Inside the SOC
Growing your onion: AutoIt malware in the Darktrace kill chain
Good defence is like an onion, it has layers. Each part of a security implementation should have checks built in so that if one wall is breached, there are further contingencies. Security aficionados call this ‘defence in depth’, a military concept introduced to the cyber-sphere in 2009 . Since then, it has remained a central tenet when designing secure systems, digital or otherwise . Despite this, the attacker’s advantage is ever-present with continued development of malware and zero-day exploits. No matter how many layers a security platform has, how can organisations be expected to protect against a threat they do not know or even understand?
Take the case of one Darktrace customer, a government-contracted manufacturing company located in the Americas. This company possesses a modern OT and IT network comprised of several thousand devices. They have dozens of servers, a few of which host Microsoft Exchange. Every week, these few mail servers receive hundreds of malicious payloads which will ultimately attempt to make their way into over a thousand different inboxes while dodging different security gateways. Had the RESPOND portion of Darktrace for Email been properly enabled, this is where the story would have ended. However, in June 2022 an employee made an instinctual decision that could have potentially cost the company its time, money, and reputation as a government contractor. Their crime: opening an unknown html file attached to a compelling phishing email.
Following this misstep, a download was initiated which resulted in compromise of the system via vulnerable Microsoft admin tools from endpoints largely unknown to conventional OSINT sources. Using these tools, further malicious connectivity was accomplished before finally petering out. Fortunately, their existing Microsoft security gateway was up to date on the command and control (C2) domains observed in this breach and refused the connections.
Darktrace detected this activity at every turn, from the initial email to the download and subsequent attempted C2. Cyber AI Analyst stitched the events together for easy understanding and detected Indicators of Compromise (IOCs) that were not yet flagged in the greater intelligence community and, critically, did this all at machine speed.
So how did the attacker evade action for so long? The answer is product misconfiguration - they did not refine their ‘layers’.
On the night of June 8th an employee received a malicious email. Darktrace detected that this email contained a html attachment which itself contained links to endpoints 100% rare to the network. This email also originated from a never-before-seen sender. Although it would usually have been withheld based on these factors, the customer’s Darktrace/Email deployment was set to Advisory Mode meaning it continued through to the inbox. Late the next day, this user opened the attachment which then routed them to the 100% rare endpoint ‘xberxkiw[.]club’, a probable landing page for malware that did not register on OSINT available at the time.
Only seconds after reaching the endpoint, Darktrace detected the Microsoft BITS user agent reaching out to another 100% rare endpoint ‘yrioer[.]mikigertxyss[.]com’, which generated a DETECT/Network model breach, ‘Unusual BITS Activity’. This was immediately suspicious since BITS is a deprecated and insecure windows admin tool which has been known to facilitate the movement of malicious payloads into and around a network. Upon successfully establishing a connection, the affected device began downloading a self-professed .zip file. However, Darktrace detected this file to be an extension-swapped .exe file. A PCAP of this activity can be seen below in Figure 2.
This activity also triggered a correlating breach of the ‘Masqueraded File Transfer’ model and pushed a high-fidelity alert to the Darktrace Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service. This ensured both Darktrace and the customer’s SOC team were alerted to the anomalous activity.
At this stage the local SOC were likely beginning their triage. However further connections were being made to extend the compromise on the employee’s device and the network. The file they downloaded was later revealed to be ‘AutoIT3.exe’, a default filename given to any AutoIt script. AutoIt scripts do have legitimate use cases but are often associated with malicious activity for their ability to interact with the Windows GUI and bypass client protections. After opening, these scripts would launch on the host device and probe for other weaknesses. In this case, the script may have attempted to hunt passwords/default credentials, scan the local directory for common sensitive files, or scout local antivirus software on the device. It would then share any information gathered via established C2 channels.
After the successful download of this mismatched MIME type, the device began attempting to further establish C2 to the endpoint ‘dirirxhitoq[.]kialsoyert[.]tk’. Even though OSINT still did not flag this endpoint, Darktrace detected this outreach as suspicious and initiated its first Cyber AI Analyst investigation into the beaconing activity. Following the sixth connection made to this endpoint on the 10th of June, the infected device breached C2 models, such as ‘Agent Beacon (Long Period)’ and ‘HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination’.
As the beaconing continued, it was clear that internal reconnaissance from AutoIt was not widely achieved, although similar IOCs could be detected on at least two other internal devices. This may represent other users opening the same malicious email, or successful lateral movement and infection propagation from the initial user/device. However comparatively, these devices did not experience the same level of infection as the first employee’s machine and never downloaded any malicious executables. AutoIt has a history of being used to deliver information stealers, which suggests a possible motivation had wider network compromise been successful .
Thankfully, after the 10th of June no further exploitation was observed. This was likely due to the combined awareness and action brought by the PTN alerting, static security gateways and action from the local security team. The company were protected thanks to defence in depth.
Despite this, the role of Darktrace itself cannot be understated. Darktrace/Email was integral to the early detection process and provided insight into the vector and delivery methods used by this attacker. Post-compromise, Darktrace/Network also observed the full range of suspicious activity brought about by this incursion. In particular, the AI analyst feature played a major role in reducing the time for the SOC team to triage by detecting and flagging key information regarding some of the earliest IOCs.
Alongside the early detection, there were several instances where RESPOND/Network would have intervened however autonomous actions were limited to a small test group and not enabled widely throughout the customer’s deployment. As such, this activity continued unimpeded- a weak layer. Figure 4 highlights the first Darktrace RESPOND action which would have been taken.
This Darktrace RESPOND action provides a precise and limited response by blocking the anomalous file download. However, after continued anomalous activity, RESPOND would have strengthened its posture and enforced stronger curbs across the wider anomalous activity. This stronger enforcement is a measure designed to relegate a device to its established norm. The breach which would generate this response can be seen below:
Although Darktrace RESPOND was not fully enabled, this company had an extra layer of security in the PTN service, which alerted them just minutes after the initial file download was detected, alongside details relevant to the investigation. This ensured both Darktrace analysts and their own could review the activity and begin to isolate and remediate the threat.
Thankfully, with multiple layers in their security, the customer managed to escape this incident largely unscathed. Quick and comprehensive email and network detection, customer alerting and local gateway blocking C2 connections ensured that the infection did not have leeway to propagate laterally throughout the network. However, even though this infection did not lead to catastrophe, the fact that it happened in the first place should be a learning point.
Had RESPOND/Email been properly configured, this threat would have been stopped before reaching its intended recipients, removing the need to rely on end-users as a security measure. Furthermore, had RESPOND/Network been utilized beyond a limited test group, this activity would have been blocked at every other step of the network-level kill chain. From the anomalous MIME download to the establishment of C2, Darktrace RESPOND would have been able to effectively isolate and quarantine this activity to the host device, without any reliance on slow-to-update OSINT sources. RESPOND allows for the automation of time-sensitive security decisions and adds a powerful layer of defence that conventional security solutions cannot provide. Although it can be difficult to relinquish human ownership of these decisions, doing so is necessary to prevent unknown attackers from infiltrating using unknown vectors to achieve unknown ends.
In conclusion, this incident demonstrates an effective case study around detecting a threat with novel IOCs. However, it is also a reminder that a company’s security makeup can always be improved. Overall, when building security layers in a company’s ‘onion’, it is great to have the best tools, but it is even greater to use them in the best way. Only with continued refining can organisations guarantee defence in depth.
Thanks to Connor Mooney and Stefan Rowe for their contributions.
Darktrace Model Detections
· Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location
· Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)
· Compromise / HTTP Beaconing to Rare Destination
· Device / Large Number of Model Breaches
· Device / Suspicious Domain
· Device / Unusual BITS Activity
· Enhanced Monitoring: Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer
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Inside the SOC
How Abuse of ‘PerfectData Software’ May Create a Perfect Storm: An Emerging Trend in Account Takeovers
Amidst the ever-changing threat landscape, new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) seem to emerge daily, creating extreme challenges for security teams. The broad range of attack methods utilized by attackers seems to present an insurmountable problem: how do you defend against a playbook that does not yet exist?
Faced with the growing number of novel and uncommon attack methods, it is essential for organizations to adopt a security solution able to detect threats based on their anomalies, rather than relying on threat intelligence alone.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed an emerging trend in the use of an application known as ‘PerfectData Software’ for probable malicious purposes in several Microsoft 365 account takeovers.
Using its anomaly-based detection, Darktrace DETECT™ was able to identify the activity chain surrounding the use of this application, potentially uncovering a novel piece of threat actor tradecraft in the process.
Microsoft 365 Intrusions
In recent years, Microsoft’s Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite, Microsoft 365, along with its built-in identity and access management (IAM) service, Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), have been heavily targeted by threat actors due to their near-ubiquitous usage across industries. Four out of every five Fortune 500 companies, for example, use Microsoft 365 services .
Malicious actors typically gain entry to organizations’ Microsoft 365 environments by abusing either stolen account credentials or stolen session cookies . Once inside, actors can access sensitive data within mailboxes or SharePoint repositories, and send out emails or Teams messages. This activity can often result in serious financial harm, especially in cases where the malicious actor’s end-goal is to elicit fraudulent transactions.
Darktrace regularly observes malicious actors behaving in predictable ways once they gain access to customer Microsoft 365 environment. One typical example is the creation of new inbox rules and sending deceitful emails intended to convince recipients to carry out subsequent actions, such as following a malicious link or providing sensitive information. It is also common for actors to register new applications in Azure AD so that they can be used to conduct follow-up activities, like mass-mailing or data theft. The registration of applications in Azure AD therefore seems to be a relatively predictable threat actor behavior . Darktrace DETECT understands that unusual application registrations in Azure AD may constitute a deviation in expected behavior, and therefore a possible indicator of account compromise.
These registrations of applications in Azure AD are evidenced by creations of, as well as assignments of permissions to, Service Principals in Azure AD. Darktrace has detected a growing trend in actors creating and assigning permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. Further investigation of this Azure AD activity revealed it to be part of an ongoing account takeover.
‘PerfectData Software’ Activity
Darktrace observed variations of the following pattern of activity relating to an application named ‘PerfectData Software’ within its customer base:
- Actor signs in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint associated with a Virtual Private Server (VPS) or Virtual Private Network (VPN) service
- Actor registers an application called 'PerfectData Software' with Azure AD, and then grants permissions to the application
- Actor accesses mailbox data and creates inbox rule
In two separate incidents, malicious actors were observed conducting their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services (HideMyAss (HMA) VPN and Surfshark VPN, respectively) and from endpoints within the Autonomous System AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01.
In March 2023, Darktrace observed a malicious actor signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from a Kuwait-based IP address within the Autonomous System, AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o. This IP address is associated with the VPN service, HMA VPN. Over the next couple of days, an actor (likely the same malicious actor) signed in to the account several more times from two different Nigeria-based endpoints, as well as a VPS-related endpoint and a HMA VPN endpoint.
During their login sessions, the actor performed a variety of actions. First, they created and assigned permissions to a Service Principal named ‘PerfectData Software’. This Service Principal creation represents the registration of an application called ‘PerfectData Software’ in Azure AD. Although the reason for registering this application is unclear, within a few days the actor registered and granted permission to another application, ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’, and created a new inbox rule names ‘s’ on the mailbox of the hijacked account. This inbox rule moved emails meeting certain conditions to a folder named ‘RSS Subscription. The ‘Newsletter Software Supermailer’ application was likely registered by the actor to facilitate mass-mailing activity.
Immediately after these actions, Darktrace detected the actor sending out thousands of malicious emails from the account. The emails included an attachment named ‘Credit Transfer Copy.html’, which contained a suspicious link. Further investigation revealed that the customer’s network had received several fake invoice emails prior to this initial intrusion activity. Additionally, there was an unusually high volume of failed logins to the compromised account around the time of the initial access.
In a separate case also observed by Darktrace in March 2023, a malicious actor was observed signing in to a Microsoft 365 account from an endpoint within the Autonomous System, AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON. The endpoint appears to be related to the VPN service, Surfshark VPN. This login was followed by several failed and successful logins from a VPS-related within the Autonomous System, AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01. The actor was then seen registering and assigning permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’. As with the previous example, the motives for this registration are unclear. The actor proceeded to log in several more times from a Surfshark VPN endpoint, however, they were not observed carrying out any further suspicious activity.
It was not clear in either of these examples, nor in fact any of cases observed by Darktrace, why actors had registered and assigned permissions to an application called ‘PerfectData Software’, and there do not appear to be any open-source intelligence (OSINT) resources or online literature related to the malicious usage of an application by that name. That said, there are several websites which appear to provide email migration and data recovery/backup tools under the moniker ‘PerfectData Software’.
It is unclear whether the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ by malicious actors observed on the networks of Darktrace customers was one of these tools. However, given the nature of the tools, it is possible that the actors intended to use them to facilitate the exfiltration of email data from compromises mailboxes.
If the legitimate software ‘PerfectData’ is the application in question in these incidents, it is likely being purchased and misused by attackers for malicious purposes. It is also possible the application referenced in the incidents is a spoof of the legitimate ‘PerfectData’ software designed to masquerade a malicious application as legitimate.
Cases of ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains detected by Darktrace typically began with an actor signing into an internal user’s Microsoft 365 account from a VPN or VPS-related endpoint. These login events, along with the suspicious email and/or brute-force activity which preceded them, caused the following DETECT models to breach:
- SaaS / Access / Unusual External Source for SaaS Credential Use
- SaaS / Access / Suspicious Login Attempt
- SaaS / Compromise / Login From Rare Following Suspicious Login Attempt(s)
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Unusual Location for SaaS and Email Activity
Subsequent activities, including inbox rule creations, registration of applications in Azure AD, and mass-mailing activity, resulted in breaches of the following DETECT models.
- SaaS / Admin / OAuth Permission Grant
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Logic Following OAuth Grant
- SaaS / Admin / New Application Service Principal
- IaaS / Admin / Azure Application Administration Activities
- SaaS / Compliance / New Email Rule
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and New Email Rule
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Suspicious Internal Exchange Activity
- SaaS / Email Nexus / Possible Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Unusual Login and Outbound Email Spam
- SaaS / Compromise / Suspicious Login and Suspicious Outbound Email(s)
In cases where Darktrace RESPOND™ was enabled in autonomous response mode, ‘PerfectData Software’ activity chains resulted in breaches of the following RESPOND models:
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Suspicious SaaS Activity Block
• Antigena / SaaS / Antigena Significant Compliance Activity Block
In response to these model breaches, Darktrace RESPOND took immediate action, performing aggressive, inhibitive actions, such as forcing the actor to log out of the SaaS platform, and disabling the user entirely. When applied autonomously, these RESPOND actions would seriously impede an attacker’s progress and minimize network disruption.
In addition, Darktrace Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously investigate registrations of the ‘PerfectData Software’ application and summarized its findings into digestible reports.
Due to the widespread adoption of Microsoft 365 services in the workplace and continued emphasis on a remote workforce, account hijackings now pose a more serious threat to organizations around the world than ever before. The cases discussed here illustrate the tendency of malicious actors to conduct their activities from endpoints associated with VPN services, while also registering new applications, like PerfectData Software, with malicious intent.
While it was unclear exactly why the malicious actors were using ‘PerfectData Software’ as part of their account hijacking, it is clear that either the legitimate or spoofed version of the application is becoming an very likely emergent piece of threat actor tradecraft.
Darktrace DETECT’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection allowed it to recognize that the use of ‘PerfectData Software’ represented a deviation in the SaaS user’s expected behavior. While Darktrace RESPOND, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly take preventative action against threat actors, blocking the potential use of the application for data exfiltration or other nefarious purposes.
MITRE ATT&CK Mapping
• T1598 – Phishing for Information
• T1110 – Brute Force
• T1078.004 – Valid Accounts: Cloud Accounts
Command and Control:
• T1105 – Ingress Tool Transfer
• T1098.003 – Account Manipulation: Additional Cloud Roles
• T1114 – Email Collection
• T1564.008 – Hide Artifacts: Email Hiding Rules
• T1534 – Internal Spearphishing
Unusual Source IPs
• 5.62.60[.]202 (AS198605 AVAST Software s.r.o.)
• 160.152.10[.]215 (AS37637 Smile-Nigeria-AS)
• 197.244.250[.]155 (AS37705 TOPNET)
• 169.159.92[.]36 (AS37122 SMILE)
• 45.62.170[.]237 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
• 92.38.180[.]49 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A)
• 129.56.36[.]26 (AS327952 AS-NATCOM)
• 92.38.180[.]47 (AS202422 G-Core Labs S.A.)
• 107.179.20[.]214 (AS397086 LAYER-HOST-HOUSTON)
• 45.62.170[.]31 (AS396073 MAJESTIC-HOSTING-01)
Darktrace Integrates Self-Learning AI with Amazon Security Lake to Support Security Investigations
Darktrace has deepened its relationship with AWS by integrating its detection and response capabilities with Amazon Security Lake.
This development will allow mutual customers to seamlessly combine Darktrace AI’s bespoke understanding of their organization with the Threat Intelligence offered by other security tools, and investigate all of their alerts in one central location.
This integration will improve the value security teams get from both products, streamlining analyst workflows and improving their ability to detect and respond to the full spectrum of known and unknown cyber-threats.
How Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake augment security teams
Amazon Security Lake is a newly-released service that automatically centralizes an organization’s security data from cloud, on-premises, and custom sources into a customer owned purpose-built data lake. Both Darktrace and Amazon Security Lake support the Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF), an open standard to simplify, combine, and analyze security logs.
Customers can store security logs, events, alerts, and other relevant data generated by various AWS services and security tools. By consolidating security data in a central lake, organizations can gain a holistic view of their security posture, perform advanced analytics, detect anomalies and open investigations to improve their security practices.
With Darktrace DETECT and RESPOND AI engines covering all assets across IT, OT, network, endpoint, IoT, email and cloud, organizations can augment the value of their security data lakes by feeding Darktrace’s rich and context-aware datapoints to Amazon Security Lake.
Amazon Security Lake empowers security teams to improve the protection of your digital estate:
- Quick and painless data normalization
- Fast-tracks ability to investigate, triage and respond to security events
- Broader visibility aids more effective decision-making
- Surfaces and prioritizes anomalies for further investigation
- Single interface for seamless data management
How will Darktrace customers benefit?
Across the Cyber AI Loop, all Darktrace solutions have been architected with AWS best practices in mind. With this integration, Darktrace is bringing together its understanding of ‘self’ for every organization with the centralized data visibility of the Amazon Security Lake. Darktrace’s unique approach to cyber security, powered by groundbreaking AI research, delivers a superior dataset based on a deep and interconnected understanding of the enterprise.
Where other cyber security solutions are trained to identify threats based on historical attack data and techniques, Darktrace DETECT gains a bespoke understanding of every digital environment, continuously analyzing users, assets, devices and the complex relationships between them. Our AI analyzes thousands of metrics to reveal subtle deviations that may signal an evolving issue – even unknown techniques and novel malware. It distinguishes between malicious and benign behavior, identifying harmful activity that typically goes unnoticed. This rich dataset is fed into RESPOND, which takes precise action to neutralize threats against any and every asset, no matter where data resides.
Both DETECT and RESPOND are supported by Darktrace Self-Learning AI, which provides full, real-time visibility into an organization’s systems and data. This always-on threat analysis already makes humans better at cyber security, improving decisions and outcomes based on total visibility of the digital ecosystem, supporting human performance with AI coverage and empowering security teams to proactively protect critical assets.
Converting Darktrace alerts to the Amazon Security Lake Open Cybersecurity Schema Framework (OCSF) supplies the Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response team with contextualized data, empowering them to accelerate their investigation, triage and response to potential cyber threats.
Darktrace is available for purchase on the AWS Marketplace.
Learn more about how Darktrace provides full-coverage, AI-powered cloud security for AWS, or see how our customers use Darktrace in their AWS cloud environments.