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Piloting Airline Cyber Security With Artificial Intelligence (AI)

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09
Oct 2022
09
Oct 2022
The airline industry is constantly exposed to cyber threats. Darktrace has some tips to help airline professionals bolster their cyber-security efforts.

A Thin Margin for Error

The airline industry has long been known for its thin profit margins, and the high costs of unexpected downtime. 2010’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland and the resulting six-day airspace ban across Europe cost airlines $1.7 billion, just a taste of the impact that would come ten years later as a result of the pandemic. The industry collectively amassed more than $180 billion in debt in 2020, and some predictions suggest that by 2024 the industry's debt could exceed its revenue.

Given the impact that further sustained downtime could have on an already ailing industry, airlines are having to take cyber security seriously. Last year’s Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack in the US led to a six-day shutdown of pipeline operations – the same length of time that flights were grounded by the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. But while the industry hasn’t seen a volcanic eruption on that scale in over twelve years, ransomware attacks are striking airlines weekly. Just this year a ransomware attack on SpiceJet left hundreds of passengers stranded at airports across India, despite being contained relatively quickly.  

Fraud, Fines and Safety Risks

It isn’t just ransomware which is concerning many in the industry. Data breaches remain one of the biggest threats to airlines, organizations which are responsible at any one time for the personal and financial information of millions of customers. In 2019, British Airways had the data of 380,000 customers stolen, including addresses, birth dates and credit card information, and was fined £20 million (reduced from £183 million due in part to the impact of the pandemic) by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the largest issued fine in the ICO’s history. The European airline EasyJet is currently facing a class-action suit seeking £18 billion in damages after failing to properly disclose the loss of 2,208 customers’ credit-card information in 2020. 

Airlines are also losing out to card and air mile fraud, with thousands of fraudulent loyalty program accounts being sold on the dark web, as well as the usual roster of attacks including phishing and insider threats which affect businesses of every size and industry. The airlines themselves are not being complacent. In a 2021 report by SITA, 100% of airlines surveyed named cyber security as a key investment for the next three years. Making sure that those investments count will be the next challenge.

There are few industries for which safety and security measures are so important, and while no impact on flight safety as a result of a cyber-attack has yet been reported, agencies like Eurocontrol are already urging caution. Airlines and airports should look at smarter ways to proactively protect their digital environments. 

As attacks grow faster and less predictable, organizations are increasingly turning to preventative AI security measures. For airlines, which operate with broad attack surfaces and plenty of valuable data, using tools which can identify and monitor every asset and potential attack path in an organization and take the necessary steps to secure them is the best way to stay ahead of attackers.

Securing Airspace, Securing Cyberspace

As a recreational pilot myself, I understand the extent of the safety measures that go into every flight: the flight plans, pre-flight checks and all of the long-practiced, deep-embedded knowledge. It is this comprehensive and meticulous approach which ought to be reflected in organizations’ cyber security efforts – whether they be airlines, airports or any other type of business. The parallels between the processes of flying and running a digital organization safely give us a helpful way to understand what proper, AI-driven cyber security can do for any organization, airlines included.

Cleared for Takeoff 

For the pilot, safety measures start long before they’re sat in the cockpit. Flight planning, which includes planning heading and bearing, taking things like elevation, terrain, and weather conditions into consideration, must be completed in addition to plenty of pre-flight checks. The checklist the pilot works through when performing a walk around and pre-flight inspection will often be ordered so that they work in a circle around the perimeter of the whole plane. These checks prevent potential threats, covering everything from water having mixed with the fuel to birds making nests inside the engine cowling.

Darktrace PREVENT, released in July 2022, serves a similar purpose. The AI autonomously identifies and tests every single user and asset that makes up a business in order to spot potential vulnerabilities and harden defenses where necessary. Like a walk around, PREVENT/Attack Surface Management examines the full range of external assets for threats. Then, by identifying and testing potential attack pathways and mitigating against weak points and worst-case scenarios, PREVENT/End-to-End takes steps to win the fight before an attack has been launched. 

Maintaining Good Visibility

When you’re piloting a plane, first and foremost you need a way to detect key variables. Your fundamental flight instruments in the cockpit are known as the six pack:

1. Airspeed Indicator
2. Attitude Indicator or Artificial Horizon 
3. Altimeter
4. Turn Coordinator 
5. Heading Indicator
6. Vertical Speed Indicator

These six instruments provide the critical information needed by any pilot to safely fly the aircraft. While additional instruments are required to conduct flights In low-visibility or ‘Instrument Meteorological Conditions’ (IMC) conditions, these will be essential when getting out of dangerous situations such as inadvertently flying into cloud.

Understanding an environment and adapting to its changes is also fundamental to Darktrace DETECT: an AI-driven technology which focuses on building a comprehensive knowledge of an organization’s environment in order to spot threats the moment they appear. Because it understands what is ‘normal’ for the organization, Darktrace DETECT is able to correlate multiple subtle anomalies in order to expose emerging attacks – even those which have never been seen before. Like those essential flight instruments, DETECT offers visibility into otherwise obscure regions of the environment, and ensures that any potential problems are spotted as early as possible. 

Mayday, Mayday

In aviation and security, moving quickly once a threat has been detected is critical. When an engine stalls at 3,000 feet above ground level, you don’t have time to get the training books out and start figuring out what to do. Pilots are taught to “always have an out” and be ready to use it.

In aviation, an effective response relies for the most part on the knowledge and quick reactions of the pilot, but in cyber security, AI is making response faster and more effective than ever. Darktrace RESPOND uses DETECT’s contextual understanding in order to take the optimum action to mitigate a threat. Adaptability of this response is crucial: a single cyber-attack can come in any number of configurations, and Darktrace RESPOND is able to tailor its actions appropriately. Attacks today move too fast for human teams to be expected to keep up, but with AI taking actions at machine speed organizations can remain protected. 

Always Learning

One of the best pieces of advice a pilot can take is to always be learning. Every flight is an opportunity to learn something new and become a better and safer pilot.

Darktrace DETECT, RESPOND, and PREVENT are all driven by Self-Learning AI, a technology which not only builds but continuously evolves its understanding of each business. This means that as an organization grows, adding more users, assets, or applications, its Darktrace coverage grows too, using each new data point to enhance its understanding and the accuracy of its actions and detections. Darktrace’s separate technologies also learn from each other. Each of the three product families continuously feeds data into the others, helping to enhance their capabilities and improving their ability to keep organizations secured against threats. 

As cyber-attacks proliferate and increase in sophistication, they will continue to target organizations like airlines, which have large attack surfaces and copious amounts of customer data, and which cannot afford to weather sustained downtime. But with AI offering effective, proactive measures and clear-sky visibility, security teams can be confident in their ability to fight back.

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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ABOUT ThE AUTHOR
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Tony Jarvis is Director of Enterprise Security, Asia Pacific and Japan, at Darktrace. Tony is a seasoned cyber security strategist who has advised Fortune 500 companies around the world on best practice for managing cyber risk. He has counselled governments, major banks and multinational companies, and his comments on cyber security and the rising threat to critical national infrastructure have been reported in local and international media including CNBC, Channel News Asia and The Straits Times. Before joining Darktrace, Tony previously served as CTO at Check Point and held senior advisory positions at FireEye, Standard Chartered Bank and Telstra. Tony holds a BA in Information Systems from the University of Melbourne.

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How to Protect your Organization Against Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks

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21
May 2024

The problem: Microsoft Teams phishing attacks are on the rise

Around 83% of Fortune 500 companies rely on Microsoft Office products and services1, with Microsoft Teams and Microsoft SharePoint in particular emerging as critical platforms to the business operations of the everyday workplace. Researchers across the threat landscape have begun to observe these legitimate services being leveraged more and more by malicious actors as an initial access method.

As Teams becomes a more prominent feature of the workplace many employees rely on it for daily internal and external communication, even surpassing email usage in some organizations. As Microsoft2 states, "Teams changes your relationship with email. When your whole group is working in Teams, it means you'll all get fewer emails. And you'll spend less time in your inbox, because you'll use Teams for more of your conversations."

However, Teams can be exploited to send targeted phishing messages to individuals either internally or externally, while appearing legitimate and safe. Users might receive an external message request from a Teams account claiming to be an IT support service or otherwise affiliated with the organization. Once a user has accepted, the threat actor can launch a social engineering campaign or deliver a malicious payload. As a primarily internal tool there is naturally less training and security awareness around Teams – due to the nature of the channel it is assumed to be a trusted source, meaning that social engineering is already one step ahead.

Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)
Figure 1: Screenshot of a Microsoft Teams message request from a Midnight Blizzard-controlled account (courtesy of Microsoft)

Microsoft Teams Phishing Examples

Microsoft has identified several major phishing attacks using Teams within the past year.

In July 2023, Microsoft announced that the threat actor known as Midnight Blizzard – identified by the United States as a Russian state-sponsored group – had launched a series of phishing campaigns via Teams with the aim of stealing user credentials. These attacks used previously compromised Microsoft 365 accounts and set up new domain names that impersonated legitimate IT support organizations. The threat actors then used social engineering tactics to trick targeted users into sharing their credentials via Teams, enabling them to access sensitive data.  

At a similar time, threat actor Storm-0324 was observed sending phishing lures via Teams containing links to malicious SharePoint-hosted files. The group targeted organizations that allow Teams users to interact and share files externally. Storm-0324’s goal is to gain initial access to hand over to other threat actors to pursue more dangerous follow-on attacks like ransomware.

For a more in depth look at how Darktrace stops Microsoft Teams phishing read our blog: Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

The market: Existing Microsoft Teams security solutions are insufficient

Microsoft’s native Teams security focuses on payloads, namely links and attachments, as the principal malicious component of any phishing. These payloads are relatively straightforward to detect with their experience in anti-virus, sandboxing, and IOCs. However, this approach is unable to intervene before the stage at which payloads are delivered, before the user even gets the chance to accept or deny an external message request. At the same time, it risks missing more subtle threats that don’t include attachments or links – like early stage phishing, which is pure social engineering – or completely new payloads.

Equally, the market offering for Teams security is limited. Security solutions available on the market are always payload-focused, rather than taking into account the content and context in which a link or attachment is sent. Answering questions like:

  • Does it make sense for these two accounts to speak to each other?
  • Are there any linguistic indicators of inducement?

Furthermore, they do not correlate with email to track threats across multiple communication environments which could signal a wider campaign. Effectively, other market solutions aren’t adding extra value – they are protecting against the same types of threats that Microsoft is already covering by default.

The other aspect of Teams security that native and market solutions fail to address is the account itself. As well as focusing on Teams threats, it’s important to analyze messages to understand the normal mode of communication for a user, and spot when a user’s Teams activity might signal account takeover.

The solution: How Darktrace protects Microsoft Teams against sophisticated threats

With its biggest update to Darktrace/Email ever, Darktrace now offers support for Microsoft Teams. With that, we are bringing the same AI philosophy that protects your email and accounts to your messaging environment.  

Our Self-Learning AI looks at content and context for every communication, whether that’s sent in an email or Teams message. It looks at actual user behavior, including language patterns, relationship history of sender and recipient, tone and payloads, to understand if a message poses a threat. This approach allows Darktrace to detect threats such as social engineering and payloadless attacks using visibility and forensic capabilities that Microsoft security doesn’t currently offer, as well as early symptoms of account compromise.  

Unlike market solutions, Darktrace doesn’t offer a siloed approach to Teams security. Data and signals from Teams are shared across email to inform detection, and also with the wider Darktrace ActiveAI security platform. By correlating information from email and Teams with network and apps security, Darktrace is able to better identify suspicious Teams activity and vice versa.  

Interested in the other ways Darktrace/Email augments threat detection? Read our latest blog on how improving the quality of end-user reporting can decrease the burden on the SOC. To find our more about Darktrace's enduring partnership with Microsoft, click here.

References

[1] Essential Microsoft Office Statistics in 2024

[2] Microsoft blog, Microsoft Teams and email, living in harmony, 2024

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Carlos Gray
Product Manager

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Inside the SOC

Don’t Take the Bait: How Darktrace Keeps Microsoft Teams Phishing Attacks at Bay

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20
May 2024

Social Engineering in Phishing Attacks

Faced with increasingly cyber-aware endpoint users and vigilant security teams, more and more threat actors are forced to think psychologically about the individuals they are targeting with their phishing attacks. Social engineering methods like taking advantage of the human emotions of their would-be victims, pressuring them to open emails or follow links or face financial or legal repercussions, and impersonating known and trusted brands or services, have become common place in phishing campaigns in recent years.

Phishing with Microsoft Teams

The malicious use of the popular communications platform Microsoft Teams has become widely observed and discussed across the threat landscape, with many organizations adopting it as their primary means of business communication, and many threat actors using it as an attack vector. As Teams allows users to communicate with people outside of their organization by default [1], it becomes an easy entry point for potential attackers to use as a social engineering vector.

In early 2024, Darktrace/Apps™ identified two separate instances of malicious actors using Microsoft Teams to launch a phishing attack against Darktrace customers in the Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. Interestingly, in this case the attackers not only used a well-known legitimate service to carry out their phishing campaign, but they were also attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

Despite these attempts to evade endpoint users and traditional security measures, Darktrace’s anomaly detection enabled it to identify the suspicious phishing messages and bring them to the customer’s attention. Additionally, Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, was able to follow-up these detections with targeted actions to contain the suspicious activity in the first instance.

Darktrace Coverage of Microsoft Teams Phishing

Chats Sent by External User and Following Actions by Darktrace

On February 29, 2024, Darktrace detected the presence of a new external user on the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) environment of an EMEA customer for the first time. The user, “REDACTED@InternationalHotelChain[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” was only observed on this date and no further activities were detected from this user after February 29.

Later the same day, the unusual external user created its first chat on Microsoft Teams named “New Employee Loyalty Program”. Over the course of around 5 minutes, the user sent 63 messages across 21 different chats to unique internal users on the customer’s SaaS platform. All these chats included the ‘foreign tenant user’ and one of the customer’s internal users, likely in an attempt to remain undetected. Foreign tenant user, in this case, refers to users without access to typical internal software and privileges, indicating the presence of an external user.

Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Figure 1: Darktrace’s detection of unusual messages being sent by a suspicious external user via Microsoft Teams.
Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.
Figure 2: Advanced Search results showing the presence of a foreign tenant user on the customer’s SaaS environment.

Darktrace identified that the external user had connected from an unusual IP address located in Poland, 195.242.125[.]186. Darktrace understood that this was unexpected behavior for this user who had only previously been observed connecting from the United Kingdom; it further recognized that no other users within the customer’s environment had connected from this external source, thereby deeming it suspicious. Further investigation by Darktrace’s analyst team revealed that the endpoint had been flagged as malicious by several open-source intelligence (OSINT) vendors.

External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.
Figure 3: External Summary highlighting the rarity of the rare external source from which the Teams messages were sent.

Following Darktrace’s initial detection of these suspicious Microsoft Teams messages, Darktrace's autonomous response was able to further support the customer by providing suggested mitigative actions that could be applied to stop the external user from sending any additional phishing messages.

Unfortunately, at the time of this attack Darktrace's autonomous response capability was configured in human confirmation mode, meaning any autonomous response actions had to be manually actioned by the customer. Had it been enabled in autonomous response mode, it would have been able promptly disrupt the attack, disabling the external user to prevent them from continuing their phishing attempts and securing precious time for the customer’s security team to begin their own remediation procedures.

Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.
Figure 4: Darktrace autonomous response actions that were suggested following the ’Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User’ detection model alert.

External URL Sent within Teams Chats

Within the 21 Teams chats created by the threat actor, Darktrace identified 21 different external URLs being sent, all of which included the domain "cloud-sharcpoint[.]com”. Many of these URLs had been recently established and had been flagged as malicious by OSINT providers [3]. This was likely an attempt to impersonate “cloud-sharepoint[.]com”, the legitimate domain of Microsoft SharePoint, with the threat actor attempting to ‘typo-squat’ the URL to convince endpoint users to trust the legitimacy of the link. Typo-squatted domains are commonly misspelled URLs registered by opportunistic attackers in the hope of gaining the trust of unsuspecting targets. They are often used for nefarious purposes like dropping malicious files on devices or harvesting credentials.

Upon clicking this malicious link, users were directed to a similarly typo-squatted domain, “InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpoInte-docs[.]com”. This domain was likely made to appear like the SharePoint URL used by the international hotel chain being impersonated.

Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.
Figure 5: Redirected link to a fake SharePoint page attempting to impersonate an international hotel chain.

This fake SharePoint page used the branding of the international hotel chain and contained a document named “New Employee Loyalty Program”; the same name given to the phishing messages sent by the attacker on Microsoft Teams. Upon accessing this file, users would be directed to a credential harvester, masquerading as a Microsoft login page, and prompted to enter their credentials. If successful, this would allow the attacker to gain unauthorized access to a user’s SaaS account, thereby compromising the account and enabling further escalation in the customer’s environment.

Figure 6: A fake Microsoft login page that popped-up when attempting to open the ’New Employee Loyalty Program’ document.

This is a clear example of an attacker attempting to leverage social engineering tactics to gain the trust of their targets and convince them to inadvertently compromise their account. Many corporate organizations partner with other companies and well-known brands to offer their employees loyalty programs as part of their employment benefits and perks. As such, it would not necessarily be unexpected for employees to receive such an offer from an international hotel chain. By impersonating an international hotel chain, threat actors would increase the probability of convincing their targets to trust and click their malicious messages and links, and unintentionally compromising their accounts.

In spite of the attacker’s attempts to impersonate reputable brands, platforms, Darktrace/Apps was able to successfully recognize the malicious intent behind this phishing campaign and suggest steps to contain the attack. Darktrace recognized that the user in question had deviated from its ‘learned’ pattern of behavior by connecting to the customer’s SaaS environment from an unusual external location, before proceeding to send an unusually large volume of messages via Teams, indicating that the SaaS account had been compromised.

A Wider Campaign?

Around a month later, in March 2024, Darktrace observed a similar incident of a malicious actor impersonating the same international hotel chain in a phishing attacking using Microsoft Teams, suggesting that this was part of a wider phishing campaign. Like the previous example, this customer was also based in the EMEA region.  

The attack tactics identified in this instance were very similar to the previously example, with a new external user identified within the network proceeding to create a series of Teams messages named “New Employee Loyalty Program” containing a typo-squatted external links.

There were a few differences with this second incident, however, with the attacker using the domain “@InternationalHotelChainExpeditions[.]onmicrosoft[.]com” to send their malicious Teams messages and using differently typo-squatted URLs to imitate Microsoft SharePoint.

As both customers targeted by this phishing campaign were subscribed to Darktrace’s Proactive Threat Notification (PTN) service, this suspicious SaaS activity was promptly escalated to the Darktrace Security Operations Center (SOC) for immediate triage and investigation. Following their investigation, the SOC team sent an alert to the customers informing them of the compromise and advising urgent follow-up.

Conclusion

While there are clear similarities between these Microsoft Teams-based phishing attacks, the attackers here have seemingly sought ways to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), leveraging new connection locations and creating new malicious URLs in an effort to outmaneuver human security teams and conventional security tools.

As cyber threats grow increasingly sophisticated and evasive, it is crucial for organizations to employ intelligent security solutions that can see through social engineering techniques and pinpoint suspicious activity early.

Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI understands customer environments and is able to recognize the subtle deviations in a device’s behavioral pattern, enabling it to effectively identify suspicious activity even when attackers adapt their strategies. In this instance, this allowed Darktrace to detect the phishing messages, and the malicious links contained within them, despite the seemingly trustworthy source and use of a reputable platform like Microsoft Teams.

Credit to Min Kim, Cyber Security Analyst, Raymond Norbert, Cyber Security Analyst and Ryan Traill, Threat Content Lead

Appendix

Darktrace Model Detections

SaaS Model

Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

SaaS / Unusual Activity / Large Volume of Messages Sent from New External User

Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)

IoC – Type - Description

https://cloud-sharcpoint[.]com/[a-zA-Z0-9]{15} - Example hostname - Malicious phishing redirection link

InternatlonalHotelChain[.]sharcpolnte-docs[.]com – Hostname – Redirected Link

195.242.125[.]186 - External Source IP Address – Malicious Endpoint

MITRE Tactics

Tactic – Technique

Phishing – Initial Access (T1566)

References

[1] https://learn.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/trusted-organizations-external-meetings-chat?tabs=organization-settings

[2] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/ip-address/195.242.125.186/detection

[3] https://www.virustotal.com/gui/domain/cloud-sharcpoint.com

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About the author
Min Kim
Cyber Security Analyst
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