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Qakbot Resurgence: Evolving along with the emerging threat landscape

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30
Jan 2023
30
Jan 2023
In June 2022, Darktrace observed a surge in Qakbot infections across its client base. These infections, despite arising from novel delivery methods, resulted in unusual patterns of network traffic which Darktrace/Network was able to detect and respond to.

In June 2022, Darktrace observed a surge in Qakbot infections across its client base. The detected Qakbot infections, which in some cases led to the delivery of secondary payloads such as Cobalt Strike and Dark VNC, were initiated through novel delivery methods birthed from Microsoft’s default blocking of XL4 and VBA macros in early 2022 [1]/[2]/[3]/[4] and from the public disclosure in May 2022 [5] of the critical Follina vulnerability (CVE-2022-30190) in Microsoft Support Diagnostic Tool (MSDT). Despite the changes made to Qakbot’s delivery methods, Qakbot infections still inevitably resulted in unusual patterns of network activity. In this blog, we will provide details of these network activities, along with Darktrace/Network’s coverage of them. 

Qakbot Background 

Qakbot emerged in 2007 as a banking trojan designed to steal sensitive data such as banking credentials.  Since then, Qakbot has developed into a highly modular triple-threat powerhouse used to not only steal information, but to also drop malicious payloads and to serve as a backdoor. The malware is also versatile, with its delivery methods regularly changing in response to the changing threat landscape.  

Threat actors deliver Qakbot through email-based delivery methods. In the first half of 2022, Microsoft started rolling out versions of Office which block XL4 and VBA macros by default. Prior to this change, Qakbot email campaigns typically consisted in the spreading of deceitful emails with Office attachments containing malicious macros.  Opening these attachments and then enabling the macros within them would lead users’ devices to install Qakbot.  

Actors who deliver Qakbot onto users’ devices may either sell their access to other actors, or they may leverage Qakbot’s capabilities to pursue their own objectives [6]. A common objective of actors that use Qakbot is to drop Cobalt Strike beacons onto infected systems. Actors will then leverage the interactive access provided by Cobalt Strike to conduct extensive reconnaissance and lateral movement activities in preparation for widespread ransomware deployment. Qakbot’s close ties to ransomware activity, along with its modularity and versatility, make the malware a significant threat to organisations’ digital environments.

Activity Details and Qakbot Delivery Methods

During the month of June, variationsof the following pattern of network activity were observed in several client networks:

1.     User’s device contacts an email service such as outlook.office[.]com or mail.google[.]com

2.     User’s device makes an HTTP GET request to 185.234.247[.]119 with an Office user-agent string and a ‘/123.RES' target URI. The request is responded to with an HTML file containing a exploit for the Follina vulnerability (CVE-2022-30190)

3.     User’s device makes an HTTP GET request with a cURL User-Agent string and a target URI ending in ‘.dat’ to an unusual external endpoint. The request is responded to with a Qakbot DLL sample

4.     User’s device contacts Qakbot Command and Control servers over ports such as 443, 995, 2222, and 32101

In some cases, only steps 1 and 4 were seen, and in other cases, only steps 1, 3, and 4 were seen. The different variations of the pattern correspond to different Qakbot delivery methods.

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of Darktrace clients affected by Qakbot

Qakbot is known to be delivered via malicious email attachments [7]. The Qakbot infections observed across Darktrace’s client base during June were likely initiated through HTML smuggling — a method which consists in embedding malicious code into HTML attachments. Based on open-source reporting [8]-[14] and on observed patterns of network traffic, we assess with moderate to high confidence that the Qakbot infections observed across Darktrace’s client base during June 2022 were initiated via one of the following three methods:

  • User opens HTML attachment which drops a ZIP file on their device. ZIP file contains a LNK file, which when opened, causes the user's device to make an external HTTP GET request with a cURL User-Agent string and a '.dat' target URI. If successful, the HTTP GET request is responded to with a Qakbot DLL.
  • User opens HTML attachment which drops a ZIP file on their device. ZIP file contains a docx file, which when opened, causes the user's device to make an HTTP GET request to 185.234.247[.]119 with an Office user-agent string and a ‘/123.RES' target URI. If successful, the HTTP GET request is responded to with an HTML file containing a Follina exploit. The Follina exploit causes the user's device to make an external HTTP GET with a '.dat' target URI. If successful, the HTTP GET request is responded to with a Qakbot DL.
  • User opens HTML attachment which drops a ZIP file on their device. ZIP file contains a Qakbot DLL and a LNK file, which when opened, causes the DLL to run.

The usage of these delivery methods illustrate how threat actors are adopting to a post-macro world [4], with their malware delivery techniques shifting from usage of macros-embedding Office documents to usage of container files, Windows Shortcut (LNK) files, and exploits for novel vulnerabilities. 

The Qakbot infections observed across Darktrace’s client base did not only vary in terms of their delivery methods — they also differed in terms of their follow-up activities. In some cases, no follow-up activities were observed. In other cases, however, actors were seen leveraging Qakbot to exfiltrate data and to deliver follow-up payloads such as Cobalt Strike and Dark VNC.  These follow-up activities were likely preparation for the deployment of ransomware. Darktrace’s early detection of Qakbot activity within client environments enabled security teams to take actions which likely prevented the deployment of ransomware. 

Darktrace Coverage 

Users’ interactions with malicious email attachments typically resulted in their devices making cURL HTTP GET requests with empty Host headers and target URIs ending in ‘.dat’ (such as as ‘/24736.dat’ and ‘/noFindThem.dat’) to rare, external endpoints. In cases where the Follina vulnerability is believed to have been exploited, users’ devices were seen making HTTP GET requests to 185.234.247[.]119 with a Microsoft Office User-Agent string before making cURL HTTP GET requests. The following Darktrace DETECT/Network models typically breached as a result of these HTTP activities:

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

These DETECT models were able to capture the unusual usage of Office and cURL User-Agent strings on affected devices, as well as the downloads of the Qakbot DLL from rare external endpoints. These models look for unusual activity that falls outside a device’s usual pattern of behavior rather than for activity involving User-Agent strings, URIs, files, and external IPs which are known to be malicious.

When enabled, Darktrace RESPOND/Network autonomously intervened, taking actions such as ‘Enforce group pattern of life’ and ‘Block connections’ to quickly intercept connections to Qakbot infrastructure. 

Figure 2: This ‘New User Agent to IP Without Hostname’ model breach highlights an example of Darktrace’s detection of a device attempting to download a file containing a Follina exploit
Figure 3: This ‘New User Agent to IP Without Hostname’ model breach highlights an example of Darktrace’s detection of a device attempting to download Qakbot
Figure 4: The Event Log for an infected device highlights the moment a connection to the endpoint outlook.office365[.]com was made. This was followed by an executable file transfer detection and use of a new User-Agent, curl/7.9.1

After installing Qakbot, users’ devices started making connections to Command and Control (C2) endpoints over ports such as 443, 22, 990, 995, 1194, 2222, 2078, 32101. Cobalt Strike and Dark VNC may have been delivered over some of these C2 connections, as evidenced by subsequent connections to endpoints associated with Cobalt Strike and Dark VNC. These C2 activities typically caused the following Darktrace DETECT/Network models to breach: 

  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port
  • Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behavior
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Successful Connections
  • Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
  • Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
  • Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed
  • Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External
  • Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / Suspicious TLS Beaconing To Rare External
  • Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
Figure 5: This Device Event Log illustrates the Command and Control activity displayed by a Qakbot-infected device

The Darktrace DETECT/Network models which detected these C2 activities do not look for devices making connections to known, malicious endpoints. Rather, they look for devices deviating from their ordinary patterns of activity, making connections to external endpoints which internal devices do not usually connect to, over ports which devices do not normally connect over. 

In some cases, actors were seen exfiltrating data from Qakbot-infected systems and dropping Cobalt Strike in order to conduct extensive discovery. These exfiltration activities typically caused the following models to breach:

  • Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain
  • Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer
  • Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound
  • Anomalous Connection / Low and Slow Exfiltration to IP
  • Unusual Activity / Unusual External Data to New Endpoints

The reconnaissance and brute-force activities carried out by actors typically resulted in breaches of the following models:

  • Device / ICMP Address Scan
  • Device / Network Scan
  • Anomalous Connection / SMB Enumeration
  • Device / New or Uncommon WMI Activity
  •  Unusual Activity / Possible RPC Recon Activity
  • Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Reconnaissance
  •  Device / SMB Lateral Movement
  •  Device / Increase in New RPC Services
  •  Device / Spike in LDAP Activity
  • Device / Possible SMB/NTLM Brute Force
  • Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Non-Admin)
  • Device / SMB Session Brute Force (Admin)
  • Device / Anomalous NTLM Brute Force

Conclusion

June 2022 saw Qakbot swiftly mould itself in response to Microsoft's default blocking of macros and the public disclosure of the Follina vulnerability. The evolution of the threat landscape in the first half of 2022 caused Qakbot to undergo changes in its delivery methods, shifting from delivery via macros-based methods to delivery via HTML smuggling methods. The effectiveness of these novel delivery methods where highlighted in Darktrace's client base, where large volumes of Qakbot infections were seen during June 2022. Leveraging Self-Learning AI, Darktrace DETECT/Network was able to detect the unusual network behaviors which inevitably resulted from these novel Qakbot infections. Given that the actors behind these Qakbot infections were likely seeking to deploy ransomware, these detections, along with Darktrace RESPOND/Network’s autonomous interventions, ultimately helped to protect affected Darktrace clients from significant business disruption.  

Appendices

List of IOCs

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.proofpoint.com/uk/blog/threat-insight/how-threat-actors-are-adapting-post-macro-world

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

[6] https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/2021/12/09/a-closer-look-at-qakbots-latest-building-blocks-and-how-to-knock-them-down/

[7] https://www.zscaler.com/blogs/security-research/rise-qakbot-attacks-traced-evolving-threat-techniques

[8] https://www.esentire.com/blog/resurgence-in-qakbot-malware-activity

[9] https://www.fortinet.com/blog/threat-research/new-variant-of-qakbot-spread-by-phishing-emails

[10] https://twitter.com/pr0xylife/status/1539320429281615872

[11] https://twitter.com/max_mal_/status/1534220832242819072

[12] https://twitter.com/1zrr4h/status/1534259727059787783?lang=en

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

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

Credit to:  Hanah Darley, Cambridge Analyst Team Lead and Head of Threat Research and Sam Lister, Senior Cyber Analyst

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
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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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Nicole Wong
Cyber Security Analyst

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Attack Trends: VIP Impersonation Across the Business Hierarchy

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22
Feb 2024

What is VIP impersonation?

VIP impersonation involves a threat actor impersonating a trusted, prominent figure at an organization in an attempt to solicit sensitive information from an employee.

VIP impersonation is a high-priority issue for security teams, but it can be difficult to assess the exact risks, and whether those are more critical than other types of compromise. Looking across a range of Darktrace/Email™ customer deployments, this blog explores the patterns of individuals targeted for impersonation and evaluates if these target priorities correspond with security teams' focus on protecting attack pathways to critical assets.

How do security teams stop VIP Impersonation?

Protecting VIP entities within an organization has long been a traditional focus for security teams. The assumption is that VIPs, due to their prominence, possess the greatest access to critical assets, making them prime targets for cyber threats.  

Email remains the predominant vector for attacks, with over 90% of breaches originating from malicious emails. However, the dynamics of email-based attacks are shifting, as the widespread use of generative AI is lowering the barrier to entry by allowing adversaries to create hyper-realistic emails with minimal errors.

Given these developments, it's worth asking the question – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are most targeted by threat actors via email? And, more importantly – which entities (VIP/non-VIP) are more valuable if they are successfully compromised?

There are two types of VIPs:  

1. When referring to emails and phishing, VIPs are the users in an organization who are well known publicly.  

2. When referring to attack paths, VIPs are users in an organization that are known publicly and have access to highly privileged assets.  

Not every prominent user has access to critical assets, and not every user that has access to critical assets is prominent.  

Darktrace analysis of VIP impersonation

We analyzed patterns of attack pathways and phishing attempts across 20 customer deployments from a large, randomized pool encompassing a diverse range of organizations.  

Understanding Attack Pathways

Our observations revealed that 57% of low-difficulty attack paths originated from VIP entities, while 43% of observed low-difficulty attack paths towards critical assets or entities began through non-VIP users. This means that targeting VIPs is not the only way attackers can reach critical assets, and that non-VIP users must be considered as well.  

While the sample size prevents us from establishing statistical significance across all customers, the randomized selection lends credence to the generalizability of these findings to other environments.

Phishing Attempts  

On average, 1.35% of total emails sent to these customers exhibited significantly malicious properties associated with phishing or some form of impersonation. Strikingly, nearly half of these malicious emails (49.6%) were directed towards VIPs, while the rest were sent to non-VIPs. This near-equal split is worth noting, as attack paths show that non-VIPs also serve as potential entry points for targeting critical assets.  

Darktrace/Email UI
Figure 1: A phishing email actioned by Darktrace, sent to multiple VIP and non-VIP entities

For example, a recent phishing campaign targeted multiple customers across deployments, with five out of 13 emails specifically aimed at VIP users. Darktrace/Email actioned the malicious emails by double locking the links, holding the messages, and stripping the attachments.

Given that non-VIP users receive nearly half of the phishing or impersonation emails, it underscores the critical importance for security teams to recognize their blind spots in protecting critical assets. Overlooking the potential threat originating from non-VIP entities could lead to severe consequences. For instance, if a non-VIP user falls victim to a phishing attack or gets compromised, their credentials could be exploited to move laterally within the organization, potentially reaching critical assets.

This highlights the necessity for a sophisticated security tool that can identify targeted users, without the need for extensive customization and regardless of VIP status. By deploying a solution capable of promptly responding to email threats – including solicitation, phishing attempts, and impersonation – regardless of the status of the targeted user, security teams can significantly enhance their defense postures.

Darktrace vs Traditional Email Detection Methods

Traditional rules and signatures-based detection mechanisms fall short in identifying the evolving threats we’ve observed, due to their reliance on knowledge of past attacks to categorize emails.

Secure Email Gateway (SEG) or Integrated Cloud Email Security (ICES) tools categorize emails based on previous or known attacks, operating on a known-good or known-bad model. Even if tools use AI to automate this process, the approach is still fundamentally looking to the past and therefore vulnerable to unknown and zero-day threats.  

Darktrace uses AI to understand each unique organization and how its email environment interoperates with each user and device on the network. Consequently, it is able to identify the subtle deviations from normal behavior that qualify as suspicious. This approach goes beyond simplistic categorizations, considering factors such as the sender’s history and recipient’s exposure score.  

This nuanced analysis enables Darktrace to differentiate between genuine communications and malicious impersonation attempts. It automatically understands who is a VIP, without the need for manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails  based on a user’s status.

Email does determine who is a VIP, without a need of manual input, and will action more strongly on incoming malicious emails.

Darktrace/Email also feeds into Darktrace’s preventative security tools, giving the interconnected AI engines further context for assessing the high-value targets and pathways to vital internal systems and assets that start via the inbox.

Leveraging AI for Enhanced Protection Across the Enterprise  

The efficacy of AI-driven security solutions lies in their ability to make informed decisions and recommendations based on real-time business data. By leveraging this data, AI driven solutions can identify exploitable attack pathways and an organizations most critical assets. Darktrace uniquely uses several forms of AI to equip security teams with the insights needed to make informed decisions about which pathways to secure, reducing human bias around the importance of protecting VIPs.

With the emergence of tools like AutoGPT, identifying potential targets for phishing attacks has become increasingly simplified. However, the real challenge lies in gaining a comprehensive understanding of all possible and low-difficulty attack paths leading to critical assets and identities within the organization.

At the same time, organizations need email tools that can leverage the understanding of users to prevent email threats from succeeding in the first instance. For every email and user, Darktrace/Email takes into consideration changes in behavior from the sender, recipient, content, and language, and many other factors.

Integrating Darktrace/Email with Darktrace’s attack path modeling capabilities enables comprehensive threat contextualization and facilitates a deeper understanding of attack pathways. This holistic approach ensures that all potential vulnerabilities, irrespective of the user's status, are addressed, strengthening the overall security posture.  

Conclusion

Contrary to conventional wisdom, our analysis suggests that the distinction between VIPs and non-VIPs in terms of susceptibility to impersonation and low-difficulty attack paths is not as pronounced as presumed. Therefore, security teams must adopt a proactive stance in safeguarding all pathways, rather than solely focusing on VIPs.  

Attack path modeling enhances Darktrace/Email's capabilities by providing crucial metrics on potential impact, damage, exposure, and weakness, enabling more targeted and effective threat mitigation strategies. For example, stronger email actions can be enforced for users who are known to have a high potential impact in case of compromise. 

In an era where cyber threats continue to evolve in complexity, an adaptive and non-siloed approach to securing inboxes, high-priority individuals, and critical assets is indispensable.  

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About the author
Kendra Gonzalez Duran
Director of Technology Innovation

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Provate l'intelligenza artificiale dell'autoapprendimento ovunque ne abbiate bisogno, anche nel cloud, in rete o via e-mail.
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Consegna flessibile
È possibile installarlo virtualmente o con l'hardware.
Installazione rapida
Solo 1 ora per la configurazione e ancora meno per una prova di sicurezza delle e-mail.
Scegliete il vostro viaggio
Provate l'intelligenza artificiale dell'autoapprendimento ovunque ne abbiate bisogno, anche nel cloud, in rete o via e-mail.
Nessun impegno
Accesso completo al visualizzatore di minacce di Darktrace e a tre rapporti sulle minacce personalizzati, senza obbligo di acquisto.
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