Securing higher education institutions poses a unique challenge compared to just about any other type of organization, from governments to nonprofits to private companies.
Higher education institutions typically prioritize an open-access IT environment, which must balance an interest in facilitating the free exchange of ideas with the imperative of robust cyber defenses to protect against intellectual property theft. Indeed, the marked rise in cyber-attacks over the past three years has not been exclusive to the private sector. Universities are, in fact, a high-value target for any cyber-criminal, as their networks hold a wealth of sensitive information, ranging from student financial details to social security numbers to cutting-edge research. And crucially, the nature of this research makes universities a prime target for advanced, state-sponsored attackers, as this information can be highly valuable to foreign governments.
The week’s news of attacks by Chinese criminals on more than two dozen universities — including MIT, The University of Hawaii, and The University of Washington — demonstrate just how serious such attacks can be. The group allegedly responsible for these attacks, Mudcarp, attempted to steal highly sensitive military research on submarine missiles using targeted phishing emails. Ostensibly written by trusted colleagues at partner universities and research institutions, these emails delivered malicious payloads by exploiting macros in Microsoft Word and Excel documents, thereby gaining access to sensitive collegiate networks. Due to the value of the technology in question, experts have speculated that these attacks were likely state-sponsored as part of China’s efforts to advance its naval operations.
A defensive nightmare
Despite containing lucrative IP and vast quantities of personal information, university networks are among the most difficult to secure. For one, the high number of both students and staff connecting to the network each day means universities must deploy hundreds, if not thousands of access points, and in contrast to private businesses, it is nearly impossible to guarantee that these access points are tightly secured. This reality makes gaining an initial foothold in the network — one of the most difficult and time-consuming stages of the attack life cycle — far easier. Moreover, as higher education institutions often facilitate high-traffic networks, they must deploy a decentralised system, with different faculties responsible for the security of their specific portion of the network. While it is common practice in the private sector, deploying a uniform set of security policies proves difficult in a university environment.
To make matters worse, an increasing number of students are now connecting multiple BYOD devices to the network, and as a consequence, higher education institutions typically have a far greater attack surface than private businesses. And at the same time, the continuous stream of students on campus also increases the difficulty of distinguishing between genuine security threats and benign — albeit undesirable — activity, such as video torrenting. This open-access culture also negatively impacts users’ attitude towards risk, with students less likely to feel responsible for their network activity compared to employees of a private business. In other words, users of higher education networks are more likely to click on suspicious links or mail attachments, while the high volume of emails sent amongst students and staff using institutional addresses makes universities an ideal target for phishing campaigns. Social engineering methods — such as delivering malware via illegitimate Facebook and Twitter accounts — are especially effective at universities, due to these services’ more or less ubiquitous use among students.
Finally, the widespread integration of poorly secured Internet of Things (IoT) devices within universities facilitates even more avenues into the network. For instance, in 2017, attackers used readily available brute-forcing tools to exploit default passwords on more than 5,000 IOT devices at an undisclosed U.S. university, implementing these devices as part of a botnet to attack the university’s network. Incidents such as this not only wreak havoc on daily activity but also inflict lasting harm on a school’s reputation.
Turning the tide with AI
Rather than focusing on building perimeter walls around campus networks, security teams should instead concentrate on tracking and monitoring network devices, ensuring that they are immediately alerted whenever an incident occurs. Indeed, with such an expansive attack surface to safeguard, and so many poorly secured IoT and BYOD devices online at all times, attackers will inevitably breach network perimeters. The key, therefore, is to attain the ability to see inside the network, and ultimately, to neutralize attacks that have already infiltrated.
Unfortunately, this internal network visibility is where the traditional security tools employed by most universities are most limited. By searching only for known threats at the perimeter using fixed rules and signatures, conventional tools alone are likely to miss the next novel attack on the world’s universities — making it all the more imperative that these institutions learn their lesson before it’s too late. On the contrary, AI security systems learn to differentiate between normal and abnormal behavior for each user, device, and network, enabling them to autonomously detect and respond to the subtle anomalies that indicate an in-progress cyber-attack.
The primary goal of a university network is to provide highly accessible learning environments on the securest possible platform. Universities should embrace cyber AI to protect valuable research and IP, without impacting on the interconnectivity that we’ve come to expect on campus.
Like this and want more?
Receive the latest blog in your inbox
양식을 제출하는 동안 문제가 발생했습니다.
Like this and want more?
Stay up to date on the latest industry news and insights.
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.
ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
최고 제품 책임자(CPO)
Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max is closely involved with Darktrace’s strategic customers & prospects. He works closely with the R&D team at Darktrace’s Cambridge UK headquarters, leading research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. When living in Germany, he was an active member of the Chaos Computer Club. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.
share this article
Stay up to date on the latest industry news and insights.
ViperSoftX: How Darktrace Uncovered A Venomous Intrusion
Fighting Info-Stealing Malware
The escalating threat posed by information-stealing malware designed to harvest and steal the sensitive data of individuals and organizations alike has become a paramount concern for security teams across the threat landscape. In direct response to security teams improving their threat detection and prevention capabilities, threat actors are forced to continually adapt and advance their techniques, striving for greater sophistication to ensure they can achieve the malicious goals.
What is ViperSoftX?
ViperSoftX is an information stealer and Remote Access Trojan (RAT) malware known to steal privileged information such as cryptocurrency wallet addresses and password information stored in browsers and password managers. It is commonly distributed via the download of cracked software from multiple sources such as suspicious domains, torrent downloads, and key generators (keygens) from third-party sites.
ViperSoftX was first observed in the wild in 2020  but more recently, new strains were identified in 2022 and 2023 utilizing more sophisticated detection evasion techniques, making it more difficult for security teams to identify and analyze. This includes using more advanced encryption methods alongside monthly changes to command-and-control servers (C2) , using dynamic-link library (DLL) sideloading for execution techiques, and subsequently loading a malicious browser extension upon infection which works as an independent info-stealer named VenomSoftX .
Between February and June 2023, Darktrace detected activity related to the VipersoftX and VenomSoftX information stealers on the networks of more than 100 customers across its fleet. Darktrace DETECT™ was able to successfully identify the anomalous network activity surrounding these emerging information stealer infections and bring them to the attention of the customers, while Darktrace RESPOND™, when enabled in autonomous response mode, was able to quickly intervene and shut down malicious downloads and data exfiltration attempts.
ViperSoftX Attack & Darktrace Coverage
In cases of ViperSoftX information stealer activity observed by Darktrace, the initial infection was caused through the download of malicious files from multimedia sites, endpoints of cracked software like Adobe Illustrator, and torrent sites. Endpoint users typically unknowingly download the malware from these endpoints with a sideloaded DLL, posing as legitimate software executables.
Darktrace detected multiple downloads from such multimedia sites and endpoints related to cracked software and BitTorrent, which were likely representative of the initial source of ViperSoftX infection. Darktrace DETECT models such as ‘Anomalous File / Anomalous Octet Stream (No User Agent)’ breached in response to this activity and were brought to the immediate attention of customer security teams. In instances where Darktrace RESPOND was configured in autonomous response mode, Darktrace was able to enforce a pattern of life on offending devices, preventing them from downloading malicious files. This ensures that devices are limited to conducting only their pre-established expected activit, minimizing disruption to the business whilst targetedly mitigating suspicious file downloads.
The downloads are then extracted, decrypted and begin to run on the device. The now compromised device will then proceed to make external connections to C2 servers to retrieve secondary PowerShell executable. Darktrace identified that infected devices using PowerShell user agents whilst making HTTP GET requests to domain generation algorithm (DGA) ViperSoftX domains represented new, and therefore unusual, activity in a large number of cases.
For example, Darktrace detected one customer device making an HTTP GET request to the endpoint ‘chatgigi2[.]com’, using the PowerShell user agent ‘Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-US) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.19041.2364’. This new activity triggered a number of DETECT models, including ‘Anomalous Connection / PowerShell to Rare External’ and ‘Device / New PowerShell User Agent’. Repeated connections to these endpoints also triggered C2 beaconing models including:
Compromise / Agent Beacon (Short Period)
Compromise / Agent Beacon (Medium Period)
Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)
Compromise / Quick and Regular Windows HTTP Beaconing
Compromise / SSL or HTTP Beacon
Although a large number of different DGA domains were detected, commonalities in URI formats were seen across affected customers which matched formats previously identified as ViperSoftX C2 communication by open-source intelligence (OSINT), and in other Darktrace investigations.
URI paths for example, were always of the format /api/, /api/v1/, /v2/, or /v3/, appearing to detail version number, as can be seen in Figure 1.
Before the secondary PowerShell executables are loaded, ViperSoftX takes a digital fingerprint of the infected machine to gather its configuration details, and exfiltrates them to the C2 server. These include the computer name, username, Operating System (OS), and ensures there are no anti-virus or montoring tools on the device. If no security tool are detected, ViperSoftX then downloads, decrypts and executes the PowerShell file.
Following the GET requests Darktrace observed numerous devices performing HTTP POST requests and beaconing connections to ViperSoftX endpoints with varying globally unique identifiers (GUIDs) within the URIs. These connections represented the exfiltration of device configuration details, such as “anti-virus detected”, “app used”, and “device name”. As seen on another customer’s deployment, this caused the model ‘Anomalous Connection / Multiple HTTP POSTs to Rare Hostname’ to breach, which was also detected by Cyber AI Analyst as seen in Figure 2.
The malicious PowerShell download then crawls the infected device’s systems and directories looking for any cryptocurrency wallet information and password managers, and exfiltrates harvest data to the C2 infrastructure. The C2 server then provides further browser extensions to Chromium browsers to be downloaded and act as a separate stand-alone information stealer, also known as VenomSoftX.
Similar to the initial download of ViperSoftX, these malicious extensions are disguised as legitimate browser extensions to evade the detection of security teams. VenomSoft X, in turn, searches through and attempts to gather sensitive data from password managers and crypto wallets stored in user browsers. Using this information, VenomSoftX is able to redirect crypocurrency transactions by intercepting and manipulating API requests between the sender and the intended recipient, directing the cryptocurrency to the attacker instead .
Following investigation into VipersoftX activity across the customer base, Darktrace notified all affected customers and opened Ask the Expert (ATE) tickets through which customer’s could directly contact the analyst team for support and guidance in the face on the information stealer infection.
How did the attack bypass the rest of the security stack?
As previously mentioned, both the initial download of ViperSoftX and the subsequent download of the VenomX browser extension are disguised as legitimate software or browser downloads. This is a common technique employed by threat actors to infect target devices with malicious software, while going unnoticed by security teams traditional security measures. Furthermore, by masquerading as a legitimate piece of software endpoint users are more likely to trust and therefore download the malware, increasing the likelihood of threat actor’s successfully carrying out their objectives. Additionally, post-infection analysis of shellcode, the executable code used as the payload, is made significantly more difficult by VenomSoftX’s use of bytemapping. Bytemapping prevents the encryption of shellcodes without its corresponding byte map, meaning that the payloads cannot easily be decrypted and analysed by security researchers. 
ViperSoftX also takes numerous attempts to prevent their C2 infrastructure from being identified by blocking access to it on browsers, and using multiple DGA domains, thus renderring defunct traditional security measures that rely on threat intelligence and static lists of indicators of compromise (IoCs).
Fortunately for Darktrace customers, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection means that it was able to detect and alert customers to this suspicious activity that may have gone unnoticed by other security tools.
Faced with the challenge of increasingly competent and capable security teams, malicious actors are having to adopt more sophisticated techniques to successfully compromise target systems and achieve their nefarious goals.
ViperSoftX information stealer makes use of numerous tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) designed to fly under the radar and carry out their objectives without being detected. ViperSoftX does not rely on just one information stealing malware, but two with the subsequent injection of the VenomSoftX browser extension, adding an additional layer of sophistication to the informational stealing operation and increasing the potential yield of sensitive data. Furthermore, the use of evasion techniques like disguising malicious file downloads as legitimate software and frequently changing DGA domains means that ViperSoftX is well equipped to infiltrate target systems and exfiltrate confidential information without being detected.
However, the anomaly-based detection capabilities of Darktrace DETECT allows it to identify subtle changes in a device’s behavior, that could be indicative of an emerging compromise, and bring it to the customer’s security team. Darktrace RESPOND is then autonomously able to take action against suspicious activity and shut it down without latency, minimizing disruption to the business and preventing potentially significant financial losses.
Protecting Prospects: How Darktrace Detected an Account Hijack Within Days of Deployment
Cloud Migration Expanding the Attack Surface
Cloud migration is here to stay – accelerated by pandemic lockdowns, there has been an ongoing increase in the use of public cloud services, and Gartner has forecasted worldwide public cloud spending to grow around 20%, or by almost USD 600 billion , in 2023. With more and more organizations utilizing cloud services and moving their operations to the cloud, there has also been a corresponding shift in malicious activity targeting cloud-based software and services, including Microsoft 365, a prominent and oft-used Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).
With the adoption and implementation of more SaaS products, the overall attack surface of an organization increases – this gives malicious actors additional opportunities to exploit and compromise a network, necessitating proper controls to be in place. This increased attack surface can leave organization’s open to cyber risks like cloud misconfigurations, supply chain attacks and zero-day vulnerabilities . In order to achieve full visibility over cloud activity and prevent SaaS compromise, it is paramount for security teams to deploy sophisticated security measures that are able to learn an organization’s SaaS environment and detect suspicious activity at the earliest stage.
Darktrace Immediately Detects Hijacked Account
In May 2023, Darktrace observed a chain of suspicious SaaS activity on the network of a customer who was about to begin their trial of Darktrace/Cloud™ and Darktrace/Email™. Despite being deployed on the network for less than a week, Darktrace DETECT™ recognized that the legitimate SaaS account, belonging to an executive at the organization, had been hijacked. Darktrace/Email was able to provide full visibility over inbound and outbound mail and identified that the compromised account was subsequently used to launch an internal spear-phishing campaign.
If Darktrace RESPOND™ were enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of this compromise, it would have been able to take swift preventative action to disrupt the account compromise and prevent the ensuing phishing attack.
Account Hijack Attack Overview
Unusual External Sources for SaaS Credentials
On May 9, 2023, Darktrace DETECT/Cloud detected the first in a series of anomalous activities performed by a Microsoft 365 user account that was indicative of compromise, namely a failed login from an external IP address located in Virginia.
Just a few minutes later, Darktrace observed the same user credential being used to successfully login from the same unusual IP address, with multi-factor authentication (MFA) requirements satisfied.
A few hours after this, the user credential was once again used to login from a different city in the state of Virginia, with MFA requirements successfully met again. Around the time of this activity, the SaaS user account was also observed previewing various business-related files hosted on Microsoft SharePoint, behavior that, taken in isolation, did not appear to be out of the ordinary and could have represented legitimate activity.
The following day, May 10, however, there were additional login attempts observed from two different states within the US, namely Texas and Florida. Darktrace understood that this activity was extremely suspicious, as it was highly improbable that the legitimate user would be able to travel over 2,500 miles in such a short period of time. Both login attempts were successful and passed MFA requirements, suggesting that the malicious actor was employing techniques to bypass MFA. Such MFA bypass techniques could include inserting malicious infrastructure between the user and the application and intercepting user credentials and tokens, or by compromising browser cookies to bypass authentication controls . There have also been high-profile cases in the recent years of legitimate users mistakenly (and perhaps even instinctively) accepting MFA prompts on their token or mobile device, believing it to be a legitimate process despite not having performed the login themselves.
New Email Rule
On the evening of May 10, following the successful logins from multiple US states, Darktrace observed the Microsoft 365 user creating a new inbox rule, named “.’, in Microsoft Outlook from an IP located in Florida. Threat actors are often observed naming new email rules with single characters, likely to evade detection, but also for the sake of expediency so as to not expend any additional time creating meaningful labels.
In this case the newly created email rules included several suspicious properties, including ‘AlwaysDeleteOutlookRulesBlob’, ‘StopProcessingRules’ and “MoveToFolder”.
Firstly, ‘AlwaysDeleteOutlookRulesBlob’ suppresses or hides warning messages that typically appear if modifications to email rules are made .In this case, it is likely the malicious actor was attempting to implement this property to obfuscate the creation of new email rules.
The ‘StopProcessingRules’ rule meant that any subsequent email rules created by the legitimate user would be overridden by the email rule created by the malicious actor . Finally, the implementation of “MoveToFolder” would allow the malicious actor to automatically move all outgoing emails from the “Sent” folder to the “Deleted Items” folder, for example, further obfuscating their malicious activities . The utilization of these email rule properties is frequently observed during account hijackings as it allows attackers to delete and/or forward key emails, delete evidence of exploitation and launch phishing campaigns .
In this incident, the new email rule would likely have enabled the malicious actor to evade the detection of traditional security measures and achieve greater persistence using the Microsoft 365 account.
A few hours after the creation of the new email rule, Darktrace observed the threat actor successfully changing the Microsoft 365 user’s account password, this time from a new IP address in Texas. As a result of this action, the attacker would have locked out the legitimate user, effectively gaining full access over the SaaS account.
The compromised SaaS account was then observed sending a high volume of suspicious emails to both internal and external email addresses. Darktrace was able to identify that the emails attempting to impersonate the legitimate service DocuSign and contained a malicious link prompting users to click on the text “Review Document”. Upon clicking this link, users would be redirected to a site hosted on Adobe Express, namely hxxps://express.adobe[.]com/page/A9ZKVObdXhN4p/.
Adobe Express is a free service that allows users to create web pages which can be hosted and shared publicly; it is likely that the threat actor here leveraged the service to use in their phishing campaign. When clicked, such links could result in a device unwittingly downloading malware hosted on the site, or direct unsuspecting users to a spoofed login page attempting to harvest user credentials by imitating legitimate companies like Microsoft.
The malicious site hosted on Adobe Express was subsequently taken down by Adobe, possibly in response to user reports of maliciousness. Unfortunately though, platforms like this that offer free webhosting services can easily and repeatedly be abused by malicious actors. Simply by creating new pages hosted on different IP addresses, actors are able to continue to carry out such phishing attacks against unsuspecting users.
In addition to the suspicious SaaS and email activity that took place between May 9 and May 10, Darktrace/Email also detected the compromised account sending and receiving suspicious emails starting on May 4, just two days after Darktrace’s initial deployment on the customer’s environment. It is probable that the SaaS account was compromised around this time, or even prior to Darktrace’s deployment on May 2, likely via a phishing and credential harvesting campaign similar to the one detailed above.
As the customer was soon to begin their trial period, Darktrace RESPOND was set in “human confirmation” mode, meaning that any preventative RESPOND actions required manual application by the customer’s security team.
If Darktrace RESPOND had been enabled in autonomous response mode during this incident, it would have taken swift mitigative action by logging the suspicious user out of the SaaS account and disabling the account for a defined period of time, in doing so disrupting the attack at the earliest possible stage and giving the customer the necessary time to perform remediation steps. As it was, however, these RESPOND actions were suggested to the customer’s security team for them to manually apply.
Nevertheless, with Darktrace DETECT/Cloud in place, visibility over the anomalous cloud-based activities was significantly increased, enabling the swift identification of the chain of suspicious activities involved in this compromise.
In this case, the prospective customer reached out to Darktrace directly through the Ask the Expert (ATE) service. Darktrace’s expert analyst team then conducted a timely and comprehensive investigation into the suspicious activity surrounding this SaaS compromise, and shared these findings with the customer’s security team.
Ultimately, this example of SaaS account compromise highlights Darktrace’s unique ability to learn an organization’s digital environment and recognize activity that is deemed to be unexpected, within a matter of days.
Due to the lack of obvious or known indicators of compromise (IoCs) associated with the malicious activity in this incident, this account hijack would likely have gone unnoticed by traditional security tools that rely on a rules and signatures-based approach to threat detection. However, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI enables it to detect the subtle deviations in a device’s behavior that could be indicative of an ongoing compromise.
Despite being newly deployed on a prospective customer’s network, Darktrace DETECT was able to identify unusual login attempts from geographically improbable locations, suspicious email rule updates, password changes, as well as the subsequent mounting of a phishing campaign, all before the customer’s trial of Darktrace had even begun.
When enabled in autonomous response mode, Darktrace RESPOND would be able to take swift preventative action against such activity as soon as it is detected, effectively shutting down the compromise and mitigating any subsequent phishing attacks.
With the full deployment of Darktrace’s suite of products, including Darktrace/Cloud and Darktrace/Email, customers can rest assured their critical data and systems are protected, even in the case of hybrid and multi-cloud environments.
Credit: Samuel Wee, Senior Analyst Consultant & Model Developer