Hives & Frankensteins: The Half-Year Threat Report
Darktrace's first comprehensive report on the threats faced by businesses examines the trends our threat team saw in the first half of 2023.
At Darktrace, we do threat intelligence differently.
Rather than examining the patterns of previous attacks to identify threats, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands the normal pattern of life for each of our customers so it can quickly identify the abnormal - anomalies and behaviors that can indicate known and unknown threats.
Our unique approach, which is focused on using AI to detect anomalies and behavioral patterns, enables us to mitigate threats that may not have even been publicly attributed yet. Once Darktrace has successfully detected and contained a threat, the work of our Threat Intelligence team, a group of talented analysts located all over the world, begins. We map these mitigated cases against some of the more publicly attributed threats within the threat intelligence community and identify trends and themes that are valuable to share more broadly.
We’ve been pulling together insights from the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) as well as from across our customer fleet for some time and we regularly share them on our Inside the SOC blog. Now for the first time, we’re bringing you a comprehensive report that outlines our key findings, trends and insights into some of the top cyber threats facing businesses in the first half of 2023.
The Darktrace team assessed a wide variety of threats during the first half of 2023. While some of these threats were identified as emerging or novel exploits, the majority were identified, known tooling, and many of these threats were identified as campaign-like activity targeting multiple customers. A few top takeaways from the report include:
RaaS on the Rise
Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) and Malware-as-a-Service (MaaS) are the most consistently identified and mitigated threats against Darktrace customers and the most likely to affect organizations throughout the rest of 2023 and likely into 2024.
One of the most prolific forms of ransomware-as-a-service during the last 12 months has been Hive ransomware. While the customizable nature of RaaS means there’s no one way the attacks are distributed, Darktrace DETECT™ has observed several general trends which indicated a Hive ransomware attack could be in progress, including initial access via phishing emails, or through exploiting unpatched security vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange, before exploiting legitimate tools to move laterally around the network with the aim of exfiltrating and encrypting as much data as possible.
These Hive network intrusions – and many other MaaS and RaaS attacks - are often complimented with readily available tools – including legitimate security testing tools like CobaltStrike and other applications. This ‘Frankenstein’ approach will very likely increase, as use of open-source code and the growth of the MaaS marketplace continues, especially if attempts to hide malicious activity within every day applications and software continues.
Anomalous Activity Across Industries
Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst, part of Darktrace DETECT, observed several key anomalous activity trends in the first half of the year. Beaconing was the most observed pattern of activity observed by Cyber AI Analyst between January and June 2023, which is indicative of Command and Control activity.
Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst also observed more patterns of activities from customers in the manufacturing sector than any other sector in the first half, this was followed closely by theInformation and Communication sector, Financial and Insurance sector, Human Health and Social Work sector, and the Education sector.
What’s Next: Our Predictions
Lowering the Barrier to Entry: The growing malware-as-a-service market is providing even low-level cyber criminals with the tools necessary to deploy highly customizable attacks. This is leading to challenges for defenders who might be working to specific playbooks and creating large gaps in their security posture – especially if the attacker is exploiting legitimate, everyday applications and tools to help conduct attacks.
Cascading Supply Chain Attacks: With a widening pool of supply chains enabled by interconnective and adaptable technology, there will likely be a continuation of cascading supply chain attacks, like the 3CX supply chain attack reported earlier this year, whether by design or due to accidental spread of tainted technology.
Increasing Cloud Threats: The shift towards cloud infrastructure is making ‘simply logging in’ hacks easier, creating additional risks across entire supply chains. Sensitive information which would have been previously only stored on-premises is now accessible via common working tools, which can be accessed from anywhere – and attackers know it. As organizations are still largely reliant on passwords to access SaaS and cloud applications, it is very likely cloud-focused identity targeting will continue to be a significant attack vector.
At Darktrace, our mission is to free the world from cyber disruption. That mission has never been more important as the volume of unique attacks is poised to grow and the barrier to entry for threat actors gets lower due to widespread access to AI, automation and as-a-service threat markets. For the last 10 years, Darktrace has used its Self-Learning AI to detect anomalies and analyze behavior to stay ahead of attacks that have yet to be publicly attributed. We hope that these insights, which were detected by Darktrace and combined with analysis from our Threat Intelligence team, offer insights to help you keep your business safe in 2023 and beyond.
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.
Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security
Email threat landscape
Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.
Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.
What is DMARC?
DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.
Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.
DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.
How does DMARC work?
DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.
DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.
These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:
Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.
Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
Increased visibility: DMARC providesenhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.
Understanding DMARC’s Limitations
DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.
As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:
Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.
Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.
Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.
Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.
Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.
Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.
With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.
As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.
DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.
Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.
Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog
Quasar Remote Access Tool: When a Legitimate Admin Tool Falls into the Wrong Hands
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 . 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 . 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 , 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.
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 .
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 . 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.
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 . 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 .
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.
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 , and the same IP on port 8848 has been associated with RedLineStealer . 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 .
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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
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