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Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
Feb 2024
29
Feb 2024
This blog explores the benefits, implementation, challenges, and future trends associated with Domain-based Message Authentication (DMARC).

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

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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Carlos Gray
Product Manager

Carlos Gonzalez Gray is a Product Marketing Manager at Darktrace. Based in the Madrid Office, Carlos engages with the global product team to ensure each product supports the company’s overall strategy and goals throughout their entire lifecycle. Previous to his position in the product team, Carlos worked as a Cyber Technology Specialist where he specialized in the OT sector protecting critical infrastructure.  His background as a consultant in Spain to IBEX 35 companies led him to become well versed in matters of compliance, auditing and data privacy as well. Carlos holds an Honors BA in Political Science and a Masters in Cybersecurity from IE University.

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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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