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Stopped in its tracks: How Antigena neutralizes zero-day ransomware

Max Heinemeyer, Director of Threat Hunting

The FBI estimates that, on average, more than 4,000 ransomware attacks have occurred every day since 2016. Operating at machine speeds, ransomware is capable of wreaking havoc on a digital enterprise within mere seconds. And unfortunately, traditional security tools are only programmed to detect known cyber-threats using rules and signatures – leaving them blind to tailored and novel ransomware threats that have never been seen before in the wild.

Because Darktrace’s fundamental approach to cyber defense does not rely on rules and signatures to identify emerging threats, it is in a unique position to neutralize novel attacks. In one recent customer environment, Darktrace Antigena stopped a previously-unknown ‘zero-day’ ransomware attack targeting an electronics manufacturer. Even when deployed over a fraction of the digital estate, Darktrace Antigena was able to respond to this never-before-seen ransomware strain before it could do any damage.

Imperfect visibility, perfect response

While Darktrace provides 100% coverage of the entire digital infrastructure, from email and cloud to IoT and networks, business challenges sometimes prevent users from obtaining full visibility into their environment. However, even when working with imperfect data and suboptimal coverage, Cyber AI can still identify ongoing threats as they emerge. In the below attack, Darktrace was not covering the initial stages of the attack lifecycle, including the initial infection and command & control establishment – yet the AI was able to autonomously respond within seconds, before the attack escalated into a crisis.

Anatomy of a ransomware attack

In this example, Darktrace’s AI identified patient zero deviating significantly from its typical pattern of internal behavior. This was illustrated by a spike in the pattern of regular connections made by patient zero and a series of high-confidence alerts firing in quick succession. These included:

  1. Compromise / Ransomware / Suspicious SMB Activity — triggers when a device begins making unusual SMB connections across the organization
  2. Antigena Ransomware Block — triggers Antigena to take an action when the behavior is significantly similar to ransomware
  3. Device / Reverse DNS Sweep — triggers when a device makes unusual reverse DNS lookups, a tactic often used during reconnaissance

Figure 1: Several Darktrace alerts fire, and a deviation from the regular pattern of life is visible

Indeed, not only was the device observed making an unexpectedly large number of connections, but it was also reading and writing a large number of SMB files and transferring this data internally to a server it did not usually communicate with. The spike in internal connections between patient zero and the server was a strong indicator of malware attempting to move laterally through the network.

Figure 2: Four model breaches observed on October 30th and a dotted line representing Antigena’s actions

Further investigation into the SMB activity revealed that hundreds of Dropbox-related files were accessed on SMB shares that the device had not previously accessed. Moreover, several of these files started becoming encrypted, appended with a [HELP_DECRYPT] extension.

Figure 3: Darktrace detects SMB activity relating to Dropbox files

Fortunately, Antigena was in Active Mode, and kicked in a second later, enforcing the usual pattern of life by blocking anomalous connections for five minutes, immediately stopping the encryption. By the time Darktrace’s AI took action, only four of these files were successfully encrypted.

Figure 4: Darktrace Antigena responds 1 second after ransomware was detected

Figure 5: More Antigena alerts and a clear indication of the unusual activity detected

Antigena then took a second action to stop the ransomware from spreading to other devices. The combination of various anomalous activities was sufficient evidence for Autonomous Response to neutralize the threat: patient zero was quarantined for 24 hours, unable to connect to the server or any other device on the network.

Figure 6: Antigena stops the infected device from conducting lateral movement & ransom activity

Darktrace Antigena therefore not only stopped the encryption activity in its tracks, but also prevented the attackers from moving laterally across the network unimpeded – either by scanning, using harvested admin credentials, or performing internal reconnaissance. Autonomous Response initiated a surgical intervention that halted the malware’s spread, all while allowing normal business operations to continue.

No signatures, no problem

Crucially, this strain of ransomware was not associated with any publicly known indicators of compromise such as blacklisted command & control domains or malware file hashes. Darktrace was able to detect this never-before-seen attack based purely on its comprehensive understanding of the normal pattern of life for every device and user within the organization. Once the deviation from this normal behavior was identified, Antigena was able to stop it immediately – without relying on rules, signatures, or historical data. With autonomous response acting decisively and immediately, the security team had enough time to catch up and perform hands-on incident response work.

Darktrace’s AI provides a potent combination: the Enterprise Immune System’s capacity to detect deviations in a device’s behavior together with Antigena acting to block connections and contain the ransomware from spreading across the enterprise. AI-enabled Autonomous Response neutralized the threat by recognizing the lethal recipe of these unusual internal alerts and taking targeted action against the ransomware. This stealthy strain of ransomware is unlikely to have been noticed, let alone stopped, by a security team reliant on legacy tools.

The Return-On-Security-Investment (ROSI) is often discussed when it comes to cyber security expenditure, and this incident provides a great example of the ROSI manifesting itself – recent ransomware attacks usually demand hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of ransom payments. Without Darktrace Antigena containing the threat at an early stage, it is likely that thousands of files would have been encrypted. By relying on Cyber AI, the company was able to take back the advantage over an ever-evolving adversary, saving time, money, resources, and – perhaps most critically – the company’s reputation.

Max Heinemeyer

Max is a cyber security expert with over a decade of experience in the field, specializing in a wide range of areas such as Penetration Testing, Red-Teaming, SIEM and SOC consulting and hunting Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. At Darktrace, Max oversees global threat hunting efforts, working with strategic customers to investigate and respond to cyber-threats. He works closely with the R&D team at Darktrace’s Cambridge UK headquarters, leading research into new AI innovations and their various defensive and offensive applications. Max’s insights are regularly featured in international media outlets such as the BBC, Forbes and WIRED. When living in Germany, he was an active member of the Chaos Computer Club. Max holds an MSc from the University of Duisburg-Essen and a BSc from the Cooperative State University Stuttgart in International Business Information Systems.