chief Product Officer

Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works with the R&D team at Darktrace, shaping research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.

Justin Fier
SVP, Red Team Operations

Justin is one of the US’s leading cyber intelligence experts, and holds the position of SVP, Red Team Operations at Darktrace. His insights on cyber security and artificial intelligence have been widely reported in leading media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The Washington Post, and VICELAND. With over 10 years’ experience in cyber defense, Justin has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Justin is also a highly-skilled technical specialist, and works with Darktrace’s strategic global customers on threat analysis, defensive cyber operations, protecting IoT, and machine learning.

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Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

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:

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced 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:

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.  

Implementing DMARC

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.

The Future of Email Security

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

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Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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Dentro do SOC

No Bad Luck for Darktrace: Combatting ALPHV BlackCat Ransomware

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29
Feb 2024

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 [1].

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 [2], 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 [3]. 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 [4].

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 [5], 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 [6].

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 [7].

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 [4]. 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 [8][12]. 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.

Figure 1: Timeline of the ALPHV ransomware attack.

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 [8].

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.

Figure 2: Advanced Search data showing an customer device being tricked into visiting the fake website, wireshhark[.]com.

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.

Figure 3: Advanced Search data showing that it was normal for the IT member's device to distribute files over SMB.

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.

Figure 4: Event Log data showing several Model Breaches being created in response to the IT member's DEVICE's SMB writes of Python-based executables.

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.

Figure 5: Cyber AI Analyst investigation summary highlighting the IT member's desktop’s lateral movement activities.

C2 Activity

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.  

Figure 6: Advanced Search data showing the affected device reaching out to the C2 endpoint, pse[.]ac, and then distributing Python-based executable files to an internal domain controller.

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.

Figure 7: Advanced Search data showing an internal SQL server contacting the Cobalt Strike C2 endpoint, 194.180.48[.]169, after receiving Python payloads from the IT member’s device.
Figure 8: Event Log data showing several DETECT model breaches triggering in response to an internal SQL server’s C2 connections to 194.180.48[.]169.

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.

Figure 9: Cyber AI Analyst investigation summary highlighting C2 connections from the SQL server.

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.

Figure 10: Cyber AI Analyst investigation summary an IP address scan carried out by an internal domain controller.
Figure 12: Event Log data showing an internal domain controller contacting GitHub around the time that it was in communication with the C2 endpoint, 194.180.48[.]169.
Figure 13: Event Log data showing a DETECT model breach being created in response to an internal domain controller's large data upload to the C2 endpoint, 194.180.48[.]169.

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.  

Figure 14: Darktrace's AI Analyst weaved together 33 of the Incident Events it created together into a thread representing the attacker’s chain of behavior.

Conclusão

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

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

- Compliance / SMB Drive Write

- Compliance / High Priority Compliance Model Breach

- Anomalous File / Internal / Masqueraded Executable SMB Write

- Device / New or Uncommon WMI Activity

- Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control

- Anomalous Connection / High Volume of New or Uncommon Service Control

- Device / New or Uncommon SMB Named Pipe

- Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

- Device / Large Number of Model Breaches  

- SMB Writes of Suspicious Files (Cyber AI Analyst)

- Suspicious Remote WMI Activity (Cyber AI Analyst)

- Suspicious DCE-RPC Activity (Cyber AI Analyst)

- Compromise / Connection to Suspicious SSL Server

- Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

- Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

- Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External

- Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External

- Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

- Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon

- Compromise / Agent Beacon to New Endpoint

- Device / Long Agent Connection to New Endpoint

- Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination

- Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

- Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

- Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

- Device / Multiple C2 Model Breaches

- Possible SSL Command and Control (Cyber AI Analyst)

- Unusual Repeated Connections (Cyber AI Analyst)

- Device / ICMP Address Scan

- Device / RDP Scan

- Device / Network Scan

- Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity

- Scanning of Multiple Devices (Cyber AI Analyst)

- ICMP Address Scan (Cyber AI Analyst)

- Device / Anomalous Github Download

- Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data Transfer

- Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Resource Development techniques:

- Acquire Infrastructure: Malvertising (T1583.008)

Initial Access techniques:

- Drive-by Compromise (T1189)

Execution techniques:

- User Execution: Malicious File (T1204.002)

- System Services: Service Execution (T1569.002)

- Windows Management Instrumentation (T1047)

Defence Evasion techniques:

- Masquerading: Match Legitimate Name or Location (T1036.005)

Discovery techniques:

- Remote System Discovery (T1018)

- Network Service Discovery (T1046)

Lateral Movement techniques:

- Remote Services: SMB/Windows Admin Shares

- Lateral Tool Transfer (T1570)

Command and Control techniques:

- Application Layer Protocol: Web Protocols (T1071.001)

- Encrypted Channel: Asymmetric Cryptography (T1573.002)

- Non-Standard Port (T1571)

- Ingress Tool Channel (T1105)

Exfiltration techniques:

- Exfiltration Over C2 Channel (T1041)

Impact techniques:

- Data Encrypted for Impact (T1486)

List of Indicators of Compromise

- allpcsoftware[.]com

- wireshhark[.]com

- pse[.]ac • 194.169.175[.]132

- 194.180.48[.]169

- 193.42.33[.]14

- 141.98.6[.]195

References  

[1] https://darktrace.com/threat-report-2023

[2] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/blog/2022/05/09/ransomware-as-a-service-understanding-the-cybercrime-gig-economy-and-how-to-protect-yourself/

[3] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/alphv-blackcat-this-years-most-sophisticated-ransomware/

[4] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/cybersecurity-advisories/aa23-353a

[5] https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-disrupts-prolific-alphvblackcat-ransomware-variant

[6] https://www.state.gov/u-s-department-of-state-announces-reward-offers-for-criminal-associates-of-the-alphv-blackcat-ransomware-variant/

[7] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/blackcat-alphv-ransomware-linked-to-blackmatter-darkside-gangs/

[8] https://www.trendmicro.com/en_us/research/23/f/malvertising-used-as-entry-vector-for-blackcat-actors-also-lever.html

[9] https://news.sophos.com/en-us/2023/07/26/into-the-tank-with-nitrogen/

[10] https://www.esentire.com/blog/persistent-connection-established-nitrogen-campaign-leverages-dll-side-loading-technique-for-c2-communication

[11] https://www.esentire.com/blog/nitrogen-campaign-2-0-reloads-with-enhanced-capabilities-leading-to-alphv-blackcat-ransomware

[12] https://www.esentire.com/blog/the-notorious-alphv-blackcat-ransomware-gang-is-attacking-corporations-and-public-entities-using-google-ads-laced-with-malware-warns-esentire

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About the author
Sam Lister
SOC Analyst

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