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QakNote Infections: A Network-Based Exploration of Varied Attack Paths

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05
Apr 2023
05
Apr 2023
At the end of January 2023, threat actors began to abuse OneNote email attachments to deliver Qakbot onto users' devices. Widespread adoption of this novel delivery method resulted in a surge in Qakbot infections across Darktrace's customer base between the end of January 2023 and the end of February 2023. In this blog, we will provide details of these so-called 'QakNote' infections, along with details of Darktrace's coverage of the steps involved in them.

In an ever-changing threat landscape, security vendors around the world are forced to quickly adapt, react, and respond to known attack vectors and threats. In the face of this, malicious actors are constantly looking for novel ways to gain access to networks. Whether that’s through new exploitations of network vulnerabilities or new delivery methods, attackers and their methods are continually evolving. Although it is valuable for organizations to leverage threat intelligence to keep abreast of known threats to their networks, intelligence alone is not enough to defend against increasingly versatile attackers. Having an autonomous decision maker able to detect and respond to emerging threats, even those employing novel or unknown techniques, is paramount to defend against network compromise.

At the end of January 2023, threat actors began to abuse OneNote attachments to deliver the malware strain, Qakbot, onto users' devices. Widespread adoption of this novel delivery method resulted in a surge in Qakbot infections across Darktrace's customer base between the end of January 2023 and the end of February 2023. Using its Self-Learning AI, Darktrace was able to uncover and respond to these so-called ‘QakNote’ infections as the new trend emerged. Darktrace detected and responded to the threat at multiple stages of the kill chain, preventing damaging and widespread compromise to customer networks.

Qakbot and The Recent Weaponization of OneNote

Qakbot first appeared in 2007 as a banking trojan designed to steal sensitive data such as banking credentials. Since then, Qakbot has evolved into a highly modular, multi-purpose tool, with backdoor, payload delivery, reconnaissance, lateral movement, and data exfiltration capabilities. Although Qakbot's primary delivery method has always been email-based, threat actors have been known to modify their email-based delivery methods of Qakbot in the face of changing circumstances. In the first half of 2022, Microsoft started rolling out versions of Office which block XL4 and VBA macros by default [1]/[2]/[3]. Prior to this change, Qakbot email campaigns typically consisted in the spreading of deceitful emails with Office attachments containing malicious macros. In the face of Microsoft's default blocking of macros, threat actors appeared to cease delivering Qakbot via Office attachments, and shifted to primarily using HTML attachments, through a method known as 'HTML smuggling' [4]/[5]. After the public disclosure [6] of the Follina vulnerability (CVE-2022-30190) in Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool (MSDT) in May 2022, Qakbot actors were seen capitalizing on the vulnerability to facilitate their email-based delivery of Qakbot payloads [7]/[8]/[9]. 

Given the inclination of Qakbot actors to adapt their email-based delivery methods, it is no surprise that they were quick to capitalize on the novel OneNote-based delivery method which emerged in December 2022. Since December 2022, threat actors have been seen using OneNote attachments to deliver a variety of malware strains, ranging from Formbook [10] to AsynRAT [11] to Emotet [12]. The abuse of OneNote documents to deliver malware is made possible by the fact that OneNote allows for the embedding of executable file types such as HTA files, CMD files, and BAT files. At the end of January 2023, actors started to leverage OneNote attachments to deliver Qakbot [13]/[14]. The adoption of this novel delivery method by Qakbot actors resulted in a surge in Qakbot infections in the wider threat landscape and across the Darktrace customer base.

Observed Activity Chains

Between January 31 and February 24, 2023, Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity across its customer base:

1. User's device contacts OneNote-related endpoint 

2. User's device makes an external GET request with an empty Host header, a target URI whose final segment consists in 5 or 6 digits followed by '.dat', and a User-Agent header referencing either cURL or PowerShell. The GET request is responded to with a DLL file

3. User's device makes SSL connections over ports 443 and 2222 to unusual external endpoints, and makes TCP connections over port 65400 to 23.111.114[.]52

4. User's device makes SSL connections over port 443 to an external host named 'bonsars[.]com' (IP: 194.165.16[.]56) and TCP connections over port 443 to 78.31.67[.]7

5. User’s device makes call to Endpoint Mapper service on internal systems and then connects to the Service Control Manager (SCM) 

6. User's device uploads files with algorithmically generated names and ‘.dll’ or ‘.dll.cfg’ file extensions to SMB shares on internal systems

7. User's device makes Service Control requests to the systems to which it uploaded ‘.dll’ and ‘.dll.cfg’ files 

Further investigation of these chains of activity revealed that they were parts of Qakbot infections initiated via interactions with malicious OneNote attachments. 

Figure 1: Steps of observed QakNote infections.

Delivery Phase

Users' interactions with malicious OneNote attachments, which were evidenced by devices' HTTPS connections to OneNote-related endpoints, such as 'www.onenote[.]com', 'contentsync.onenote[.]com', and 'learningtools.onenote[.]com', resulted in the retrieval of Qakbot DLLs from unusual, external endpoints. In some cases, the user's interaction with the malicious OneNote attachment caused their device to fetch a Qakbot DLL using cURL, whereas, in other cases, it caused their device to download a Qakbot DLL using PowerShell. These different outcomes reflected variations in the contents of the executable files embedded within the weaponized OneNote attachments. In addition to having cURL and PowerShell User-Agent headers, the HTTP requests triggered by interaction with these OneNote attachments had other distinctive features, such as empty host headers and target URIs whose last segment consists in 5 or 6 digits followed by '.dat'. 

Figure 2: Model breach highlighting a user’s device making a HTTP GET request to 198.44.140[.]78 with a PowerShell User-Agent header and the target URI ‘/210/184/187737.dat’.
Figure 3: Model breach highlighting a user’s device making a HTTP GET request to 103.214.71[.]45 with a cURL User-Agent header and the target URI ‘/70802.dat’.
Figure 4: Event Log showing a user’s device making a GET request with a cURL User-Agent header to 185.231.205[.]246 after making an SSL connection to contentsync.onenote[.]com.
Figure 5: Event Log showing a user’s device making a GET request with a cURL User-Agent header to 185.231.205[.]246 after making an SSL connection to www.onenote[.]com.

Command and Control Phase

After fetching Qakbot DLLs, users’ devices were observed making numerous SSL connections over ports 443 and 2222 to highly unusual, external endpoints, as well as large volumes of TCP connections over port 65400 to 23.111.114[.]52. These connections represented Qakbot-infected devices communicating with command and control (C2) infrastructure. Qakbot-infected devices were also seen making intermittent connections to legitimate endpoints, such as 'xfinity[.]com', 'yahoo[.]com', 'verisign[.]com', 'oracle[.]com', and 'broadcom[.]com', likely due to Qakbot making connectivity checks. 

Figure 6: Event Log showing a user’s device contacting Qakbot C2 infrastructure and making connectivity checks to legitimate domains.
Figure 7: Event Log showing a user’s device contacting Qakbot C2 infrastructure and making connectivity checks to legitimate domains.

Cobalt Strike and VNC Phase

After Qakbot-infected devices established communication with C2 servers, they were observed making SSL connections to the external endpoint, bonsars[.]com, and TCP connections to the external endpoint, 78.31.67[.]7. The SSL connections to bonsars[.]com were C2 connections from Cobalt Strike Beacon, and the TCP connections to 78.31.67[.]7 were C2 connections from Qakbot’s Virtual Network Computing (VNC) module [15]/[16]. The occurrence of these connections indicate that actors leveraged Qakbot infections to drop Cobalt Strike Beacon along with a VNC payload onto infected systems. The deployment of Cobalt Strike and VNC likely provided actors with ‘hands-on-keyboard’ access to the Qakbot-infected systems. 

Figure 8: Advanced Search logs showing a user’s device contacting OneNote endpoints, fetching a Qakbot DLL over HTTP, making SSL connections to Qakbot infrastructure and connectivity checks to legitimate domains, and then making SSL connections to the Cobalt Strike endpoint, bonsars[.]com.
Figure 9: Event Log showing a user’s device contacting the Cobalt Strike C2 endpoint, bonsars[.]com, and the VNC C2 endpoint, 78.31.67[.]7, whilst simultaneously contacting the Qakbot C2 endpoint, 47.32.78[.]150.

Lateral Movement Phase

After dropping Cobalt Strike Beacon and a VNC module onto Qakbot-infected systems, actors leveraged their strengthened foothold to connect to the Service Control Manager (SCM) on internal systems in preparation for lateral movement. Before connecting to the SCM, infected systems were seen making calls to the Endpoint Mapper service, likely to identify exposed Microsoft Remote Procedure Call (MSRPC) services on internal systems. The MSRPC service, Service Control Manager (SCM), is known to be abused by Cobalt Strike to create and start services on remote systems. Connections to this service were evidenced by OpenSCManager2  (Opnum: 0x40) and OpenSCManagerW (Opnum: 0xf) calls to the svcctl RPC interface. 

Figure 10: Advanced Search logs showing a user’s device contacting the Endpoint Mapper and Service Control Manager (SCM) services on internal systems. 

After connecting to the SCM on internal systems, infected devices were seen using SMB to distribute files with ‘.dll’ and ‘.dll.cfg’ extensions to SMB shares. These uploads were followed by CreateWowService (Opnum: 0x3c) calls to the svcctl interface, likely intended to execute the uploaded payloads. The naming conventions of the uploaded files indicate that they were Qakbot payloads. 

Figure 11: Advanced Search logs showing a user’s device making Service Control DCE-RPC requests to internal systems after uploading ‘.dll’ and ‘.dll.cfg’ files to them over SMB.

Fortunately, none of the observed QakNote infections escalated further than this. If these infections had escalated, it is likely that they would have resulted in the widespread detonation of additional malicious payloads, such as ransomware.  

Darktrace Coverage of QakNote Activity

Figure 1 shows the steps involved in the QakNote infections observed across Darktrace’s customer base. How far attackers got along this chain was in part determined by the following three factors:

The presence of Darktrace/Email typically stopped QakNote infections from moving past the initial infection stage. The presence of RESPOND/Network significantly slowed down observed activity chains, however, infections left unattended and not mitigated by the security teams were able to progress further along the attack chain. 

Darktrace observed varying properties in the QakNote emails detected across the customer base. OneNote attachments were typically detected as either ‘application/octet-stream’ files or as ‘application/x-tar’ files. In some cases, the weaponized OneNote attachment embedded a malicious file, whereas in other cases, the OneNote file embedded a malicious link (typically a ‘.png’ or ‘.gif’ link) instead. In all cases Darktrace observed, QakNote emails used subject lines starting with ‘RE’ or ‘FW’ to manipulating their recipients into thinking that such emails were part of an existing email chain/thread. In some cases, emails impersonated users known to their recipients by including the names of such users in their header-from personal names. In many cases, QakNote emails appear to have originated from likely hijacked email accounts. These are highly successful methods of social engineering often employed by threat actors to exploit a user’s trust in known contacts or services, convincing them to open malicious emails and making it harder for security tools to detect.

The fact that observed QakNote emails used the fake-reply method, were sent from unknown email accounts, and contained attachments with unusual MIME types, caused such emails to breach the following Darktrace/Email models:

  • Association / Unknown Sender
  • Attachment / Unknown File
  • Attachment / Unsolicited Attachment
  • Attachment / Highly Unusual Mime
  • Attachment / Unsolicited Anomalous Mime
  • Attachment / Unusual Mime for Organisation
  • Unusual / Fake Reply
  • Unusual / Unusual Header TLD
  • Unusual / Fake Reply + Unknown Sender
  • Unusual / Unusual Connection from Unknown
  • Unusual / Off Topic

QakNote emails impersonating known users also breached the following DETECT & RESPOND/Email models:

  • Unusual / Unrelated Personal Name Address
  • Spoof / Basic Known Entity Similarities
  • Spoof / Internal User Similarities
  • Spoof / External User Similarities
  • Spoof / Internal User Similarities + Unrelated Personal Name Address
  • Spoof / External User Similarities + Unrelated Personal Name Address
  • Spoof / Internal User Similarities + Unknown File
  • Spoof / External User Similarities + Fake Reply
  • Spoof / Possible User Spoof from New Address - Enhanced Internal Similarities
  • Spoof / Whale

The actions taken by Darktrace on the observed emails is ultimately determined by Darktrace/Email models are breached. Those emails which did not breach Spoofing models (due to lack of impersonation indicators) received the ‘Convert Attachment’ action. This action converts suspicious attachments into neutralized PDFs, in this case successfully unweaponizing the malicious OneNote attachments. QakNote emails which did breach Spoofing models (due to the presence of impersonation indicators) received the strongest possible action, ‘Hold Message’. This action prevents suspicious emails from reaching the recipients’ mailbox. 

Figure 12: Email log showing a malicious OneNote email (without impersonation indicators) which received a 87% anomaly score, a ‘Move to junk’ action, and a ‘Convert attachment’ actions from Darktrace/Email.
Figure 13: Email log showing a malicious OneNote email (with impersonation indicators) which received an anomaly score of 100% and a ‘Hold message’ action from Darktrace/Email.
Figure 14: Email log showing a malicious OneNote email (with impersonation indicators) which received an anomaly score of 100% and a ‘Hold message’ action from Darktrace/Email.

If threat actors managed to get past the first stage of the QakNote kill chain, likely due to the absence of appropriate email security tools, the execution of the subsequent steps resulted in strong intervention from Darktrace/Network. 

Interactions with malicious OneNote attachments caused their devices to fetch a Qakbot DLL from a remote server via HTTP GET requests with an empty Host header and either a cURL or PowerShell User-Agent header. These unusual HTTP behaviors caused the following Darktrace/Network models to breach:

  • Device / New User Agent
  • Device / New PowerShell User Agent
  • Device / New User Agent and New IP
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External
  • Anomalous File / Numeric File Download
  • Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location
  • Anomalous File / New User Agent Followed By Numeric File Download

For customers with RESPOND/Network active, these breaches resulted in the following autonomous actions:

  • Enforce group pattern of life for 30 minutes
  • Enforce group pattern of life for 2 hours
  • Block connections to relevant external endpoints over relevant ports for 2 hours   
  • Block all outgoing traffic for 10 minutes
Figure 15: Event Log showing a user’s device receiving Darktrace RESPOND/Network actions after downloading a Qakbot DLL. 
Figure 16: Event Log showing a user’s device receiving Darktrace RESPOND/Network actions after downloading a Qakbot DLL.

Successful, uninterrupted downloads of Qakbot DLLs resulted in connections to Qakbot C2 servers, and subsequently to Cobalt Strike and VNC C2 connections. These C2 activities resulted in breaches of the following DETECT/Network models:

  • Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
  • Compromis / Activité soutenue de balisage TCP vers un endpoint rare.
  • Compromise / Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise

For customers with RESPOND/Network active, these breaches caused RESPOND to autonomously perform the following actions:

  • Block connections to relevant external endpoints over relevant ports for 1 hour
Figure 17: Event Log showing a user’s device receiving RESPOND/Network actions after contacting the Qakbot C2 endpoint,  Cobalt Strike C2 endpoint, bonsars[.]com.

In cases where C2 connections were allowed to continue, actors attempted to move laterally through usage of SMB and Service Control Manager. This lateral movement activity caused the following DETECT/Network models to breach:

  • Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance
  • Anomalous Connection / New or Uncommon Service Control 

For customers with RESPOND/Network enabled, these breaches caused RESPOND to autonomously perform the following actions:

  • Block connections to relevant internal endpoints over port 445 for 1 hour
Figure 18: Event Log shows a user’s device receiving RESPOND/Network actions after contacting the Qakbot C2 endpoint, 5.75.205[.]43, and distributing ‘.dll’ and ‘.dll.cfg’ files internally.

The QakNote infections observed across Darktrace’s customer base involved several steps, each of which elicited alerts and autonomous preventative actions from Darktrace. By autonomously investigating the alerts from DETECT, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to connect the distinct steps of observed QakNote infections into single incidents. It then produced incident logs to present in-depth details of the activity it uncovered, provide full visibility for customer security teams.

Figure 19: AI Analyst incident entry showing the steps of a QakNote infection which AI Analyst connected following its autonomous investigations.

Conclusion

Faced with the emerging threat of QakNote infections, Darktrace demonstrated its ability to autonomously detect and respond to arising threats in a constantly evolving threat landscape. The attack chains which Darktrace observed across its customer base involved the delivery of Qakbot via malicious OneNote attachments, the usage of ports 65400 and 2222 for Qakbot C2 communication, the usage of Cobalt Strike Beacon and VNC for ‘hands-on-keyboard’ activity, and the usage of SMB and Service Control Manager for lateral movement. 

Despite the novelty of the OneNote-based delivery method, Darktrace was able to identify QakNote infections across its customer base at various stages of the kill chain, using its autonomous anomaly-based detection to identify unusual activity or deviations from expected behavior. When active, Darktrace/Email neutralized malicious QakNote attachments sent to employees. In cases where Darktrace/Email was not active, Darktrace/Network detected and slowed down the unusual network activities which inevitably ensued from Qakbot infections. Ultimately, this intervention from Darktrace’s products prevented infections from leading to further harmful activity, such as data exfiltration and the detonation of ransomware.

Darktrace is able to offer customers an unparalleled level of network security by combining both Darktrace/Network and Darktrace/Email, safeguarding both their email and network environments. With its suite of products, including DETECT and RESPOND, Darktrace can autonomously uncover threats to customer networks and instantaneously intervene to prevent suspicious activity leading to damaging compromises. 

Appendices

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping 

Initial Access:

T1566.001 – Phishing: Spearphishing Attachment

Execution:

T1204.001 – User Execution: Malicious Link

T1204.002 – User Execution: Malicious File

T1569.002 – System Services: Service Execution

Lateral Movement:

T1021.002 – Remote Services: SMB/Windows Admin Shares

Command and Control:

T1573.002 – Encrypted Channel : Asymmetric Cryptography

T1571 – Non-Standard Port 

T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer

T1095 –  Non-Application Layer Protocol

T1219 – Remote Access Software

List of IOCs

IP Addresses and/or Domain Names:

- 103.214.71[.]45 - Qakbot download infrastructure 

- 141.164.35[.]94 - Qakbot download infrastructure 

- 95.179.215[.]225 - Qakbot download infrastructure 

- 128.254.207[.]55 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 141.164.35[.]94 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 172.96.137[.]149 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 185.231.205[.]246 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 216.128.146[.]67 - Qakbot download infrastructure 

- 45.155.37[.]170 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 85.239.41[.]55 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 45.67.35[.]108 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 77.83.199[.]12 - Qakbot download infrastructure 

- 45.77.63[.]210 - Qakbot download infrastructure 

- 198.44.140[.]78 - Qakbot download infrastructure

- 47.32.78[.]150 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 197.204.13[.]52 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 68.108.122[.]180 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 2.50.48[.]213 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 66.180.227[.]60 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 190.206.75[.]58 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 109.150.179[.]236 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 86.202.48[.]142 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 143.159.167[.]159 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 5.75.205[.]43 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 184.176.35[.]223 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure 

- 208.187.122[.]74 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- 23.111.114[.]52 - Qakbot C2 infrastructure 

- 74.12.134[.]53 – Qakbot C2 infrastructure

- bonsars[.]com • 194.165.16[.]56 - Cobalt Strike C2 infrastructure 

- 78.31.67[.]7 - VNC C2 infrastructure

Target URIs of GET Requests for Qakbot DLLs:

- /70802.dat 

- /51881.dat

- /12427.dat

- /70136.dat

- /35768.dat

- /41981.dat

- /30622.dat

- /72286.dat

- /46557.dat

- /33006.dat

- /300332.dat

- /703558.dat

- /760433.dat

- /210/184/187737.dat

- /469/387/553748.dat

- /282/535806.dat

User-Agent Headers of GET Requests for Qakbot DLLs:

- curl/7.83.1

- curl/7.55.1

- Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-US) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.19041.2364

- Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-US) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.17763.3770

- Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-GB) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.19041.2364

SHA256 Hashes of Downloaded Qakbot DLLs:  

- 83e9bdce1276d2701ff23b1b3ac7d61afc97937d6392ed6b648b4929dd4b1452

- ca95a5dcd0194e9189b1451fa444f106cbabef3558424d9935262368dba5f2c6 

- fa067ff1116b4c8611eae9ed4d59a19d904a8d3c530b866c680a7efeca83eb3d

- e6853589e42e1ab74548b5445b90a5a21ff0d7f8f4a23730cffe285e2d074d9e

- d864d93b8fd4c5e7fb136224460c7b98f99369fc9418bae57de466d419abeaf6

- c103c24ccb1ff18cd5763a3bb757ea2779a175a045e96acbb8d4c19cc7d84bea

Names of Internally Distributed Qakbot DLLs: 

- rpwpmgycyzghm.dll

- rpwpmgycyzghm.dll.cfg

- guapnluunsub.dll

- guapnluunsub.dll.cfg

- rskgvwfaqxzz.dll

- rskgvwfaqxzz.dll.cfg

- hkfjhcwukhsy.dll

- hkfjhcwukhsy.dll.cfg

- uqailliqbplm.dll

- uqailliqbplm.dll.cfg

- ghmaorgvuzfos.dll

- ghmaorgvuzfos.dll.cfg

Links Found Within Neutralized QakNote Email Attachments:

- hxxps://khatriassociates[.]com/MBt/3.gif

- hxxps://spincotech[.]com/8CoBExd/3.gif

- hxxps://minaato[.]com/tWZVw/3.gif

- hxxps://famille2point0[.]com/oghHO/01.png

- hxxps://sahifatinews[.]com/jZbaw/01.png

- hxxp://87.236.146[.]112/62778.dat

- hxxp://87.236.146[.]112/59076.dat

- hxxp://185.231.205[.]246/73342.dat

References

[1] https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/excel-blog/excel-4-0-xlm-macros-now-restricted-by-default-for-customer/ba-p/3057905

[2] https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/microsoft-365-blog/helping-users-stay-safe-blocking-internet-macros-by-default-in/ba-p/3071805

[3] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/deployoffice/security/internet-macros-blocked

[4] https://www.cyfirma.com/outofband/html-smuggling-a-stealthier-approach-to-deliver-malware/

[5] https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/spiderlabs-blog/html-smuggling-the-hidden-threat-in-your-inbox/

[6] https://twitter.com/nao_sec/status/1530196847679401984

[7] https://www.fortiguard.com/threat-signal-report/4616/qakbot-delivered-through-cve-2022-30190-follina

[8] https://isc.sans.edu/diary/rss/28728

[9] https://darktrace.com/blog/qakbot-resurgence-evolving-along-with-the-emerging-threat-landscape

[10] https://www.trustwave.com/en-us/resources/blogs/spiderlabs-blog/trojanized-onenote-document-leads-to-formbook-malware/

[11] https://www.proofpoint.com/uk/blog/threat-insight/onenote-documents-increasingly-used-to-deliver-malware

[12] https://www.malwarebytes.com/blog/threat-intelligence/2023/03/emotet-onenote

[13] https://blog.cyble.com/2023/02/01/qakbots-evolution-continues-with-new-strategies/

[14] https://news.sophos.com/en-us/2023/02/06/qakbot-onenote-attacks/

[15] https://isc.sans.edu/diary/rss/29210

[16] https://unit42.paloaltonetworks.com/feb-wireshark-quiz-answers/

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Sam Lister
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Connor Mooney
SOC Analyst
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Email

Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

Email has consistently ranked among the most targeted attack vectors, given its ubiquity and criticality to business operations. From September to December 2023, 10.4 million phishing emails were detected across Darktrace’s customer fleet demonstrating the frequency of attempted email-based attacks.

Businesses are searching for ways to harden their email security posture alongside email providers who are aiming to reduce malicious emails traversing their infrastructure, affecting their clients. Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC) is a useful industry-wide protocol organizations can leverage to move towards these goals.  

What is DMARC?

DMARC is an email authentication protocol designed to enhance the security of email communication.

Major email service providers Google and Yahoo recently made the protocol mandatory for bulk senders in an effort to make inboxes safer worldwide. The new requirements demonstrate an increasing need for a standardized solution as misconfigured or nonexistent authentication systems continue to allow threat actors to evade detection and leverage the legitimate reputation of third parties.  

DMARC is a powerful tool that allows email administrators to confidently identify and stop certain spoofed emails; however, more organizations must implement the standard for it to reach its full potential. The success and effectiveness of DMARC is dependent on broad adoption of the standard – by organizations of all sizes.  

How does DMARC work?

DMARC builds on two key authentication technologies, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) and helps to significantly improve their ability to prevent domain spoofing. SPF verifies that a sender’s IP address is authorized to send emails on behalf of a particular domain and DKIM ensures integrity of email content by providing a verifiable digital signature.  

DMARC adds to this by allowing domain owners to publish policies that set expectations for how SPF and DKIM verification checks relate to email addresses presented to users and whose authenticity the receiving mail server is looking to establish.  

These policies work in tandem to help authenticate email senders by verifying the emails are from the domain they say they are, working to prevent domain spoofing attacks. Key benefits of DMARC include:

  1. Phishing protection DMARC protects against direct domain spoofing in which a threat actor impersonates a legitimate domain, a common phishing technique threat actors use to trick employees to obtain sensitive information such as privileged credentials, bank information, etc.  
  2. Improving brand reputation: As DMARC helps to prevent impersonation of domains, it stands to maintain and increase an organization’s brand reputation. Additionally, as organizational reputation improves, so will the deliverability of emails.
  3. Increased visibility: DMARC provides enhanced visibility into email communication channels, including reports of all emails sent on behalf of your domain. This allows security teams to identify shadow-IT and any unauthorized parties using their domain.

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

DMARC is often positioned as a way for organizations to ‘solve’ their email security problems, however, 65% of the phishing emails observed by Darktrace successfully passed DMARC verification, indicating that a significant number of threat actors are capable of manipulating email security and authentication systems in their exploits. While DMARC is a valuable tool in the fight against email-based attacks, the evolving threat landscape demands a closer look at its limitations.  

As threat actors continue to innovate, improving their stealth and evasion tactics, the number of attacks with valid DMARC authentication will only continue to increase in volume and sophistication. These can include:

  1. Phishing attacks that leverage non-spoofed domains: DMARC allows an organization to protect the domains that they own, preventing threat actors from being able to send phishing emails from their domains. However, threat actors will often create and use ‘look-a-like’ domains that closely resemble an organization’s domain to dupe users. 3% of the phishing emails identified by Darktrace utilized newly created domains, demonstrating shifting tactics.  
  2. Email Account Takeovers: If a threat actor gains access to a user’s email account through other social engineering means such as credential stuffing, they can then send phishing emails from the legitimate domain to pursue further attacks. Even though these emails are malicious, DMARC would not identify them as such because they are coming from an authorized domain or sender.  

Organizations must also ensure their inbound analysis of emails is not skewed by successful DMARC authentication. Security teams cannot inherently trust emails that pass DMARC, because the source cannot always be legitimized, like in the event of an account takeover. If a threat actor gains access to an authenticated email account, emails sent by the threat actor from that account will pass DMARC – however the contents of that email may be malicious. Sender behavior must be continuously evaluated and vetted in real time as past communication history and validated DMARC cannot be solely relied upon amid an ever-changing threat landscape.  

Security teams should lean on other security measures, such as anomaly detection tools that can identify suspicious emails without relying on historical attack rules and static data. While DMARC is not a silver bullet for email security, it is nevertheless foundational in helping organizations protect their brand identity and must be viewed as an essential layer in an organization's overall cyber security strategy.  

Implementing DMARC

Despite the criticality of DMARC for preserving brand reputation and trust, adoption of the standard has been inconsistent. DMARC can be complex to implement with many organizations lacking the time required to understand and successfully implement the standard. Because of this, DMARC set-up is often outsourced, giving security and infrastructure teams little to no visibility into or control of the process.  

Implementation of DMARC is only the start of this process, as DMARC reports must be consistently monitored to ensure organizations have visibility into who is sending mail from their domain, the volume of mail being sent and whether the mail is passing authentication protocols. This process can be time consuming for security teams who are already faced with mounting responsibilities, tight budgets, and personnel shortages. These complexities unfortunately delay organizations from using DMARC – especially as many today still view it as a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential.  

With the potential complexities of the DMARC implementation process, there are many ways security and infrastructure teams can still successfully roll out the standard. Initial implementation should start with monitoring, policy adjustment and then enforcement. As business changes over time, DMARC should be reviewed regularly to ensure ongoing protection and maintain domain reputation.

The Future of Email Security

As email-based attacks continue to rise, the industry must recognize the importance of driving adoption of foundational email authentication protocols. To do this, a new and innovative approach to DMARC is needed. DMARC products must evolve to better support organizations throughout the ongoing DMARC monitoring process, rather than just initial implementation. These products must also be able to share intelligence across an organization’s security stack, extending beyond email security tools. Integration across these products and tools will help organizations optimize their posture, ensuring deep understanding of their domain and increased visibility across the entire enterprise.

DMARC is critical in protecting brand identity and mitigating exact-domain based attacks. However, organizations must understand DMARC’s unique benefits and limitations to ensure their inboxes are fully protected. In today’s evolving threat landscape, organizations require a robust, multi-layered approach to stop email threats – in inbound mail and beyond. Email threats have evolved – its time security does too.

Join Darktrace on 9 April for a virtual event to explore the latest innovations needed to get ahead of the rapidly evolving threat landscape. Register today to hear more about our latest innovations coming to Darktrace’s offerings. For additional insights check out Darktrace’s 2023 End of Year Threat Report.

Credit to Carlos Gray and Stephen Pickman for their contribution to this blog

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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A l'intérieur du SOC

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

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23
Feb 2024

The threat of interoperability

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

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

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

What is Quasar?

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

How does Quasar work?

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

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

Quasar Attack Overview and Darktrace Coverage

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

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

Quasar Initial Infection

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

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

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

Quasar Establishing C2 Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quasar Executing Objectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darktrace’s Autonomous Response to Quasar Attacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Appendices

Darktrace DETECT Model Breaches

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

List of IoCs

IP:Port

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

77.34.128[.]25: 8080 - Quasar C2 IP

Domain

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

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

Certificate

CN=Quasar Server CA - Default certificate used by Quasar

Executable

Eppzjtedzmk[.]exe - Quasar executable

IP Address

95.214.24[.]244 - Quasar C2 IP

162.19.139[.]184 - Cryptocurrency Miner IP

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

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Command and Control

T1090.002: External Proxy

T1071.001: Web Protocols

T1571: Non-Standard Port

T1001: Data Obfuscation

T1573: Encrypted Channel

T1071: Application Layer Protocol

Resource Development

T1584: Compromise Infrastructure

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the author
Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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