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Breaking Down "ICES": An Umbrella Term With Wide Variety

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09
May 2023
09
May 2023
Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) can be an effective email security solution, but Darktrace/Email's self-learning AI should be your solution of choice.

While organizing email security solutions into categories can help security teams understand the types of products available, it can also lead to generalizations that overlook important differences within those categories and can become like comparing apples to oranges.

This is true for the Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) category. Among the products that qualify, there are important variations in approach that can mean the difference between stopping a novel phishing attack on the first encounter and catching it as many as 13 days later.

These distinctions highlight that not all ICES products and not all AI tools are made equal, and it’s critical to look deeper than the “ICES” label when examining an email security solution. 

What is an ICES solution?

Gartner devised the term ICES in 2021 to describe an advanced email security that augments the native capabilities of email providers by using API access to analyze email content without requiring changing the MX record. 

In other words, ICES solutions integrate with an organization’s cloud email provider to filter out malicious emails.

ICES has risen in popularity as more and more organizations shift to cloud-based or hybrid email servers, and encounter new, more sophisticated threats. Organizations pair ICES with improved native capabilities of email providers. For example, in the 2023 Market Guide for Email Security, Gartner acknowledged that “Microsoft, in particular, continues to make significant investments in improving protection effectiveness and providing better configuration guidance.” 

Native capabilities can detect traditional indicators of compromise, while ICES products can detect nuanced attacks. They integrate directly with cloud-based email providers, meaning emails do not have to be rerouted for analysis, therefore reducing the time security teams would have to spend configuring and maintaining that connection or risking operational outage. 

ICES protects against sophisticated attacks

Before the rise of ICES, the mainstream email security solutions were Secure Email Gateways (SEGs), which can be characterized as tools that rely on historic data to create rules and signatures. This purely reactive approach cannot contend with the current email threat landscape, which includes attacks that abuse legitimate services, originate from compromised known senders, or are entirely novel. They also struggle to detect multi-stage attacks and insider threats

Instead, ICES products use natural language processing and natural language understanding to identify social engineering like business email compromises, spoofing, supply chain attacks, account takeovers, and more.  However, although ICES products can detect more sophisticated threats than SEGs, not all of them can stop entirely unknown attacks. 

Achieving bespoke security with AI that understands you

Even though several ICES products rely on machine learning to identify and stop malicious emails, not all AI is the same. Typically, other vendors’ AIs are trained on insights pulled from across their respective customer-bases and past attacks. However, this does not account for nuanced distinctions that arise from organizations’ sizes, industries, or even the individual employees working at each company. 

Instead, Darktrace understands you. Self-Learning AI™ focuses on the organization it is installed in, instead of generalizing across a wider pool. Darktrace even learns on a granular level, building profiles of every individual employee by analyzing behaviors like how they typically communicate, where and when they log in, the tone and sentiment of their emails, file and link sharing patterns, and hundreds of other signals. This level of specificity ensures that the email security is tailored to each specific organization. 

The ability to learn employee behavior allows Darktrace to detect what is not normal, therefore revealing sophisticated threats on the first encounter. It can detect all types of attacks, including BEC, account takeover, insider threat, compromised internal accounts, and even human error. 

But it’s the ability to stop novel attacks upon the first encounter that sets it apart. Darktrace/Email™ can detect novel email attacks an average of 13 days earlier than email security tools that are trained on knowledge of historical threats. 

Moreover, Darktrace can take precise action to respond to threats, beyond simply allowing or blocking a suspicious email. The AI makes micro-decisions to neutralize only the malicious components of emails. For example, it might flatten an attached PDF, rewrite a shared link, or file an email as junk. 

Darktrace/Email goes further than other ICES by considering the employee experience. With an employee-AI feedback loop, the AI can fine-tune security based on the employees while also providing inline security awareness training in real-time and with real-life examples. By engaging down to the employee level, Darktrace AI can even leverage personalized insights for productivity gains, sorting out graymail based on how each user prefers to interact with it. 

Putting the “I” in “ICES”

Many ICES vendors emphasize the “integrated” part of the acronym, however Darktrace excels at this. Since Darktrace can be installed anywhere a company has data, it can natively interact across the digital estate, saving the security team time and resources otherwise spent learning various dashboards and languages, correlating data across different areas, and manually monitoring daily activity. Darktrace/Email can also integrate with external tools, including SIEMs and SOARs, to further enhance workflows

Moreover, since combining ICES solutions with native security email capabilities creates a hardened security posture, Darktrace/Email benefits from its strong, established integration with Microsoft

Introducing flexibility to ICES deployments

Finally, the security and integration capabilities of Darktrace/Email deploy easily. In the 2023 Market Guide for Email Security, Gartner predicted that “by 2025, 20% of anti-phishing solutions will be delivered via API integration with the email platform, up from less than 5% today.” Darktrace/Email can be rolled out via API or API + Journaling in Microsoft 365, whichever better fits the organization’s needs.

While all ICES products are API-based, that does not mean they are AI-first, or are using the best AI approach. Even some SEGs can deploy via API. That means that the ability to deploy via API does not guarantee a level of security that can stop the most sophisticated threats. Security teams should look beyond deployment method and select the ICES and AI solutions that provide tailored, effective security. 

Finding nuance as an ICES solution

Email security continues to advance in tandem with the threat landscape and organizations’ digital infrastructures. ICES solutions are supplanting SEGs as the mainstream email security solutions, however that broad category includes a range of tools with varying applications of AI. These differences make it critical to not put all ICES products in the same basket. 

Darktrace/Email is the only ICES solution that uses Self-Learning AI to detect all types of email threats, including novel attacks, within seconds.

DANS LE SOC
Darktrace sont des experts de classe mondiale en matière de renseignement sur les menaces, de chasse aux menaces et de réponse aux incidents. Ils fournissent une assistance SOC 24 heures sur 24 et 7 jours sur 7 à des milliers de clients Darktrace dans le monde entier. Inside the SOC est exclusivement rédigé par ces experts et fournit une analyse des cyberincidents et des tendances en matière de menaces, basée sur une expérience réelle sur le terrain.
AUTEUR
à propos de l'auteur
Dan Fein
VP, Produits

Based in New York, Dan joined Darktrace’s technical team in 2015, helping customers quickly achieve a complete and granular understanding of Darktrace’s product suite. Dan has a particular focus on Darktrace/Email, ensuring that it is effectively deployed in complex digital environments, and works closely with the development, marketing, sales, and technical teams. Dan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from New York University.

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Lost in Translation: Darktrace Blocks Non-English Phishing Campaign Concealing Hidden Payloads

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15
May 2024

Email – the vector of choice for threat actors

In times of unprecedented globalization and internationalization, the enormous number of emails sent and received by organizations every day has opened the door for threat actors looking to gain unauthorized access to target networks.

Now, increasingly global organizations not only need to safeguard their email environments against phishing campaigns targeting their employees in their own language, but they also need to be able to detect malicious emails sent in foreign languages too [1].

Why are non-English language phishing emails more popular?

Many traditional email security vendors rely on pre-trained English language models which, while function adequately against malicious emails composed in English, would struggle in the face of emails composed in other languages. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that this limitation is becoming increasingly taken advantage of by attackers.  

Darktrace/Email™, on the other hand, focuses on behavioral analysis and its Self-Learning AI understands what is considered ‘normal’ for every user within an organization’s email environment, bypassing any limitations that would come from relying on language-trained models [1].

In March 2024, Darktrace observed anomalous emails on a customer’s network that were sent from email addresses belonging to an international fast-food chain. Despite this seeming legitimacy, Darktrace promptly identified them as phishing emails that contained malicious payloads, preventing a potentially disruptive network compromise.

Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

On March 3, 2024, Darktrace observed one of the customer’s employees receiving an email which would turn out to be the first of more than 50 malicious emails sent by attackers over the course of three days.

The Sender

Darktrace/Email immediately understood that the sender never had any previous correspondence with the organization or its employees, and therefore treated the emails with caution from the onset. Not only was Darktrace able to detect this new sender, but it also identified that the emails had been sent from a domain located in China and contained an attachment with a Chinese file name.

The phishing emails detected by Darktrace sent from a domain in China and containing an attachment with a Chinese file name.
Figure 1: The phishing emails detected by Darktrace sent from a domain in China and containing an attachment with a Chinese file name.

Darktrace further detected that the phishing emails had been sent in a synchronized fashion between March 3 and March 5. Eight unique senders were observed sending a total of 55 emails to 55 separate recipients within the customer’s email environment. The format of the addresses used to send these suspicious emails was “12345@fastflavor-shack[.]cn”*. The domain “fastflavor-shack[.]cn” is the legitimate domain of the Chinese division of an international fast-food company, and the numerical username contained five numbers, with the final three digits changing which likely represented different stores.

*(To maintain anonymity, the pseudonym “Fast Flavor Shack” and its fictitious domain, “fastflavor-shack[.]cn”, have been used in this blog to represent the actual fast-food company and the domains identified by Darktrace throughout this incident.)

The use of legitimate domains for malicious activities become commonplace in recent years, with attackers attempting to leverage the trust endpoint users have for reputable organizations or services, in order to achieve their nefarious goals. One similar example was observed when Darktrace detected an attacker attempting to carry out a phishing attack using the cloud storage service Dropbox.

As these emails were sent from a legitimate domain associated with a trusted organization and seemed to be coming from the correct connection source, they were verified by Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and were able to evade the customer’s native email security measures. Darktrace/Email; however, recognized that these emails were actually sent from a user located in Singapore, not China.

Darktrace/Email identified that the email had been sent by a user who had logged in from Singapore, despite the connection source being in China.
Figure 2: Darktrace/Email identified that the email had been sent by a user who had logged in from Singapore, despite the connection source being in China.

The Emails

Darktrace/Email autonomously analyzed the suspicious emails and identified that they were likely phishing emails containing a malicious multistage payload.

Darktrace/Email identifying the presence of a malicious phishing link and a multistage payload.
Figure 3: Darktrace/Email identifying the presence of a malicious phishing link and a multistage payload.

There has been a significant increase in multistage payload attacks in recent years, whereby a malicious email attempts to elicit recipients to follow a series of steps, such as clicking a link or scanning a QR code, before delivering a malicious payload or attempting to harvest credentials [2].

In this case, the malicious actor had embedded a suspicious link into a QR code inside a Microsoft Word document which was then attached to the email in order to direct targets to a malicious domain. While this attempt to utilize a malicious QR code may have bypassed traditional email security tools that do not scan for QR codes, Darktrace was able to identify the presence of the QR code and scan its destination, revealing it to be a suspicious domain that had never previously been seen on the network, “sssafjeuihiolsw[.]bond”.

Suspicious link embedded in QR Code, which was detected and extracted by Darktrace.
Figure 4: Suspicious link embedded in QR Code, which was detected and extracted by Darktrace.

At the time of the attack, there was no open-source intelligence (OSINT) on the domain in question as it had only been registered earlier the same day. This is significant as newly registered domains are typically much more likely to bypass gateways until traditional security tools have enough intelligence to determine that these domains are malicious, by which point a malicious actor may likely have already gained access to internal systems [4]. Despite this, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enabled it to recognize the activity surrounding these unusual emails as suspicious and indicative of a malicious phishing campaign, without needing to rely on existing threat intelligence.

The most commonly used sender name line for the observed phishing emails was “财务部”, meaning “finance department”, and Darktrace observed subject lines including “The document has been delivered”, “Income Tax Return Notice” and “The file has been released”, all written in Chinese.  The emails also contained an attachment named “通知文件.docx” (“Notification document”), further indicating that they had been crafted to pass for emails related to financial transaction documents.

 Darktrace/Email took autonomous mitigative action against the suspicious emails by holding the message from recipient inboxes.
Figure 5: Darktrace/Email took autonomous mitigative action against the suspicious emails by holding the message from recipient inboxes.

Conclusion

Although this phishing attack was ultimately thwarted by Darktrace/Email, it serves to demonstrate the potential risks of relying on solely language-trained models to detect suspicious email activity. Darktrace’s behavioral and contextual learning-based detection ensures that any deviations in expected email activity, be that a new sender, unusual locations or unexpected attachments or link, are promptly identified and actioned to disrupt the attacks at the earliest opportunity.

In this example, attackers attempted to use non-English language phishing emails containing a multistage payload hidden behind a QR code. As traditional email security measures typically rely on pre-trained language models or the signature-based detection of blacklisted senders or known malicious endpoints, this multistage approach would likely bypass native protection.  

Darktrace/Email, meanwhile, is able to autonomously scan attachments and detect QR codes within them, whilst also identifying the embedded links. This ensured that the customer’s email environment was protected against this phishing threat, preventing potential financial and reputation damage.

Credit to: Rajendra Rushanth, Cyber Analyst, Steven Haworth, Head of Threat Modelling, Email

Appendices  

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)  

IoC – Type – Description

sssafjeuihiolsw[.]bond – Domain Name – Suspicious Link Domain

通知文件.docx – File - Payload  

References

[1] https://darktrace.com/blog/stopping-phishing-attacks-in-enter-language  

[2] https://darktrace.com/blog/attacks-are-getting-personal

[3] https://darktrace.com/blog/phishing-with-qr-codes-how-darktrace-detected-and-blocked-the-bait

[4] https://darktrace.com/blog/the-domain-game-how-email-attackers-are-buying-their-way-into-inboxes

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Rajendra Rushanth
Cyber Analyst

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The State of AI in Cybersecurity: The Impact of AI on Cybersecurity Solutions

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13
May 2024

About the AI Cybersecurity Report

Darktrace surveyed 1,800 CISOs, security leaders, administrators, and practitioners from industries around the globe. Our research was conducted to understand how the adoption of new AI-powered offensive and defensive cybersecurity technologies are being managed by organizations.

This blog continues the conversation from “The State of AI in Cybersecurity: Unveiling Global Insights from 1,800 Security Practitioners” which was an overview of the entire report. This blog will focus on one aspect of the overarching report, the impact of AI on cybersecurity solutions.

To access the full report, click here.

The effects of AI on cybersecurity solutions

Overwhelming alert volumes, high false positive rates, and endlessly innovative threat actors keep security teams scrambling. Defenders have been forced to take a reactive approach, struggling to keep pace with an ever-evolving threat landscape. It is hard to find time to address long-term objectives or revamp operational processes when you are always engaged in hand-to-hand combat.                  

The impact of AI on the threat landscape will soon make yesterday’s approaches untenable. Cybersecurity vendors are racing to capitalize on buyer interest in AI by supplying solutions that promise to meet the need. But not all AI is created equal, and not all these solutions live up to the widespread hype.  

Do security professionals believe AI will impact their security operations?

Yes! 95% of cybersecurity professionals agree that AI-powered solutions will level up their organization’s defenses.                                                                

Not only is there strong agreement about the ability of AI-powered cybersecurity solutions to improve the speed and efficiency of prevention, detection, response, and recovery, but that agreement is nearly universal, with more than 95% alignment.

This AI-powered future is about much more than generative AI. While generative AI can help accelerate the data retrieval process within threat detection, create quick incident summaries, automate low-level tasks in security operations, and simulate phishing emails and other attack tactics, most of these use cases were ranked lower in their impact to security operations by survey participants.

There are many other types of AI, which can be applied to many other use cases:

Supervised machine learning: Applied more often than any other type of AI in cybersecurity. Trained on attack patterns and historical threat intelligence to recognize known attacks.

Natural language processing (NLP): Applies computational techniques to process and understand human language. It can be used in threat intelligence, incident investigation, and summarization.

Large language models (LLMs): Used in generative AI tools, this type of AI applies deep learning models trained on massively large data sets to understand, summarize, and generate new content. The integrity of the output depends upon the quality of the data on which the AI was trained.

Unsupervised machine learning: Continuously learns from raw, unstructured data to identify deviations that represent true anomalies. With the correct models, this AI can use anomaly-based detections to identify all kinds of cyber-attacks, including entirely unknown and novel ones.

What are the areas of cybersecurity AI will impact the most?

Improving threat detection is the #1 area within cybersecurity where AI is expected to have an impact.                                                                                  

The most frequent response to this question, improving threat detection capabilities in general, was top ranked by slightly more than half (57%) of respondents. This suggests security professionals hope that AI will rapidly analyze enormous numbers of validated threats within huge volumes of fast-flowing events and signals. And that it will ultimately prove a boon to front-line security analysts. They are not wrong.

Identifying exploitable vulnerabilities (mentioned by 50% of respondents) is also important. Strengthening vulnerability management by applying AI to continuously monitor the exposed attack surface for risks and high-impact vulnerabilities can give defenders an edge. If it prevents threats from ever reaching the network, AI will have a major downstream impact on incident prevalence and breach risk.

Where will defensive AI have the greatest impact on cybersecurity?

Cloud security (61%), data security (50%), and network security (46%) are the domains where defensive AI is expected to have the greatest impact.        

Respondents selected broader domains over specific technologies. In particular, they chose the areas experiencing a renaissance. Cloud is the future for most organizations,
and the effects of cloud adoption on data and networks are intertwined. All three domains are increasingly central to business operations, impacting everything everywhere.

Responses were remarkably consistent across demographics, geographies, and organization sizes, suggesting that nearly all survey participants are thinking about this similarly—that AI will likely have far-reaching applications across the broadest fields, as well as fewer, more specific applications within narrower categories.

Going forward, it will be paramount for organizations to augment their cloud and SaaS security with AI-powered anomaly detection, as threat actors sharpen their focus on these targets.

How will security teams stop AI-powered threats?            

Most security stakeholders (71%) are confident that AI-powered security solutions are better able to block AI-powered threats than traditional tools.

There is strong agreement that AI-powered solutions will be better at stopping AI-powered threats (71% of respondents are confident in this), and there’s also agreement (66%) that AI-powered solutions will be able to do so automatically. This implies significant faith in the ability of AI to detect threats both precisely and accurately, and also orchestrate the correct response actions.

There is also a high degree of confidence in the ability of security teams to implement and operate AI-powered solutions, with only 30% of respondents expressing doubt. This bodes well for the acceptance of AI-powered solutions, with stakeholders saying they’re prepared for the shift.

On the one hand, it is positive that cybersecurity stakeholders are beginning to understand the terms of this contest—that is, that only AI can be used to fight AI. On the other hand, there are persistent misunderstandings about what AI is, what it can do, and why choosing the right type of AI is so important. Only when those popular misconceptions have become far less widespread can our industry advance its effectiveness.  

To access the full report, click here.

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