Originally created by famed French programmer Benjamin Delpy to highlight security flaws in Windows authentication mechanisms, today Mimikatz is a staple post-exploitation module in the arsenal of cyber-criminals, since it facilitates lateral movement across a victim’s network. Mimikatz was a primary feature of the global ransomware attacks NotPetya and BadRabbit, in addition to the alleged Russian hacking of the German parliament in 2015 and 2017.
Among the primary vulnerabilities that Mimikatz exploits is Windows’ Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS), which is designed to obviate the need for users to reauthenticate every time they seek to access internal resources. Despite its clear utility, LSASS works by keeping a cache of every credential used since the last boot, presenting an obvious security risk in the event the cache is compromised. Broadly speaking, Mimikatz plunders this resource and allows users to access cleartext passwords as well as NTLM hashes. With this data in hand, threat actors are able to conduct the following attacks:
- Kerberos Golden Ticket: Provides administrative credentials for the whole domain.
- Pass-the-Ticket: Enables a user to pass a Kerberos ticket to a second device and login using this ticket.
- Kerberos Silver Ticket: Provides a TGS ticket to log into any network service.
- Pass-the-Hash: Allows a user to pass a hash string in order to login.
Dumping LSASS memory is just one method that Mimikatz and its many updated versions employ to harvest credentials. Indeed, once malware such as NotPetya has established itself on single device, the Mimikatz module can exploit a variety of security flaws to obtain the password information for any other users or computers that have logged onto that machine: a key step for both lateral movement and privilege escalation. Like many successful hacker tools, Mimikatz has inspired the creation of other programs with similar aims, which are largely intended to circumvent antivirus controls.
Using AI to end the cat-and-mouse game
At the most basic level, security teams can reduce vulnerability to Mimikatz and to lateral movement more generally by ensuring that each user has the minimum amount of privileges needed for his or her role. But while this measure is certainly prudent, it will not always be effective — especially when dealing with sophisticated threats. Another strategy is to implement endpoint security tools and anti-virus software, which rely on rules and signatures to detect known Mimikatz variants. However, as Mimikatz and its copycats continue to evolve, these traditional tools are locked in a ceaseless cat-and-mouse game, unable to spot unknown variants of Mimikatz that are designed to circumvent them.
As a fundamentally different approach to security, artificially intelligent systems like Darktrace avoid this cat-and-mouse game by learning what constitutes normal behavior for the users and devices they safeguard while “on the job,” rather than using fixed rules and signatures. This approach alerts defenders to any anomalous activity, regardless of whether such activity constitutes a known or unknown threat. Typically, lateral movement involving Mimikatz will involve a spike in unusual SMB activity, as attackers seek to write the tool to target devices. The following recent attack on a Darktrace customer highlights how AI can allow security teams to quickly detect and respond to such lateral movement involving Mimikatz:
Darktrace alerts to a non-domain joined Linux device appearing on the customer’s network and engaging in extensive SMB bruteforce activity against key servers.
Darktrace flags the device successfully logging into a server using administrative credentials via SMBv1, opening the \sect pipe and writing the suspicious and likely malicious file Syssvc.exe to the server’s \temp folder. Immediately after this, Darktrace alerts to the device writing mimikatz.exe to the same folder.
Following this step, multiple .tmp and .txt files appear on the target device, indicating that Mimikatz was proceeding to access passwords and hashes.
The novelty of this AI-powered approach is that it does not rely on a string search for the term “mimikatz.exe”; rather, it highlights the unusual behavior that commonly surrounds Mimikatz’ activity. As shown in the screenshot above, this behavior constitutes “New activity”: Darktrace has not seen this type of SMB activity between the source and the destination before. Moreover, SMBv1 is used — highly unusual for the environment. And finally, it is unusual for devices in the target environment to make SMB network drive writes to Temp folders. All these subtle deviations from the customer’s ‘pattern of life,’ taken together, caused Darktrace to alert on the Mimikatz behavior.
Since its introduction to the cyber-threat landscape, Mimikatz has become a highly effective means for cyber-attackers to move laterally inside corporate and government networks. But by empowering security teams to respond before attackers can plunder a network’s entire cache of passwords, AI cyber defenses are thwarting Mimikatz and its copycats alike.
For security professionals around the world, it is hardly a secret that cyber-attacks are becoming ever more difficult to detect — incorporating stealthier tactics and even automated elements to breach the network perimeter. Yet despite the increasing sophistication of these threats, the greatest security risk confronting today’s businesses, governments, and nonprofits continues to be their own employees.
Such credentialed network users present a relatively easy avenue into the digital estate for cyber-criminals who manage to deceive them. From banking trojans that are spread using social engineering to cryptocurrency mining carried out by disgruntled workers, the past year witnessed a significant upswing in threats that either exploited the fallibility of employees or which were authored by employees themselves.
By monitoring and analyzing raw traffic from all our clients’ users, internet-connected devices, and cloud deployments, we saw a number of trends emerge in 2018. As the second installment of a two-part series, this article will review specifically those attack trends that involve trickery, subtlety, and the art of deception. Because, as organizations deploy the latest technologies and tools to improve their cyber defenses, the weakest link in our network security is not a machine — it is human.
Banking trojan attacks increased by 239%
Named after the legendary act of Grecian subterfuge, today a trojan horse refers to a malicious computer program that misleads its user of its actual purpose, taking advantage of the fundamental weakness of human error inherent to any security posture. Over the last 12 months, the incidence of banking trojans in particular — which harvest the credentials of online banking customers from infected machines — has increased by a staggering 239% across our customer base.
This dramatic increase may be a consequence of the declining popularity of ransomware for monetary gain: it seems that banking trojans are, at least at present, a more profitable tool for cyber-criminals. Unlike ransomware, banking trojans do not rely on a victim’s conscious willingness to pay; rather, they use deception to perform transactions without the victim’s knowledge. And as the number of ransomware incidents declined in 2018, it seems that subtler attacks have become the weapons of choice for cyber-crime.
The proliferation of banking trojans has been accompanied by a growing sophistication in the malware itself, with many banking trojans having expanded beyond their original target of online banking access. Indeed, advanced trojans like Emotet now deliver other forms of malware as payloads, after using fraudulent emails, online advertisements, and other forms of social engineering to breach the perimeter.
Cryptocurrency-related incidents up 78%
Alongside the increase in banking trojans, Darktrace detected 78% growth in the frequency of another under-the-radar threat: crypto-jacking. Defined as the secret usage of computing power to mine cryptocurrency, crypto-jacking operates by the opposite logic of ransomware, acting as a parasite on an organization’s computing systems or injecting hidden code into an organization’s web pages. Whereas ransomware attackers demand payment immediately, cryptocurrency miners seek to go unnoticed for as long as possible.
Deceptive threats like banking trojans and crypto-jacking are particularly elusive when they originate from insiders. In one Fortune 500 e-commerce company this year, Darktrace discovered a privileged access user — a disgruntled systems administrator — hijacking power sources from the company’s infrastructure for his own monetary gain. The employee co-opted other users’ credentials and service accounts to stealthily take over multiple machines for the purpose of crypto-mining.
At the same time, the growth rate of cryptocurrency-related threats is less than in the previous year, likely as a result of the dramatic fall in the value of most cryptocurrencies (see Figure 1). But with many experts anticipating these values to bounce back, we expect crypto-jacking to become far more common in the years to come. The cyber-criminal ecosystem still responds to macroeconomic factors, and as payment systems continue to evolve, so too will attackers’ revenue streams.
The weakest link: still people
The rapid escalation of deceptive and subtle threats — from banking trojans that gain access with social engineering to crypto-jacking carried out by insiders to targeted spear phishing emails — is the product of a fundamental flaw with the traditional approach to cyber defense, which entails securing the perimeter against known threats. Indeed, once an employee, maliciously or inadvertently, compromises the network from the inside, protecting the perimeter does little good. And as we look ahead to 2019, a year likely to be even more dominated by deceptive attacks and internal threats, organizations must seek to better understand their own networks to recognize whenever something is, ever so slightly, amiss.