Attacks are Getting Personal, but Cyber Security is Not

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Dec 2023
Dec 2023
Generative AI and other open-source tools are allowing threat actors to launch targeted 'one-on-one' attacks at scale. Security tools that apply AI in the wrong way won't see new and targeted attacks coming - but Self-Learning AI that trains itself on your data can. This blog compares cyber security AI approaches and methods.

Cyber-attacks are getting personal. The usual opportunistic “spray and pray” attacks that reach many would-be targets at once are still present, but as cyber defence has advanced, today’s more sophisticated campaigns take precise aim at a particular company.

Threat actors willingly put in extra time and effort to realize a bigger payday at the end of it, but developments in the tools they have at their disposal are also making targeted, personal attacks easier.

CAPTCHA-breaking AI techniques like computer vision and convolutional neural networks can be used to gather information on an organization’s attack surface, and Generative AI is able to perform OSINT collection on a specific target, or targets, within an organization. Once inside, attackers can further leverage AI to automatically tweak attacks and create novel, highly targeted threats that elude defenses.

A new white paper, The CISO’s Guide to Cyber AI, explains how CISOs and their teams can make smarter use of defensive AI and machine learning (ML) to protect today’s digital environments from these and more advanced novel threats.

Today’s threats don’t necessarily resemble past attacks  

Darktrace analytics pointed to a sharp rise in novel cyber-attacks earlier this year. Generative AI and large language model (LLM) tools continue to lower the barrier to entry for threat actors, making it easier than ever to build smarter, faster, more targeted attacks.

But while attacks are getting personal, security tools that apply AI in the wrong way won’t see these attacks coming.

Here’s why: most cyber security tools and platforms rely on a combination of supervised machine learning, deep learning, and transformers to train and inform their systems. This entails shipping your company’s data out to a large data lake housed somewhere in the cloud where it gets blended with attack data from thousands of other organizations. The resulting homogenized data set gets used to train AI systems — yours and everyone else’s — to recognize patterns of attack based on previously encountered threats.

At its conception, this was a reasonably smart way of approaching cyber security. For a long time, the assumption that today’s threats will resemble yesterday’s attacks was a valid one. But in an age where the commoditization of cyber-crime has lowered the bar-to-entry for attackers, and where Generative AI and other open-source tools are enabling personalized attacks at scale, this is no longer the case.

Darktrace has seen evidence this year of a marked rise in more sophisticated attack techniques. Between May and July this year, our Cyber AI Research Centre observed that multistage payload attacks, in which a malicious email encourages the recipient to follow a series of steps before delivering a payload or attempting to harvest sensitive information, have increased by an average of 59% across Darktrace customers. Some of this will be QR code phishing, the latest trend in attack tactics, others will include automation. The speed of these types of attacks will likely rise as greater automation and AI are adopted and applied by attackers.

This ‘historical’ approach is not able to identify threats that haven’t been seen before: attacks that use new malware, novel social engineering, and those that are targeted to your organization. There are no indicators of compromise (IoCs) to teach your system to recognize these kinds of attacks.

IoC-based defenses won’t necessarily spot strange and unusual activity by an authorized user, device, or known IP address until threat actors tip their hand — and by then it’s too late. Looking for repeat patterns works well for detecting threats that resemble past attacks, but this increasingly won’t be the case. The only way to spot unique and novel threats is to build cyber security that’s tailored to you, and that requires a whole new approach.

Smarter use of AI levels the playing field

Security teams and adversaries continue to innovate to gain the upper-hand, and the advantage of time.

Since AI equips even novice cyber criminals to mount sophisticated attacks, AI must evolve to do three things:

  • Understand and continue to learn what “normal” looks like for your unique digital environment
  • Detect and alert on any anomalous behavior the instant it occurs
  • Initiate a targeted response to contain threats and give your analysts more time, without disrupting the flow of business

Darktrace uses Self-Learning AI to understand what constitutes ‘normal’ for everyone and everything in your business, including cloud resources, identities, email accounts, endpoint devices, and even OT controllers. As the name suggests, Self-Learning AI trains itself, developing and maintaining deep understanding of ‘patterns of life’ for your business environment. Used in combination with other AI methods such as LLMs, generative AI, and supervised ML, Self-Learning AI identifies novel cyber-threats most static (backward-looking) tools miss.

The technology learns ‘on the job’ and from scratch, without relying on historical data or a massive upfront effort by your team to train the system. Probabilistic mathematics revise assumptions about behavior on a constant basis so the system keeps itself up-to-date without repeat efforts by your team.

The result is that areas of risk, as well as real-time emerging attacks, are brought to the surface – regardless of whether those attacks have been seen before in the wild.

Surgical attacks warrant surgical response

Supervised ML continues to serve a purpose, but the dawning age of novel and AI-led attacks favors a more proactive approach to securing the cloud. Tools must take greater responsibility for their own education and greater initiative via autonomous response.

What some solutions call response ultimately amounts to sending alerts and opening tickets that create more needless work for analysts. Other tools claim to automate response, but either take very limited actions like automating the process of ticket creation, or overly ambitious steps like quarantining entire systems.

Darktrace’s dynamic understanding of your environment enables a truly autonomous and precise cloud-native response. Its understanding of ‘normal’ for every user and device allows it to enforce ‘normal’ – cutting out only the malicious activity, while allowing normal business to continue functioning.

How this response will take place will depend on where Darktrace is deployed in your environment. In the network, it might mean blocking specific, anomalous connections over a certain port. In the cloud, it could mean detaching EC2 instances and applying security groups to contain only assets at risk. In email, this could be locking links or flattening attachments.

Get personal with ‘One on One’ Security

The widespread accessibility of generative AI has altered the threat landscape permanently, allowing cyber-criminals to deploy unique and personalized attacks at scale and at machine speed. In the near future, we can expect to see more novel and sophisticated phishing attacks, new automated creation of malicious code, sustained attack campaigns targeting an individual or company, and even deep fakes designed to elicit human trust.

To meet the needs of today and tomorrow, cyber security needs to leverage AI deeply and intelligently – not just using it to automate outdated historical approaches, or bolting generative AI onto existing products to keep up with the latest trend. Since 2013 Darktrace has been using AI in a fundamentally unique way: a system that learns your unique organization and understands what’s normal at a granular level. Only with this personalized understanding can you be confident in your ability as an organization to identify and shut down novel threats on the first encounter.

This form of personalized, ‘One on One’ security is a no longer a ‘nice to have’ for defenders. ‘Spray and pray’ tactics will continue to exist, but the attacks most likely to slip through the net and cause you damage are the sophisticated, the personal, and the never-before-seen. That’s what Self-Learning AI was built for – learning your business to deliver personalized cyber security, meeting every attack one-on-one.

The CISO’s Guide to Cyber AI overviews the differences between common AI approaches in cyber security and offers a high-level checklist for choosing the ideal solution for stopping attacks — including new novel threats.  To learn more about making the smartest use of AI to stop novel and targeted cloud attacks, download the guide today.

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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Customer Blog: Community Housing Limited Enhancing Incident Response

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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

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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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