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A l'intérieur du SOC

Countering the Cartel: Darktrace’s Investigation into CyberCartel Attacks Targeting Latin America

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08
Jan 2024
08
Jan 2024
This blog explores Darktrace’s investigation into a series of CyberCartel compromises that were detected across its customer base throughout 2023. CyberCartel is known to target government agencies and taxpaying individuals throughout Latin America.

Introduction

In September 2023, Darktrace published its first Half-Year Threat Report, highlighting Threat Research, Security Operation Center (SOC), model breach, and Cyber AI Analyst analysis and trends across the Darktrace customer fleet. According to Darktrace’s Threat Report, the most observed threat type to affect Darktrace customers during the first half of 2023 was Malware-as-a-Service (Maas). The report highlighted a growing trend where malware strains, specifically in the MaaS ecosystem, “use cross-functional components from other strains as part of their evolution and customization” [1].  

Darktrace’s Threat Research team assessed this ‘Frankenstein’ approach would very likely increase, as shown by the fact that indicators of compromise (IoCs) are becoming “less and less mutually exclusive between malware strains as compromised infrastructure is used by multiple threat actors through access brokers or the “as-a-Service” market” [1].

Darktrace investigated one such threat during the last months of summer 2023, eventually leading to the discovery of CyberCartel-related activity across a significant number of Darktrace customers, especially in Latin America.

CyberCartel Overview and Darktrace Coverage

During a threat hunt, Darktrace’s Threat Research team discovered the download of a binary with a unique Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) pattern. When examining Darktrace’s customer base, it was discovered that binaries with this same URI pattern had been downloaded by a significant number of customer accounts, especially by customers based in Latin America. Although not identical, the targets and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) resembled those mentioned in an article regarding a botnet called Fenix [2], particularly active in Latin America.

During the Threat Research team’s investigation, nearly 40 potentially affected customer accounts were identified. Darktrace’s global Threat Research team investigates pervasive threats across Darktrace’s customer base daily. This cross-fleet research is based on Darktrace’s anomaly-based detection capability, Darktrace DETECT™, and revolves around technical analysis and contextualization of detection information.

Amid the investigation, further open-source intelligence (OSINT) research revealed that most indicators observed during Darktrace’s investigations were associated to a Latin American threat group named CyberCartel, with a small number of IoCs being associated with the Fenix botnet. While CyberCartel seems to have been active since 2012 and relies on MaaS offerings from well-known malware families, Fenix botnet was allegedly created at the end of last year and “specifically targets users accessing government services, particularly tax-paying individuals in Mexico and Chile” [2].

Both groups share similar targets and TTPs, as well as objectives: installing malware with information-stealing capabilities. In the case of Fenix infections, the compromised device will be added to a botnet and execute tasks given by the attacker(s); while in the case of CyberCartel, it can lead to various types of second-stage info-stealing and Man-in-the-Browser capabilities, including retrieving system information from the compromised device, capturing screenshots of the active browsing tab, and redirecting the user to fraudulent websites such as fake banking sites. According to a report by Metabase Q [2], both groups possibly share command and control (C2) infrastructure, making accurate attribution and assessment of the confidence level for which group was affecting the customer base extremely difficult. Indeed, one of the C2 IPs (104.156.149[.]33) observed on nearly 20 customer accounts during the investigation had OSINT evidence linking it to both CyberCartel and Fenix, as well as another group known to target Mexico called Manipulated Caiman [3] [4] [5].

CyberCartel and Fenix both appear to target banking and governmental services’ users based in Latin America, especially individuals from Mexico and Chile. Target institutions purportedly include tax administration services and several banks operating in the region. Malvertising and phishing campaigns direct users to pages imitating the target institutions’ webpages and prompt the download of a compressed file advertised in a pop-up window. This file claims enhance the user’s security and privacy while navigating the webpage but instead redirects the user to a compromised website hosting a zip file, which itself contains a URL file containing instructions for retrieval of the first stage payload from a remote server.

pop-up window with malicious file
Figure 1: Example of a pop-up window asking the user to download a compressed file allegedly needed to continue navigating the portal. Connections to the domain srlxlpdfmxntetflx[.]com were observed in one account investigated by Darktrace

During their investigations, the Threat Research team observed connections to 100% rare domains (e.g., situacionfiscal[.]online, consultar-rfc[.]online, facturmx[.]info), many of them containing strings such as “mx”, “rcf” and “factur” in their domain names, prior to the downloads of files with the unique URI pattern identified during the aforementioned threat hunting session.

The reference to “rfc” is likely a reference to the Registro Federal de Contribuyentes, a unique registration number issued by Mexico’s tax collection agency, Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT). These domains were observed as being 100% rare for the environment and were connected to a few minutes prior to connections to CyberCartel endpoints. Most of the endpoints were newly registered, with creation dates starting from only a few months earlier in the first half of 2023. Interestingly, some of these domains were very similar to legitimate government websites, likely a tactic employed by threat actors to convince users to trust the domains and to bypass security measures.

Figure 2: Screenshot from similarweb[.]com showing the degree of affinity between malicious domains situacionfiscal[.]online and facturmx[.]info and the legitimate Mexican government hostname sat[.]gob[.]mx
Figure 3: Screenshot of the likely source infection website facturmx[.]info taken when visited in a sandbox environment

In other customer networks, connections to mail clients were observed, as well as connections to win-rar[.]com, suggesting an interaction with a compressed file. Connections to legitimate government websites were also detected around the same time in some accounts. Shortly after, the infected devices were detected connecting to 100% rare IP addresses over the HTTP protocol using WebDAV user agents such as Microsoft-WebDAV-MiniRedir/10.0.X and DavCInt. Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning, in its full form, is a legitimate extension to the HTTP protocol that allows users to remotely share, copy, move and edit files hosted on a web server. Both CyberCartel and Fenix botnet reportedly abuse this protocol to retrieve the initial payload via a shortcut link. The use (or abuse) of this protocol allows attackers to evade blocklists and streamline payload distribution. In cases investigated by Darktrace, the use of this protocol was not always considered unusual for the breach device, indicating it also was commonly used for its legitimate purposes.

HTTP methods observed included PROPFIND, GET, and OPTIONS, where a higher proportion of PROPFIND requests were observed. PROPFIND is an HTTP method related to the use of WebDAV that retrieves properties in an exactly defined, machine-readable, XML document (GET responses do not have a define format). Properties are pieces of data that describe the state of a resource, i.e., data about data [7]. They are used in distributed authoring environments to provide for efficient discovery and management of resources.  

Figure 4: Device event log showing a connection to facturmx[.]info followed by a WebDAV connection to the 100% rare IP 172.86.68[.]104

In a number of cases, connections to compromised endpoints were followed by the download of one or more executable files with names following the regex pattern /(yes|4496|[A-Za-z]{8})/(((4496|4545)[A-Za-z]{24})|Herramienta_de_Seguridad_SII).(exe|jse), for example 4496UCJlcqwxvkpXKguWNqNWDivM.exe. PROPFIND and GET HTTP requests for dynamic-link library (DLL) files such as urlmon.dll and netutils.dll were also detected. These are legitimate Windows files that are essential to handle network and internet-related tasks in Windows. Irrespective of whether they had malicious or legitimate signatures, Darktrace DETECT was able to recognize that the download of these files was suspicious with rare external endpoints not previously observed on the respective customer networks.

Figure 5: Advanced Search results showing some of the HTTP requests made by the breach device to a CyberCartel endpoint via PROPFIND, GET, or OPTIONS methods for executable and DLL files

Following Darktrace DETECT’s model breaches, these HTTP connections were investigated by Cyber AI Analyst™. AI Analyst provided a summary and further technical details of these connections, as shown in figure 6.

Figure 6: Cyber AI Analyst incident showing a summary of the event, as well as technical details. The AI investigation process is also detailed

AI Analyst searched for all HTTP connections made by the breach device and found more than 2,500 requests to more than a hundred endpoints for one given device. It then looked for the user agents responsible for these connections and found 15 possible software agents responsible for the HTTP requests, and from these identified a single suspicious software agent, Microsoft-WebDAV-Min-Redir. As mentioned previously, this is a legitimate software, but its use by the breach device was considered unusual by Darktrace’s machine learning technology. By performing analysis on thousands of connections to hundreds of endpoints at machine speed, AI Analyst is able to perform the heavy lifting on behalf of human security teams and then collate its findings in a single summary pane, giving end-users the information needed to assess a given activity and quickly start remediation as needed. This allows security teams and administrators to save precious time and provides unparalleled visibility over any potentially malicious activity on their network.

Following the successful identification of CyberCartel activity by DETECT, Darktrace RESPOND™ is then able to contain suspicious behavior, such as by restricting outgoing traffic or enforcing normal patterns of life on affected devices. This would allow customer security teams extra time to analyze potentially malicious behavior, while leaving the rest of the network free to perform business critical operations. Unfortunately, in the cases of CyberCartel compromises detected by Darktrace, RESPOND was not enabled in autonomous response mode meaning preventative actions had to be applied manually by the customer’s security team after the fact.

Figure 7. Device event log showing connections to 100% rare CyberCartel endpoint 172.86.68[.]194 and subsequent suggested RESPOND actions.

Conclusion

Threat actors targeting high-value entities such as government offices and banks is unfortunately all too commonplace.  In the case of Cyber Cartel, governmental organizations and entities, as well as multiple newspapers in the Latin America, have cautioned users against these malicious campaigns, which have occurred over the past few years [8] [9]. However, attackers continuously update their toolsets and infrastructure, quickly rendering these warnings and known-bad security precautions obsolete. In the case of CyberCartel, the abuse of the legitimate WebDAV protocol to retrieve the initial payload is just one example of this. This method of distribution has also been leveraged by in Bumblebee malware loader’s latest campaign [10]. The abuse of the legitimate WebDAV protocol to retrieve the initial CyberCartel payload outlined in this case is one example among many of threat actors adopting new distribution methods used by others to further their ends.

As threat actors continue to search for new ways of remaining undetected, notably by incorporating legitimate processes into their attack flow and utilizing non-exclusive compromised infrastructure, it is more important than ever to have an understanding of normal network operation in order to detect anomalies that are indicative of an ongoing compromise. Darktrace’s suite of products, including DETECT+RESPOND, is well placed to do just that, with machine-speed analysis, detection, and response helping security teams and administrators keep their digital environments safe from malicious actors.

Credit to: Nahisha Nobregas, SOC Analyst

References

[1] https://darktrace.com/blog/darktrace-half-year-threat-report

[2] https://www.metabaseq.com/fenix-botnet/

[3] https://perception-point.io/blog/manipulated-caiman-the-sophisticated-snare-of-mexicos-banking-predators-technical-edition/

[4] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/104.156.149.33/community

[5] https://silent4business.com/tendencias/1

[6] https://www.metabaseq.com/cybercartel/

[7] http://www.webdav.org/specs/rfc2518.html#rfc.section.4.1

[8] https://www.csirt.gob.cl/alertas/8ffr23-01415-01/

[9] https://www.gob.mx/sat/acciones-y-programas/sitios-web-falsos

[10] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/bumblebee-malware-returns-in-new-attacks-abusing-webdav-folders/

Appendices  

Darktrace DETECT Model Detections

AI Analyst Incidents:

• Possible HTTP Command and Control

• Suspicious File Download

Model Detections:

• Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname

• Device / New User Agent and New IP

• Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

• Multiple EXE from Rare External Locations

• Anomalous File / Script from Rare External Location

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description + Confidence

f84bb51de50f19ec803b484311053294fbb3b523 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel Payload IoCs

4eb564b84aac7a5a898af59ee27b1cb00c99a53d - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

8806639a781d0f63549711d3af0f937ffc87585c - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

9d58441d9d31b5c4011b99482afa210b030ecac4 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

37da048533548c0ad87881e120b8cf2a77528413 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

2415fcefaf86a83f1174fa50444be7ea830bb4d1 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

15a94c7e9b356d0ff3bcee0f0ad885b6cf9c1bb7 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

cdc5da48fca92329927d9dccf3ed513dd28956af - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

693b869bc9ba78d4f8d415eb7016c566ead839f3 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

04ce764723eaa75e4ee36b3d5cba77a105383dc5 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

435834167fd5092905ee084038eee54797f4d23e - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

3341b4f46c2f45b87f95168893a7485e35f825fe - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

f6375a1f954f317e16f24c94507d4b04200c63b9 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

252efff7f54bd19a5c96bbce0bfaeeecadb3752f - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

8080c94e5add2f6ed20e9866a00f67996f0a61ae - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

c5117cedc275c9d403a533617117be7200a2ed77 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

19dd866abdaf8bc3c518d1c1166fbf279787fc03 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

548287c0350d6e3d0e5144e20d0f0ce28661f514 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

f0478e88c8eefc3fd0a8e01eaeb2704a580f88e6 - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

a9809acef61ca173331e41b28d6abddb64c5f192 - SHA1 hash - Likely CyberCartel payload

be96ec94f8f143127962d7bf4131c228474cd6ac - SHA1 hash -Likely CyberCartel payload

44ef336395c41bf0cecae8b43be59170bed6759d - SHA1 hash - Possible CyberCartel payload

facturmx[.]info - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

consultar-rfc[.]online - Hostname - Possible CyberCartel infection source

srlxlpdfmxntetflx[.]com - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

facturmx[.]online - Hostname - Possible CyberCartel infection source

rfcconhomoclave[.]mx - Hostname - Possible CyberCartel infection source

situacionfiscal[.]online - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

descargafactura[.]club - Hostname - Likely CyberCartel infection source

104.156.149[.]33 - IP - Likely CyberCartel C2 endpoint

172.86.68[.]194 - IP - Likely CyberCartel C2 endpoint

139.162.73[.]58 - IP - Likely CyberCartel C2 endpoint

172.105.24[.]190 - IP - Possible CyberCartel C2 endpoint

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Technique

Command and Control - Ingress Tool Transfer (T1105)

Command and Control - Web Protocols (T1071.001)

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.
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Alexandra Sentenac
Cyber Analyst
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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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A l'intérieur du SOC

Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

As the “as-a-Service” market continues to grow, indicators of compromise (IoCs) and malicious infrastructure are often interchanged and shared between multiple malware strains and attackers. This presents organizations and their security teams with a new threat: interoperability.

Interoperable threats not only enable malicious actors to achieve their objectives more easily by leveraging existing infrastructure and tools to launch new attacks, but the lack of clear attribution often complicates identification for security teams and incident responders, making it challenging to mitigate and contain the threat.

One such threat observed across the Darktrace customer base in late 2023 was Quasar, a legitimate remote administration tool that has becoming increasingly popular for opportunistic attackers in recent years. Working in tandem, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT™ and the autonomous response capabilities of Darktrace RESPOND™ ensured that affected customers were promptly made aware of any suspicious activity on the attacks were contained at the earliest possible stage.

What is Quasar?

Quasar is an open-source remote administration tool designed for legitimate use; however, it has evolved to become a popular tool used by threat actors due to its wide array of capabilities.  

How does Quasar work?

For instance, Quasar can perform keylogging, take screenshots, establish a reverse proxy, and download and upload files on a target device [1].  A report released towards the end of 2023 put Quasar back on threat researchers’ radars as it disclosed the new observation of dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading being used by malicious versions of this tool to evade detection [1].  DLL sideloading involves configuring legitimate Windows software to run a malicious file rather than the legitimate file it usually calls on as the software loads.  The evolving techniques employed by threat actors using Quasar highlights defenders’ need for anomaly-based detections that do not rely on pre-existing knowledge of attacker techniques, and can identify and alert for unusual behavior, even if it is performed by a legitimate application.

Although Quasar has been used by advanced persistent threat (APT) groups for global espionage operations [2], Darktrace observed the common usage of default configurations for Quasar, which appeared to use shared malicious infrastructure, and occurred alongside other non-compliant activity such as BitTorrent use and cryptocurrency mining.  

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

Between September and October 2023, Darktrace detected multiple cases of malicious Quasar activity across several customers, suggesting probable campaign activity.  

Quasar infections can be difficult to detect using traditional network or host-based tools due to the use of stealthy techniques such as DLL side-loading and encrypted SSL connections for command-and control (C2) communication, that traditional security tools may not be able to identify.  The wide array of capabilities Quasar possesses also suggests that attacks using this tool may not necessarily be modelled against a linear kill chain. Despite this, the anomaly-based detection of Darktrace DETECT allowed it to identify IoCs related to Quasar at multiple stages of the kill chain.

Quasar Initial Infection

During the initial infection stage of a Quasar compromise observed on the network of one customer, Darktrace detected a device downloading several suspicious DLL and executable (.exe) files from multiple rare external sources using the Xmlst user agent, including the executable ‘Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe’.  Analyzing this file using open-source intelligence (OSINT) suggests this is a Quasar payload, potentially indicating this represented the initial infection through DLL sideloading [3].

Interestingly, the Xmlst user agent used to download the Quasar payload has also been associated with Raccoon Stealer, an information-stealing malware that also acts as a dropper for other malware strains [4][5]. The co-occurrence of different malware components is increasingly common across the threat landscape as MaaS operating models increases in popularity, allowing attackers to employ cross-functional components from different strains.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the multiple different downloads in one related incident, with technical details for the Quasar payload included. The incident event for Suspicious File Download is also linked to Possible HTTP Command and Control, suggesting escalation of activity following the initial infection.  

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

During this phase, devices on multiple customer networks were identified making unusual external connections to the IP 193.142.146[.]212, which was not commonly seen in their networks. Darktrace analyzed the meta-properties of these SSL connections without needing to decrypt the content, to alert the usage of an unusual port not typically associated with the SSL protocol, 4782, and the usage of self-signed certificates.  Self-signed certificates do not provide any trust value and are commonly used in malware communications and ill-reputed web servers.  

Further analysis into these alerts using OSINT indicated that 193.142.146[.]212 is a Quasar C2 server and 4782 is the default port used by Quasar [6][7].  Expanding on the self-signed certificate within the Darktrace UI (see Figure 3) reveals a certificate subject and issuer of “CN=Quasar Server CA”, which is also the default self-signed certificate compiled by Quasar [6].

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst Incident summarizing the repeated external connections to a rare external IP that was later associated with Quasar.
Figure 3: Device Event Log of the affected device, showing Darktrace’s analysis of the SSL Certificate associated with SSL connections to 193.142.146[.]212.

A number of insights can be drawn from analysis of the Quasar C2 endpoints detected by Darktrace across multiple affected networks, suggesting a level of interoperability in the tooling used by different threat actors. In one instance, Darktrace detected a device beaconing to the endpoint ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’ using the aforementioned “CN=Quasar Server CA” certificate. DuckDNS is a dynamic DNS service that could be abused by attackers to redirect users from their intended endpoint to malicious infrastructure, and may be shared or reused in multiple different attacks.

Figure 4: A device’s Model Event Log, showing the Quasar Server CA SSL certificate used in connections to 41.233.139[.]145 on port 5, which resolves via passive replication to ‘bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org’.  

The sharing of malicious infrastructure among threat actors is also evident as several OSINT sources have also associated the Quasar IP 193.142.146[.]212, detected in this campaign, with different threat types.

While 193.142.146[.]212:4782 is known to be associated with Quasar, 193.142.146[.]212:8808 and 193.142.146[.]212:6606 have been associated with AsyncRAT [11], and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer [12].  Aside from the relative ease of using already developed tooling, threat actors may prefer to use open-source malware in order to avoid attribution, making the true identity of the threat actor unclear to incident responders [1][13].  

Quasar Executing Objectives

On multiple customer deployments affected by Quasar, Darktrace detected devices using BitTorrent and performing cryptocurrency mining. While these non-compliant, and potentially malicious, activities are not necessarily specific IoCs for Quasar, they do suggest that affected devices may have had greater attack surfaces than others.

For instance, one affected device was observed initiating connections to 162.19.139[.]184, a known Minergate cryptomining endpoint, and ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, a dynamic DNS endpoint linked to the Quasar Botnet by multiple OSINT vendors [9].

Figure 5: A Darktrace DETECT Event Log showing simultaneous connections to a Quasar endpoint and a cryptomining endpoint 162.19.139[.]184.

Not only does cryptocurrency mining use a significant amount of processing power, potentially disrupting an organization’s business operations and racking up high energy bills, but the software used for this mining is often written to a poor standard, thus increasing the attack surfaces of devices using them. In this instance, Quasar may have been introduced as a secondary payload from a user or attacker-initiated download of cryptocurrency mining malware.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for malicious actors to attach malware to torrented files and there were a number of examples of Darktrace detect identifying non-compliant activity, like BitTorrent connections, overlapping with connections to external locations associated with Quasar. It is therefore important for organizations to establish and enforce technical and policy controls for acceptable use on corporate devices, particularly when remote working introduces new risks.  

Figure 6: A device’s Event Log filtered by Model Breaches, showing a device connecting to BitTorrent shortly before making new or repeated connections to unusual endpoints, which were subsequently associated to Quasar.

In some cases observed by Darktrace, devices affected by Quasar were also being used to perform data exfiltration. Analysis of a period of unusual external connections to the aforementioned Quasar C2 botnet server, ‘zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org’, revealed a small data upload, which may have represented the exfiltration of some data to attacker infrastructure.

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

On customer networks that had Darktrace RESPOND™ enabled in autonomous response mode, the threat of Quasar was mitigated and contained as soon as it was identified by DETECT. If RESPOND is not configured to respond autonomously, these actions would instead be advisory, pending manual application by the customer’s security team.

For example, following the detection of devices downloading malicious DLL and executable files, Darktrace RESPOND advised the customer to block specific connections to the relevant IP addresses and ports. However, as the device was seen attempting to download further files from other locations, RESPOND also suggested enforced a ‘pattern of life’ on the device, meaning it was only permitted to make connections that were part its normal behavior. By imposing a pattern of life, Darktrace RESPOND ensures that a device cannot perform suspicious behavior, while not disrupting any legitimate business activity.

Had RESPOND been configured to act autonomously, these mitigative actions would have been applied without any input from the customer’s security team and the Quasar compromise would have been contained in the first instance.

Figure 7: The advisory actions Darktrace RESPOND initiated to block specific connections to a malicious IP and to enforce the device’s normal patterns of life in response to the different anomalies detected on the device.

In another case, one customer affected by Quasar did have enabled RESPOND to take autonomous action, whilst also integrating it with a firewall. Here, following the detection of a device connecting to a known Quasar IP address, RESPOND initially blocked it from making connections to the IP via the customer’s firewall. However, as the device continued to perform suspicious activity after this, RESPOND escalated its response by blocking all outgoing connections from the device, effectively preventing any C2 activity or downloads.

Figure 8: RESPOND actions triggered to action via integrated firewall and TCP Resets.

Conclusion

When faced with a threat like Quasar that utilizes the infrastructure and tools of both legitimate services and other malicious malware variants, it is essential for security teams to move beyond relying on existing knowledge of attack techniques when safeguarding their network. It is no longer enough for organizations to rely on past attacks to defend against the attacks of tomorrow.

Crucially, Darktrace’s unique approach to threat detection focusses on the anomaly, rather than relying on a static list of IoCs or "known bads” based on outdated threat intelligence. In the case of Quasar, alternative or future strains of the malware that utilize different IoCs and TTPs would still be identified by Darktrace as anomalous and immediately alerted.

By learning the ‘normal’ for devices on a customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT can recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could indicate an ongoing compromise. Darktrace RESPOND is subsequently able to follow this up with swift and targeted actions to contain the attack and prevent it from escalating further.

Credit to Nicole Wong, Cyber Analyst, Vivek Rajan Cyber Analyst

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Compromise / New or Repeated to Unusual SSL Port
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

List of IoCs

IP:Port

193.142.146[.]212:4782 -Quasar C2 IP and default port

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

zayprostofyrim[.]zapto[.]org - Quasar C2 Botnet Endpoint

bittorrents[.]duckdns[.]org - Possible Quasar C2 endpoint

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

41.233.139[.]145[VR1] [NW2] - Possible Quasar C2 IP

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

[1] https://thehackernews.com/2023/10/quasar-rat-leverages-dll-side-loading.html

[2] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/cicada-apt10-japan-espionage

[3]https://www.virustotal.com/gui/file/bd275a1f97d1691e394d81dd402c11aaa88cc8e723df7a6aaf57791fa6a6cdfa/community

[4] https://twitter.com/g0njxa/status/1691826188581298389

[5] https://www.linkedin.com/posts/grjk83_raccoon-stealer-announce-return-after-hiatus-activity-7097906612580802560-1aj9

[6] https://community.netwitness.com/t5/netwitness-community-blog/using-rsa-netwitness-to-detect-quasarrat/ba-p/518952

[7] https://www.cisa.gov/news-events/analysis-reports/ar18-352a

[8]https://any.run/report/6cf1314c130a41c977aafce4585a144762d3fb65f8fe493e836796b989b002cb/7ac94b56-7551-4434-8e4f-c928c57327ff

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/891454/

[10] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/41.233.139.145/relations

[11] https://raw.githubusercontent.com/stamparm/maltrail/master/trails/static/malware/asyncrat.txt

[12] https://sslbl.abuse.ch/ssl-certificates/signature/RedLineStealer/

[13] https://www.botconf.eu/botconf-presentation-or-article/hunting-the-quasar-family-how-to-hunt-a-malware-family/

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About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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