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Anatomy of a Breach
The fallout of a breach is serious.
In recent months, the seriousness of a breach fallout has been shown in the cyber incidents at SolarWinds, Colonial Pipeline, and Kaseya.
In December 2020, in a SEC filing, SolarWinds said it was a victim of a supply chain attack in which the company’s Orion software build system was breached. The company said 18,000 customers were affected. In its First Quarter 2021 Preliminary Financial Results, SolarWinds said it spent between $18 million and $19 million in the first quarter of 2021 to investigate and remediate the breach incident.
In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline disclosed that it responded to a ransomware attack on its system by proactively taking certain systems offline and temporarily halting all pipeline operations. The company also paid the ransomware attackers $5 million.
Just this month, Kaseya disclosed that 60 customers, all of which were using the Kaseya VSA on-premises product and many of which provide IT services to multiple other companies, were impacted by the ransomware attack on Kaseya.
The ransomware attack on Kaseya affected 1,500 downstreambusinesses. Swedish supermarket Coop, one of the affected businesses, for a time, temporarily stopped its operation due to the attack on Kaseya.
In a breach, the turmoil that happens in the background doesn’t make it to the breached company’s press statement. These include staff confusion of what happened and a barrage of customers trying to get hold of the company representative of what actually transpired.
How Hackers Break In
In the case of the SolarWinds breach, SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna said a SolarWinds email account was compromised and used to programmatically access accounts of targeted SolarWinds personnel in technical and business roles. “By compromising credentials of SolarWinds employees, the threat actors were able to gain access to and exploit our Orion development environment,” Ramakrishna said.
In the case of the Colonial Pipeline breach, Charles Carmakal, senior vice president at cybersecurity firm Mandiant told Bloomberg that attackers were able to initially compromise Colonial Pipeline systems through a dormant VPN account.
The VPN account, which has since been deactivated, didn’t use multi-factor authentication (MFA), Carmakal said. It isn’t clear how the attackers got hold of the VPN account password. The password, however, is part of the leaked passwords on the dark web.
In the case of the Kaseya breach, researchers at Cisco Talos Intelligence Group reported that the initial compromise of Kaseya VSA servers appears to have been the result of the successful exploitation of an unpatched software vulnerability CVE-2021-30116. This vulnerability in Kaseya VSA before 9.5.7 allows credential disclosure. In the case of the Kaseya breach, the attackers used the credential disclosure to gain privileged access to vulnerable Kaseya VSA servers for the purposes of ransomware deployment.
Stages of a Breach
Stage 1: Initial Foothold
As shown in the above-mentioned breaches, attackers used different initial entry tactics in gaining an initial foothold of their victim’s systems. In the case of the Solarwinds breach, the attackers gained initial entry to the company’s systems by compromising an email account.
In the case of the Colonial Pipeline breach, the attackers gained initial entry to the company’s systems through a dormant VPN account thatwas unprotected by MFA. In the case of the Kaseya breach, the attackers gained initial entry to the company’s systems through unpatched software vulnerability.
Stage 2: Gaining Elevated Control
Once attackers gain an initial foothold on the victim’s systems, they then aim to escalate their privilege. Attackers may take control of the local system, or look for other systems that offer a greater chance ofgaining greater access to valuable data or administrative privileges.
Keylogger and network scanning are two tactics used by attackers in gaining elevated control. Keylogger is a type of malicious software (malware) that records the keyboard keys that the user presses. Attackers capture user’s other usernames and passwords through keylogger.
In network scanning, attackers catalog the systems that can be accessed. These include services, host machines, and resources that are active on the victim’s network.
Stage 3: Expanding to the Network
After gaining elevated control, attackers install a permanent backdoor or alternate mechanism for long-term access to the systems. Botnet and living off the land are two of the tactics often used by attackers at this stage.
In the botnet tactic, the compromised computer is infected withmalware and made part of a group of infected computers controlled by the attackers for malicious activities such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. In living off the land, meanwhile, attackers utilize native resources, as opposed to malware, giving the attackersthe freedom to come and go and move around the networks undetected and staying off the radar of security systems.
Stage 4: Staying for the Short or Long Term
After expanding to the network, the attackers may stay either for short or long term. The length of the period depends on the attackers’ motivation, whether for fame, money, revenge, or political reasons.
For attackers who wish to stay for long term on the compromised network, a backdoor is often employed. A backdoor is an entry point into a network or system allowing the attackers continued access.
For attackers who wish to stay for short term only on the compromised network, attackers use the smash-and-grab technique, that is, after compromising the system, they steal data and quickly leave.
Growing SaaS Misconfiguration Threat
The 2021 SaaS Security Survey Report by Tel Aviv-based security company Adaptive Shield showed that SaaS misconfiguration is one of the top threats faced by today’s enterprises.
Adaptive Shield’s 2021 SaaS Security Survey, which surveyed 300 InfoSecurity professionals from North America and Western Europe in companies of 500+ employees, found that cybersecurity professionals recognize SaaS misconfiguration as the number 3 cloud risk, following account hijacking (number one) and data leakage (number two).
What is SaaS?
SaaS, short for software as a service, is a software that’s being delivered as a service over the internet. Traditional software needs to be bought, installed on the user’s computer, and must be maintained and updated.
SaaS, meanwhile, runs on the provider’s servers and the SaaS provider does all the maintenance required for security, making the software available to users, and improving the performance of the software. In SaaS, all that’s required from the user is to access the software over the internet.
SaaS misconfiguration is a product of human error: leaving the SaaS account accessible over the internet by everyone without authentication or adequate security.
Deeper Problems Behind SaaS Misconfiguration
SaaS misconfiguration threat is even greater as other cloud risks such as account hijacking and data leakage can also be the result of misconfiguration.
Adaptive Shield’s 2021 SaaS Security Survey showed that 85% of companies recognize SaaS misconfiguration as one of the top threats. The survey found that only 12% of companies with 50-99 applications check these apps on a weekly basis, showing that the more apps a company has, the less time they will check on security settings and permissions for misconfigurations.
The survey also found that 52% of companies delegate the task of securing the app to SaaS users, such as staff in the Sales, Marketing, or Product departments – individuals who are unlikely to be trained in SaaS security and compliance.
The survey also found that one in four companies reports that departments outside of IT security have access to SaaS app security settings. “Any human error by the SaaS owner, who is often not trained in security, can lead to an increase
in SaaS security misconfigurations,” Adaptive Shield said.
Prevalence of SaaS Misconfigurations
In a January 2019 disclosure, security researcher Avinash Jain found in NASA Jira a misconfiguration issue that caused the leakage of internal sensitive information of NASA, including internal user details, project details, employee names, and employees mail id.
Jira is a task tracking system/project management software used, not just by NASA but also by Fortune 500 companies and over a hundred thousand companies and organizations worldwide.
In an August 2019 disclosure, Jain said NASA wasn’t the only organization that leaked its data due to Jira misconfiguration. Jain said thousands of companies using JIRA inadvertently exposed their internal user data and internal project details.
“When the filters and dashboards for the projects/issues are created in JIRA, then by default the visibility is set to ‘All users’ and ‘Everyone’ respectively, which instead of sharing with everyone of the organizations (which people think and interpret), it shares them publically,” Jain said. “There is also a user picker functionality in Jira which gives a complete list of every user’s username and email address. This information disclosure is the result of an authorization misconfiguration in Jira’s Global Permissions settings.”
According to Jain, anyone with the link can access the exposed critical data over the internet and because said data are being indexed by all the search engines, anyone can easily search online these critical data with some simple search queries.
In another example of SaaS misconfiguration, in an April 2019 disclosure, Citrix said that it was contacted by the FBI, saying that they had reason to believe that cybercriminals gained access to the internal Citrix network.
Citrix added that the FBI has advised them that the hackers likely used a tactic known as password spraying. “Once they gained a foothold with limited access, they worked to circumvent additional layers of security,” Citrix said in a statement.
In password spraying, attackers acquire a list of usernames or accounts and attempt to sign into all of them using a set of the most popular or most likely passwords until they get the correct username and password combination. In the blog post "Protecting your organization against password spray attacks,” Diana Kelley Cybersecurity Field CTO at Microsoft said password spray is a popular tactic among attackers as they only need one successful password and username combination.
“Once they have it, they can access whatever the user has access to, such as cloud resources on OneDrive,” Kelley said. “Or use the exploited account to do internal reconnaissance on the target network and get deeper into the systems via elevation of privilege.”
Cybersecurity Best Practices
The COVID-19 restrictions imposed in different parts of the world prompted many companies and organizations to adopt SaaS with little consideration for security. Here are some of the cybersecurity best practices in preventing and mitigating the effects of SaaS misconfigurations:
Authorities Warn of Active Global Campaign Leveraging Brute Force Technique
Authorities in multiple countries, including Canada, the US and the UK have warned of an ongoing global campaign leveraging brute force technique targeting enterprise and cloud environments.
Cybersecurity centers in the UK (National Cyber Security Centre), Canada (Canadian Centre for Cyber Security), and the US (National Security Agency, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation) warned of the global brute force campaign that’s being carried out to gain access to enterprise and cloud environments of targeted organizations.
What Is Brute Force Attack?
Brute force is a type of cyberattack that uses the trial-and-error method in guessing the correct username and password combination.
Brute force is often used interchangeably with password spray. In the blog post "Protecting your organization against password spray attacks," Diana Kelley Cybersecurity Field CTO at Microsoft said that brute force is targeted, while password spray is the opposite.
In a brute force attack, a hacker goes after specific users and tries as many passwords as possible using either a full dictionary or one that’s edited to common passwords, Kelley said. In password spray, meanwhile, Kelley said a hacker acquires a list of accounts and attempts to sign into all of them using a small subset of the most popular, or most likely, passwords until a hit is made.
In a Joint Cybersecurity Advisory [PDF], UK’s National Cyber Security Centre and US security agencies (National Security Agency, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation), said that since at least mid-2019 through early 2021, attackers used a Kubernetes cluster to conduct “widespread, distributed, and anonymized brute force access attempts” against hundreds of organizations worldwide. To hide the attacks’ true origin, the attackers’ Kubernetes cluster normally routes brute force authentication attempts through TOR and commercial VPN services, including CactusVPN, IPVanish, NordVPN, ProtonVPN, Surfshark, and WorldVPN.
Kubernetes is an open-source software that allows the deployment and management of containerized applications at scale. A Kubernetes cluster, meanwhile, contains a control plane and one or more compute machines or nodes.
According to the Joint Cybersecurity Advisory, what was being brute force attacked were organizations using Microsoft Office 365 cloud services, and targeted as well were other service providers and on-premises email servers using a variety of different protocols.
“This brute force capability allows the … actors to access protected data, including email, and identify valid account credentials,” the Joint Cybersecurity Advisory said. “Those credentials may then be used for a variety of purposes, including initial access, persistence, privilege escalation, and defense evasion.”
The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory said the attackers collected email from Office 365 using a compromised valid service account with elevated Privileges, and that the attackers used certutil.exe, a known "Living Off the Land" technique, to transfer a file into a target environment.
Exploitation of Known Vulnerabilities
The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory pointed out that once the attackers obtained credentials through brute force, various other known vulnerabilities were exploited by the attackers to gain further access and move laterally through the target network. Publicly known vulnerabilities such as CVE 2020-0688 and CVE 2020-17144 were exploited by the attackers.
CVE 2020-0688 is a remote code execution vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange Server. This vulnerability exists when the server fails to properly create unique keys at install time. “Knowledge of a validation key allows an authenticated user with a mailbox to pass arbitrary objects to be deserialized by the web application, which runs as SYSTEM,” Microsoft, in an advisory said.
CVE 2020-17144, meanwhile, is another remote code execution vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange. The vulnerability is caused by improper validation of cmdlet arguments.
The Joint Cybersecurity Advisory said that the exploitation of Microsoft Exchange servers occurred after valid credentials were identified through brute force campaign as these vulnerabilities CVE 2020-0688 and CVE 2020-17144 require authentication as a valid user.
Cybersecurity Best Practices
The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security, for its part, said it is highlighting the Joint Cybersecurity Advisory detailing the global brute force campaign to compromise enterprise and cloud environments as it’s important for system owners and operators responsible to defend their systems and networks from cyber threats.
Brute force attacks can be prevented or mitigated through the following cybersecurity best practices:
Microsoft’s security updates address the security vulnerabilities CVE 2020-0688 and CVE 2020-17144. It’s, therefore, important to keep all software, in this case, Microsoft Exchange, up to date to prevent further escalation of the malicious actors’ attack once they are able to break into your organization’s network through brute force campaign.
It’s also important to consider denying all inbound activity from known TOR nodes and other public VPN services to exchange servers or portals where this inbound activity isn’t associated with typical use.
Western Digital (WD) Hard Drives Remotely Wiped Clean Worldwide
Users worldwide of Western Digital (WD) hard drives, specifically My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices, found their hard drives being wiped clean remotely last June 23.
Last June 24, a WD user named “sunpeak” started a thread on WD Community forum stating that all the data on his WD My Book Live device is gone. “Previously the 2T volume was almost full but now it shows full capacity,” sunpeak said.
Hundreds of WD My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices echoed sunpeak, stating that their devices have been wiped clean remotely as well.
“It is very scary that someone can do factory restore the drive without any permission granted from the end user,” sunpeak said. The tread started said he found this user.log in the affected device:
Jun 23 15:14:05 MyBookLive factoryRestore.sh: begin script:
Jun 23 15:14:05 MyBookLive shutdown: shutting down for system reboot
Jun 23 16:02:26 MyBookLive S15mountDataVolume.sh: begin script: start
Jun 23 16:02:29 MyBookLive _: pkg: wd-nas
Jun 23 16:02:30 MyBookLive _: pkg: networking-general
Jun 23 16:02:30 MyBookLive _: pkg: apache-php-webdav
Jun 23 16:02:31 MyBookLive _: pkg: date-time
Jun 23 16:02:31 MyBookLive _: pkg: alerts
Jun 23 16:02:31 MyBookLive logger: hostname=MyBookLive
Jun 23 16:02:32 MyBookLive _: pkg: admin-rest-api
Another WD user added this message to the thread: “All my data is gone too. Message in GUI says it was ‘Factory reset’ today! 06/23. I am totally screwed without that data … years of it.”
Western Digital Statement
Last June 25, US-based company Western Digital recommended to users to disconnect their My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices from the internet to protect their data on these devices. My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices were introduced to the market in 2010 and these devices received their final firmware update in 2015.
“Western Digital has determined that some My Book Live devices are being compromised by malicious software,” Western Digital said. “In some cases, this compromise has led to a factory reset that appears to erase all data on the device.”
According to Western Digital, the log files that they’ve reviewed show that the attackers directly connected to the affected My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices from a variety of IP addresses in different countries. The company said this shows that the affected devices were directly accessible from the internet, via direct connection or port forwarding that was enabled either manually or automatically via UPnP.
“Western Digital has determined that some My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices are being compromised through exploitation of a remote command execution vulnerability,” Western Digital said.
The specific remote command execution vulnerability referred to by Western Digital is CVE-2018-18472 – in which all versions of Western Digital (WD) My Book Live has a root Remote Command Execution bug via shell metacharacters in the /api/1.0/rest/language_configuration language parameter. This security vulnerability can be triggered by anyone who knows the IP address of the affected device. A proof-of-concept on how to exploit CVE-2018-18472 is publicly available.
As the last firmware update of WD My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices was in 2015, CVE-2018-18472 vulnerability, therefore, wasn’t answered by WD developers in 2015.
Other Cyberattacks Affecting Hard Drives/Backups
WD My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices can be attached to the network, as such, they’re known as network-attached storage (NAS) devices. Other examples of NAS devices are those made by Taiwanese corporation QNAP Systems, Inc.
In the past few years, QNAP NAS devices have been the target of malicious actors. In 2019, researchers at Intezer detected the malicious software known as QNAPCrypt.
"QNAP is a well-known vendor for selling NAS servers, which the malware was intended to infect and encrypt the containing files for ransom,” researchers at Intezer said. “NAS servers normally store large amounts of important data and files, which make them a valuable target for attackers and especially a viable target for ransomware campaigns.”
In 2014, researchers at FireEye observed cyberattackers attempting to exploit the BASH remote code injection vulnerability against QNAP NAS devices.
"These attacks result in the hackers having a root level remote shell, gaining full access to the contents of the NAS,” FireEye researchers said. “NAS systems are used by enterprises to store large volumes of files and house databases, as well as by consumers for personal storage. This makes NAS an attractive target for attackers given the broad types of data they handle. In this case, the attackers can gain full access the NAS contents as well as execute other commands.”
Cybersecurity Best Practices
The deletion of enormous data in WD My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices is a lesson learned for many users.
Network-attached storage (NAS) devices, including WD My Book Live and My Book Live Duo devices and QNAP devices are becoming the target of cyberattackers due to the wealth of data that these devices hold.
It is important to practice the time-honored 3-2-1 backup rule. This rule states that your organization needs to have 3 copies of critical data (one production data and 2 backup copies), with two copies in different media, and one copy kept offsite for disaster recovery.
Living off the land has become the standard in today’s cyberattacks intent on evading security solutions.
Living off the land attack takes its name from the “living off the land” way of life, that is, living by eating only the food that one produces from the land.
In the cybersecurity context, living off the land cyberattack refers to turning legitimate programs and processes to perform nefarious activities. Living off the land enables cyberattackers to blend into victims’ networks and hide among the legitimate programs and processes to carry out a stealth attack. Traditional security solutions often ignore living off the land attacks as these activities are considered legitimate activities coming from legitimate programs and processes.
Astaroth: Example of a Malware that Lives Off the Land
Astaroth is an example of a malicious software (malware) that completely lived off the land to avoid detection. Astaroth is an info-stealing malware that abuses various legitimate Windows processes in an attempt to run undetected on computers using Windows operating system.
In the blog post "Latest Astaroth living-off-the-land attacks are even more invisible but not less observable," Microsoft Defender Security Research Team said they started seeing the updated attack chain of Astaroth in late 2019. In mid-2019, Microsoft Defender Security Research Team observed an unusual spike in activities related to Windows Management Instrumentation Command-line (WMIC), prompting the team to investigate it and found out that the unusual spike in activities related to WMIC was part of the Astaroth attack chain.
WMIC provides a command-line interface for Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) – referring to the infrastructure for management data and operations on Windows operating systems.
Microsoft Defender Security Research Team said that after the WMIC abuses were exposed, Astaroth now completely avoids the use of WMIC and instead introduced new living off the land techniques that make the attack chain even stealthier such as abusing Alternate Data Streams (ADS) and abusing the legitimate process ExtExport.exe.
Alternate Data Streams (ADS) is a feature in Windows operating system that contains metadata for locating a specific file by title or author. ExtExport.exe, meanwhile, is a feature that ships with Internet Explorer to run a file. Microsoft Defender Security Research Team said that Astaroth uses ExtExport.exe to load malicious payload, while ADS is used to hide malicious payloads.
Other Examples of Living Off the Land Attacks
In the report “The Active Adversary Playbook 2021,” Sophos found that PowerShell and PsExec are among the top 3 legitimate tools used by cyberattackers in 2020 and early 2021. PowerShell and PsExec are legitimate Windows operating system tools used by system administrators.
PowerShell is an interactive command-line interface and scripting environment included in the Windows operating system, while PsExec is a Windows tool that can be used to execute a program on another computer. Microsoft said, “PsExec's most powerful uses include launching interactive command-prompts on remote systems and remote-enabling tools like IpConfig that otherwise do not have the ability to show information about remote systems.”
According to Mitre, PowerShell commands and scripts have been known to execute malicious payloads, create new tasks on remote machines, identify configuration settings, evade defenses, exfiltrate data, pull Active Directory information from the target environment, issue interactive commands over a network connection, and access credential data.
Mitre reported that PsExec has been abused to download or upload a file over a network share, write programs to the ADMIN$ network share to execute commands on remote systems, and execute binaries on remote systems using a temporary Windows service.
Windows legitimate features aren’t the only programs abused by attackers in living off the land attacks. Third-party programs are also abused by living off the land attackers.
In 2017, the Petya, also known as NotPetya, malware spread worldwide via a tainted accounting software of the Ukrainian-based company MeDoc. In 2020, researchers at Sophos reported that the group behind the ransomware called "RobbinHood" used the signed driver, part of a now-deprecated software package published by Taiwan-based motherboard manufacturer Gigabyte as a means so that the threat group could load a second, unsigned driver into Windows.
“This second driver then goes to great lengths to kill processes and files belonging to endpoint security products, bypassing tamper protection, to enable the ransomware to attack without interference,” Sophos said.
Living off the land attackers recently tainted SolarWinds software affecting thousands of the customers of SolarWinds that downloaded the tainted version of SolarWinds software.
Cybersecurity Best Practices
Here are some of the cybersecurity best practices in preventing and mitigating the effects of living off the land attacks:
Switch off or remove unneeded programs
Ransom DDoS Extortion On the Rise Again
A recent report from researchers at Proofpoint showed that ransom distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) extortions are on the rise again.
In the blog post “Ransom DDoS Extortion Actor 'Fancy Lazarus' Returns,” researchers at Proofpoint reported that since May 21, 2021, they've observed renewed DDoS extortion activity targeting an increasing number of industries by the threat group known as "Fancy Lazarus." In a DDoS attack, a system (website, network, application server, DNS server, and individual IP) is flooded with data requests in a bid to shut it down.
“The ransom distributed denial of service extortion threat actor known as ‘Fancy Lazarus’ is back, taking aim at an increasing number of industries, including the energy, financial, insurance, manufacturing, public utilities, and retail sectors,” researchers at Proofpoint said. “The actor [Fancy Lazarus] took over a month-long break from April to May 2021 before returning with new campaigns that include some changes to the group’s tactics, techniques, and procedures ….”
According to researchers at Proofpoint, the threat group’s latest campaign changes the group’s name to Fancy Lazarus from previous names such as “Lazarus,” “Lazarus Group,” and “Armada Collective.” The researchers found no connection between this ransom DDoS extortion group and the advanced persistent threat (APT) actors with the same names.
Ransom DDoS Extortion Prevalence
On November 1, 2019, CERT NZ reported that it received reports relating to an extortion campaign targeting companies within the financial sector in New Zealand. The extortion campaign, CERT NZ said, involved two phases. The first phase involved an email stating the name of the extortionist, the name of the target company, the deadline when the major DDoS attack will occur and the demand for a ransom to prevent it.
The second phase, according to CERT NZ, involved a demonstrative DDoS attack (typically lasting 30 minutes) against an IP address belonging to the companies’ network. CERT NZ said the DDoS techniques used in the demonstrative DDoS attack, include targeting services using the following protocols:
Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP)
Web Service Dynamic Discovery (WSD)
Apple’s Remote Management Service (ARMS)
Simple Service Discovery Protocol (SSDP)
Network Time Protocol (NTP)
Domain Name System (DNS)
Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)
SYN and Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP)
On November 15, 2019, researchers at Akamai said multiple companies have reported receiving an email demanding 2 bitcoins. Akamai said the extortion email contains a threat that if payment isn’t made before the deadline expires, the price increases by 1 bitcoin and the targeted DDoS attack will start.
“Shortly after a customer received one of these extortion emails, Akamai observed a 30Gbps attack (at peak) originating from a globally distributed botnet, where each IP sent a fraction of the overall traffic,” Akamai said. “The attackers were abusing DNS, Apple Remote Management Service (ARMS), CLDAP, TFTP, PortMap, and WS-Discovery (WSD), across the UDP protocol.”
In August 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued an alert warning that thousands of organizations in multiple industries across the globe were targeted in the ransom DDoS extortion campaign similar to the ransom DDoS extortion campaign described by Akamai and CERT NZ. According to the FBI, DDoS "demonstration" launched by the threat group varied across institutions with some targeting a single IP address and others targeting multiple IP addresses, as well as variable peak volumes and attack length.
In the August 2020 blog post "Ransom Demands Return: New DDoS Extortion Threats From Old Actors Targeting Finance and Retail," researchers at Akamai said they’ve observed ransom DDoS attacks peak at almost 200 Gb/sec, utilizing ARMS, DNS Flood, GRE Protocol Flood, SNMP Flood, SYN Flood, and WSDiscovery Flood attacks as their main vectors.
Teresa Walsh, global head of intelligence at the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC), a cybersecurity consortium of nearly 7,000 financial companies told the Wall Street Journal last February that the global nature of the targets of the ransom DDoS extortion campaign was alarming, citing victims in North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-Pacific.
“After about four or five members raised their hands to say that they were seeing similar activity [ransom DDoS extortion], that’s when we started diving into a potential campaign against our members,” said Walsh. “This accumulated week upon week. Even months later, we were still seeing extortion emails coming through, and short-lived attacks,” Ms. Walsh said.
Ransom DDoS Extortion Campaign Modus Operandi
According to Proofpoint researchers, the ransom DDoS extortion campaign modus operandi always begins with sensational emails. The researchers said the extortion emails contain the following:
It’s important to note that DDoS attack against websites, networks, application servers, DNS servers, and individual IPs is now preventable with a DDoS protection solution.
Rise of Ransomware Attacks in the Education Sector
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), an organization of the UK Government that provides cybersecurity guidance and support, recently reported that it has continued to respond to an increased number of ransomware attacks against schools, colleges and universities in the UK.
“As of late May/June 2021, the NCSC is investigating another increase in ransomware attacks against schools, colleges and universities in the UK,” NCSC said. The NCSC previously highlighted an increase in ransomware attacks on the UK education sector during August/September 2020 and again in February 2021.
Ransomware and Its Impact
Ransomware is a type of malicious software (malware) that’s traditionally known to encrypt victims’ files, preventing victims to access these files. After file encryption, a ransom note is shown on the compromised computer informing the victim to pay a certain amount, typically in the form of cryptocurrency, for the decryption tool that would unlock the encrypted files.
More recently, ransomware operators threaten victims to release files stolen from the victim’s network in case of refusal to pay the ransom for the decryption tool. More ransomware operators have recently employed the double ransom tactic, in which, a victim is asked to pay two ransom payments.
The first ransom payment is for the decryption tool while the second ransom payment is for the non-publication of the files stolen from the victim’s network. Ransomware operators maintain “name and shame” websites on the darknet to name and shame ransomware victims who continue to refuse to pay ransom.
“In recent incidents affecting the education sector, ransomware has led to the loss of student coursework, school financial records …,” NCSC said. According to the NCSC, ransomware attacks in the education sector can have a devastating impact on organizations, with victims requiring a significant amount of recovery time to reinstate critical services, and these events can also be high profile in nature, with wide public and media interest.
An attack vector refers to the path or means in which an attacker gains access to an organization’s network to deliver a malware, in this case, a ransomware. According to the NCSC, ransomware attackers can gain access to a victim’s network through remote access systems, phishing emails, and other vulnerable software or hardware.
According to the NCSC, attackers gain access to victims’ networks through remote access systems such as remote desktop protocol (RDP) and virtual private networks (VPN). RDP is a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft that allows employees working from home to access their office desktop computers or servers from another device over the internet.
The shift towards remote learning over the past year as a result of COVID-19 restrictions resulted in many organizations deploying VPN access as VPN is viewed as a secure way of accessing company networks and private resources. In recent years, multiple security vulnerabilities have been discovered in RDP and in a number of VPN appliances such as Citrix, Fortinet, Pulse Secure and Palo Alto.
According to the NCSC, phishing emails are frequently used by attackers to deploy ransomware. An attacker sends a phishing email – disguised as coming from a legitimate sender – to trick the email receiver to click a link or download an attachment, enabling the deployment of the ransomware into the email receiver’s computer.
Other Vulnerable Software or Hardware
According to the NCSC, unpatched or unsecure devices have commonly been used by ransomware attackers as an easy route into networks. An example of a software vulnerability exploited by ransomware attackers to install ransomware on a network is the vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange Servers.
The NCSC added that ransomware attackers have recently been observed sabotaging backup devices in order to make recovery more difficult; encrypting the entire virtual servers, and using scripting environments, for example, PowerShell, to easily deploy the ransomware.
Cybersecurity Best Practices
Here are some cybersecurity best practices as recommended by the NCSC that can be employed by organizations in the education sector in order to prevent and mitigate the effects of ransomware attacks:
Keep up-to-date and tested offline backups.
As ransomware attackers have been known for sabotaging internet-exposed backup devices in order to make recovery more difficult, it’s important to keep offline backups to recover from a ransomware attack.
Secure remote access systems (RDP and VPN) via strong passwords, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and applying patches in a timely manner.
Implement effective vulnerability management and patching procedures.
Implement the following mechanisms to prevent phishing attacks: making it harder for email from your domains to be spoofed by employing the anti-spoofing controls, filtering or blocking incoming phishing emails, training your users particularly in the form of phishing simulations, and building a culture where users can report phishing attempts.
Canada Post Becomes the Latest Victim of Supply Chain Attack
Canada Post recently announced that it fell victim to a supply chain attack, resulting in a data breach relating to nearly a million receiving customers.
A supply chain attack, also known as a third-party attack, happens when an attacker infiltrates your organization’s system through an outside partner or supplier with access to your organization’s system.
In a press statement released last May 26th, Canada Post said that it was informed last May 19th by one of its suppliers, Commport Communications, that this supplier suffered a ransomware attack and that said ransomware attack compromised Canada Post customers.
Commport Communications’ electronic data interchange (EDI) solution is used by Canada Post to manage the shipping manifest data of large parcel business customers. Shipping manifests typically include sender and receiver contact information such as the names and addresses of the business sending the item and the customer receiving it.
“In all, the impacted shipping manifests for the 44 commercial customers contained information relating to just over 950 thousand receiving customers,” Canada Post said.
Canada Post added that the impacted shipping manifests were from July 2016 to March 2019 and that the vast majority (97%) contained the name and address of the receiving customer, while the remainder (3%) contained an email address and/or phone number.
“We are now working closely with Commport Communications and have engaged external cyber security experts to fully investigate and take action,” Canada Post said. “We are proactively informing the impacted business customers and providing the information and support necessary to help them determine their next steps. As well, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has been notified.”
According to Canada Post, in November 2020, Commport Communications notified Innovapost, Canada Post's IT subsidiary, of a potential ransomware issue. Canada Post said that Commport Communications advised at that time that there was no evidence to suggest any customer data had been compromised.
In December 2020, the group behind the ransomware called “Lorenz” posted on its data leak site that they had breached Commport Communications during a ransomware attack.
Lorenz ransomware is a relatively new actor in the ransomware field. Similar to other ransomware, Lorenz encrypts victims’ files and demands from victims ransom for the decryption tool that would unlock the encrypted files. Michael Gillespie of ID Ransomware told BleepingComputer that the Lorenz ransomware and older ransomware known as “ThunderCrypt” have the same encryptor. It isn’t clear whether Lorenz and ThunderCrypt are operated by the same group or if the newer ransomware purchased the source code of the older ransomware to create its own variant.
Similar to other ransomware, Lorenz ransomware steals victims’ files. And similar to other ransomware groups, the group behind Lorenz ransomware maintains a website in which password-protected archives of stolen files are published.
According to BleepingComputer, the group behind Lorenz ransomware is different from other ransomware groups as this group first sells the stolen data to other threat actors or possible competitors. In case no one buys the stolen data and the victim refuses to pay, the group behind Lorenz ransomware releases the password for the password-protected data leak archive in order to make the stolen data available to anyone who downloads the files.
Another peculiar characteristic of the group behind Lorenz ransomware is that the group also sells access to the victim's internal network along with the data. Access to the victim's internal network, for some threat actors, is more valuable than the data.
“Like other human-operated ransomware attacks, Lorenz will breach a network and spread laterally to other devices until they gain access to Windows domain administrator credentials,” BleepingComputer said. “While spreading throughout the system, they will harvest unencrypted files from victims' servers, which they upload to remote servers under their control.”
Cybersecurity Best Practices
Many human-operated ransomware attacks gain initial access to their victims’ networks by brute-forcing RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) – a network communications protocol developed by Microsoft that allows users to remotely connect to another computer.
RDP servers that use weak username and password combination, without multi-factor authentication (MFA), without virtual private networks (VPNs), and without other security protections are easily accessed by attackers through brute force attack – the trial and error method of guessing the correct username and password combination. Threat actors have also been known to use RDP for lateral movement. With RDP, attackers can move laterally through the network without the need for credentials.
RDP servers can be protected from brute force attacks by using a strong username and password combination, MFA, and VPN. Attackers easily scan for internet-exposed RDP through the default RDP port: TCP 3389. Changing the RDP default RDP port essentially hides your organization’s RDP server from the attackers’ scanning efforts.
In the blog post "Human-operated ransomware attacks: A preventable disaster," Microsoft 365 Defender Threat Intelligence Team recommends practicing the principle of least privilege and maintaining credential hygiene. “Avoid the use of domain-wide, admin-level service accounts,” Microsoft 365 Defender Threat Intelligence Team said. “Enforce strong randomized, just-in-time local administrator passwords. Use tools like LAPS.”
Top 3 Tools Used by Cyberattackers in 2020 and Early 2021
Three legitimate pentesting tools – PowerShell, Cobalt Strike, and PsExec – topped the list of tools used by cyberattackers in breaking into victims’ networks in 2020 and early 2021, according to Sophos’ report based from frontline threat hunters and incident responders.
In the report “The Active Adversary Playbook 2021,” Sophos found that PowerShell, followed by Cobalt Strike, and PsExec are the top 3 tools used by cyberattackers in 2020 and early 2021.
PowerShell, Cobalt Strike, and PsExec are legitimate tools used by IT administrators and security professionals for penetration testing, also known as pentesting – an authorized simulated cyberattack against an organization’s computer system to examine exploitable vulnerabilities. Threat actors, however, have been using these same pentesting tools to break into victims’ networks.
According to Sophos report, correlations emerge among the top 3 tools found in victims’ networks. The report added that when PowerShell is used in an attack, Cobalt Strike was seen in 58% of cases, and PsExec in 49% of cases; Cobalt Strike and PsExec were used together in 27% of attacks; and the combination of Cobalt Strike, PowerShell, and PsExec occurs in 12% of all attacks.
PowerShell is a task-based command-line shell and scripting language designed for system administration in the Windows operating system. Attackers use PowerShell to conduct a number of malicious activities, including executing malicious code, creating new tasks on remote machines, identifying configuration settings, pulling Active Directory information from the target environment, evading defenses, exfiltrating data, and executing other commands.
The malicious software called “Emotet” has used PowerShell to retrieve the malicious payload and download additional resources like Mimikatz – ranked fourth in the tools used by cyberattackers in 2020 and early 2021 in the Sophos report. Mimikatz is capable of obtaining plaintext Windows account logins and passwords.
PsExec is a free Microsoft tool that is used by IT administrators to execute a program on another computer. This tool has been used by attackers to download or upload a file over a network share.
Cobalt Strike is a commercially available pentesting tool that’s marketed as "adversary simulation software designed to execute targeted attacks and emulate the post-exploitation actions of advanced threat actors."
This commercial pentesting tool was developed by researcher Raphael Mudge in 2012. This tool was recently acquired by HelpSystems. In 2020, the source code of Cobalt Strike version 4.0 was leaked to the public. Adversaries often use the purchased and pirated/cracked versions of Cobalt Strike.
This tool is capable of executing a payload on a remote host with PowerShell and using PsExec to execute a payload on a remote host. Cobalt Strike’s Beacon is used to perform actions such as collecting information on process details, reaching out to the command-and-control server on an arbitrary and random interval, breaking large data sets into smaller chunks for exfiltration, and capturing screenshots.
The tools PowerShell and Cobalt Strike were used in the recently unraveled supply chain attack on SolarWinds.
In the SolarWinds supply chain attack, attackers compromised the code update of SolarWinds’s product Orion, which gave the attackers the opportunity to attack customers that applied the compromised SolarWinds Orion update. The SolarWinds supply chain attack victims include cybersecurity firm FireEye and Microsoft.
In the blog post "Raindrop: New Malware Discovered in SolarWinds Investigation," security researchers at Symantec reported that the malicious software (malware) called "Raindrop" enabled the delivery of Cobalt Strike into the victims’ networks. Security researchers at Symantec reported that in the victim’s computer where the Raindrop malware was found, it was observed that several days later, PowerShell commands were executed on that computer, attempting to execute further instances of Raindrop malware on additional computers in the organization.
The top 3 tools, PowerShell, Cobalt Strike, and PsExec, used by cyberattackers in 2020 and early 2021 were all used by the group behind the ransomware called “DoppelPaymer.” Similar to modern-day ransomware, DoppelPaymer encrypts victims’ files, locking these victims out from accessing their files, and demands from victims to pay ransom in exchange for the decryption tool that would unlock the encrypted files.
Similar to other modern ransomware, the group behind DoppelPaymer threatens victims with the publication of their stolen files on the data leak site as part of the ransomware’s extortion scheme. In DoppelPaymer ransomware, PowerShell, Cobalt Strike, PsExec, and Mimikatz – ranked fourth in the tools used by cyberattackers in 2020 and early 2021 in the Sophos report – were used to stealing credentials, moving laterally inside the network, and executing different commands.
In the blog post "Ransomware groups continue to target healthcare, critical services; here’s how to reduce risk," Microsoft 365 Defender Threat Intelligence Team said that defenders should pay attention to malicious “PowerShell, Cobalt Strike, and other penetration-testing tools that can allow attacks to blend in as benign red team activities.”
“Security teams can defend their organization by monitoring and investigating suspicious activity,” Sophos in the “The Active Adversary Playbook 2021” said. “The difference between benign and malicious is not always easy to spot. Technology in any environment, whether cyber or physical, can do a great deal but it is not enough by itself. Human experience and the ability to respond are a vital part of any security solution.”
Cybersecurity Best Practices Against DarkSide Ransomware
The ransomware called “Darkside” wreaked havoc lately, with Colonial Pipeline, which operates the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., as its latest high-profile victim.
Colonial Pipeline became aware of the ransomware attack last May 7, forcing the company to shut down its operations. The company was able to restart its operations last May 12.
A report from Bloomberg showed that Colonial Pipeline paid within hours after the attack the group behind Darkside ransomware nearly $5 million. According to the Bloomberg report, once nearly $5 million was paid, the group behind Darkside ransomware gave the decryption tool for Colonial Pipeline to restore its disabled computer network.
The decryption tool, however, was so slow that the Colonial Pipeline continued using its own backups to help restore the system, the report said.
What Is DarkSide Ransomware?
DarkSide ransomware is a ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) in which the ransomware developers receive a share of the proceeds from the cybercriminal actors who deploy the ransomware, known as “affiliates.”
This ransomware was first observed in the wild in August 2020 and has been known to target high-revenue organizations. Similar to modern ransomware, DarkSide ransomware encrypts victims’ files and demands from victims ransom payment in exchange for the decryption tool that would unlock the encrypted files.
Aside from data encryption and decryption, DarkSide ransomware also carries out data exfiltration and threatening victims that non-payment of ransom could lead to the public exposure of stolen data. In addition, the group behind DarkSide ransomware is also willing to carry out a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack against victims.
Tactics Used by DarkSide Ransomware Attackers
Researchers at FireEye in the blog post “Shining a Light on DARKSIDE Ransomware Operations” and researchers at McAfee in the blog post “DarkSide Ransomware Victims Sold Short” found that the group behind the DarkSide ransomware employed the following tactics:
. Password Spraying Attack Against Corporate VPN
To gain initial access to their victim’s network, the group behind DarkSide ransomware used password spraying against corporate VPN. In password spraying, an attacker circumvents the account lock-out countermeasures by trying the same password across many accounts before trying another password.
. Exploitation of CVE-2021-20016
To gain initial access to their victim’s network, the attackers exploited CVE-2021-20016, a SQL-Injection vulnerability in the SonicWall product that allows a remote unauthenticated attacker to perform SQL query to access username password and other session-related information.
. Phishing Emails
To gain initial access to their victim’s network, the attackers also used phishing emails to deliver the SMOKEDHAM – a malicious software (malware) that supports keylogging, taking screenshots and executing arbitrary .NET commands.
. Exploitation of Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) Vulnerabilities
To gain initial access to their victim’s network, the attackers also exploited RDP, a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft that allows users the ability to connect to another computer over the internet. In the past few years, a handful of security vulnerabilities on RDP had been identified and patched. Many, however, fail to apply the latest RDP patch.
. Leveraging TeamViewer
To establish persistence within the victim environment, the attackers also leveraged TeamViewer – a legitimate software that allows access to computers and networks remotely.
. Leveraging Mimikatz
To gain more privileges on the victim’s network, the attackers also used Mimikatz for credential harvesting.
. Leveraging NGROK
To bypass firewalls and expose remote desktop service ports, like RDP and WinRM, to the open internet, the attackers used the publicly available NGROK.
. Leveraging Cobalt Strike BEACON
To maintain a foothold on the victim’s network, the attackers used Cobalt Strike BEACON. Cobalt Strike is a commercially available penetration testing tool. The group behind Cobalt Strike describes BEACON as a tool to “egress a network over HTTP, HTTPS, or DNS.”
Cybersecurity Best Practices
Below are some of the cybersecurity best practices in order to reduce your organization’s vulnerability to ransomware such as DarkSide and reduce the risk of severe business degradation once impacted by ransomware:
Use multi-factor authentication as an added protection to the single-factor authentication: the traditional username and password combination.
Filter emails to prevent malicious executable files from reaching end users.
Filter network traffic to prevent inbound and outbound communications with known malicious IP addresses.
Keep all software up to date by applying the latest patches in a timely manner.
Protect RDP with strong passwords, multi-factor authentication, VPN other security protections.
Implement application allow listing, allowing the systems to execute only software programs that are known and permitted by the security policy.
It’s important to note that the tactics above-mentioned aren’t just used by the group behind DarkSide ransomware. The said tactics are widely used as well by ransomware groups and other malware operators. As such, the cybersecurity best practices above-mentioned also apply to other forms of attacks.
To date, the group behind the Darkside ransomware has gone dark, making it unclear whether the group has ceased, suspended operation, or has changed its operations or maneuvering an exit. Since March 13, all the dark websites used by the group behind Darkside are down. These sites were used by the group to communicate with the public.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP