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Wie der Cyber AI Analyst von Darktrace die Meldung von Vorfällen an die US-Regierung beschleunigt

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12
Apr 2022
12
Apr 2022
In diesem Blog wird erläutert, wie Darktrace Verteidigern dabei hilft, die US-Bundesgesetze zur Meldung von Cybersicherheitsvorfällen einzuhalten, und es wird ein reales Beispiel für einen Ransomware-Angriff vorgestellt, der durch den Cyber AI Analyst untersucht wurde.

On March 15, 2022, President Biden signed the Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act into law, included as part of the Congressional Omnibus Appropriations bill. The law requires critical infrastructure owners and operators to quickly notify the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of ransomware payments and significant cyber-attacks.

The Cyber Incident Reporting for Critical Infrastructure Act creates two new reporting requirements:

  1. an obligation to report certain cyber incidents to DHS CISA within 72 hours
  2. an obligation to report ransomware payments within 24 hours

Supporting the new law, Darktrace AI accelerates the cyber incident reporting process. Specifically, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst understands the connections among disparate security incidents with supervised machine learning and autonomously writes incident reports in human-readable language using natural language processing (NLP). These Darktrace incident reports allow human analysts to send reports to CISA quickly and efficiently.

In the below real-world attack case study, we demonstrate how Cyber AI Analyst facilitates seamless reporting for critical infrastructure organizations that fall victim to ransomware and malicious data exfiltration. The AI technology, trained on human analyst behavior, replicates investigations at machine speed and scale, surfacing relevant details in minutes and allowing security teams to understand what happened precisely and share this information with the relevant authorities.

The below threat investigation details a significant threat find on a step by step level in technical detail to demonstrate the power and speed of Cyber AI Analyst.

Cyber AI Analyst’s incident report

When ransomware struck this organization, Cyber AI Analyst was invaluable, autonomously investigating the full scope of the incident and generating a natural language summary that clearly showed the progression of the attack.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst reveals the full scope of the attack

In the aftermath of this attack, Darktrace’s technology also offered analyst assistance in mapping out the timeline of the attack and identifying what files were compromised, helping the security team identify anomalous activity related to the ransomware attack.

Figure 2: Cyber AI Analyst showing the stages of the attack chain undergone by the compromised device

With Darktrace AI’s insights, the team easily identified the timeline of the attack, affected devices, credentials used, file shares accessed, files exfiltrated, and malicious endpoints contacted, enabling the customer to disclose the scale of the attack and notify necessary parties.

This example demonstrates how Cyber AI Analyst empowers critical infrastructure owners and operators to swiftly report major cyber-attacks to the federal government. Considering that 72 hours is the reporting period is for significant incidents — and 24 hours for ransomware payments — Cyber AI Analyst is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for critical infrastructure.

Attack breakdown: Ransomware and data exfiltration

Cyber AI Analyst delivered the most critical information in an easy-to-read report — with no human touch involved — as shown in the incident report above. We will now break down the attack further to demonstrate how Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understood the unusual activity throughout the attack lifecycle.

In this double extortion ransomware, attackers exfiltrated data over 22 days. The detections made by Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI, and the parallel investigation by Cyber AI Analyst, were used to map the attack chain and identify how and what data had been exfiltrated and encrypted.

The attack consisted of three general groups of events:

  • Unencrypted FTP (File Transfer Protocol) data exfiltration to rare malicious external endpoint in Bulgaria (May 9 07:23:46 UTC – May 21 03:06:46 UTC)
  • Ransomware encryption of files in network file shares (May 25 01:00:27 UTC – May 30 07:09:53 UTC)
  • Encrypted SSH (Secure Shell) data exfiltration to rare malicious external endpoint (May 29 16:43:37 UTC – May 30 13:23:59 UTC)
Figure 3: Timeline of the attack alongside Darktrace model breaches

First, uploads of internal data to a rare external endpoint in Bulgaria were observed within the networks. The exfiltration was preceded by SMB reads of internal file shares before approximately 450GB of data was exfiltrated via FTP.

Darktrace’s AI identified this threatening activity on its own, and the organization was quickly able to pinpoint what data had been exfiltrated, including files camouflaged by markings such as ‘Talent Acquisition’ and ‘Engineering and Construction,’ and legal and financial documents — suggesting that these were documents of an extremely sensitive nature.

Figure 4: Screenshots showing two model breaches relating to external uploads over FTP
Figure 5: Screenshot showing SMB reads from a file share before FTP upload

Model breaches:

  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual Incoming Data Volume
  • Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity
  • Compromise / Ransomware / SMB Reads then Writes with Additional Extensions
  • Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Move & Write
  • Unusual Activity / High Volume Server Data Transfer
  • Unusual Activity / Sustained Anomalous SMB Activity
  • Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Four days following this observed activity, Darktrace’s AI detected the deployment of ransomware when multiple compromised devices began making anomalous SMB connections to file shares that they do not typically access, reading and writing similar volumes to the SMB file shares, as well as writing additional extensions to files over SMB. The file extension comprised a random string of letters and was likely to be unique to this target.

Using Darktrace, the customer obtained a full list of files that had been encrypted. The list included apparent financial records in an ‘Accounts’ file share.

Figure 6: Model breach showing additional extension written to file during ransomware encryption

Model breaches:

  • Anomalous Connection / Unusual Incoming Data Volume
  • Anomalous File / Internal / Additional Extension Appended to SMB File
  • Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity
  • Compromise / Ransomware / SMB Reads then Writes with Additional Extensions
  • Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Move & Write
  • Unusual Activity / High Volume Server Data Transfer
  • Unusual Activity / Sustained Anomalous SMB Activity
  • Device / SMB Lateral Movement

Simultaneously, uploads of internal data to a rare external endpoint were observed within the network. The uploads were all performed using encrypted SSH/SFTP. In total, approximately 3.5GB of data was exfiltrated this way.

Despite the attacker using an encrypted channel to exfiltrate this data, Darktrace detected anomalous SMB file transfers prior to the external upload, indicating which files were exfiltrated. Here, Darktrace’s ability to go ‘back in time’ proved invaluable in helping analysts determine which files had been exfiltrated, although they were exfiltrated via an encrypted means.

Figure 7: Model breaches showing anomalous SMB activity before upload over SSH

Model breaches:

  • Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server
  • Compliance / SSH to Rare External Destination
  • Unusual Activity / Enhanced Unusual External Data Transfer
  • Device / Anomalous SMB Followed By Multiple Model Breaches
  • Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
  • Anomalous Connection / Uncommon 1 GiB Outbound
  • Anomalous Connection / Data Sent to Rare Domain
  • Anomalous Connection / Data Sent To New External Device

How did the attack bypass the rest of the security stack?

Existing administrative credentials were used to escalate privileges within the network and perform malicious activity.

Had Darktrace Antigena been active, it would have actioned a targeted, autonomous response to contain the activity in its early stages. Antigena would have enforced the ‘pattern of life’ on the devices involved in anomalous SMB activity — containing activity such as reading from file shares that are not normally connected, appending extensions to files and blocking outgoing connections to rare external endpoints.

However, in this case, Antigena was not set up to take action – it was configured in Human Confirmation mode. The incident was clearly alerted on by Darktrace, and appeared as a top priority item in the security team’s workflow. However, the security team was not monitoring Darktrace’s user interface, and in the absence of any action taken by other tools, the attack was allowed to progress, and the organization was obligated to disclose the details of the incident.

Streamlining the reporting process

In the modern threat landscape, leaning on AI to stop fast-moving and sophisticated attacks at machine speed and scale is critical. As this attack shows, the technology also helps organizations fulfill reporting requirements in the aftermath of an attack.

New legislation requires timely disclosure; with many traditional approaches to security, organizations do not have the capacity to surface the full details after an attack. On top of this, collating these details can take days or weeks. This is why Darktrace is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for critical infrastructure organizations, which are now required to report significant incidents swiftly.

Darktrace’s AI detects malicious activity as it happens and empowers customers to quickly understand the timeline of a compromise, as well as files accessed and exfiltrated by an attacker. This not only prepares organizations to resist the most sophisticated attacks, but also accelerates and radically simplifies the process of reporting the data breach.

Security teams should not have to confront disclosure processes on their own. Attacks happen fast, and their aftermaths are messy – retrospective investigation of lost data can be a futile effort with traditional approaches. With Darktrace, security teams can meet disruptive and sudden attacks with precise and nimble means of uncovering data, as well as detection and mitigation of risk. And, should the need arise, rapid and accurate reporting of events is laid out on a silver platter by the AI.

EINBLICKE IN DAS SOC-Team
Darktrace Cyber-Analysten sind erstklassige Experten für Threat Intelligence, Threat Hunting und Incident Response. Sie bieten Tausenden von Darktrace Kunden auf der ganzen Welt rund um die Uhr SOC-Support. Einblicke in das SOC-Team wird ausschließlich von diesen Experten verfasst und bietet Analysen von Cyber-Vorfällen und Bedrohungstrends, die auf praktischen Erfahrungen in diesem Bereich basieren.
AUTOR
ÜBER DEN 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.

Sally Kenyon Grant
VP, Darktrace Federal

Sally Kenyon Grant is Vice President of Federal at Darktrace, working with the US Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community and Federal Civilian Agencies.

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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.

Schlussfolgerung

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.  

Schlussfolgerung

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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