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Covert attack techniques growing in popularity

BY eSentire Threat Intel

June 26, 2018 | 3 MINS READ

Threat Intelligence

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The eSentire Threat Intelligence team released their findings and analysis of cybersecurity incidents from the first quarter of 2018. Overall, they saw a dramatic increase in attacks targeting consumer-grade routers, increasing 539% from Q4, 2017. The majority of hostile detections on the eSentire threat detection surface pertain to perimeter threats: Information Gathering, Intrusion Attempts, and Reputation Blocks. Furthermore, threats beyond the perimeter, such as Malicious Code (+35%) and Phishing (+39%) both saw increases in the first quarter of 2018.

But perhaps the most interesting observation was the spike in critical endpoint attacks. Data from esENDPOINTTM customers showed heavy use of legitimate Microsoft binaries such as PowerShell and MSHTA. These are popular tools that practically every business uses and what the data reveals, is that attackers are leveraging these tools to cloak covert attacks. The tools are used for downloading and executing malicious code in the initial stages of a malware infection. PowerShell can also be leveraged by adversaries to reduce their on-disk footprint and evade detective controls by operating in memory and obfuscating command-line parameters.

In this blog, we’re going to take a closer look at rising attacks like PowerShell and why they present a particularly dangerous threat to your business.

Why are attackers using PowerShell to target businesses?

Once attackers establish a beachhead, they look to utilize tools that are available to them in order progress towards their goal. Attackers generally like to “live off the land,” which means use or leverage whatever tools are available to them within the environment they’re attempting to penetrate. PowerShell is an attractive tool to attackers due to the nature of its capabilities and accessibility within the environments used by System Administrators. PowerShell is extremely powerful and provides a way—through programmatic scripting—to carry out malicious activities with ease.

Why are PowerShell attacks effective?

PowerShell attacks are highly effective due to the fact that the capability is readily available in most environments that are Microsoft/Windows-based; which is typically a large part of the market. Additionally, based on the general architecture of PowerShell, how it works and how it can be used, it is generally very easy to hide within the “noise.” The capabilities that are used are not usually monitored within customer environments, making it easy for attackers to obfuscate (or hide/disguise) the activities they’re carrying out.

Why can’t traditional defenses block these attacks?

Potentially malicious PowerShell activity is difficult to detect due to some of the reasons already described, including:

  1. The architecture is typically already based on escalated privileges
  2. It is widespread and prone to a high-level of false positive detection(s)
  3. The attacker’s ability to obfuscate the execution of the code makes it difficult for it to be translated by “automated engines”

Additionally, unlike other techniques, like malware-related attacks, PowerShell attacks are generally considered fileless and often run in memory space when carrying out activities, which adds to the detection complexity. But the overwhelming challenge, for most customers, is the reality of false-positive detections that require significant resources to review and respond to.

Talk to the Kaseya discovery and why/how the Kaseya vulnerability exposed PowerShell risk?

The Kaseya discovery highlights two key things: first, the general effectiveness of the attackers in their ability to broadly impact organizations globally leveraging PowerShell and effectively avoiding detection in almost all cases. Secondly, it highlights the importance of not only prevention, but an ability to detect (anomalous) activities, to dig in and investigate, and to ultimately respond (rapidly) to threats. The Kaseya incident impacted a large portion of users globally, and yet went largely unnoticed. The reality is that while the enablement of PowerShell increases the risk to organizations, the benefits outweigh the negative (potential) impacts through automation and management of complex networks. The Kaseya incident leveraged a crypto-jacking/mining threat that was stealing resources globally for nefarious means; the situation could have been significantly worse if the attackers had utilized the vulnerability to broadly distribute something like ransomware, which could have been much more devastating for organizations.

Q1 2018 Threat Report

eSentire invented a highly integrated technology stack that enables unparalleled visibility into our mid-market customer networks, and agile real-time threat response capabilities. This report provides a quarterly snapshot, analyzing all events investigated by the eSentire SOC, while addressing three topics: threat types, threat volume and attack types. Each topic is divided into multiple sections, including visual data analysis, written analytical analysis, practical recommendations and key assumptions.

Click here to download the report.

eSentire Threat Intel
eSentire Threat Intel Threat Intelligence Research Group

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