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Software Supply Chain Attacks Become a Given

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12
Jan 2022
12
Jan 2022
Explore key insights on supply chain cyber attacks. Learn why IT and communication sectors are targeted and how to protect your business. Learn more!

In 2020, the financial services sector was the industry that experienced the most cyber-attacks. For years, attackers targeted these organizations because they were expectedly lucrative targets.

But in 2021, the financial services sector was no longer the most targeted. Instead, the IT and communications sector, including telecommunications providers, software developers, managed security service providers, and others faced the most attempted cyber-attacks.

This shift in priority target is not surprising for industry experts given the numerous high-profile software supply chain attacks in 2021, including those on SolarWinds, Kaseya and GitLab. Bad actors increasingly see software and developer infrastructure, platforms, and providers as entry vectors into governments, corporations, and critical infrastructure.

Los investigadores de Darktrace observaron que su inteligencia artificial (IA) interrumpió de forma autónoma alrededor de 150.000 amenazas cada semana contra el sector en 2021. Estas conclusiones de la investigación se elaboran a partir de los datos de Darktrace generados por el "análisis de indicadores tempranos", que examina las migas de pan de los posibles ciberataques en varias etapas antes de atribuirlos a cualquier actor y antes de que se conviertan en una crisis en toda regla.

From this analysis, Darktrace predicts that, in 2022, we will see threat actors embed malicious software throughout the software supply chain, including proprietary source code, developer repositories, open-source libraries, and more. We will likely see further supply chain attacks against software platforms and additional publicized vulnerabilities.

Explaining the shift

This increase in attacks on this sector is likely because more companies rely on third-party trusted suppliers to handle their data while it’s in motion and at rest. This cyber-attack vector has proven substantially profitable for attackers who focused their efforts on related organizations to get to a target’s crown jewels. This shift means that small- and medium-sized companies are now more likely to experience an attack, even if they are not the end target.

Most recently, the uncovered vulnerability ‘Log4Shell’ embedded in a widely used software library left billions of devices exposed and prompted the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to provide formal guidance.

Unfortunately, many of these libraries are only updated and supported by volunteers, making it easy for vulnerabilities and intentional corruptions to slip through. DevSecOps will be a significant discussion point in 2022 as organizations begin to understand the importance of baking security into applications much earlier in the development process. Risks presented by the dependence on open source will put dev teams front and center.

Email phishing persists as a reliable method for attackers

Despite this relevant shift in targets, Darktrace found that the most widely used attack method on the IT sector continues to be phishing. Darktrace found that organizations in the industry faced an average of 600 unique email phishing campaigns a month in 2021. These campaigns also matured in sophistication, as most no longer contain a malicious link or attachment as in the typical ill-intended email.

In 2022, attackers will continue to advance their email attacks to hijack the communications chain more directly. We will see attackers hijack trusted supplier accounts to send spear phishing emails from genuine, trusted accounts, as we saw in the November 2021 FBI account takeover.

Top cyber-criminals will use ‘clean’ emails containing normal text, with messages carefully crafted to impersonate a trusted third party to induce recipients to reply and reveal sensitive information.

Facing the increase in attacks head-on

As the global software supply chain becomes increasingly interconnected, governments, corporations, and critical infrastructure organizations are all at risk of breach not only through their software and communications suppliers but via any security flaw in the extensive global software supply chain.

In the face of this cyber threat, organizations must focus on not only their own cyber resilience but also ensure they can hold their trusted suppliers accountable to best cyber practices. There is no magic solution to finding attacks embedded in your software suppliers, so the real challenge for organizations will be to operate while accepting this risk. This year, like 2021, it is increasingly unrealistic for these companies to hope to avoid breaches via their supply chains. Instead, they must have the ability to detect the presence of attackers after a breach and stop this malicious activity in the early stages.

If attackers can embed themselves at the beginning of the development process, organizations will have to detect and stop the attacker after they have gotten through. This problem calls for cyber defense technology that can spot vulnerabilities as threat actors exploit them.

This threat reinforces the need for security to be integrated earlier in the development process and the importance of quickly containing attacks to prevent business disruption. Since these are multi-stage attacks, organizations can use AI at every step to contain and remediate the threat.

DENTRO DEL SOC
Darktrace son expertos de talla mundial en inteligencia de amenazas, caza de amenazas y respuesta a incidentes, y proporcionan apoyo al SOC las 24 horas del día a miles de clientes de Darktrace en todo el mundo. Inside the SOC está redactado exclusivamente por estos expertos y ofrece un análisis de los ciberincidentes y las tendencias de las amenazas, basado en la experiencia real sobre el terreno.
AUTOR
SOBRE EL AUTOR
Justin Fier
SVP, Red Team Operations

Justin is one of the US’s leading cyber intelligence experts, and holds the position of SVP, Red Team Operations at Darktrace. His insights on cyber security and artificial intelligence have been widely reported in leading media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The Washington Post, and VICELAND. With over 10 years’ experience in cyber defense, Justin has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Justin is also a highly-skilled technical specialist, and works with Darktrace’s strategic global customers on threat analysis, defensive cyber operations, protecting IoT, and machine learning.

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A Thorn in Attackers’ Sides: How Darktrace Uncovered a CACTUS Ransomware Infection

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24
Apr 2024

What is CACTUS Ransomware?

In May 2023, Kroll Cyber Threat Intelligence Analysts identified CACTUS as a new ransomware strain that had been actively targeting large commercial organizations since March 2023 [1]. CACTUS ransomware gets its name from the filename of the ransom note, “cAcTuS.readme.txt”. Encrypted files are appended with the extension “.cts”, followed by a number which varies between attacks, e.g. “.cts1” and “.cts2”.

As the cyber threat landscape adapts to ever-present fast-paced technological change, ransomware affiliates are employing progressively sophisticated techniques to enter networks, evade detection and achieve their nefarious goals.

How does CACTUS Ransomware work?

In the case of CACTUS, threat actors have been seen gaining initial network access by exploiting Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. Once inside the network, they may conduct internal scanning using tools like SoftPerfect Network Scanner, and PowerShell commands to enumerate endpoints, identify user accounts, and ping remote endpoints. Persistence is maintained by the deployment of various remote access methods, including legitimate remote access tools like Splashtop, AnyDesk, and SuperOps RMM in order to evade detection, along with malicious tools like Cobalt Strike and Chisel. Such tools, as well as custom scripts like TotalExec, have been used to disable security software to distribute the ransomware binary. CACTUS ransomware is unique in that it adopts a double-extortion tactic, stealing data from target networks and then encrypting it on compromised systems [2].

At the end of November 2023, cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf reported instances of CACTUS attacks exploiting vulnerabilities on the Windows version of the business analytics platform Qlik, specifically CVE-2023-41266, CVE-2023-41265, and CVE-2023-48365, to gain initial access to target networks [3]. The vulnerability tracked as CVE-2023-41266 can be exploited to generate anonymous sessions and perform HTTP requests to unauthorized endpoints, whilst CVE-2023-41265 does not require authentication and can be leveraged to elevate privileges and execute HTTP requests on the backend server that hosts the application [2].

Darktrace’s Coverage of CACTUS Ransomware

In November 2023, Darktrace observed malicious actors leveraging the aforementioned method of exploiting Qlik to gain access to the network of a customer in the US, more than a week before the vulnerability was reported by external researchers.

Here, Qlik vulnerabilities were successfully exploited, and a malicious executable (.exe) was detonated on the network, which was followed by network scanning and failed Kerberos login attempts. The attack culminated in the encryption of numerous files with extensions such as “.cts1”, and SMB writes of the ransom note “cAcTuS.readme.txt” to multiple internal devices, all of which was promptly identified by Darktrace DETECT™.

While traditional rules and signature-based detection tools may struggle to identify the malicious use of a legitimate business platform like Qlik, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was able to confidently identify anomalous use of the tool in a CACTUS ransomware attack by examining the rarity of the offending device’s surrounding activity and comparing it to the learned behavior of the device and its peers.

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled in autonomous response mode during their encounter with CACTUS ransomware meaning that attackers were able to successfully escalate their attack to the point of ransomware detonation and file encryption. Had RESPOND been configured to autonomously act on any unusual activity, Darktrace could have prevented the attack from progressing, stopping the download of any harmful files, or the encryption of legitimate ones.

Cactus Ransomware Attack Overview

Holiday periods have increasingly become one of the favoured times for malicious actors to launch their attacks, as they can take advantage of the festive downtime of organizations and their security teams, and the typically more relaxed mindset of employees during this period [4].

Following this trend, in late November 2023, Darktrace began detecting anomalous connections on the network of a customer in the US, which presented multiple indicators of compromise (IoCs) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with CACTUS ransomware. The threat actors in this case set their attack in motion by exploiting the Qlik vulnerabilities on one of the customer’s critical servers.

Darktrace observed the server device making beaconing connections to the endpoint “zohoservice[.]net” (IP address: 45.61.147.176) over the course of three days. This endpoint is known to host a malicious payload, namely a .zip file containing the command line connection tool PuttyLink [5].

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously identify over 1,000 beaconing connections taking place on the customer’s network and group them together, in this case joining the dots in an ongoing ransomware attack. AI Analyst recognized that these repeated connections to highly suspicious locations were indicative of malicious command-and-control (C2) activity.

Cyber AI Analyst Incident Log showing the offending device making over 1,000 connections to the suspicious hostname “zohoservice[.]net” over port 8383, within a specific period.
Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident Log showing the offending device making over 1,000 connections to the suspicious hostname “zohoservice[.]net” over port 8383, within a specific period.

The infected device was then observed downloading the file “putty.zip” over a HTTP connection using a PowerShell user agent. Despite being labelled as a .zip file, Darktrace’s detection capabilities were able to identify this as a masqueraded PuttyLink executable file. This activity resulted in multiple Darktrace DETECT models being triggered. These models are designed to look for suspicious file downloads from endpoints not usually visited by devices on the network, and files whose types are masqueraded, as well as the anomalous use of PowerShell. This behavior resembled previously observed activity with regards to the exploitation of Qlik Sense as an intrusion technique prior to the deployment of CACTUS ransomware [5].

The downloaded file’s URI highlighting that the file type (.exe) does not match the file's extension (.zip). Information about the observed PowerShell user agent is also featured.
Figure 2: The downloaded file’s URI highlighting that the file type (.exe) does not match the file's extension (.zip). Information about the observed PowerShell user agent is also featured.

Following the download of the masqueraded file, Darktrace observed the initial infected device engaging in unusual network scanning activity over the SMB, RDP and LDAP protocols. During this activity, the credential, “service_qlik” was observed, further indicating that Qlik was exploited by threat actors attempting to evade detection. Connections to other internal devices were made as part of this scanning activity as the attackers attempted to move laterally across the network.

Numerous failed connections from the affected server to multiple other internal devices over port 445, indicating SMB scanning activity.
Figure 3: Numerous failed connections from the affected server to multiple other internal devices over port 445, indicating SMB scanning activity.

The compromised server was then seen initiating multiple sessions over the RDP protocol to another device on the customer’s network, namely an internal DNS server. External researchers had previously observed this technique in CACTUS ransomware attacks where an RDP tunnel was established via Plink [5].

A few days later, on November 24, Darktrace identified over 20,000 failed Kerberos authentication attempts for the username “service_qlik” being made to the internal DNS server, clearly representing a brute-force login attack. There is currently a lack of open-source intelligence (OSINT) material definitively listing Kerberos login failures as part of a CACTUS ransomware attack that exploits the Qlik vulnerabilities. This highlights Darktrace’s ability to identify ongoing threats amongst unusual network activity without relying on existing threat intelligence, emphasizing its advantage over traditional security detection tools.

Kerberos login failures being carried out by the initial infected device. The destination device detected was an internal DNS server.
Figure 4: Kerberos login failures being carried out by the initial infected device. The destination device detected was an internal DNS server.

In the month following these failed Kerberos login attempts, between November 26 and December 22, Darktrace observed multiple internal devices encrypting files within the customer’s environment with the extensions “.cts1” and “.cts7”. Devices were also seen writing ransom notes with the file name “cAcTuS.readme.txt” to two additional internal devices, as well as files likely associated with Qlik, such as “QlikSense.pdf”. This activity detected by Darktrace confirmed the presence of a CACTUS ransomware infection that was spreading across the customer’s network.

The model, 'Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB', triggered in response to SMB file writes of the ransom note, ‘cAcTuS.readme.txt’, that was observed on the customer’s network.
Figure 5: The model, 'Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB', triggered in response to SMB file writes of the ransom note, ‘cAcTuS.readme.txt’, that was observed on the customer’s network.
CACTUS ransomware extensions, “.cts1” and “.cts7”, being appended to files on the customer’s network.
Figure 6: CACTUS ransomware extensions, “.cts1” and “.cts7”, being appended to files on the customer’s network.

Following this initial encryption activity, two affected devices were observed attempting to remove evidence of this activity by deleting the encrypted files.

Attackers attempting to remove evidence of their activity by deleting files with appendage “.cts1”.
Figure 7: Attackers attempting to remove evidence of their activity by deleting files with appendage “.cts1”.

Conclusion

In the face of this CACTUS ransomware attack, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection enabled it to quickly identify multiple stages of the cyber kill chain occurring in the customer’s environment. These stages ranged from ‘initial access’ by exploiting Qlik vulnerabilities, which Darktrace was able to detect before the method had been reported by external researchers, to ‘actions on objectives’ by encrypting files. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was also able to detect a previously unreported stage of the attack: multiple Kerberos brute force login attempts.

If Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, RESPOND, had been active and enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of this attack, it would have been able to take swift mitigative action to shut down such suspicious activity as soon as it was identified by DETECT, effectively containing the ransomware attack at the earliest possible stage.

Learning a network’s ‘normal’ to identify deviations from established patterns of behaviour enables Darktrace’s identify a potential compromise, even one that uses common and often legitimately used administrative tools. This allows Darktrace to stay one step ahead of the increasingly sophisticated TTPs used by ransomware actors.

Credit to Tiana Kelly, Cyber Analyst & Analyst Team Lead, Anna Gilbertson, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

References

[1] https://www.kroll.com/en/insights/publications/cyber/cactus-ransomware-prickly-new-variant-evades-detection

[2] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/cactus-ransomware-exploiting-qlik-sense-flaws-to-breach-networks/

[3] https://explore.avertium.com/resource/new-ransomware-strains-cactus-and-3am

[4] https://www.soitron.com/cyber-attackers-abuse-holidays/

[5] https://arcticwolf.com/resources/blog/qlik-sense-exploited-in-cactus-ransomware-campaign/

Darktrace DETECT Models

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)

Anomalous Connection / PowerShell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Internal Remote Desktop

User / Kerberos Password Brute Force

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Delete Volume

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare  

Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination  

Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server  

Compliance / Remote Management Tool On Server

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)  

Compromise / Suspicious File and C2  

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert  

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches  

Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

Anomalous File / Internet facing System File Download  

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise  

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Medium Period)  

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)  

List of IoCs

IoC - Type - Description

zohoservice[.]net: 45.61.147[.]176 - Domain name: IP Address - Hosting payload over HTTP

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-US) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.17763.2183 - User agent -PowerShell user agent

.cts1 - File extension - Malicious appendage

.cts7- File extension - Malicious appendage

cAcTuS.readme.txt - Filename -Ransom note

putty.zip – Filename - Initial payload: ZIP containing PuTTY Link

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic - Technique  - SubTechnique

Web Protocols: COMMAND AND CONTROL - T1071 -T1071.001

Powershell: EXECUTION - T1059 - T1059.001

Exploitation of Remote Services: LATERAL MOVEMENT - T1210 – N/A

Vulnerability Scanning: RECONAISSANCE     - T1595 - T1595.002

Network Service Scanning: DISCOVERY - T1046 - N/A

Malware: RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT - T1588 - T1588.001

Drive-by Compromise: INITIAL ACCESS - T1189 - N/A

Remote Desktop Protocol: LATERAL MOVEMENT – 1021 -T1021.001

Brute Force: CREDENTIAL ACCESS        T – 1110 - N/A

Data Encrypted for Impact: IMPACT - T1486 - N/A

Data Destruction: IMPACT - T1485 - N/A

File Deletion: DEFENSE EVASION - T1070 - T1070.004

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Tiana Kelly
Deputy Team Lead, London & Cyber Analyst

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The State of AI in Cybersecurity: How AI will impact the cyber threat landscape in 2024

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22
Apr 2024

About the AI Cybersecurity Report

We 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 is continuing the conversation from our last blog post “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 the cyber threat landscape.

To access the full report click here.

Are organizations feeling the impact of AI-powered cyber threats?

Nearly three-quarters (74%) state AI-powered threats are now a significant issue. Almost nine in ten (89%) agree that AI-powered threats will remain a major challenge into the foreseeable future, not just for the next one to two years.

However, only a slight majority (56%) thought AI-powered threats were a separate issue from traditional/non AI-powered threats. This could be the case because there are few, if any, reliable methods to determine whether an attack is AI-powered.

Identifying exactly when and where AI is being applied may not ever be possible. However, it is possible for AI to affect every stage of the attack lifecycle. As such, defenders will likely need to focus on preparing for a world where threats are unique and are coming faster than ever before.

a hypothetical cyber attack augmented by AI at every stage

Are security stakeholders concerned about AI’s impact on cyber threats and risks?

The results from our survey showed that security practitioners are concerned that AI will impact organizations in a variety of ways. There was equal concern associated across the board – from volume and sophistication of malware to internal risks like leakage of proprietary information from employees using generative AI tools.

What this tells us is that defenders need to prepare for a greater volume of sophisticated attacks and balance this with a focus on cyber hygiene to manage internal risks.

One example of a growing internal risks is shadow AI. It takes little effort for employees to adopt publicly-available text-based generative AI systems to increase their productivity. This opens the door to “shadow AI”, which is the use of popular AI tools without organizational approval or oversight. Resulting security risks such as inadvertent exposure of sensitive information or intellectual property are an ever-growing concern.

Are organizations taking strides to reduce risks associated with adoption of AI in their application and computing environment?

71.2% of survey participants say their organization has taken steps specifically to reduce the risk of using AI within its application and computing environment.

16.3% of survey participants claim their organization has not taken these steps.

These findings are good news. Even as enterprises compete to get as much value from AI as they can, as quickly as possible, they’re tempering their eager embrace of new tools with sensible caution.

Still, responses varied across roles. Security analysts, operators, administrators, and incident responders are less likely to have said their organizations had taken AI risk mitigation steps than respondents in other roles. In fact, 79% of executives said steps had been taken, and only 54% of respondents in hands-on roles agreed. It seems that leaders believe their organizations are taking the needed steps, but practitioners are seeing a gap.

Do security professionals feel confident in their preparedness for the next generation of threats?

A majority of respondents (six out of every ten) believe their organizations are inadequately prepared to face the next generation of AI-powered threats.

The survey findings reveal contrasting perceptions of organizational preparedness for cybersecurity threats across different regions and job roles. Security administrators, due to their hands-on experience, express the highest level of skepticism, with 72% feeling their organizations are inadequately prepared. Notably, respondents in mid-sized organizations feel the least prepared, while those in the largest companies feel the most prepared.

Regionally, participants in Asia-Pacific are most likely to believe their organizations are unprepared, while those in Latin America feel the most prepared. This aligns with the observation that Asia-Pacific has been the most impacted region by cybersecurity threats in recent years, according to the IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index.

The optimism among Latin American respondents could be attributed to lower threat volumes experienced in the region, but it's cautioned that this could change suddenly (1).

What are biggest barriers to defending against AI-powered threats?

The top-ranked inhibitors center on knowledge and personnel. However, issues are alluded to almost equally across the board including concerns around budget, tool integration, lack of attention to AI-powered threats, and poor cyber hygiene.

The cybersecurity industry is facing a significant shortage of skilled professionals, with a global deficit of approximately 4 million experts (2). As organizations struggle to manage their security tools and alerts, the challenge intensifies with the increasing adoption of AI by attackers. This shift has altered the demands on security teams, requiring practitioners to possess broad and deep knowledge across rapidly evolving solution stacks.

Educating end users about AI-driven defenses becomes paramount as organizations grapple with the shortage of professionals proficient in managing AI-powered security tools. Operationalizing machine learning models for effectiveness and accuracy emerges as a crucial skill set in high demand. However, our survey highlights a concerning lack of understanding among cybersecurity professionals regarding AI-driven threats and the use of AI-driven countermeasures indicating a gap in keeping pace with evolving attacker tactics.

The integration of security solutions remains a notable problem, hindering effective defense strategies. While budget constraints are not a primary inhibitor, organizations must prioritize addressing these challenges to bolster their cybersecurity posture. It's imperative for stakeholders to recognize the importance of investing in skilled professionals and integrated security solutions to mitigate emerging threats effectively.

To access the full report click here.

References

1. IBM, X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2024, Available at: https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/L0GKXDWJ

2. ISC2, Cybersecurity Workforce Study 2023, Available at: https://media.isc2.org/-/media/Project/ISC2/Main/Media/ documents/research/ISC2_Cybersecurity_Workforce_Study_2023.pdf?rev=28b46de71ce24e6ab7705f6e3da8637e

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