Inside the SOC
When speedy attacks aren’t enough: Prolonging Quantum Ransomware
Within science and engineering, the word ‘quantum’ may spark associations with speed and capability, referencing a superior computer that can perform tasks a classical computer cannot. In cyber security, some may recognize ‘quantum’ in relation to cryptography or, more recently, as the name of a new ransomware group, which achieved network-wide encryption a mere four hours after an initial infection.
Although this group now has a reputation for carrying out fast and efficient attacks, speed is not their only tactic. In August 2022, Darktrace detected a Quantum Ransomware incident where attackers remained in the victim’s network for almost a month after the initial signs of infection, before detonating ransomware. This was a stark difference to previously reported attacks, demonstrating that as motives change, so do threat actors’ strategies.
The Quantum Group
Quantum was first identified in August 2021 as the latest of several rebrands of MountLocker ransomware . As part of this rebrand, the extension ‘.quantum’ is appended to filenames that are encrypted and the associated ransom notes are named ‘README_TO_DECRYPT.html’ .
From April 2022, media coverage of this group has increased following a DFIR report detailing an attack that progressed from initial access to domain-wide ransomware within four hours . To put this into perspective, the global median dwell time for ransomware in 2020 and 2021 is 5 days . In the case of Quantum, threat actors gained direct keyboard access to devices merely 2 hours after initial infection. The ransomware was staged on the domain controller around an hour and a half later, and executed 12 minutes after that.
Quantum’s behaviour bears similarities to other groups, possibly due to their history and recruitment. Several members of the disbanded Conti ransomware group are reported to have joined the Quantum and BumbleBee operations. Security researchers have also identified similarities in the payloads and C2 infrastructure used by these groups [5 & 6]. Notably, these are the IcedID initial payload and Cobalt Strike C2 beacon used in this attack. Darktrace has also observed and prevented IcedID and Cobalt Strike activity from BumbleBee across several customer environments.
From 11th July 2022, a device suspected to be patient zero made repeated DNS queries for external hosts that appear to be associated with IcedID C2 traffic [7 & 8]. In several reported cases [9 & 10], this banking trojan is delivered through a phishing email containing a malicious attachment that loads an IcedID DLL. As Darktrace was not deployed in the prospect’s email environment, there was no visibility of the initial access vector, however an example of a phishing campaign containing this payload is presented below. It is also possible that the device was already infected prior to joining the network.
It was not until 22nd July that activity was seen which indicated the attack had progressed to the next stage of the kill chain. This contrasts the previously seen attacks where the progression to Cobalt Strike C2 beaconing and reconnaissance and lateral movement occurred within 2 hours of the initial infection [12 & 13]. In this case, patient zero initiated numerous unusual connections to other internal devices using a compromised account, connections that were indicative of reconnaissance using built-in Windows utilities:
· DNS queries for hostnames in the network
· SMB writes to IPC$ shares of those hostnames queried, binding to the srvsvc named pipe to enumerate things such as SMB shares and services on a device, client access permissions on network shares and users logged in to a remote session
· DCE-RPC connections to the endpoint mapper service, which enables identification of the ports assigned to a particular RPC service
These connections were initiated using an existing credential on the device and just like the dwelling time, differed from previously reported Quantum group attacks where discovery actions were spawned and performed automatically by the IcedID process . Figure 3 depicts how Darktrace detected that this activity deviated from the device’s normal behaviour.
Four days later, on the 26th of July, patient zero performed SMB writes of DLL and MSI executables to the C$ shares of internal devices including domain controllers, using a privileged credential not previously seen on the patient zero device. The deviation from normal behaviour that this represents is also displayed in Figure 3. Throughout this activity, patient zero made DNS queries for the external Cobalt Strike C2 server shown in Figure 4. Cobalt Strike has often been seen as a secondary payload delivered via IcedID, due to IcedID’s ability to evade detection and deploy large scale campaigns . It is likely that reconnaissance and lateral movement was performed under instructions received by the Cobalt Strike C2 server.
The SMB writes to domain controllers and usage of a new account suggests that by this stage, the attacker had achieved domain dominance. The attacker also appeared to have had hands-on access to the network via a console; the repetition of the paths ‘programdata\v1.dll’ and ‘ProgramData\v1.dll’, in lower and title case respectively, suggests they were entered manually.
These DLL files likely contained a copy of the malware that injects into legitimate processes such as winlogon, to perform commands that call out to C2 servers . Shortly after the file transfers, the affected domain controllers were also seen beaconing to external endpoints (‘sezijiru[.]com’ and ‘gedabuyisi[.]com’) that OSINT tools have associated with these DLL files [17 & 18]. Moreover, these SSL connections were made using a default client fingerprint for Cobalt Strike , which is consistent with the initial delivery method. To illustrate the beaconing nature of these connections, Figure 5 displays the 4.3 million daily SSL connections to one of the C2 servers during the attack. The 100,000 most recent connections were initiated by 11 unique source IP addresses alone.
Shortly after the writes, the attack progressed to the penultimate stage. The next day, on the 27th of July, the attackers moved to achieve their first objective: data exfiltration. Data exfiltration is not always performed by the Quantum ransomware gang. Researchers have noted discrepancies between claims of data theft made in their ransom notes versus the lack of data seen leaving the network, although this may have been missed due to covert exfiltration via a Cobalt Strike beacon .
In contrast, this attack displayed several gigabytes of data leaving internal devices including servers that had previously beaconed to Cobalt Strike C2 servers. This data was transferred overtly via FTP, however the attacker still attempted to conceal the activity using ephemeral ports (FTP in EPSV mode). FTP is an effective method for attackers to exfiltrate large files as it is easy to use, organizations often neglect to monitor outbound usage, and it can be shipped through ports that will not be blocked by traditional firewalls .
Figure 6 displays an example of the FTP data transfer to attacker-controlled infrastructure, in which the destination share appears structured to identify the organization that the data was stolen from, suggesting there may be other victim organizations’ data stored. This suggests that data exfiltration was an intended outcome of this attack.
Data was continuously exfiltrated until a week later when the final stage of the attack was achieved and Quantum ransomware was detonated. Darktrace detected the following unusual SMB activity initiated from the attacker-created account that is a hallmark for ransomware (see Figure 7 for example log):
· Symmetric SMB Read to Write ratio, indicative of active encryption
· Sustained MIME type conversion of files, with the extension ‘.quantum’ appended to filenames
· SMB writes of a ransom note ‘README_TO_DECRYPT.html’ (see Figure 8 for an example note)
The example in Figure 8 mentions that the attacker also possessed large volumes of victim data. It is likely that the gigabytes of data exfiltrated over FTP were leveraged as blackmail to further extort the victim organization for payment.
If Darktrace/Email was deployed in the prospect’s environment, the initial payload (if delivered through a phishing email) could have been detected and held from the recipient’s inbox. Although DETECT identified anomalous network behaviour at each stage of the attack, since the incident occurred during a trial phase where Darktrace could only detect but not respond, the attack was able to progress through the kill chain. If RESPOND/Network had been configured in the targeted environment, the unusual connections observed during the initial access, C2, reconnaissance and lateral movement stages of the attack could have been blocked. This would have prevented the attackers from delivering the later stage payloads and eventual ransomware into the target network.
It is often thought that a properly implemented backup strategy is sufficient defense against ransomware , however as discussed in a previous Darktrace blog, the increasing frequency of double extortion attacks in a world where ‘data is the new oil’ demonstrates that backups alone are not a mitigation for the risk of a ransomware attack . Equally, the lack of preventive defenses in the target’s environment enabled the attacker’s riskier decision to dwell in the network for longer and allowed them to optimize their potential reward.
Recent crackdowns from law enforcement on ransomware groups have shifted these groups’ approaches to aim for a balance between low risk and significant financial rewards . However, given the Quantum gang only have a 5% market share in Q2 2022, compared to the 13.2% held by LockBit and 16.9% held by BlackCat , a riskier strategy may be favourable, as a longer dwell time and double extortion outcome offers a ‘belt and braces’ approach to maximizing the rewards from carrying out this attack. Alternatively, the gaps in-between the attack stages may imply that more than one player was involved in this attack, although this group has not been reported to operate a franchise model before . Whether assisted by others or driving for a risk approach, it is clear that Quantum (like other actors) are continuing to adapt to ensure their financial success. They will continue to be successful until organizations dedicate themselves to ensuring that the proper data protection and network security measures are in place.
Ransomware has evolved over time and groups have merged and rebranded. However, this incident of Quantum ransomware demonstrates that regardless of the capability to execute a full attack within hours, prolonging an attack to optimize potential reward by leveraging double extortion tactics is sometimes still the preferred action. The pattern of network activity mirrors the techniques used in other Quantum attacks, however this incident lacked the continuous progression of the group’s attacks reported recently and may represent a change of motives during the process. Knowing that attacker motives can change reinforces the need for organizations to invest in preventative controls- an organization may already be too far down the line if it is executing its backup contingency plans. Darktrace DETECT/Network had visibility over both the early network-based indicators of compromise and the escalation to the later stages of this attack. Had Darktrace also been allowed to respond, this case of Quantum ransomware would also have had a very short dwell time, but a far better outcome for the victim.
Thanks to Steve Robinson for his contributions to this blog.
, , , ,  https://thedfirreport.com/2022/04/25/quantum-ransomware/
,  https://www.cynet.com/blog/shelob-moonlight-spinning-a-larger-web-from-icedid-to-conti-a-trojan-and-ransomware-collaboration/
,  https://cybernews.com/security/quantum-ransomware-gang-fast-and-furious/
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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.