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SaaS-Sicherheitsrisiken: Erkennung eines Multi-Account-Hijacking mit KI

Jun 2021
Jun 2021
This blog analyzes a sophisticated SaaS-based attack which leveraged several Microsoft 365 accounts to launch the offensive and maintain persistence.

The widespread and rapid adoption of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) has opened up a breadth of security risks for IT teams. Unlike commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, SaaS security tends to be managed by third-party vendors rather than the end customer. Security teams therefore struggle with reduced visibility and control over these environments, and cyber-criminals have been quick to take advantage, launching a wave of cloud-based attacks, from Vendor Email Compromise to internal account hijacks.

Attackers often gain access to multiple accounts on the same domain, enabling them to attack from multiple angles, for example sending of hundreds of emails from one account, while maintaining persistence with another. This gives the hacker an opportunity to try multiple attack vectors, using tools native to the SaaS environment as well as external payloads.

While preventative controls such as Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) provide an extra layer of protection, there are many techniques available to circumvent zero-trust approaches. Remote and flexible working is set to continue to varying degrees across many different regions and industries, so companies must now commit to securing their cloud architecture and developing proactive cyber security measures.

In this blog, we will analyze a persistent cyber-attack which targeted a real estate company in Europe and leveraged several compromised Microsoft 365 accounts. These SaaS takeovers are quickly becoming the new norm, but they are still misunderstood and poorly documented in the wider industry. Cyber AI detected every stage of this intrusion in real time, without the use of signatures or static rules.

A and B: Hijacking Microsoft 365 accounts

The organization had around 5,000 devices in its environment, with 1,000 active SaaS accounts. The timeline below shows how the threat actor leveraged the SaaS accounts of five different users to carry out the operation, as well as exploiting several other accounts on the final day.

Figure 1: Diagram of the infection chain, which occurred over three days. On the fourth day, the attacker tried again but was unsuccessful.

The actor initially compromised at least two SaaS credentials – which we’ll refer to here simply as ‘account A’ and ‘account B’ – and logged in from several unusual geographical locations, presumably using a VPN. Darktrace detected this as unusual login events for the SaaS accounts.

In account A, the attacker was observed previewing files likely to contain customer information, but did not perform any other follow-up activity. In account B, they set a new inbox rule three hours after the initial compromise, resulting in a high-severity alert.

At around this time, the threat actor sent a number of phishing emails from account B: emails that appeared to be sharing a harmless and legitimate-looking folder on OneDrive. The link probably led to a fake Microsoft login page, similar to the below, which could have recorded the victims’ credentials and sent them directly back to the attacker.

Figure 2: A seemingly legitimate Microsoft login page.

The phishing attempt was detected by Antigena Email, Darktrace’s email security technology. Antigena was in passive mode at the time, and so was not configured to take action on these threatening emails. But taking into account the highly anomalous sender surge coupled with the unusual login locations, it would have autonomously intercepted all the emails, reducing the impact of the attack.

The attacker was subsequently locked out of account B. After this, they tried (and failed) to use a legacy user agent to bypass any MFA which may have been enforced on the account. Darktrace detected this as a suspicious login and blocked the attempt.

Accounts C, D and E: The threat develops

The next day, the actor logged into a new account (account C) from the same autonomous system number (ASN), indicating that the account had been infected by the OneDrive phishing emails. In other words, the attacker had leveraged account B to compromise new users in the organization and ensure multiple points of intrusion.

Darktrace detected each stage of this, piecing together the different events into one meaningful security narrative.

Figure 3: Anomalous activity from accounts C, D, and E.

Account C was then used to preview a file likely containing contact information.

After being locked out of account C when trying to log in the next day, the hacker worked their way through two more accounts (account D and account E), which they had hijacked in the previous phishing attempts. They were locked out each time after generating alerts due to the unusual logins and new inbox rules created around the same time.

A to Z: End of the line

Running out of options, the attacker decided to go back to account A and set a new inbox rule, using it to send new phishing emails with a link to a non-Microsoft cloud storage domain (Tresorit). Again, Darktrace recognized this as highly unusual behavior, and the hacker was promptly locked out of the account.

During this burst of activity, Darktrace also observed a Microsoft Teams session from one of the suspicious ASNs. This was likely a social engineering attempt and another possible attack vector. Microsoft Teams could have been leveraged to share a malicious link over instant message, extract sensitive information, or send spam internally and externally on the chat function.

The threat actor could have then used this to pivot across various applications and accounts, assuming that the company had a siloed security approach – with different tools for cloud, SaaS, email, and endpoint – and so could not pick up on the malicious cross-platform movement.

On the following day, the attacker attempted logins on multiple accounts again, but with no success. Cyber AI had pinpointed all the anomalous activity – no matter where it originated – and alerted the security team immediately.

SaaS attack under the microscope

Multi-account compromises can be incredibly persistent and are difficult for traditional security tools to identify. The hacker used several tactics to circumvent the customer’s existing email security products:

  1. The initial use of two compromised credentials – account A and account B – allowed the hacker to stay under the radar and not raise too much suspicion on a single account. Account A was kept quiet until other avenues had been exhausted.
  2. Activity was generated from multiple ASNs in at least three different geographical locations, probably utilizing a VPN: one in Africa where much of the activity originated, and two in North America, including some widely used ASNs which were highly unusual for the customer.
  3. The attacker entirely used Microsoft services until the final emails, choosing to ‘live off the land’ rather than sending links that may have been caught by gateways.
  4. The attacker logged into Microsoft Teams in their final movements – a fairly benign-looking event which could have been used to compromise more accounts and move laterally, and would have gone undetected.

Darktrace identified every stage of the attack – including spotting the anomalous ASNs – and launched an automatic, in-depth investigation with Cyber AI Analyst. The organization was thus able to take action before the damage was done.

Figure 4: Darktrace’s SaaS console gives a clear overview of activity across all different applications.

ABCs of SaaS security

The approach of using various accounts to mount the offensive, while keeping one to maintain persistence, prolonged this intrusion. Such tactics will likely be seen again in the near future.

Tracking the number of factors involved in an attack with multiple credentials, multiple attack vectors, and multiple attacker-IPs, is a serious challenge. In these situations, it is essential to have a security solution which can detect activity across different applications, forming a unified and holistic understanding over the entire digital enterprise.

While not active in this case, Antigena SaaS would have taken autonomous action and prevented the threat from escalating by enforcing normal behavior, stopping the hacker from logging in from malicious infrastructure or performing any out-of-character SaaS actions, such as creating new inbox rules.

Following the intrusion, the company decided to adopt Antigena SaaS, which now mitigates their cloud security risks and guards against sensitive data loss and reputational damage.

Thanks to Darktrace analyst Daniel Gentle for his insights on the above threat find.

Darktrace Modell-Erkennungen:

  • SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
  • SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
  • SaaS / Unusual Activity / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
  • SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
  • Antigena Email: Unusual Login Location + Sender Surge
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.
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

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



Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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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