Piloting Airline Cyber Security with AI
A Thin Margin for Error
The airline industry has long been known for its thin profit margins, and the high costs of unexpected downtime. 2010’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland and the resulting six-day airspace ban across Europe cost airlines $1.7 billion, just a taste of the impact that would come ten years later as a result of the pandemic. The industry collectively amassed more than $180 billion in debt in 2020, and some predictions suggest that by 2024 the industry's debt could exceed its revenue.
Given the impact that further sustained downtime could have on an already ailing industry, airlines are having to take cyber security seriously. Last year’s Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack in the US led to a six-day shutdown of pipeline operations – the same length of time that flights were grounded by the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. But while the industry hasn’t seen a volcanic eruption on that scale in over twelve years, ransomware attacks are striking airlines weekly. Just this year a ransomware attack on SpiceJet left hundreds of passengers stranded at airports across India, despite being contained relatively quickly.
Fraud, Fines and Safety Risks
It isn’t just ransomware which is concerning many in the industry. Data breaches remain one of the biggest threats to airlines, organizations which are responsible at any one time for the personal and financial information of millions of customers. In 2019, British Airways had the data of 380,000 customers stolen, including addresses, birth dates and credit card information, and was fined £20 million (reduced from £183 million due in part to the impact of the pandemic) by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the largest issued fine in the ICO’s history. The European airline EasyJet is currently facing a class-action suit seeking £18 billion in damages after failing to properly disclose the loss of 2,208 customers’ credit-card information in 2020.
Airlines are also losing out to card and air mile fraud, with thousands of fraudulent loyalty program accounts being sold on the dark web, as well as the usual roster of attacks including phishing and insider threats which affect businesses of every size and industry. The airlines themselves are not being complacent. In a 2021 report by SITA, 100% of airlines surveyed named cyber security as a key investment for the next three years. Making sure that those investments count will be the next challenge.
There are few industries for which safety and security measures are so important, and while no impact on flight safety as a result of a cyber-attack has yet been reported, agencies like Eurocontrol are already urging caution. Airlines and airports should look at smarter ways to proactively protect their digital environments.
As attacks grow faster and less predictable, organizations are increasingly turning to preventative AI security measures. For airlines, which operate with broad attack surfaces and plenty of valuable data, using tools which can identify and monitor every asset and potential attack path in an organization and take the necessary steps to secure them is the best way to stay ahead of attackers.
Securing Airspace, Securing Cyberspace
As a recreational pilot myself, I understand the extent of the safety measures that go into every flight: the flight plans, pre-flight checks and all of the long-practiced, deep-embedded knowledge. It is this comprehensive and meticulous approach which ought to be reflected in organizations’ cyber security efforts – whether they be airlines, airports or any other type of business. The parallels between the processes of flying and running a digital organization safely give us a helpful way to understand what proper, AI-driven cyber security can do for any organization, airlines included.
Cleared for Takeoff
For the pilot, safety measures start long before they’re sat in the cockpit. Flight planning, which includes planning heading and bearing, taking things like elevation, terrain, and weather conditions into consideration, must be completed in addition to plenty of pre-flight checks. The checklist the pilot works through when performing a walk around and pre-flight inspection will often be ordered so that they work in a circle around the perimeter of the whole plane. These checks prevent potential threats, covering everything from water having mixed with the fuel to birds making nests inside the engine cowling.
Darktrace PREVENT, released in July 2022, serves a similar purpose. The AI autonomously identifies and tests every single user and asset that makes up a business in order to spot potential vulnerabilities and harden defenses where necessary. Like a walk around, PREVENT/Attack Surface Management examines the full range of external assets for threats. Then, by identifying and testing potential attack pathways and mitigating against weak points and worst-case scenarios, PREVENT/End-to-End takes steps to win the fight before an attack has been launched.
Maintaining Good Visibility
When you’re piloting a plane, first and foremost you need a way to detect key variables. Your fundamental flight instruments in the cockpit are known as the six pack:
1. Airspeed Indicator
2. Attitude Indicator or Artificial Horizon
4. Turn Coordinator
5. Heading Indicator
6. Vertical Speed Indicator
These six instruments provide the critical information needed by any pilot to safely fly the aircraft. While additional instruments are required to conduct flights In low-visibility or ‘Instrument Meteorological Conditions’ (IMC) conditions, these will be essential when getting out of dangerous situations such as inadvertently flying into cloud.
Understanding an environment and adapting to its changes is also fundamental to Darktrace DETECT: an AI-driven technology which focuses on building a comprehensive knowledge of an organization’s environment in order to spot threats the moment they appear. Because it understands what is ‘normal’ for the organization, Darktrace DETECT is able to correlate multiple subtle anomalies in order to expose emerging attacks – even those which have never been seen before. Like those essential flight instruments, DETECT offers visibility into otherwise obscure regions of the environment, and ensures that any potential problems are spotted as early as possible.
In aviation and security, moving quickly once a threat has been detected is critical. When an engine stalls at 3,000 feet above ground level, you don’t have time to get the training books out and start figuring out what to do. Pilots are taught to “always have an out” and be ready to use it.
In aviation, an effective response relies for the most part on the knowledge and quick reactions of the pilot, but in cyber security, AI is making response faster and more effective than ever. Darktrace RESPOND uses DETECT’s contextual understanding in order to take the optimum action to mitigate a threat. Adaptability of this response is crucial: a single cyber-attack can come in any number of configurations, and Darktrace RESPOND is able to tailor its actions appropriately. Attacks today move too fast for human teams to be expected to keep up, but with AI taking actions at machine speed organizations can remain protected.
One of the best pieces of advice a pilot can take is to always be learning. Every flight is an opportunity to learn something new and become a better and safer pilot.
Darktrace DETECT, RESPOND, and PREVENT are all driven by Self-Learning AI, a technology which not only builds but continuously evolves its understanding of each business. This means that as an organization grows, adding more users, assets, or applications, its Darktrace coverage grows too, using each new data point to enhance its understanding and the accuracy of its actions and detections. Darktrace’s separate technologies also learn from each other. Each of the three product families continuously feeds data into the others, helping to enhance their capabilities and improving their ability to keep organizations secured against threats.
As cyber-attacks proliferate and increase in sophistication, they will continue to target organizations like airlines, which have large attack surfaces and copious amounts of customer data, and which cannot afford to weather sustained downtime. But with AI offering effective, proactive measures and clear-sky visibility, security teams can be confident in their ability to fight back.
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How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.