Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Analytics

9/3/2015
03:20 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Stealing Data By 'Living Off The Land'

Hackers latest tactic involves a malware-free attack using a company's own system credentials and admin tools to gain access.

Organizations should be on the alert for adversaries attempting to breach their computer systems by using little or no malware in their attacks, warns Dell SecureWorks’ Counter Threat Unit (CTU) senior researcher Phil Burdette. 

According Burdette, cyber criminals are using the target company’s own system credentials and legitimate software administration tools to move freely throughout their network, infecting and collecting valuable data. Burdette, who is part of the CTU operations team, says this has been the method to gain access to networks in nearly all of the intrusions responded to by the Incident Response Team over the past year.

The CTU has coined this tactic: “living off the land.” 

The tactic of stealing system credentials and administration tools has been an ongoing challenge for network defenders for some time.  What makes the task even more challenging is that many standard security technologies to uncover cyber threats -- intrusion detection and prevent systems and firewalls -- do not pick up these threats.  So these types of attacks are often missed by many companies until it is too late, according to incident response teams.  

“Threat actors will often follow the path of least resistance to achieve their objectives,” says Burdette.  “If there are legitimate tools and solutions available to them, they will attempt to use those before they need to deploy and concentrate craft to exfiltrate data from a system environment.”

Often the method deployed is as simple as a message purporting to be from the information technology department, telling a company’s employees to go to a certain web site to update their credentials, Burdette says.  For instance, one incident investigated by the SecureWorks team involved a threat group that targeted a pharmaceutical manufacturer.  The group got their initial foothold into the company via a convincing spearphishing campaign where the attackers, posing as the organization’s IT staff, sent an email to several company employees.

They used the ploy that the IT department was testing a new webmail solution and asked all of the employees to click a link and provide their domain username and password.  One employee responded and within hours the cyber thieves were using the compromised credentials, accessing the network via a virtual private network tunnel.  Using stolen system administrator credentials, the group moved laterally and connected to other systems using the Remote Desktop Protocol. RDP is used by legitimate sys admins and helpdesk employees to maintain systems.  Using the File Transfer Protocol, the group accessed and stole sensitive Intellectual Property information from many files, Burdette notes.

Another incident involved the stealing of hundreds of credit and debit cards from an organization’s Point-of-Sale (POS) Terminals. Burdette’s incident response team discovered that the adversaries got their initial foothold into their target’s IT environment by getting an employee’s network credentials for the company’s Citrix server. The server did not require employees to use two-factor authentication to log in remotely. Once they got into the network, the cyber thieves captured the domain administrator’s credentials. This allowed them to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the target’s IT environment, finding a “trusted” system to breach more systems. 

They gained access to the company’s Centralized Security Management Server, which was used to deploy and manage the organization’s anti-virus software for all of their endpoints, including their POS terminals.  With the domain administrator credentials, the thieves had easy access to this trusted system. They then pushed malware down to the POS Terminals that captured all of the credit and debit card data entered into each terminal.  The company’s anti-virus software did detect the financial data-stealing malware, however, the cyber thieves cleverly instructed the Security Management Server to whitelist the malware, allowing for its continued use.

Often it is difficult to discover how an adversary initially penetrated a network because the attacker has been in the network for such a long time the data is no longer available.  Or, in some cases, the victim organization did not have the proper system implementation in place for the incident response team to determine how credentials might have been compromised, Burdette says.

However, knowing something about what is the normal behavior of a system administrator versus an adversary is one of the first steps in combatting these types of attacks that use sys admin credentials and tools, Burdette says.  This can be difficult because large organizations usually have hundreds of system administrators to support business operations.  Still, identifying and detecting best practice standards for what is legitimate activity and how adversaries would act differently to achieve their objectives are necessary steps.

Organizations should also implement endpoint security systems that focus on threat behavior and can detect if malicious activity is going on in the network along with their IDS/IPS and firewall security.  Ultimately, the defense has to be a coordinated effort between incident response teams that know how adversaries operate plus the internal IT staff who know how their networks operate, Burdette says.

Rutrell Yasin has more than 30 years of experience writing about the application of information technology in business and government. View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
7 Truths About BEC Scams
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer,  6/13/2019
DNS Firewalls Could Prevent Billions in Losses to Cybercrime
Curtis Franklin Jr., Senior Editor at Dark Reading,  6/13/2019
Can Your Patching Strategy Keep Up with the Demands of Open Source?
Tim Mackey, Principal Security Strategist, CyRC, at Synopsys,  6/18/2019
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
Building and Managing an IT Security Operations Program
As cyber threats grow, many organizations are building security operations centers (SOCs) to improve their defenses. In this Tech Digest you will learn tips on how to get the most out of a SOC in your organization - and what to do if you can't afford to build one.
Flash Poll
The State of IT Operations and Cybersecurity Operations
The State of IT Operations and Cybersecurity Operations
Your enterprise's cyber risk may depend upon the relationship between the IT team and the security team. Heres some insight on what's working and what isn't in the data center.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-1874
PUBLISHED: 2019-06-20
A vulnerability in the web-based management interface of Cisco Prime Service Catalog Software could allow an unauthenticated, remote attacker to conduct a cross-site request forgery (CSRF) attack on an affected system. The vulnerability is due to insufficient CSRF protection mechanisms on the web-ba...
CVE-2019-1875
PUBLISHED: 2019-06-20
A vulnerability in the web-based management interface of Cisco Prime Service Catalog could allow an authenticated, remote attacker to conduct a cross-site scripting (XSS) attack against a user of the web-based interface. The vulnerability is due to insufficient validation of user-supplied input by t...
CVE-2019-1876
PUBLISHED: 2019-06-20
A vulnerability in the HTTPS proxy feature of Cisco Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) Software could allow an unauthenticated, remote attacker to use the Central Manager as an HTTPS proxy. The vulnerability is due to insufficient authentication of proxy connection requests. An attacker could exp...
CVE-2019-1878
PUBLISHED: 2019-06-20
A vulnerability in the Cisco Discovery Protocol (CDP) implementation for the Cisco TelePresence Codec (TC) and Collaboration Endpoint (CE) Software could allow an unauthenticated, adjacent attacker to inject arbitrary shell commands that are executed by the device. The vulnerability is due to insuff...
CVE-2019-1879
PUBLISHED: 2019-06-20
A vulnerability in the CLI of Cisco Integrated Management Controller (IMC) could allow an authenticated, local attacker to inject arbitrary commands that are executed with root privileges. The vulnerability is due to insufficient validation of user-supplied input at the CLI. An attacker could exploi...