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A l'intérieur du SOC

From BumbleBee to Cobalt Strike: Steps of a BumbleBee intrusion

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04
Sep 2022
04
Sep 2022

Introduction

Throughout April 2022, Darktrace observed several cases in which threat actors used the loader known as ‘BumbleBee’ to install Cobalt Strike Beacon onto victim systems. The threat actors then leveraged Cobalt Strike Beacon to conduct network reconnaissance, obtain account password data, and write malicious payloads across the network. In this article, we will provide details of the actions threat actors took during their intrusions, as well as details of the network-based behaviours which served as evidence of the actors’ activities.  

BumbleBee 

In March 2022, Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) provided details of the activities of an Initial Access Broker (IAB) group dubbed ‘Exotic Lily’ [1]. Before March 2022, Google’s TAG observed Exotic Lily leveraging sophisticated impersonation techniques to trick employees of targeted organisations into downloading ISO disc image files from legitimate file storage services such as WeTransfer. These ISO files contained a Windows shortcut LNK file and a BazarLoader Dynamic Link Library (i.e, DLL). BazarLoader is a member of the Bazar family — a family of malware (including both BazarLoader and BazarBackdoor) with strong ties to the Trickbot malware, the Anchor malware family, and Conti ransomware. BazarLoader, which is typically distributed via email campaigns or via fraudulent call campaigns, has been known to drop Cobalt Strike as a precursor to Conti ransomware deployment [2]. 

In March 2022, Google’s TAG observed Exotic Lily leveraging file storage services to distribute an ISO file containing a DLL which, when executed, caused the victim machine to make HTTP requests with the user-agent string ‘bumblebee’. Google’s TAG consequently called this DLL payload ‘BumbleBee’. Since Google’s discovery of BumbleBee back in March, several threat research teams have reported BumbleBee samples dropping Cobalt Strike [1]/[3]/[4]/[5]. It has also been reported by Proofpoint [3] that other threat actors such as TA578 and TA579 transitioned to BumbleBee in March 2022.  

Interestingly, BazarLoader’s replacement with BumbleBee seems to coincide with the leaking of the Conti ransomware gang’s Jabber chat logs at the end of February 2022. On February 25th, 2022, the Conti gang published a blog post announcing their full support for the Russian state’s invasion of Ukraine [6]. 

Figure 1: The Conti gang's public declaration of their support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Within days of sharing their support for Russia, logs from a server hosting the group’s Jabber communications began to be leaked on Twitter by @ContiLeaks [7]. The leaked logs included records of conversations among nearly 500 threat actors between Jan 2020 and March 2022 [8]. The Jabber logs were supposedly stolen and leaked by a Ukrainian security researcher [3]/[6].

Affiliates of the Conti ransomware group were known to use BazarLoader to deliver Conti ransomware [9]. BumbleBee has now also been linked to the Conti ransomware group by several threat research teams [1]/[10]/[11]. The fact that threat actors’ transition from BazarLoader to BumbleBee coincides with the leak of Conti’s Jabber chat logs may indicate that the transition occurred as a result of the leaks [3]. Since the transition, BumbleBee has become a significant tool in the cyber-crime ecosystem, with links to several ransomware operations such as Conti, Quantum, and Mountlocker [11]. The rising use of BumbleBee by threat actors, and particularly ransomware actors, makes the early detection of BumbleBee key to identifying the preparatory stages of ransomware attacks.  

Intrusion Kill Chain 

In April 2022, Darktrace observed the following pattern of threat actor activity within the networks of several Darktrace clients: 

1.     Threat actor socially engineers user via email into running a BumbleBee payload on their device

2.     BumbleBee establishes HTTPS communication with a BumbleBee C2 server

3.     Threat actor instructs BumbleBee to download and execute Cobalt Strike Beacon

4.     Cobalt Strike Beacon establishes HTTPS communication with a Cobalt Strike C2 server

5.     Threat actor instructs Cobalt Strike Beacon to scan for open ports and to enumerate network shares

6.     Threat actor instructs Cobalt Strike Beacon to use the DCSync technique to obtain password account data from an internal domain controller

7.     Threat actor instructs Cobalt Strike Beacon to distribute malicious payloads to other internal systems 

With limited visibility over affected clients’ email environments, Darktrace was unable to determine how the threat actors interacted with users to initiate the BumbleBee infection. However, based on open-source reporting on BumbleBee [3]/[4]/[10]/[11]/[12]/[13]/[14]/[15]/[16]/[17], it is likely that the actors tricked target users into running BumbleBee by sending them emails containing either a malicious zipped ISO file or a link to a file storage service hosting the malicious zipped ISO file. These ISO files typically contain a LNK file and a BumbleBee DLL payload. The properties of these LNK files are set in such a way that opening them causes the corresponding DLL payload to run. 

In several cases observed by Darktrace, devices contacted a file storage service such as Microsoft OneDrive or Google Cloud Storage immediately before they displayed signs of BumbleBee infection. In these cases, it is likely that BumbleBee was executed on the users’ devices as a result of the users interacting with an ISO file which they were tricked into downloading from a file storage service. 

Figure 2: The above figure, taken from the event log for an infected device, shows that the device contacted a OneDrive endpoint immediately before making HTTPS connections to the BumbleBee C2 server, 45.140.146[.]244
Figure 3: The above figure, taken from the event log for an infected device, shows that the device contacted a Google Cloud Storage endpoint and then the malicious endpoint ‘marebust[.]com’ before making HTTPS connections to the  BumbleBee C2 servers, 108.62.118[.]61 and 23.227.198[.]217

After users ran a BumbleBee payload, their devices immediately initiated communications with BumbleBee C2 servers. The BumbleBee samples used HTTPS for their C2 communication, and all presented a common JA3 client fingerprint, ‘0c9457ab6f0d6a14fc8a3d1d149547fb’. All analysed samples excluded domain names in their ‘client hello’ messages to the C2 servers, which is unusual for legitimate HTTPS communication. External SSL connections which do not specify a destination domain name and whose JA3 client fingerprint is ‘0c9457ab6f0d6a14fc8a3d1d149547fb’ are potential indicators of BumbleBee infection. 

Figure 4:The above figure, taken from Darktrace's Advanced Search interface, depicts an infected device's spike in HTTPS connections with the JA3 client fingerprint ‘0c9457ab6f0d6a14fc8a3d1d149547fb’

Once the threat actors had established HTTPS communication with the BumbleBee-infected systems, they instructed BumbleBee to download and execute Cobalt Strike Beacon. This behaviour resulted in the infected systems making HTTPS connections to Cobalt Strike C2 servers. The Cobalt Strike Beacon samples all had the same JA3 client fingerprint ‘a0e9f5d64349fb13191bc781f81f42e1’ — a fingerprint associated with previously seen Cobalt Strike samples [18]. The domain names ‘fuvataren[.]com’ and ‘cuhirito[.]com’ were observed in the samples’ HTTPS communications. 

Figure 5:The above figure, taken from Darktrace's Advanced Search interface, depicts the Cobalt Strike C2 communications which immediately followed a device's BumbleBee C2 activity

Cobalt Strike Beacon payloads call home to C2 servers for instructions. In the cases observed, threat actors first instructed the Beacon payloads to perform reconnaissance tasks, such as SMB port scanning and SMB enumeration. It is likely that the threat actors performed these steps to inform the next stages of their operations.  The SMB enumeration activity was evidenced by the infected devices making NetrShareEnum and NetrShareGetInfo requests to the srvsvc RPC interface on internal systems.

Figure 6: The above figure, taken from Darktrace’s Advanced Search interface, depicts a spike in srvsvc requests coinciding with the infected device's Cobalt Strike C2 activity

After providing Cobalt Strike Beacon with reconnaissance tasks, the threat actors set out to obtain account password data in preparation for the lateral movement phase of their operation. To obtain account password data, the actors instructed Cobalt Strike Beacon to use the DCSync technique to replicate account password data from an internal domain controller. This activity was evidenced by the infected devices making DRSGetNCChanges requests to the drsuapi RPC interface on internal domain controllers. 

Figure 7: The above figure, taken from Darktrace’s Advanced Search interface, depicts a spike in DRSGetNCChanges requests coinciding with the infected device’s Cobalt Strike C2 activity

After leveraging the DCSync technique, the threat actors sought to broaden their presence within the targeted networks.  To achieve this, they instructed Cobalt Strike Beacon to get several specially selected internal systems to run a suspiciously named DLL (‘f.dll’). Cobalt Strike first established SMB sessions with target systems using compromised account credentials. During these sessions, Cobalt Strike uploaded the malicious DLL to a hidden network share. To execute the DLL, Cobalt Strike abused the Windows Service Control Manager (SCM) to remotely control and manipulate running services on the targeted internal hosts. Cobalt Strike first opened a binding handle to the svcctl interface on the targeted destination systems. It then went on to make an OpenSCManagerW request, a CreateServiceA request, and a StartServiceA request to the svcctl interface on the targeted hosts: 

·      Bind request – opens a binding handle to the relevant RPC interface (in this case, the svcctl interface) on the destination device

·      OpenSCManagerW request – establishes a connection to the Service Control Manager (SCM) on the destination device and opens a specified SCM database

·      CreateServiceA request – creates a service object and adds it to the specified SCM database 

·      StartServiceA request – starts a specified service

Figure 8: The above figure, taken from Darktrace’s Advanced Search interface, outlines an infected system’s lateral movement activities. After writing a file named ‘f.dll’ to the C$ share on an internal server, the infected device made several RPC requests to the svcctl interface on the targeted server

It is likely that the DLL file which the threat actors distributed was a Cobalt Strike payload. In one case, however, the threat actor was also seen distributing and executing a payload named ‘procdump64.exe’. This may suggest that the threat actor was seeking to use ProcDump to obtain authentication material stored in the process memory of the Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS). Given that ProcDump is a legitimate Windows Sysinternals tool primarily used for diagnostics and troubleshooting, it is likely that threat actors leveraged it in order to evade detection. 

In all the cases which Darktrace observed, threat actors’ attempts to conduct follow-up activities after moving laterally were thwarted with the help of Darktrace’s SOC team. It is likely that the threat actors responsible for the reported activities were seeking to deploy ransomware within the targeted networks. The steps which the threat actors took to make progress towards achieving this objective resulted in highly unusual patterns of network traffic. Darktrace’s detection of these unusual network activities allowed security teams to prevent these threat actors from achieving their disruptive objectives. 

Darktrace Coverage

Once threat actors succeeded in tricking users into running BumbleBee on their devices, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI immediately detected the command-and-control (C2) activity generated by the loader. BumbleBee’s C2 activity caused the following Darktrace models to breach:

·      Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External

·      Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

·      Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

·      Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External

·      Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

·      Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

·      Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External

·      Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination

·      Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

·      Device / Multiple C2 Model Breaches 

BumbleBee’s delivery of Cobalt Strike Beacon onto target systems resulted in those systems communicating with Cobalt Strike C2 servers. Cobalt Strike Beacon’s C2 communications resulted in breaches of the following models: 

·      Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score

·      Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections

·      Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

·      Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon

·      Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare

·      Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination 

The threat actors’ subsequent port scanning and SMB enumeration activities caused the following models to breach:

·      Device / Network Scan

·      Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration

·      Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance

·      Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity  

The threat actors’ attempts to obtain account password data from domain controllers using the DCSync technique resulted in breaches of the following models: 

·      Compromise / Unusual SMB Session and DRS

·      Anomalous Connection / Anomalous DRSGetNCChanges Operation

Finally, the threat actors’ attempts to internally distribute and execute payloads resulted in breaches of the following models:

·      Compliance / SMB Drive Write

·      Device / Lateral Movement and C2 Activity

·      Device / SMB Lateral Movement

·      Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

·      Anomalous File / Internal / Unusual SMB Script Write

·      Anomalous File / Internal / Unusual Internal EXE File Transfer

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

If Darktrace/Network had been configured in the targeted environments, then it would have blocked BumbleBee’s C2 communications, which would have likely prevented the threat actors from delivering Cobalt Strike Beacon into the target networks. 

Figure 9: Attack timeline

Conclusion

Threat actors use loaders to smuggle more harmful payloads into target networks. Prior to March 2022, it was common to see threat actors using the BazarLoader loader to transfer their payloads into target environments. However, since the public disclosure of the Conti gang’s Jabber chat logs at the end of February, the cybersecurity world has witnessed a shift in tradecraft. Threat actors have seemingly transitioned from using BazarLoader to using a novel loader known as ‘BumbleBee’. Since BumbleBee first made an appearance in March 2022, a growing number of threat actors, in particular ransomware actors, have been observed using it.

It is likely that this trend will continue, which makes the detection of BumbleBee activity vital for the prevention of ransomware deployment within organisations’ networks. During April, Darktrace’s SOC team observed a particular pattern of threat actor activity involving the BumbleBee loader. After tricking users into running BumbleBee on their devices, threat actors were seen instructing BumbleBee to drop Cobalt Strike Beacon. Threat actors then leveraged Cobalt Strike Beacon to conduct network reconnaissance, obtain account password data from internal domain controllers, and distribute malicious payloads internally.  Darktrace’s detection of these activities prevented the threat actors from achieving their likely harmful objectives.  

Thanks to Ross Ellis for his contributions to this blog.

Appendices 

References 

[1] https://blog.google/threat-analysis-group/exposing-initial-access-broker-ties-conti/ 

[2] https://securityintelligence.com/posts/trickbot-gang-doubles-down-enterprise-infection/ 

[3] https://www.proofpoint.com/us/blog/threat-insight/bumblebee-is-still-transforming

[4] https://www.cynet.com/orion-threat-alert-flight-of-the-bumblebee/ 

[5] https://research.nccgroup.com/2022/04/29/adventures-in-the-land-of-bumblebee-a-new-malicious-loader/ 

[6] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/conti-ransomwares-internal-chats-leaked-after-siding-with-russia/ 

[7] https://therecord.media/conti-leaks-the-panama-papers-of-ransomware/ 

[8] https://www.secureworks.com/blog/gold-ulrick-leaks-reveal-organizational-structure-and-relationships 

[9] https://www.prodaft.com/m/reports/Conti_TLPWHITE_v1.6_WVcSEtc.pdf 

[10] https://www.kroll.com/en/insights/publications/cyber/bumblebee-loader-linked-conti-used-in-quantum-locker-attacks 

[11] https://symantec-enterprise-blogs.security.com/blogs/threat-intelligence/bumblebee-loader-cybercrime 

[12] https://isc.sans.edu/diary/TA578+using+thread-hijacked+emails+to+push+ISO+files+for+Bumblebee+malware/28636 

[13] https://isc.sans.edu/diary/rss/28664 

[14] https://www.logpoint.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/buzz-of-the-bumblebee-a-new-malicious-loader-threat-report-no-3.pdf 

[15] https://ghoulsec.medium.com/mal-series-23-malware-loader-bumblebee-6ab3cf69d601 

[16]  https://blog.cyble.com/2022/06/07/bumblebee-loader-on-the-rise/  

[17]  https://asec.ahnlab.com/en/35460/ 

[18] https://thedfirreport.com/2021/07/19/icedid-and-cobalt-strike-vs-antivirus/

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A l'intérieur du SOC

Protecting Prospects: How Darktrace Detected an Account Hijack Within Days of Deployment

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28
Sep 2023

Cloud Migration Expanding the Attack Surface

Cloud migration is here to stay – accelerated by pandemic lockdowns, there has been an ongoing increase in the use of public cloud services, and Gartner has forecasted worldwide public cloud spending to grow around 20%, or by almost USD 600 billion [1], in 2023. With more and more organizations utilizing cloud services and moving their operations to the cloud, there has also been a corresponding shift in malicious activity targeting cloud-based software and services, including Microsoft 365, a prominent and oft-used Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

With the adoption and implementation of more SaaS products, the overall attack surface of an organization increases – this gives malicious actors additional opportunities to exploit and compromise a network, necessitating proper controls to be in place. This increased attack surface can leave organization’s open to cyber risks like cloud misconfigurations, supply chain attacks and zero-day vulnerabilities [2]. In order to achieve full visibility over cloud activity and prevent SaaS compromise, it is paramount for security teams to deploy sophisticated security measures that are able to learn an organization’s SaaS environment and detect suspicious activity at the earliest stage.

Darktrace Immediately Detects Hijacked Account

In May 2023, Darktrace observed a chain of suspicious SaaS activity on the network of a customer who was about to begin their trial of Darktrace/Cloud™ and Darktrace/Email™. Despite being deployed on the network for less than a week, Darktrace DETECT™ recognized that the legitimate SaaS account, belonging to an executive at the organization, had been hijacked. Darktrace/Email was able to provide full visibility over inbound and outbound mail and identified that the compromised account was subsequently used to launch an internal spear-phishing campaign.

If Darktrace RESPOND™ were enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of this compromise, it would have been able to take swift preventative action to disrupt the account compromise and prevent the ensuing phishing attack.

Account Hijack Attack Overview

Unusual External Sources for SaaS Credentials

On May 9, 2023, Darktrace DETECT/Cloud detected the first in a series of anomalous activities performed by a Microsoft 365 user account that was indicative of compromise, namely a failed login from an external IP address located in Virginia.

Figure 1: The failed login notice, as seen in Darktrace DETECT/Cloud. The notice includes additional context about the failed login attempt to the SaaS account.

Just a few minutes later, Darktrace observed the same user credential being used to successfully login from the same unusual IP address, with multi-factor authentication (MFA) requirements satisfied.

Figure 2: The “Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use” model breach summary, showing the successful login to the SaaS user account (with MFA), from the rare external IP address.

A few hours after this, the user credential was once again used to login from a different city in the state of Virginia, with MFA requirements successfully met again. Around the time of this activity, the SaaS user account was also observed previewing various business-related files hosted on Microsoft SharePoint, behavior that, taken in isolation, did not appear to be out of the ordinary and could have represented legitimate activity.

The following day, May 10, however, there were additional login attempts observed from two different states within the US, namely Texas and Florida. Darktrace understood that this activity was extremely suspicious, as it was highly improbable that the legitimate user would be able to travel over 2,500 miles in such a short period of time. Both login attempts were successful and passed MFA requirements, suggesting that the malicious actor was employing techniques to bypass MFA. Such MFA bypass techniques could include inserting malicious infrastructure between the user and the application and intercepting user credentials and tokens, or by compromising browser cookies to bypass authentication controls [3]. There have also been high-profile cases in the recent years of legitimate users mistakenly (and perhaps even instinctively) accepting MFA prompts on their token or mobile device, believing it to be a legitimate process despite not having performed the login themselves.

New Email Rule

On the evening of May 10, following the successful logins from multiple US states, Darktrace observed the Microsoft 365 user creating a new inbox rule, named “.’, in Microsoft Outlook from an IP located in Florida. Threat actors are often observed naming new email rules with single characters, likely to evade detection, but also for the sake of expediency so as to not expend any additional time creating meaningful labels.

In this case the newly created email rules included several suspicious properties, including ‘AlwaysDeleteOutlookRulesBlob’, ‘StopProcessingRules’ and “MoveToFolder”.

Firstly, ‘AlwaysDeleteOutlookRulesBlob’ suppresses or hides warning messages that typically appear if modifications to email rules are made [4]. In this case, it is likely the malicious actor was attempting to implement this property to obfuscate the creation of new email rules.

The ‘StopProcessingRules’ rule meant that any subsequent email rules created by the legitimate user would be overridden by the email rule created by the malicious actor [5]. Finally, the implementation of “MoveToFolder” would allow the malicious actor to automatically move all outgoing emails from the “Sent” folder to the “Deleted Items” folder, for example, further obfuscating their malicious activities [6]. The utilization of these email rule properties is frequently observed during account hijackings as it allows attackers to delete and/or forward key emails, delete evidence of exploitation and launch phishing campaigns [7].

In this incident, the new email rule would likely have enabled the malicious actor to evade the detection of traditional security measures and achieve greater persistence using the Microsoft 365 account.

Figure 3: Screenshot of the “New Email Rule” model breach. The Office365 properties associated with the newly modified Microsoft Outlook inbox rule, “.”, are highlighted in red.

Account Update

A few hours after the creation of the new email rule, Darktrace observed the threat actor successfully changing the Microsoft 365 user’s account password, this time from a new IP address in Texas. As a result of this action, the attacker would have locked out the legitimate user, effectively gaining full access over the SaaS account.

Figure 4: The model breach event log showing the user password and token change updates performed by the compromised SaaS account.

Phishing Emails

The compromised SaaS account was then observed sending a high volume of suspicious emails to both internal and external email addresses. Darktrace was able to identify that the emails attempting to impersonate the legitimate service DocuSign and contained a malicious link prompting users to click on the text “Review Document”. Upon clicking this link, users would be redirected to a site hosted on Adobe Express, namely hxxps://express.adobe[.]com/page/A9ZKVObdXhN4p/.

Adobe Express is a free service that allows users to create web pages which can be hosted and shared publicly; it is likely that the threat actor here leveraged the service to use in their phishing campaign. When clicked, such links could result in a device unwittingly downloading malware hosted on the site, or direct unsuspecting users to a spoofed login page attempting to harvest user credentials by imitating legitimate companies like Microsoft.

Figure 5: Screenshot of the phishing email, containing a malicious link hidden behind the “Review Document” text. The embedded link directs to a now-defunct page that was hosted on Adobe Express.

The malicious site hosted on Adobe Express was subsequently taken down by Adobe, possibly in response to user reports of maliciousness. Unfortunately though, platforms like this that offer free webhosting services can easily and repeatedly be abused by malicious actors. Simply by creating new pages hosted on different IP addresses, actors are able to continue to carry out such phishing attacks against unsuspecting users.

In addition to the suspicious SaaS and email activity that took place between May 9 and May 10, Darktrace/Email also detected the compromised account sending and receiving suspicious emails starting on May 4, just two days after Darktrace’s initial deployment on the customer’s environment. It is probable that the SaaS account was compromised around this time, or even prior to Darktrace’s deployment on May 2, likely via a phishing and credential harvesting campaign similar to the one detailed above.

Figure 6: Event logs of the compromised SaaS user, here seen breaching several Darktrace/Email model breaches on 4th May.

Darktrace Coverage

As the customer was soon to begin their trial period, Darktrace RESPOND was set in “human confirmation” mode, meaning that any preventative RESPOND actions required manual application by the customer’s security team.

If Darktrace RESPOND had been enabled in autonomous response mode during this incident, it would have taken swift mitigative action by logging the suspicious user out of the SaaS account and disabling the account for a defined period of time, in doing so disrupting the attack at the earliest possible stage and giving the customer the necessary time to perform remediation steps.  As it was, however, these RESPOND actions were suggested to the customer’s security team for them to manually apply.

Figure 7: Example of Darktrace RESPOND notices, in response to the anomalous user activity.

Nevertheless, with Darktrace DETECT/Cloud in place, visibility over the anomalous cloud-based activities was significantly increased, enabling the swift identification of the chain of suspicious activities involved in this compromise.

In this case, the prospective customer reached out to Darktrace directly through the Ask the Expert (ATE) service. Darktrace’s expert analyst team then conducted a timely and comprehensive investigation into the suspicious activity surrounding this SaaS compromise, and shared these findings with the customer’s security team.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this example of SaaS account compromise highlights Darktrace’s unique ability to learn an organization’s digital environment and recognize activity that is deemed to be unexpected, within a matter of days.

Due to the lack of obvious or known indicators of compromise (IoCs) associated with the malicious activity in this incident, this account hijack would likely have gone unnoticed by traditional security tools that rely on a rules and signatures-based approach to threat detection. However, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to detect the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could be indicative of an ongoing compromise.

Despite being newly deployed on a prospective customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT was able to identify unusual login attempts from geographically improbable locations, suspicious email rule updates, password changes, as well as the subsequent mounting of a phishing campaign, all before the customer’s trial of Darktrace had even begun.

When enabled in autonomous response mode, Darktrace RESPOND would be able to take swift preventative action against such activity as soon as it is detected, effectively shutting down the compromise and mitigating any subsequent phishing attacks.

With the full deployment of Darktrace’s suite of products, including Darktrace/Cloud and Darktrace/Email, customers can rest assured their critical data and systems are protected, even in the case of hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

Credit: Samuel Wee, Senior Analyst Consultant & Model Developer

Appendices

References

[1] https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2022-10-31-gartner-forecasts-worldwide-public-cloud-end-user-spending-to-reach-nearly-600-billion-in-2023

[2] https://www.upguard.com/blog/saas-security-risks

[3] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/security/blog/2022/11/16/token-tactics-how-to-prevent-detect-and-respond-to-cloud-token-theft/

[4] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/powershell/module/exchange/disable-inboxrule?view=exchange-ps

[5] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/dotnet/api/microsoft.exchange.webservices.data.ruleactions.stopprocessingrules?view=exchange-ews-api

[6] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/dotnet/api/microsoft.exchange.webservices.data.ruleactions.movetofolder?view=exchange-ews-api

[7] https://blog.knowbe4.com/check-your-email-rules-for-maliciousness

Darktrace Model Detections

Darktrace DETECT/Cloud and RESPOND Models Breached:

SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Multiple Unusual External Sources for SaaS Credential

Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Unusual Activity Block (RESPOND Model)

SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule

Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block

SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule (Enhanced Monitoring Model)

Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block (RESPOND Model)

SaaS / Compromise / SaaS Anomaly Following Anomalous Login (Enhanced Monitoring Model)

SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Account Update

Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block (RESPOND Model)

IoC – Type – Description & Confidence

hxxps://express.adobe[.]com/page/A9ZKVObdXhN4p/ - Domain – Probable Phishing Page (Now Defunct)

37.19.221[.]142 – IP Address – Unusual Login Source

35.174.4[.]92 – IP Address – Unusual Login Source

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Techniques

INITIAL ACCESS, PRIVILEGE ESCALATION, DEFENSE EVASION, PERSISTENCE

T1078.004 – Cloud Accounts

DISCOVERY

T1538 – Cloud Service Dashboards

CREDENTIAL ACCESS

T1539 – Steal Web Session Cookie

RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT

T1586 – Compromise Accounts

PERSISTENCE

T1137.005 – Outlook Rules

Probability yardstick used to communicate the probability that statements or explanations given are correct.
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About the author
Min Kim
Cyber Security Analyst

Blog

Email

Darktrace/Email in Action: Why AI-Driven Email Security is the Best Defense Against Sustained Phishing Campaigns

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26
Sep 2023

Stopping the bad while allowing the good

Since its inception, email has been regarded as one of the most important tools for businesses, revolutionizing communication and allowing global teams to become even more connected. But besides organizations heavily relying on email for their daily operations, threat actors have also recognized that the inbox is one of the easiest ways to establish an initial foothold on the network.

Today, not only are phishing campaigns and social engineering attacks becoming more prevalent, but the level of sophistication of these attacks are also increasing with the help of generative AI tools that allow for the creation of hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors, effectively lowering the barrier to entry for threat actors. These diverse and stealthy types of attacks evade traditional email security tools based on rules and signatures, because they are less likely to contain the low-sophistication markers of a typical phishing attack.  

In a situation where the sky is the limit for attackers and security teams are lean, how can teams equip themselves to tackle these threats? How can they accurately detect increasingly realistic malicious emails and neutralize these threats before it is too late? And importantly, how can email security block these threats while allowing legitimate emails to flow freely?

Instead of relying on past attack data, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI detects the slightest deviation from a user’s pattern of life and responds autonomously to contain potential threats, stopping novel attacks in their tracks before damage is caused. It doesn’t define ‘good’ and ‘bad’ like traditional email tools, rather it understands each user and what is normal for them – and what’s not.

This blog outlines how Darktrace/Email™ used its understanding of ‘normal’ to accurately detect and respond to a sustained phishing campaign targeting a real-life company.

Responding to a sustained phishing attack

Over the course of 24 hours, Darktrace detected multiple emails containing different subjects, all from different senders to different recipients in one organization. These emails were sent from different IP addresses, but all came from the same autonomous system number (ASN).

Figure 1: The sender freemail addresses and subject lines all followed a certain format. The subject lines followed the format of “<First name> <Last name>”, possibly to induce curiosity. The senders were all freemail accounts and contained first names, last names and some numbers, showing the attempts to make these email addresses appear legitimate.

The emails themselves had many suspicious indicators. All senders had no prior association with the recipient, and the emails generated a high general inducement score. This score is generated by structural and non-specific content analysis of the email – a high score indicates that the email is trying to induce the recipient into taking a particular action, which may lead to account compromise.

Additionally, each email contained a visually prominent link to a file storage service, hidden behind a shortened bit.ly link. The similarities across all these emails pointed to a sustained campaign targeting the organization by a single threat actor.

Figure 2: One of the emails is shown above. Like all the other emails, it contained a highly suspicious and shortened link.
Figure 3: In another one of the emails, the link observed had similar characteristics. But this email stands out from the rest. The sender's name seems to be randomly set – the 3 alphabets are close to each other on the keyboard.

With all these suspicious indicators, many models were breached. This drove up the anomaly score, causing Darktrace/Email to hold all suspicious emails from the recipients’ inboxes, safeguarding the recipients from potential account compromise and disallowing the threats from taking hold in the network.

Imagining a phishing attack without Darktrace/Email

So what could have happened if Darktrace had not withheld these emails, and the recipients had clicked on the links? File storage sites have a wide variety of uses that allow attackers to be creative in their attack strategy. If the user had clicked on the shortened link, the possible consequences are numerous. The link could have led to a login page for unsuspecting victims to input their credentials, or it could have hosted malware that would automatically download if the link was clicked. With the compromised credentials, threat actors could even bypass MFA, change email rules, or gain privileged access to a network. The downloaded malware might also be a keylogger, leading to cryptojacking, or could open a back door for threat actors to return to at a later time.

Figure 4: Darktrace/Email highlights suspicious link characteristics and provides an option to preview the pages.
Figure 5: At the point of writing, both links could not be reached. This could be because they were one-time unique links created specifically for the user, and can no longer be accessed once the campaign has ceased.

The limits of traditional email security tools

Secure email gateways (SEGs) and static AI security tools may have found it challenging to detect this phishing campaign as malicious. While Darktrace was able to correlate these emails to determine that a sustained phishing campaign was taking place, the pattern among these emails is far too generic for specific rules as set in traditional security tools. If we take the characteristic of the freemail account sender as an example, setting a rule to block all emails from freemail accounts may lead to more legitimate emails being withheld, since these addresses have a variety of uses.

With these factors in mind, these emails could have easily slipped through traditional security filters and led to a devastating impact on the organization.

Conclusion

As threat actors step up their attacks in sophistication, prioritizing email security is more crucial than ever to preserving a safe digital environment. In response to these challenges, Darktrace/Email offers a set-and-forget solution that continuously learns and adapts to changes in the organization.  

Through an evolving understanding of every environment in which it is deployed, its threat response becomes increasingly precise in neutralizing only the bad, while allowing the good – delivering email security that doesn’t come at the expense of business growth.

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