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"Tut mir leid, wir haben geschlossen": Warum die meisten Ransomware-Angriffe außerhalb der Geschäftszeiten stattfinden

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31
Mar 2021
31
Mar 2021
When employees have logged off, and security teams are away from their desks, that’s prime time for attackers to strike. This blog discusses how cyber-criminals time their attacks to fall during weekends or holiday periods, and how defensive AI can stay awake and fight back.

Darktrace regularly observes an increase in cyber-attacks carried out during holidays, weekends, and outside of working hours. It is clear that such ‘off peak’ attacks allow easy exploitation of standard organizational practices and human vulnerabilities.

As reduced staff wind down and employees mentally and physically log off from the workplace, there is a decline in the speed of detection and triage within an enterprise. This allows threat actors to sneak in unnoticed. Without real-time autonomous systems, when executed these unexpected attacks have a much greater impact on response and recovery.

Ransomware: An unwanted present

One of the most frequent threats detected out of hours is ransomware. In 76% of infections, the encryption process begins either after hours or during the weekend. Darktrace was alerted to a ransomware incident which was executed in the early hours of a client’s network on Christmas Day, when most employees were offline.

Figure 1: Timeline of the Christmas Day ransomware breach

Over a week before the encryption began, an initial foothold was established on an unassuming desktop. Using this vector, the threat actor was able to move laterally and gain access to two domain controllers – servers used to verify users and authenticate requests. The two servers then made unusual command and control (C2) connections to a rare endpoint linked to ransomware. Next, the threat went into hiding. Although Darktrace had alerted to this activity at every stage, the security team was under great stress during the December period and did not manage to action even these highly critical alerts. Without Antigena Network or Proactive Threat Notifications (PTNs), the threat remained uninterrupted.

It suddenly re-emerged after hours on December 24 and utilized its additional privileges to write suspicious executable files to a range of internal devices. A pre-determined set of company data was exfiltrated and a ransomware payload downloaded from the same cloud destination.

A cyber-attack striking on a public holiday is likely to destabilize communication – who is responsible for dealing with it? Are they hard to reach? Are there different protocols for an out-of-hours breach? When unexpected during the holidays, these questions may be surprisingly hard to answer. When answers finally arrive, it is often too late – the damage has already been done.

Once dealt with, there are also repercussions for evaluation: security personnel will be needed to investigate what happened and the future consequences of the attack. If internal staff are hard to mobilize, and external security services come at a premium, this process can be arduous and key evidence may be lost. In turn, the company will be left open to similar attacks in the future.

Saturday night fearware

Holidays clearly pose a human and logistical vulnerability. However, it is often overlooked that these same down periods occur on a small scale throughout the year – at the end of every week. Darktrace has observed a huge surge in weekend attacks in recent months.

Figure 2: Diagram of the key terms Darktrace has observed over the past six months in out-of-hours model breaches

This includes another ransomware incident, which struck a hospitality organization based in the UK. A company device was compromised when a user unintentionally accessed a harmful email. The infection exploited cleartext password files to laterally move to four other devices, including critical servers which it then used to host outbound spam and further disseminate. For several following weekends, compromised devices made a large volume of open or Tor-hosted C2 connections to endpoints associated with the XINOF ransomware.

This example shows that out-of-hours infections can come from any vector, and human compliance errors can be exploited to quickly propagate malware and hide before the security team returns to work on Monday. With many data breaches already taking months to discover, threat actors are looking to extend their concealment by implementing the initial compromise at times with decreased monitoring.

Improving detection of these first compromises and adapting to smaller out-of-hours periods may lead to improved response and adjustment for larger holidays as well. But for a permanent fix, enterprises need a proactive approach.

The solution which never sleeps

In the case study above, Autonomous Response was possible at every attack stage, had it been switched on in active mode. Antigena Email would have stopped the initial compromise by identifying the anomalous attachment and quarantining the infection before it could enter the network. Once inside, the critical servers exploited would not have been compromised, as the malicious login activity using gathered passwords would have been halted until verified. Finally, connections to the malicious sites containing the XINOF payload could have been blocked, stopping further damages from occurring.

Unlike a human, AI never sleeps, and never takes a holiday. Instead, the AI stays active around the clock, containing all types of threats in their earliest stages. This prevents malicious activity from escalating while giving human security teams valuable airtime to react and remediate the root cause of any incidents.

If a security team requires an extra set of eyes to augment their investigation, incidents can also be mitigated with Proactive Threat Notifications (PTNs). This service funnels high-severity detections straight into Darktrace’s customer-dedicated SOC to be investigated by expert cyber analysts. The Darktrace PTN SOC has a follow-the-sun approach to monitoring customer environments, meaning that organizations are protected from attacks around the clock.

Timing is everything

The case studies in this blog should serve as a reminder of the need for 24/7 attentiveness. As security professionals increase their skills and creativity in combating threats, malicious actors continue to adapt themselves and are using timing to their advantage during attacks. Now more than ever, it is clear that autonomous AI-based detection is the only means to remove the advantage of timing from threat actors so that even when the office is closed or the laptop is switched off, your security remains on.

Thanks to Darktrace analyst Gabriel Few-Wiegratz for his insights.

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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.
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Max Heinemeyer
Leiter der Produktabteilung

Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works with the R&D team at Darktrace, shaping research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.

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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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04
Mar 2024

About Community Housing Limited

Community Housing Limited is a non-profit organization based in Australia that focuses on providing affordable, long-term housing and creating employment opportunities where possible. We give people the security of having a home so that they can focus on other essential pathways. As such, we are responsible for sensitive information on our clients.

As part of our commitment to strengthening our cyber security, we sought to simplify and unify our incident response plans and equip our engineers and desktop support teams with all the information we need at our fingertips.

Why Community Housing Limited chose Darktrace

Our team hoped to achieve a response procedure that allowed us to have oversight over any potential security risks, even cases that don’t overtly seem like a security risk. For example, an incident could start as a payroll issue and end up in the hands of HR, instead of surfacing as a security problem. In this case, our security team has no way of knowing the real number of events or how the threat had actually started and played out, making incident response and mitigation even more challenging.

We were already a customer of Darktrace’s autonomous threat detection, attack intervention, and attack surface management capabilities, and decided to add Darktrace for AI-assisted incident response and AI cyber-attack simulation.

AI-generated playbooks save time during incident response

I wanted to reduce the time and resources it took our security team to appropriately respond to a threat. Darktrace automates several steps of the recovery process to accelerate the rate of incident response by using AI that learns the granular details of the specific organization, building a dynamic understanding of the devices, connections, and user behaviors that make up the normal “pattern of life.”  

The AI then uses this understanding to create bespoke, AI-generated incident response playbooks that leverage an evolving understanding of our organization to determine recovery steps that are tailored not only to the specific incident but also to our unique environment.

For my security team, this means having access to all the information we need to respond to a threat. When running through an incident, rather than going to different places to synthesize relevant information, which takes up valuable resources and time, we can speed up its remediation with Darktrace.  

The playbooks created by Darktrace help lower the technical skills required to respond to incidents by elevating the workload of the staff, tripling our capacity for incident response.

Realistic attack simulations upskill teams while saving resources

We have differing levels of experience on the team which means some members know exactly what to do during incident response while others are slower and need more guidance. Thus, we have to either outsource skilled security professionals or add a security solution that could lower the technical skills bar.

You don’t want to be second guessing and searching for the right move – it’s urgent – there should be certainty. Our goal with running attack simulations is to test and train our team's response capabilities in a “realistic” scenario. But this takes considerable time to plan and execute or can be expensive if outsourced, which can be a challenge for organizations short on resources. 

Darktrace provides AI-assisted incident response and cyber-attack simulation using AI that understands the organization to run simulations that effectively map onto the real digital environment and the assets within it, providing training for actual incidents.

It is one thing to sit together in a meeting and discuss various outcomes of a cyber-attack, talking through the best response strategies. It is a huge benefit being able to run attack simulations that emulate real-world scenarios.

Our team can now see how an incident would play out over several days to resemble a real-world scenario or it can play through the simulation quickly to ascertain outcomes immediately. It then uses these insights to strengthen its technology, processes, and training.

AI-Powered Incident Response

Darktrace helps my security team save resources and upskill staff using AI to generate bespoke playbooks and run realistic simulations. Its real-time understanding of our business ensures incident preparedness and incident response are tailored to not only the specific threat in question, but also to the contextual infrastructure of the organization.  

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About the author
Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

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Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024

Email threat landscape  

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

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

What is DMARC?

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

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

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

How does DMARC work?

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

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

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

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

Understanding DMARC’s Limitations

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

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

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

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

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

Implementing DMARC

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

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

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

The Future of Email Security

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

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

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

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

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About the author
Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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