Every rule has an exception: How to detect insider threat without rules

Andrew Tsonchev, Director of Cyber Analysis | Wednesday June 21, 2017

Typically, security controls have to predefine ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior, but this approach inevitably leaves room for people to circumvent those rules, intentionally or otherwise. This is especially problematic when it comes to establishing rules for insiders. Too restrictive, and their workflow is impeded. Too laissez-fair, and they open themselves up to easily preventable threats.

For instance, to prevent anomalous RDP connections – either inbound or outbound – traditional security tools like firewalls often predefine which destination ports to allow and which ports to restrict. However, if an employee were to use a destination port not explicitly restricted by the firewall, they could theoretically exfiltrate data out of the network without raising any alerts.

After installing on the corporate network of a large manufacturing company, our AI technology recently spotted a rogue device making RDP connections to a rare external host that should have been blocked by the firewall.

10.230.102.143 · 00:23:18:28:3d:8c made 2 RDP connections to 100% rare external host mail.klaxcar[.]com

The company’s firewall was configured to prevent outbound RDP connections, but the rule was overly simplistic and was defined by destination port. By changing the port in use, the connections were allowed to continue.

Time: 2017-03-23 14:44:57 [UTC]
Protocol: RDP
Source: 10.230.102.143
Destination: 217.109.48.125
Destination Port: 30005

No other devices in the network had been observed connecting to that host. The activity represented a major deviation from the pattern of normality built by Darktrace’s AI algorithms. The connections lasted over ten minutes and involved the download of nearly 4MB of data.

10.230.102.143 was first seen on the network on 2017-03-23.
Total duration: 10 mins 34 secs
Total upload: 0.19 MB
Total download: 3.77 MB

Darktrace Antigena determined this activity was threatening enough to require an immediate response. It triggered an autonomous response that blocked all outgoing traffic from the device for 10 minutes, giving the security team time to identify the rogue device and stop the RDP activities.

Upon investigation, it became clear that an employee had connected their personal device to the corporate network and was attempting to send valuable intellectual property to a foreign party. The external host happened to be associated with a competing manufacturing company.

It may be tempting to conclude that the company simply needed a better firewall, but that misses the point. Legacy tools – no matter how expensive – still rely on rules, and every rule has an exception. Of course, firewalls are still an essential part of modern cyber security, but organizations need to accept that cyber-threats will always find a way around these tools.

At Darktrace, our technology doesn’t make any assumptions about maliciousness. It uses advanced machine learning and AI algorithms to learn ‘normal’ for every user and device on a network. When a threatening deviation arises, Darktrace neutralizes the threat in real time. While some of these anomalies get stopped by firewalls and other rules-based tools, subtle insider threats like these frequently go undetected.

To learn more about the threats Darktrace finds, check out our Threat Use Cases page which tells the story of how a hacker compromised the video conferencing unit in the executive boardroom.

Andrew Tsonchev

Andrew is a technical expert on cyber security and advises Darktrace’s strategic customers on advanced threat defense, AI and autonomous response. He has a background in threat analysis and research, and holds a first-class degree in physics from Oxford University and a first-class degree in philosophy from King’s College London. His comments on cyber security and the threat to critical national infrastructure have been reported in international media, including CNBC and the BBC World.