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Comment l'IA a découvert l'opération secrète d'extraction de crypto-monnaies d'Outlaw.

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10
Oct 2021
10
Oct 2021
For years, the notorious crypto-jacking group Outlaw have been adapting their botnet to make it past traditional security measures. This blog explains how Darktrace was able to see through their disguises and unpack their methods.

Infamy is a paradoxical calling for cyber-criminals. While for some, bragging rights are a motivation for cyber-crime in and of themselves, notoriety is usually not a sensible goal for those hoping to avoid detection. This is what threat actors behind the prolific Emotet botnet learned earlier in 2021, for instance, when a coordinated effort was launched by eight national law enforcement agencies to take down their operation. There are, however, certain names which appear again and again in cyber security media and consistently avoid detection – names like Outlaw.

How Outlaw plans an ambush

Despite being active since 2018, very little is known about the hacking group Outlaw, which has staged numerous botnet and crypto-jacking attacks in China and internationally. The group is recognized by a variety of calling cards, be they repeated filenames or a tendency to illicitly mine Monero cryptocurrency, but its success ultimately lies in its tendency to adapt and evolve during months of dormancy between attacks.

Outlaw’s attacks are marked by constant changes and updates, which they work on in relative silence, before targeting security systems which are too-often defeated by the unfamiliarity of the threat.

In 2020, Outlaw gained attention when they updated their botnet toolset to find and eradicate other criminals’ crypto-jacking software, maximizing their own payout from infected devices. While it might come as no surprise that there’s no honor among cyber-thieves, this update also implemented more troubling changes which allowed Outlaw’s malware to evade traditional security defenses.

By switching disguises between each big robbery, and laying low with the loot, Outlaw ensures that traditional security systems which rely on historical attack data will never be ready for them, no matter how much notoriety is attached to their name. When organizations move beyond these systems’ rules-based approaches, however, adopting Self-Learning AI to protect their digital estates, they can begin to turn the tables on groups like Outlaw.

This blog explores how two pre-infected zombie devices in two very different parts of the world were activated by Outlaw’s botnet in the summer of 2021, and how Darktrace was able to detect the activity despite the devices being pre-infected.

Bounty hunting: First signs of attack

Figure 1: Timeline of the attack.

When a new device was added to the network of a Central American telecomms company in July, Darktrace detected a series of regular connections to two suspicious endpoints which it identified as beaconing behavior. The same behavior was noticed independently, but almost simultaneously, at a financial company in the APAC region, which was implementing Darktrace for the first time. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was able to identify the pre-infected devices by clustering similarly-behaving devices into peer groups within the local digital estates and therefore recognize that both were acting unusually based on a range of behaviors.

The first sign that the zombie devices had been activated by Outlaw was the initiation of cryptocurrency mining. Both devices, despite their geographical distance, were discovered to be connected to a single crypto-account, exemplifying the indiscriminate and exponential nature by which a botnet grows.

Outlaw has in the past restricted its activities to devices within China in what was assumed to be a show of caution, but recent activities like this one speak to a growing confidence.

The botnet recruitment process

The subsequent initiation of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) connections across port 443, a port more often associated with HTTPS activity, was perfectly characteristic of the Outlaw botnet’s earlier activity in 2020. IRC is a tool regularly used for communication between botmasters and zombie devices, but by using port 443 the attacker was attempting to blend into normal Internet traffic.

Soon after this exchange, the devices downloaded a shell script. Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to intercept and recreate this shell script as it passed through the network, revealing its full function. Intriguingly, the script identified and excluded devices utilizing ARM architecture from the botnet. Due to its notably low battery consumption, ARM architecture is used primarily by portable mobile devices.

This selectivity is evidence that malicious crypto-mining remains Outlaw’s primary objective. By circumventing smaller devices which offer limited crypto-mining capabilities, this shell script focuses the botnet on the most high-powered, and therefore profitable, devices, such as desktop computers and servers. In this way, it reduces the Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) left behind by the wider botnet without greatly affecting the scale of its crypto-mining operation.

The two devices in question did not employ ARM architecture, and minutes later received a secondary payload containing a file named dota3[.]tar[.]gz, a sequel of sorts to the previous incarnation of the Outlaw botnet, ‘dota2’, which itself referenced a popular video game of the same name. With the arrival of this file, the devices appear to have been updated with the latest version of Outlaw’s world-spanning botnet.

This download was made possible in part by the attacker’s use of ‘Living off the Land’ tactics. By using only common Linux programs already present on the devices (‘curl’ and ‘Wget’ respectively), Outlaw had avoided having its activity flagged by traditional security systems. Wget, for instance, is ostensibly a reputable program used for retrieving content from web servers, and was never previously recorded as part of Outlaw’s TTPs (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures).

By evolving and adapting its approach, Outlaw is continually able to outsmart and outrun rules-based security. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, however, kept pace, immediately identifying this Wget connection as suspicious and advising further investigation.

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst identifies Wget use on the morning of July 15 as suspicious and begins investigating potentially related HTTP connections made on the morning of July 14. In this way, it builds a complete picture of the attack.

The botnet unchained

In the following 36 hours, Darktrace detected over 6 million TCP and SSH connections directed to rare external IP addresses using ports often associated with SSH, such as 22, 2222, and 2022.

Exactly what the botnet was undertaking with these connections can only be speculated on. The devices may have been made part of a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, bruteforce attempts on targeted SSH accounts, or simply have taken up the task of seeking and infecting new targets, further expanding the botnet. Darktrace recognized that neither device had made SSH connections prior to this event and, had Antigena been in active mode, would have enacted measures to stop them.

Figure 3: The behavior on the device before and after the bot was activated on July 14, 2021. The large spike in model breaches shows clear deviation from the established ‘pattern of life’.

Thankfully, the owners of both devices responded to Darktrace’s detection alerts soon enough to prevent any serious damage to their own digital estates. Had these devices remained under the influence of the botnet, the ramifications may have been far graver.

The use of SSH protocol would have allowed Outlaw to pivot into any number of activities, potentially compromising each device’s network further and causing data or monetary loss to their respective organizations.

Call the sheriff: Self-Learning AI

Rules-based security solutions operate much like the ‘wanted’ posters of the old west, looking out for the criminals who came through town last week without preparing for those riding over the hill today. When black hats and outlaws are adopting new looks and employing new techniques with every attack, a new way of responding to threats is needed.

Darktrace doesn’t need to know the name ‘Outlaw’, or the group’s history of evolving attacks, in order to stop them. With its fundamental self-learning approach, Darktrace learns its surroundings from the ground up, and identifies subtle deviations indicative of a cyber-threat. And with Autonomous Response, it will even take targeted action to neutralize the threat at machine speed, without the need for human intervention.

Thanks to Darktrace analyst Jun Qi Wong for his insights on the above threat find.

Learn more about how Cyber AI Analyst sheds light on complex attacks

Technical details

Darktrace model detections

  • Compliance / Crypto Currency Mining Activity
  • Compromise / High Priority Crypto Currency Mining [Enhanced Monitoring]
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / Zip or Gzip from Rare External Location
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Device / Increased External Connectivity
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity
  • Compromise / SSH Beacon
  • Compromise / High Frequency SSH Beacon
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

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

Oakley is a technical expert with 5 years’ experience as a Cyber Analyst. After leading a team of Cyber Analysts at the Cambridge headquarters, he relocated to New Zealand and now oversees the defense of critical infrastructure and industrial control systems across the APAC region. His research into cyber-physical security has been published by Cyber Security journals and CISA. Oakley is GIAC certified in Response and Industrial Defense (GRID), and has a Doctorate (PhD) from the University of Oxford.

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

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15
May 2024

Email – the vector of choice for threat actors

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

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

Why are non-English language phishing emails more popular?

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

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

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

Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

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

The Sender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Appendices  

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)  

IoC – Type – Description

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

通知文件.docx – File - Payload  

References

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

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

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

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

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Rajendra Rushanth
Cyber Analyst

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

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13
May 2024

About the AI Cybersecurity Report

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

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

To access the full report, click here.

The effects of AI on cybersecurity solutions

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

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

Do security professionals believe AI will impact their security operations?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where will defensive AI have the greatest impact on cybersecurity?

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

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

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

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

How will security teams stop AI-powered threats?            

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

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

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

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

To access the full report, click here.

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