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Darktrace AI detects and responds to Emotet outbound malspam campaign

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27
Apr 2022
27
Apr 2022
This blog explores the resurgence of Emotet malware through a recent outbound malspam campaign on a wholesale trade, and explains how Autonomous Response interrupted the attack.


In January 2021, it was lauded that an international collaborative law enforcement operation had successfully dismantled Emotet’s infrastructure. This was one of the most prolific malware and banking Trojans which led to sensitive data loss, significant financial loss and reputational damage for its victims since early deployment in 2014.1

However, since November 2021, there have been signs of Emotet’s resurgence. Emotet has supposedly leveraged its former partner operators such as Trickbot, also discussed in another Darktrace blog, to rebuild its infrastructure by using already infected machines to download the new Emotet binary.2

Early signs of Emotet’s return appear to be synonymous with its original kill chain and attack vectors. Malware is deployed, compromising a device as a zombie machine. This device is then used to send outbound malspam campaigns. These campaigns can be masked as application installer packages or fake reply email chains to give the spam credibility. Once the malware spreads through this spam, it then attempts to infect other devices – both internally and outbound in other networks.3

In February 2022, Darktrace detected elements of this kill chain in a customer’s environment, notably observing the large volume of SMTP connections which are characteristic of an outbound spam campaign.

Figure 1: Timeline of attack showing the Emotet intrusion progress along the kill chain
Figure 2: A screenshot from VirusTotal, showing that the rare endpoint has been flagged as malicious by other security vendors


Bypassing the rest of the security stack

The attack used Living-off-the-Land techniques by making PowerShell connections via pre-existing user agents within the network. As PowerShell connections can be used for legitimate reasons, this activity appeared to bypass the rest of the customer’s security stack and was likely seen as approved by their tools. However, Darktrace detected that the device was using the PowerShell user agent to connect to an external location. This is rare in comparison to wider network behavior.

The customer’s pre-existing security did not block the outgoing SMTP connections made by the compromised device on unusual ports. However, Darktrace Antigena blocked 71% of outgoing connections on mail ports 25 and 587, significantly reducing the scale of the spam dissemination.

Darktrace insights and services

Darktrace quickly detected a range of anomalous behaviors from the new PowerShell use, uptake in C2 beaconing activity and spam. This can be highlighted via the spike in model breaches (Figure 3). Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst also launched an investigation into the device’s suspicious network scanning activity. This was essential for generating an incident summary which outlined the investigation process and technical details needed for the organization’s security team to act quickly (Figure 4).

Throughout the incident, Antigena autonomously responded to the initial breach device to enforce its ‘pattern of life’ without interrupting business processes. This significantly reduced the scope of the compromise by halting further lateral movement. In response to the malicious outbound email spam, Antigena enforced the device’s usual ‘pattern of life’ for thirty minutes and blocked connections to ports 25, 80 and 587 for one hour (Figure 5). Against the command-and-control activity, connections to 91.207.181[.]106 via port 8080 were also blocked for three hours.

The customer’s subscription to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) and Ask the Expert (ATE) services meant that this compromise was assisted by additional triage and alerting. PTN ensured that the Darktrace SOC team were quickly alerted to the breach, enabling analysts to perform a detailed investigation alongside the customer’s own security team. Simultaneously, the ATE service ensured the customer was provided with additional information to ensure the threat was less likely to happen again. This equipped the team with the vital information needed for them to act, and to restore quickly and precisely.

Figure 3: Darktrace reveals an anomalous spike in the device’s activity and associated model breaches during the attack period, represented by the dots on the graph


Figure 4: Excerpt of the AI Analyst report of the breach device’s network scanning activity
Figure 5: Antigena Network blocking external connection activity and enforcing the device’s ‘pattern of life’


The resurgence of Emotet shows how email continues to act as a crucial attack vector and source of compromise. In particular, widespread malspam campaigns remain adaptable and effective. The incident in this blog is yet another example highlighting the alarming mutability and networked nature of malware organizations. This allows them to return, even long after their dismantling. Fortunately, in this incident, Autonomous Response enabled this Emotet compromise to be minimized, while PTN and ATE services alerted and further supported the security team throughout.

Appendix

Darktrace model breaches

·    Device / Multiple Lateral Movement Model Breaches

·    Device / Large Number of Model Breaches

·    Device / Suspicious Network Scan Activity

·    Device / Network Scan

·    Device / External Address Scan

·    Device / Multiple C2 Model Breaches

·    Device / Large Number of Connections to New Endpoints

·    Device / Increased External Connectivity

·    Device / New User Agent and New IP

·    Device / New PowerShell User Agent

·    Compromise / Suspicious Beaconing Behavior

·    Compromise / Beacon to Young Endpoint

·    Compromise / Agent Beacon to New Endpoint

·    Compromise / Sustained SSL or HTTP Increase

·    Compromise / Suspicious Spam Activity

·    Anomalous Connection / Possible Outbound Spam

·    Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Expired SSL

·    Anomalous Connection / Rare External SSL Self-Signed

·    Anomalous Connection / Suspicious Self-Signed SSL

·    Anomalous Connection / Anomalous SSL without SNI to New External

·    Anomalous Connection / PowerShell to Rare External

·    AI Analyst / AI Analyst Investigation

·    Unusual Activity / Unusual External Activity

IoCs

MITRE ATT&CK Techniques Observed

Footnotes

1. https://www.cisa.gov/uscert/ncas/alerts/TA18-201A

2. https://blog.malwarebytes.com/threat-intelligence/2021/11/trickbot-helps-emotet-come-back-from-the-dead/

3. https://www.kaspersky.com/resource-center/threats/emotet

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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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04
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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Jamie Woodland
Head of Technology at Community Housing Limited

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Beyond DMARC: Navigating the Gaps in Email Security

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29
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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Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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