$70 Million in Cyber Security Funding for Electric Cooperatives & Utilities

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22
Nov 2023
22
Nov 2023
This blog discusses the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) announcement of funding for electric cooperatives, small investor-owned, and municipalities to be allocated to their cyber security posture.

What is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal?

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by congress in 2021 aimed to upgrade power and infrastructure to deliver clean, reliable energy across the US to achieve zero-emissions. To date, the largest investment in clean energy, the deal will fund new programs to support the development and deployment of clean energy technology.

Why is it relevant to electric municipalities?

Section 40124 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocates $250 million over a 5-year period to create the Rural and Municipal Utility Cybersecurity (RMUC) Program to help electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities protect against, detect, respond to, and recover from cybersecurity threats.1 This act illuminates the value behind a full life-cycle approach to cyber security. Thus, finding a cyber security solution that can provide all aspects of security in one integrated platform would enhance the overall security posture and ease many of the challenges that arise with adopting multiple point solutions.

On November 16, 2023 the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) released the Advanced Cybersecurity Technology (ACT) for electric utilities offering a $70 million funding opportunity that aims to enhance the cybersecurity posture of electric cooperative, municipal, and small investor-owned utilities.

Funding Details

10 projects will be funded with application submissions due November 29, 2023, 5:00 pm ET with $200,000 each in cash prizes in the following areas:

  1. Direct support for eligible utilities to make investments in cybersecurity technologies, tools, training, and improvements in utility processes and procedures;
  2. Funding to strengthen the peer-to-peer and not-for-profit cybersecurity technical assistance ecosystem currently serving eligible electric utilities; and
  3. Increasing access to cybersecurity technical assistance and training for eligible utilities with limited cybersecurity resources. 2

To submit for this award visit: https://www.herox.com/ACT1Prize

How can electric municipalities utilize the funding?

While the adoption of hybrid working patterns increase cloud and SaaS usage, the number of industrial IoT devices also continues to rise. The result is decrease in visibility for security teams and new entry points for attackers. Particularly for energy and utility organizations.

Electric cooperatives seeking to enhance their cyber security posture can aim to invest in cyber security tools that provide the following:

Compliance support: Consider finding an OT security solution that maps out how its solutions and features help your organization comply with relevant compliance mandates such as NIST, ISA, FERC, TSA, HIPAA, CIS Controls, and more.

Anomaly based detection: Siloed security solutions also fail to detect attacks that span
the entire organization. Anomaly-based detection enhances an organization’s cyber security posture by proactively defending against potential attacks and maintaining a comprehensive view of their attack surface.

Integration capabilities: Implementation of several point solutions that complete individual tasks runs the risk of increasing workloads for operators and creates additional challenges with compliance, budgeting, and technical support. Look for cyber security tools that integrate with your existing technologies.

Passive and active asset tracking: Active Identification offers accurate enumeration, real time updates, vulnerability assessment, asset validation while Passive Identification eliminates the risk of operational disruption, minimizes risk, does not generate additional network traffic. It would be ideal to find a security solution that can do both.

Can secure both IT and OT in unison: Given that most OT cyber-attacks actually start in IT networks before pivoting into OT, a mature security posture for critical infrastructure would include a single solution for both IT and OT. Separate solutions for IT and OT present challenges when defending network boundaries and detecting incidents when an attacker pivots from IT to OT. These independent solutions also significantly increase operator workload and materially diminish risk mitigation efforts.

Darktrace/OT for Electric Cooperatives and Utilities

For smaller teams with just one or two dedicated employees, Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst and Investigation features allow end users to spend less time in the platform as it compiles critical incidents into comprehensive actionable event reports. AI Analyst brings all the information into a centralized view with incident reporting in natural language summaries and can be generated for compliance reports specific to regulatory requirements.  

For larger teams, Darktrace alerts can be forwarded to 3rd party platforms such as a SIEM, where security team decision making is augmented. Additionally, executive reports and autonomous response reduce the alert fatigue generally associated with legacy tools. Most importantly, Darktrace’s unique understanding of normal allows security teams to detect zero-days and signatureless attacks regardless of the size of the organization and how alerts are consumed.

Key Benefits of Darktrace/OT

Figure 1: Darktrace/OT stops threats moving from IT to OT by providing a unified view across both systems

References

1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/06/fact-sheet-the-bipartisan-infrastructure-deal/

2. https://www.energy.gov/ceser/rural-and-municipal-utility-advanced-cybersecurity-grant-and-technical-assistance-rmuc

INSIDE THE SOC
Darktrace cyber analysts are world-class experts in threat intelligence, threat hunting and incident response, and provide 24/7 SOC support to thousands of Darktrace customers around the globe. Inside the SOC is exclusively authored by these experts, providing analysis of cyber incidents and threat trends, based on real-world experience in the field.
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Jeff Cornelius joined Darktrace in February of 2015 as Executive Vice President and oversees Darktrace’s Cyber-Physical Security solutions while serving as a subject matter expert around Darktrace’s solutions for OT/ICS environments. Jeff has been the featured/keynote speaker at numerous international events and conferences and regularly shares insights at global events. Prior to joining, Darktrace, Jeff held a several C-level and Executive Commercial positions delivering subject matter expertise in the security, compliance and governance sectors. Jeff holds advanced degrees in Experimental Psychology (Social, Cognition, Perception) and Experimental Statistics and previously taught at the University of Texas and New Mexico State University where he held adjunct positions.

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

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22
Apr 2024

About the AI Cybersecurity Report

We surveyed 1,800 CISOs, security leaders, administrators, and practitioners from industries around the globe. Our research was conducted to understand how the adoption of new AI-powered offensive and defensive cybersecurity technologies are being managed by organizations.

This blog is continuing the conversation from our last blog post “The State of AI in Cybersecurity: Unveiling Global Insights from 1,800 Security Practitioners” which was an overview of the entire report. This blog will focus on one aspect of the overarching report, the impact of AI on the cyber threat landscape.

To access the full report click here.

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

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

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

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

a hypothetical cyber attack augmented by AI at every stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To access the full report click here.

References

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

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

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Sliver C2: How Darktrace Provided a Sliver of Hope in the Face of an Emerging C2 Framework

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17
Apr 2024

Offensive Security Tools

As organizations globally seek to for ways to bolster their digital defenses and safeguard their networks against ever-changing cyber threats, security teams are increasingly adopting offensive security tools to simulate cyber-attacks and assess the security posture of their networks. These legitimate tools, however, can sometimes be exploited by real threat actors and used as genuine actor vectors.

What is Sliver C2?

Sliver C2 is a legitimate open-source command-and-control (C2) framework that was released in 2020 by the security organization Bishop Fox. Silver C2 was originally intended for security teams and penetration testers to perform security tests on their digital environments [1] [2] [5]. In recent years, however, the Sliver C2 framework has become a popular alternative to Cobalt Strike and Metasploit for many attackers and Advanced Persistence Threat (APT) groups who adopt this C2 framework for unsolicited and ill-intentioned activities.

The use of Sliver C2 has been observed in conjunction with various strains of Rust-based malware, such as KrustyLoader, to provide backdoors enabling lines of communication between attackers and their malicious C2 severs [6]. It is unsurprising, then, that it has also been leveraged to exploit zero-day vulnerabilities, including critical vulnerabilities in the Ivanti Connect Secure and Policy Secure services.

In early 2024, Darktrace observed the malicious use of Sliver C2 during an investigation into post-exploitation activity on customer networks affected by the Ivanti vulnerabilities. Fortunately for affected customers, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to recognize the suspicious network-based connectivity that emerged alongside Sliver C2 usage and promptly brought it to the attention of customer security teams for remediation.

How does Silver C2 work?

Given its open-source nature, the Sliver C2 framework is extremely easy to access and download and is designed to support multiple operating systems (OS), including MacOS, Windows, and Linux [4].

Sliver C2 generates implants (aptly referred to as ‘slivers’) that operate on a client-server architecture [1]. An implant contains malicious code used to remotely control a targeted device [5]. Once a ‘sliver’ is deployed on a compromised device, a line of communication is established between the target device and the central C2 server. These connections can then be managed over Mutual TLS (mTLS), WireGuard, HTTP(S), or DNS [1] [4]. Sliver C2 has a wide-range of features, which include dynamic code generation, compile-time obfuscation, multiplayer-mode, staged and stageless payloads, procedurally generated C2 over HTTP(S) and DNS canary blue team detection [4].

Why Do Attackers Use Sliver C2?

Amidst the multitude of reasons why malicious actors opt for Sliver C2 over its counterparts, one stands out: its relative obscurity. This lack of widespread recognition means that security teams may overlook the threat, failing to actively search for it within their networks [3] [5].

Although the presence of Sliver C2 activity could be representative of authorized and expected penetration testing behavior, it could also be indicative of a threat actor attempting to communicate with its malicious infrastructure, so it is crucial for organizations and their security teams to identify such activity at the earliest possible stage.

Darktrace’s Coverage of Sliver C2 Activity

Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection means that it does not explicitly attempt to attribute or distinguish between specific C2 infrastructures. Despite this, Darktrace was able to connect Sliver C2 usage to phases of an ongoing attack chain related to the exploitation of zero-day vulnerabilities in Ivanti Connect Secure VPN appliances in January 2024.

Around the time that the zero-day Ivanti vulnerabilities were disclosed, Darktrace detected an internal server on one customer network deviating from its expected pattern of activity. The device was observed making regular connections to endpoints associated with Pulse Secure Cloud Licensing, indicating it was an Ivanti server. It was observed connecting to a string of anomalous hostnames, including ‘cmjk3d071amc01fu9e10ae5rt9jaatj6b.oast[.]live’ and ‘cmjft14b13vpn5vf9i90xdu6akt5k3pnx.oast[.]pro’, via HTTP using the user agent ‘curl/7.19.7 (i686-redhat-linux-gnu) libcurl/7.63.0 OpenSSL/1.0.2n zlib/1.2.7’.

Darktrace further identified that the URI requested during these connections was ‘/’ and the top-level domains (TLDs) of the endpoints in question were known Out-of-band Application Security Testing (OAST) server provider domains, namely ‘oast[.]live’ and ‘oast[.]pro’. OAST is a testing method that is used to verify the security posture of an application by testing it for vulnerabilities from outside of the network [7]. This activity triggered the DETECT model ‘Compromise / Possible Tunnelling to Bin Services’, which breaches when a device is observed sending DNS requests for, or connecting to, ‘request bin’ services. Malicious actors often abuse such services to tunnel data via DNS or HTTP requests. In this specific incident, only two connections were observed, and the total volume of data transferred was relatively low (2,302 bytes transferred externally). It is likely that the connections to OAST servers represented malicious actors testing whether target devices were vulnerable to the Ivanti exploits.

The device proceeded to make several SSL connections to the IP address 103.13.28[.]40, using the destination port 53, which is typically reserved for DNS requests. Darktrace recognized that this activity was unusual as the offending device had never previously been observed using port 53 for SSL connections.

Model Breach Event Log displaying the ‘Application Protocol on Uncommon Port’ DETECT model breaching in response to the unusual use of port 53.
Figure 1: Model Breach Event Log displaying the ‘Application Protocol on Uncommon Port’ DETECT model breaching in response to the unusual use of port 53.

Figure 2: Model Breach Event Log displaying details pertaining to the ‘Application Protocol on Uncommon Port’ DETECT model breach, including the 100% rarity of the port usage.
Figure 2: Model Breach Event Log displaying details pertaining to the ‘Application Protocol on Uncommon Port’ DETECT model breach, including the 100% rarity of the port usage.

Further investigation into the suspicious IP address revealed that it had been flagged as malicious by multiple open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors [8]. In addition, OSINT sources also identified that the JARM fingerprint of the service running on this IP and port (00000000000000000043d43d00043de2a97eabb398317329f027c66e4c1b01) was linked to the Sliver C2 framework and the mTLS protocol it is known to use [4] [5].

An Additional Example of Darktrace’s Detection of Sliver C2

However, it was not just during the January 2024 exploitation of Ivanti services that Darktrace observed cases of Sliver C2 usages across its customer base.  In March 2023, for example, Darktrace detected devices on multiple customer accounts making beaconing connections to malicious endpoints linked to Sliver C2 infrastructure, including 18.234.7[.]23 [10] [11] [12] [13].

Darktrace identified that the observed connections to this endpoint contained the unusual URI ‘/NIS-[REDACTED]’ which contained 125 characters, including numbers, lower and upper case letters, and special characters like “_”, “/”, and “-“, as well as various other URIs which suggested attempted data exfiltration:

‘/upload/api.html?c=[REDACTED] &fp=[REDACTED]’

  • ‘/samples.html?mx=[REDACTED] &s=[REDACTED]’
  • ‘/actions/samples.html?l=[REDACTED] &tc=[REDACTED]’
  • ‘/api.html?gf=[REDACTED] &x=[REDACTED]’
  • ‘/samples.html?c=[REDACTED] &zo=[REDACTED]’

This anomalous external connectivity was carried out through multiple destination ports, including the key ports 443 and 8888.

Darktrace additionally observed devices on affected customer networks performing TLS beaconing to the IP address 44.202.135[.]229 with the JA3 hash 19e29534fd49dd27d09234e639c4057e. According to OSINT sources, this JA3 hash is associated with the Golang TLS cipher suites in which the Sliver framework is developed [14].

Conclusion

Despite its relative novelty in the threat landscape and its lesser-known status compared to other C2 frameworks, Darktrace has demonstrated its ability effectively detect malicious use of Sliver C2 across numerous customer environments. This included instances where attackers exploited vulnerabilities in the Ivanti Connect Secure and Policy Secure services.

While human security teams may lack awareness of this framework, and traditional rules and signatured-based security tools might not be fully equipped and updated to detect Sliver C2 activity, Darktrace’s Self Learning AI understands its customer networks, users, and devices. As such, Darktrace is adept at identifying subtle deviations in device behavior that could indicate network compromise, including connections to new or unusual external locations, regardless of whether attackers use established or novel C2 frameworks, providing organizations with a sliver of hope in an ever-evolving threat landscape.

Credit to Natalia Sánchez Rocafort, Cyber Security Analyst, Paul Jennings, Principal Analyst Consultant

Appendices

DETECT Model Coverage

  • Compromise / Repeating Connections Over 4 Days
  • Anomalous Connection / Application Protocol on Uncommon Port
  • Anomalous Server Activity / Server Activity on New Non-Standard Port
  • Compromise / Sustained TCP Beaconing Activity To Rare Endpoint
  • Compromise / Quick and Regular Windows HTTP Beaconing
  • Compromise / High Volume of Connections with Beacon Score
  • Anomalous Connection / Multiple Failed Connections to Rare Endpoint
  • Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare
  • Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination
  • Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase
  • Compromise / Large Number of Suspicious Failed Connections
  • Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
  • Compromise / Possible Malware HTTP Comms
  • Compromise / Possible Tunnelling to Bin Services
  • Anomalous Connection / Low and Slow Exfiltration to IP
  • Device / New User Agent
  • Anomalous Connection / New User Agent to IP Without Hostname
  • Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location
  • Anomalous File / Numeric File Download
  • Anomalous Connection / Powershell to Rare External
  • Anomalous Server Activity / New Internet Facing System

List of Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

18.234.7[.]23 - Destination IP - Likely C2 Server

103.13.28[.]40 - Destination IP - Likely C2 Server

44.202.135[.]229 - Destination IP - Likely C2 Server

References

[1] https://bishopfox.com/tools/sliver

[2] https://vk9-sec.com/how-to-set-up-use-c2-sliver/

[3] https://www.scmagazine.com/brief/sliver-c2-framework-gaining-traction-among-threat-actors

[4] https://github[.]com/BishopFox/sliver

[5] https://www.cybereason.com/blog/sliver-c2-leveraged-by-many-threat-actors

[6] https://securityaffairs.com/158393/malware/ivanti-connect-secure-vpn-deliver-krustyloader.html

[7] https://www.xenonstack.com/insights/out-of-band-application-security-testing

[8] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/103.13.28.40/detection

[9] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/browse.php?search=ioc%3A107.174.78.227

[10] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/1074576/

[11] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/1093887/

[12] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/846889/

[13] https://threatfox.abuse.ch/ioc/1093889/

[14] https://github.com/projectdiscovery/nuclei/issues/3330

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Natalia Sánchez Rocafort
Cyber Security Analyst
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