Here’s how black hats will spend Black Friday

Justin Fier, Director of Cyber Intelligence & Analytics | Thursday November 22, 2018

From Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, shoppers across the globe will splurge tens of billions of dollars on everything from pillows to parkas to Pokémon pajamas. U.S. consumers alone spent a record $19.62 billion last Black Friday weekend — on just online purchases. And while the number of customers at brick-and-mortar stores declined 4% from 2016, e-commerce sales were 18% higher in 2017, when for the first time more Americans shopped online than in person. There is every reason to suspect that a virtually unprecedented volume of virtual cash is about to change hands, presenting an equally unprecedented opportunity for a massive holiday cyber-heist. Here’s what such a heist might look like:

Proof of concept

While the incentive for cyber-crime during this Black Friday weekend is historically unparalleled, it has long been the holiday of choice for criminals. On Cyber Monday of 2014, for instance, a DNS provider was hit by a relatively rudimentary DDoS attack that nonetheless disrupted its clients’ websites. More advanced DDoS attacks launched by modern Mirai botnets — like the 2016 Dyn attack that crippled many of the Internet’s top websites — would be devastating on Black Friday, when companies like Amazon reel in upwards of a million dollars per minute. And for smaller retailers, a ransomware or DDoS attack this weekend poses existential risk, both because of lost revenue and because of reputational damage in such a highly competitive industry.

Prior to last year’s Black Friday weekend, experts anticipated more than 50 million attacks on businesses during peak shopping days, and cyber-criminals did not disappoint. Darktrace detected a 70% uptick in significant threats facing its retail clients during the holiday season, from November and December, compared to the previous two months, an uptick that helps explain why cyber-crime cost the world $600 billion last year. At least in the short term, it appears that online crime does pay — especially after Thanksgiving.

Mode of attack

As forensics continue to improve and CCTVs rapidly proliferate, the in-person criminal heist has largely been replaced by online robbery, which leaves no fingerprints and can be seen by no camera. One example: the annual amount of money stolen in U.S. bank robberies — the quintessential heist — has fallen by more than 60% since 2003, while cyber-crimes like credit card fraud have simultaneously skyrocketed. This transition to digital larceny makes financial sense as well, given that less than 10% of the world’s currency still exists as physical cash.

Indeed, identity theft is even more lucrative than bank robbery if done at scale, yet it entails far less risk for the perpetrators. Stolen credit card numbers can each sell for $100 on the Dark Web, rendering crimes like the Target breach — which took place during Black Friday weekend in 2013 and exposed 40 million debit and credit accounts — extremely profitable. With more than 100 million Americans and close to a billion global shoppers online during the holiday season, ’tis certainly the season for a large-scale assault on personal information.

But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of cyber-heists is that they need not even steal anything to make off with loot. Faced with a well-timed ransomware attack, retailers often simply hand over their cash to remain operational: 70% of businesses paid the ransom after attacks in 2016, prompting criminals to quadruple their average demand. And on the busiest shopping day in history, there’s no telling how exorbitant these demands might be.

Cyber-threats that are specifically aimed at the retail sector make the challenge of security even more difficult for defenders, since much like a targeted traditional heist, they exploit their victims’ unique vulnerabilities. The numbers validate common sense here: insights from across Darktrace’s customer base reveal that these key retail threats — which include personalized phishing attacks, Cloud and SaaS attacks, as well as trojans — are more than twice as likely to become high-priority incidents as the average threat. With so much money on the line, every retailer should expect to confront targeted attacks throughout the weekend.

Bypassing the defenses

From ransomware to data exfiltration, one can make an educated guess about the kinds of threats facing retailers this Black Friday. But the truth is that no one knows exactly what the next global cyber-attack will look like, particularly given the enormous incentive for criminals to create an entirely new attack strain — or even a new type of attack altogether. Several recent, state-sponsored exploits have proven that the financial and technical backing exists to produce malware sophisticated enough to deliver a serious blow to the U.S. economy.

Innovative attacks pose a fundamental problem for traditional security tools, which rely on knowledge of past incidents to stop future ones. By updating their predefined notions of what constitutes a cyber-threat when a breach occurs, the best of these tools stop previously known attacks, but they are nonetheless blind to unknown threats. Many retailers have deployed Darktrace’s AI cyber security because it doesn’t presume to know what tomorrow’s attack will look like; rather, Darktrace learns on the job to differentiate between normal and abnormal behavior. But while such adaptive security is the only approach that stands a chance in today’s fast-changing threat landscape, most retailers have yet to make the switch.

In this era of DNA forensics and near-ubiquitous surveillance, the criminal heist has not disappeared — it’s digitized. And while retail companies prepare themselves for the generic cyber-threats of the past, very few are in a position to counter a never-before-seen attack that, like a physical heist, has been planned for months to exploit their unique security blind spots. As we inch closer to zero hour, the industry must be willing to adapt its cyber defenses against an ever-evolving adversary, or it may end Black Friday firmly in the red.

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 January 10, 2019
Monday December 3, 2018
Thursday November 22, 2018
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
Monday January 22, 2018
Friday December 8, 2017
Monday November 27, 2017
Monday October 30, 2017
Wednesday October 25, 2017
Thursday October 12, 2017
Monday October 2, 2017
Monday September 18, 2017
Monday July 31, 2017
Thursday June 29, 2017
Wednesday June 21, 2017
Wednesday May 17, 2017
Monday May 8, 2017
Wednesday April 5, 2017
Monday March 6, 2017
Monday February 13, 2017
Monday January 30, 2017
Monday January 9, 2017
Friday December 16, 2016
Monday December 5, 2016
Friday November 18, 2016
Friday November 4, 2016
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.