Law and disorder: Firms in the firing line

Max Heinemeyer, Director of Threat Hunting | Thursday October 25, 2018

Since July 2018, Darktrace has identified an increasing number of cyber-attacks targeting law firms. Concerningly, the attacks are emerging not from opportunistic malware, like banking trojans, but threat actors who actively conduct cyber-intrusions, seeking to exfiltrate data from these organizations.

Perfect targets

Law firms are actively pursued because their systems contain the sensitive data of many other organizations. The essence of a lawyer’s work involves managing confidential client information. Firms are privy to a huge variety of valuable data, from tax affairs, to intellectual property. Consequently, law firms’ ability to protect highly-sensitive information is critical; a successful cyber-attack might cause reputational damage resulting in the diminishing of their most valuable asset – clients’ trust.

Further challenges

As an industry, law is structured around sharing revenues among a minimal number of highly qualified professionals. As such, they can rarely employ large IT teams – and even smaller IT security departments. With the increased number of attacks seen in recent years, as well as the added risks of the cloud, and the Internet of Things, security teams lack the capacity to defend their networks against the sophisticated, machine-speed attacks which characterize today’s threat landscape.

In addition, lawyers often have to research obscure or potentially illegal activities, while communicating and receiving files from third parties. This complicates any attempt to impose and regulate highly restrictive security policies, placing a significant burden on small, overstretched security teams.

Living off the land

Interestingly, the recent surge of targeted attacks against law firms is unified by the methods used. The attacks were all performed using publicly available tools, including: Mimikatz (for credentials dumping), Powershell Empire (for Command & Control communication), Dameware (additional C2/backdoor), and PsExec variants such as the Impacket Python variant of PsExec (for lateral movement).

Perhaps surprisingly, using generic methods against such high-level targets is actually beneficial to the attacker. Adopting mainly publicly available tools, rather than individually crafted malware, makes attribution much harder.

Although some of these tools, such as Mimikatz, have to be downloaded into the environment; the stealthiest, like Dameware or PsExec, are able to use the infrastructure within their environment. Known as ‘living off the land’, these tools are almost undetectable by traditional security approaches, as their malicious activity is designed to blend in with legitimate system administration work.

Case study

In July 2018, Darktrace discovered the illegitimate use of Powershell Empire – a code capable of ‘living off the land’. When monitored by human surveillance alone, this extremely stealthy tool would normally go undetected, camouflaged by system behavior.

Unlike traditional security approaches, Darktrace does not use rules and signatures. Instead, it learns about the activity of the network, itself. This meant Darktrace was able to observe the initial download of the malware, subsequent reconnaissance and ensuing C2 traffic.

Consequently, we were able to report that an incident had occurred involving a probable Trickbot banking trojan infection and new use of a Remote Access Tool.

This was accompanied by the following visuals:

Graph showing all breaching connections from the source device over time, with breaches shown as coloured dots. This begins with the download of the masqueraded executable file, and goes up to the present time. The vast majority of these model breaches are likely related to the suspected malicious activity.

Darktrace’s AI capability meant that the Enterprise Immune System detected this sophisticated and subtle threat immediately – before it had time to do any damage.

An excerpt from the Event Log at the time of the first Dameware activity from this device, shortly after this incident began.

AI securing the law sector

As seen above, cyber-attackers are constantly discovering novel ways of evading rule-based security systems. Attackers ‘living off the land’ are generally too subtly anomalous for humans to identify. Darktrace’s machine learning has the unique ability to learn the ‘pattern of life’ of any network which means it is able to distinguish this behaviour, as it is still unusual compared to legitimate administrative functions.

Darktrace AI secures law firms all over the world. For small security teams, AI is a game changer. Through the use of machine learning, Darktrace does the heavy lifting of separating interesting anomalies from ordinary noise. Many firms also use Darktrace Antigena as a ‘virtual analyst’ to supplement the work of their staff.

Antigena acts at machine speed, autonomously responding to threats as they emerge in real time, even after hours and on the weekends. Antigena slows down, or even stops, traffic to the affected parts of the network before any data can be compromised. This buys security teams crucial time to fix the issue – before it’s too late.

Blog Archive

Thursday October 25, 2018
Thursday October 4, 2018
Monday August 20, 2018
Monday July 16, 2018
Friday June 22, 2018
Wednesday May 9, 2018
Monday April 16, 2018
Wednesday March 7, 2018
Tuesday February 13, 2018
Friday February 2, 2018
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Monday October 24, 2016

About the authors

Justin Fier

Justin Fier is the Director for Cyber Intelligence & Analytics at Darktrace, based in Washington D.C. Justin is one of the US’s leading cyber intelligence experts, and his insights have been widely reported in leading media outlets, including Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Washington Post, and VICELAND. With over 10 years of experience in cyber defense, Justin has supported various elements in the US intelligence community, holding mission-critical security roles with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Mission Systems and Abraxas. Justin is also a highly-skilled technical specialist, and works with Darktrace’s strategic global customers on threat analysis, defensive cyber operations, protecting IoT, and machine learning.

Dave Palmer

Dave Palmer is the Director of Technology at Darktrace, overseeing the mathematics and engineering teams and project strategies. With over ten years of experience at the forefront of government intelligence operations, Palmer has worked across UK intelligence agencies GCHQ & MI5, where he delivered mission-critical infrastructure services, including the replacement and security of entire global networks, the development of operational internet capabilities and the management of critical disaster recovery incidents. He holds a first-class degree in Computer Science and Software Engineering from the University of Birmingham.

Andrew Tsonchev

Andrew advises Darktrace’s strategic Fortune 500 customers on advanced threat detection, machine learning and autonomous response. He has a technical 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. He was most recently featured on BBC World, BBC Morning and Al Jazeera to comment on the news regarding the GRU.

Max Heinemeyer

Max is a cyber security expert with over eight years’ experience in the field specializing in network monitoring and offensive security. At Darktrace, Max works with strategic customers to help them investigate and respond to threats as well as overseeing the cyber security analyst team in the Cambridge UK headquarters. Prior to his current role, Max led the Threat and Vulnerability Management department for Hewlett-Packard in Central Europe. He was a member of the German Chaos Computer Club, working as a white hat hacker in penetration testing and red teaming engagements. Max holds a MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.