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Hive ransomware gets upgrades in Rust

Hive ransomware is only about one year old, having been first observed in June 2021, but it has grown into one of the most prevalent ransomware payloads in the ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) ecosystem. With its latest variant carrying several major upgrades, Hive also proves it’s one of the fastest evolving ransomware families, exemplifying the continuously changing ransomware ecosystem.

The upgrades in the latest variant are effectively an overhaul: the most notable changes include a full code migration to another programming language and the use of a more complex encryption method. The impact of these updates is far-reaching, considering that Hive is a RaaS payload that Microsoft has observed in attacks against organizations in the healthcare and software industries by large ransomware affiliates like DEV-0237.

Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC) discovered the new variant while analyzing detected Hive ransomware techniques for dropping .key files. We know that Hive drops its encryption keys file, which contains encrypted keys used to decrypt encrypted files, and uses a consistent naming pattern:

[KEY_NAME].key.[VICTIM_IDENTIFIER] 
(e.g., BiKtPupMjgyESaene0Ge5d0231uiKq1PFMFUEBNhAYv_.key.ab123)

The said .key files were missing the [VICTIM_IDENTIFIER] part of the file name, prompting deeper analysis of the Hive ransomware that dropped them. This analysis led to the discovery of the new Hive variant and its multiple versions, which exhibit slightly different available parameters in the command line and the executed processes.

Analyzing these patterns in samples of the new variants, we discovered even more samples, all with a low detection rate and none being correctly identified as Hive. In this blog we will share our in-depth analysis of the new Hive variant, including its main features and upgrades, with the aim of equipping analysts and defenders with information to better identify and protect organizations against malware attacks relying on Hive.

Analysis and key findings

The switch from GoLang to Rust

The main difference between the new Hive variant and old ones is the programming language used. The old variants were written in Go (also referred to as GoLang), while the new Hive variant is written in Rust.

Hive isn’t the first ransomware written in Rust—BlackCat, another prevalent ransomware, was the first. By switching the underlying code to Rust, Hive benefits from the following advantages that Rust has over other programming languages:

  • It offers memory, data type, and thread safety
  • It has deep control over low-level resources
  • It has a user-friendly syntax
  • It has several mechanisms for concurrency and parallelism, thus enabling fast and safe file encryption
  • It has a good variety of cryptographic libraries
  • It’s relatively more difficult to reverse-engineer

String encryption

The new Hive variant uses string encryption that can make it more evasive. Strings reside in the .rdata section and are decrypted during runtime by XORing with constants. The constants that are used to decrypt the same string sometimes differ across samples, making them an unreliable basis for detection.

For example, let’s look at the section where part of the string “!error no flag -u <login>:<password> provided” is decrypted. In one sample (SHA-256: f4a39820dbff47fa1b68f83f575bc98ed33858b02341c5c0464a49be4e6c76d3), the constants are 0x9F2E3F1F and 0x95C9:

Partial screenshot of a code-level analysis of a Hive sample.
Figure 1 – String decryption using constants 0x9F2E3F1F and 0x95C9

In another sample (SHA-256: 6e5d49f604730ef4c05cfe3f64a7790242e71b4ecf1dc5109d32e811acf0b053), the constants are 0x3ECF7CC4 and 0x198F:        

Partial screenshot of a code-level analysis of a Hive sample.
Figure 2 – String decryption using constants 0x3ECF7CC4 and 0x198F

Some samples do share constants when decrypting the same string. For example, let’s look where the parameter string “-da” is decrypted. In one sample (SHA-256: 88b1d8a85bf9101bc336b01b9af4345ed91d3ec761554d167fe59f73af73f037), the constants are 0x71B4 and 2:

Partial screenshot of a code-level analysis of a Hive sample.
Figure 3 – String decryption using constants 0x71B4 and 2

In another sample (SHA-256: 33744c420884adf582c46a4b74cbd9c145f2e15a036bb1e557e89d6fd428e724), the constants are the same:

Partial screenshot of a code-level analysis of a Hive sample.
Figure 4 – String decryption in a different sample also using constants 0x71B4 and 2

Command-line parameters

In old Hive variants, the username and the password used to access the Hive ransom payment website are embedded in the samples. In the new variant, these credentials must be supplied in the command line under the “-u” parameter, which means that they can’t be obtained by analysts from the sample itself.

Partial screenshot of a command prompt showing an error message.
Figure 5 – Without a username and a password, the sample won’t continue its execution

Like most modern ransomware, Hive introduces command-line parameters, which allow attackers flexibility when running the payload by adding or removing functionality. For example, an attacker can choose to encrypt files on remote shares or local files only or select the minimum file size for encryption. In the new Hive variant, we found the following parameters across different samples:

Parameter Functionality
-no-local Don’t encrypt local files
-no-mounted Don’t encrypt files on mounted network shares
-no-discovery Don’t discover network shares
-local-only Encrypt only local files
-network-only Encrypt only files on network shares
-explicit-only Encrypt specific folder(s). For example, ‘-explicit-only c:\mydocs c:\myphotos’
-min-size Minimum file size, in bytes, to encrypt. For example, ‘-min-size 102400’ will encrypt files with size equal or greater than 100kb
-da [Usage is being analyzed.]
-f [Usage is being analyzed.]
-force [Usage is being analyzed.]
-wmi [Usage is being analyzed.]

Overall, it appears different versions have different parameters that are constantly updated. Unlike in previous variants where there was a ‘help’ menu, in the new variant, the attacker must know the parameters beforehand. Since all strings are encrypted, it makes finding the parameters challenging for security researchers.

Stopped services and processes

Like most sophisticated malware, Hive stops services and processes associated with security solutions and other tools that might get in the way of its attack chain. Hive tries to impersonate the process tokens of trustedinstaller.exe and winlogon.exe so it can stop Microsoft Defender Antivirus, among other services.

Hive stops the following services:

windefend, msmpsvc, kavsvc, antivirservice, zhudongfungyu, vmm, vmwp, sql, sap, oracle, mepocs, veeam, backup, vss, msexchange, mysql, sophos, pdfservice, backupexec, gxblr, gxvss, gxclmgrs, gxvcd, gxcimgr, gxmmm, gxvsshwprov, gxfwd, sap, qbcfmonitorservice, qbidpservice, acronisagent, veeam, mvarmor, acrsch2svc

It also stops the following processes:

dbsnmp, dbeng50, bedbh, excel, encsvc, visios, firefox, isqlplussvc, mspub, mydesktopqos, notepad, ocautoupds, ocomm, ocssd, onenote, outlook, sqbcoreservice, sql, steam, tbirdconfig, thunderbird, winword, wordpad, xfssvccon, vxmon, benetns, bengien, pvlsvr, raw_agent_svc, cagservice, sap, qbidpservice, qbcfmonitorservice, teamviewer_service, teamviewer, tv_w32, tv_x64, cvd, saphostexec, sapstartsrv, avscc, dellsystemdetect, enterpriseclient, veeam, thebat, cvfwd, cvods, vsnapvss, msaccess, vaultsvc, beserver, appinfo, qbdmgrn, avagent, spooler, powerpnt, cvmountd, synctime, oracle, wscsvc, winmgmt, *sql*

Launched processes

As part of its ransomware activity, Hive typically runs processes that delete backups and prevent recovery. There are differences between versions, and some samples may not execute all these processes, but one sample that starts the most processes is SHA-256: 481dc99903aa270d286f559b17194b1a25deca8a64a5ec4f13a066637900221e:

  • “vssadmin.exe delete shadows /all /quiet”
  • “wmic.exe shadowcopy delete”
  • “wbadmin.exe delete systemstatebackup”
  • “wbadmin.exe delete catalog -quiet”
  • “bcdedit.exe /set {default} recoveryenabled No”
  • “bcdedit.exe /set {default} bootstatuspolicy ignoreallfailures”
  • “wbadmin.exe delete systemstatebackup -keepVersions:3”

Ransom note

Hive’s ransom note has also changed, with the new version referencing the .key files with their new file name convention and adding a sentence about virtual machines (VMs).

The older variants had an embedded username and password (marked as hidden). In the new variant, the username and password are taken from the command line parameter -u and are labeled test_hive_username and test_hive_password.

Old ransom note text:

 Your network has been breached and all data were encrypted.
Personal data, financial reports and important documents are ready to disclose.
 
To decrypt all the data and to prevent exfiltrated files to be disclosed at 
http://hive[REDACTED].onion/
you will need to purchase our decryption software.
 
Please contact our sales department at:
 
   http://hive[REDACTED].onion/
  
      Login:    [REDACTED]
      Password: [REDACTED]
 
To get an access to .onion websites download and install Tor Browser at:
   https://www.torproject.org/ (Tor Browser is not related to us)
 
 
Follow the guidelines below to avoid losing your data:
 
- Do not modify, rename or delete *.key.abc12 files. Your data will be 
   undecryptable.
- Do not modify or rename encrypted files. You will lose them.
- Do not report to the Police, FBI, etc. They don't care about your business.
   They simply won't allow you to pay. As a result you will lose everything.
- Do not hire a recovery company. They can't decrypt without the key. 
   They also don't care about your business. They believe that they are 
   good negotiators, but it is not. They usually fail. So speak for yourself.
- Do not reject to purchase. Exfiltrated files will be publicly disclosed.

New ransom note text:

Your network has been breached and all data were encrypted.
Personal data, financial reports and important documents are ready to disclose.
 
To decrypt all the data and to prevent exfiltrated files to be disclosed at 
http://hive[REDACTED].onion/
you will need to purchase our decryption software.
 
Please contact our sales department at:
 
   http://hive[REDACTED].onion/
 
      Login:    test_hive_username
      Password: test_hive_password
 
To get an access to .onion websites download and install Tor Browser at:
   https://www.torproject.org/ (Tor Browser is not related to us)
 
 
Follow the guidelines below to avoid losing your data:
 
- Do not delete or reinstall VMs. There will be nothing to decrypt.
- Do not modify, rename or delete *.key files. Your data will be 
   undecryptable.
- Do not modify or rename encrypted files. You will lose them.
- Do not report to the Police, FBI, etc. They don't care about your business.
   They simply won't allow you to pay. As a result you will lose everything.
- Do not hire a recovery company. They can't decrypt without the key. 
   They also don't care about your business. They believe that they are 
   good negotiators, but it is not. They usually fail. So speak for yourself.
- Do not reject to purchase. Exfiltrated files will be publicly disclosed.

Encryption

The most interesting change in the Hive variant is its cryptography mechanism. The new variant was first uploaded to VirusTotal on February 21, 2022, just a few days after a group of researchers from Kookmin University in South Korea published the paper “A Method for Decrypting Data Infected with Hive Ransomware” on February 17, 2022. After a certain period of development, the new variant first appeared in Microsoft threat data on February 22.

The new variant uses a different set of algorithms: Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellmann (ECDH) with Curve25519 and XChaCha20-Poly1305 (authenticated encryption with ChaCha20 symmetric cipher).

A unique encryption approach

The new Hive variant uses a unique approach to file encryption. Instead of embedding an encrypted key in each file that it encrypts, it generates two sets of keys in memory, uses them to encrypt files, and then encrypts and writes the sets to the root of the drive it encrypts, both with .key extension.

To indicate which keys set was used to encrypt a file, the name of the .key file containing the corresponding encryption keys is added to the name of the encrypted file on disk, followed by an underscore and then a Base64 string (also adding underscore and hyphen to the character set). Once it’s Base64-decoded, the string contains two offsets, with each offset pointing to a different location in the corresponding .key file. This way, the attacker can decrypt the file using these offsets.

For example, after running Hive, we got the following files dropped to the C:\ drive:

  • C:\3bcVwj6j.key
  • C:\l0Zn68cb.key

In this example, a file named myphoto.jpg would be renamed to C:\myphoto.jpg.l0Zn68cb _ -B82BhIaGhI8. As we discuss in the following sections, the new variant’s keys set generation is entirely different from old variants. However, its actual file encryption is very similar.

Keys set generation

A buffer of size 0xCFFF00 bytes is allocated. Using two custom functions to generate random bytes (labeled “random_num_gen” and “random_num_gen_2” for demonstration purposes) the buffer is filled. The first 0xA00000 bytes of this buffer are filled with random bytes and the remaining 0x2FFF00 bytes are simply copied from the first 0x2FFF00 random bytes that were copied earlier to the buffer.

The content of each buffer is a keys set (a collection of symmetric keys). Since two buffers are allocated, there are two keys sets. In the encryption process, the malware randomly selects different keys (byte sequences) for each file from one of the keys set and uses them to encrypt the file by XORing the byte sequence of the keys with the file’s content.

Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 6 – Original keys set generation
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 7 – Inside get_random_byte

A custom 64-byte hash is prepared for each keys set. This hash will be used later.

Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 8 – Preparing the custom hash of the keys set

After the hash is computed and several other strings are decrypted, the encryption process takes the following steps:

  1. Generate victim_private_key using the same functions introduced above.
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 9 – Generating victim_private_key
  1. Generate victim_public_key using ECDH with Curve25519. The input is victim_private_key and the basepoint is 9 followed by 31 zeros (embedded in the sample).
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 10 – Generating victim_public_key
  1. Generate a 24-byte nonce for the XChaCha algorithm, later in Poly1305-XChaCha20.
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 11 – Generating a 24-byte nonce
  1. Generate shared_secret using ECDH with Curve25519. The input is victim_private_key and hive_public_key. Then, the  shared_secret (as a key) with hive_public_key (as a nonce) is used to derive the derived_key using ChaCha20.
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 12 – Generating shared_secret
  1. Encrypt the keys set using Poly1305-XChaCha20. The values used for the encryption are the keys set, derived_key, nonce, and the embedded associated data (AD). This function encrypts the keys set and adds a 16-byte authentication tag at the end of the buffer of the encrypted keys. It’s unclear if the authentication tag is ever checked.
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 13 – Encrypting the keys set

Now that the keys set is finally encrypted, the nonce, victim_public_key, the now-encrypted keys set, and the authentication tag are copied to a new buffer, one after another. This buffer (which we label encrypted_structure_1) is treated as a new keys set, which is again encrypted using the same method described above but with a second hive_public_key. This time, the function outputs new nonce, victim_private_key, and others. Only the associated data is the same.

Finally, the new buffer, which contains the second_nonce, second_victim_public_key, and the encryptedencrypted_structure_1, is written to the root of the drive it’s encrypting (for example, C:\). The create_extension function generates a Base64 string based on the first six bytes of the custom hash that was created earlier. This Base64 string serves as the file name, and the extension of the file is simply “.key”.

Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 14 – Generating a Base64 string based on the first six bytes of the custom hash
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 15 – Using the Base64 string as the file name

The diagram below illustrates the encryption scheme described above:

Diagram containing icons and arrows illustrating the new Hive variant's encryption scheme.
Figure 16 – The keys set encryption scheme of the new Hive variant

As seen in the diagram above, “Keys sets encryption flow” is executed twice. In the first round it is executed with the original keys set as an input. In the second round it is executed with the “encrypted structure 1” as an input. In its second execution, all other input values are different except the AD (associated data) and the Basepoint 9.

Hence, the following values are new in the second execution: victim_private_key, victim_public_key, hive_public_key, nonce, shared_secret and derived_key.

File encryption

After both keys files are written to the disk, the multi-threaded file encryption starts. Before encrypting each file, the malware checks its name and extension against a list of strings. If there is a match, then the file will not be encrypted. For example, a file with .exe extension will not be encrypted if .exe is in the list of strings. It should be noted that this list is encrypted and decrypted during runtime.

The same file encryption method seen in old variants is used in the new one: two random numbers are generated and used as offsets to the keys set. Each offset is four bytes:

Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 17 – Generating the offsets

For the encryption, the file’s content is XORed with bytes from the keys set, according to the offsets. The file bytes are XORed twice—once according to the first offset and a second time according to the second offset. Files are encrypted in blocks of 0x100000 bytes, with the maximum number of blocks at 100. There is an interval between the encrypted blocks as defined by block_space. After the encryption is finished in memory, the encrypted data is written to the disk, overwriting the original file.

Partial screenshot of a code snippet
Figure 18 – Calculation of number of blocks
Partial screenshot of a code snippet
Figure 19 – Actual encryption of the file bytes
Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's encryption technique in assembly code.
Figure 20 – Reading a file, encrypting it, and writing it back to the disk

Looking at when create_extension is called once file encryption has started, we recognized a similar structure in the previous variant:

Partial screenshot of a Hive variant's structure in assembly code.
Figure 21 – Creating the extension for the file

Let us look at the value (72 D7 A7 A3 F5 5B FF EF 21 6B 11 7C 2A 18 CD 00) in the address of r9 register just before create_extension is called on a file called EDBtmp.log

Partial screenshot of a hexadecimal value

Recall that in the older variants, 0xFF was used as a delimiter to separate the key file name from the offset values. We can also see it here. Converting the first six bytes (72 D7 A7 A3 F5 5B) to Base64 yields the following:

cteno/Vb

And if we step over create_extension, the result is similar—we get cteno_Vb as the .key file name (note: Since Hive uses a different Base64 character set, “/” was replaced with “_”):

Partial screenshot of hexadecimal values

Microsoft will continue to monitor the Hive operators’ activity and implement protections for our customers. The current detections, advanced detections, and indicators of compromise (IOCs) in place across our security products are detailed below.

Recommended customer actions

The techniques used by the new Hive variant can be mitigated by adopting the security considerations provided below:

  • Use the included IOCs to investigate whether they exist in your environment and assess for potential intrusion.

Our recent blog on the ransomware-as-a-service economy has an exhaustive guide on how to protect yourself from ransomware threats that dive deep into each of the following areas. We encourage readers to refer to that blog for a comprehensive guide on:

For Microsoft 365 Defender customers, the following checklist eliminates security blind spots:

  • Turn on cloud-delivered protection in Microsoft Defender Antivirus to cover rapidly evolving attacker tools and techniques, block new and unknown malware variants, and enhance attack surface reduction rules and tamper protection.
  • Turn on tamper protection features to prevent attackers from stopping security services.
  • Run EDR in block mode so that Microsoft Defender for Endpoint can block malicious artifacts, even when a non-Microsoft antivirus doesn’t detect the threat or when Microsoft Defender Antivirus is running in passive mode. EDR in block mode also blocks indicators identified proactively by Microsoft Threat Intelligence teams.
  • Enable network protection to prevent applications or users from accessing malicious domains and other malicious content on the internet.
  • Enable investigation and remediation in full automated mode to allow Microsoft Defender for Endpoint to take immediate action on alerts to resolve breaches.
  • Use device discovery to increase visibility into the network by finding unmanaged devices and onboarding them to Microsoft Defender for Endpoint.
  • Protect user identities and credentials using Microsoft Defender for Identity, a cloud-based security solution that leverages on-premises Active Directory signals to monitor and analyze user behavior to identify suspicious user activities, configuration issues, and active attacks.

Indicators of compromise (IOCs)

The below list provides a partial list of the IOCs observed during our investigation and included in this blog. We encourage our customers to investigate these indicators in their environments and implement detections and protections to identify past related activity and prevent future attacks against their systems.

Indicator Type Description
f4a39820dbff47fa1b68f83f575bc98ed33858b02341c5c0464a49be4e6c76d3 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
88b1d8a85bf9101bc336b01b9af4345ed91d3ec761554d167fe59f73af73f037 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
065208b037a2691eb75a14f97bdbd9914122655d42f6249d2cca419a1e4ba6f1 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
33744c420884adf582c46a4b74cbd9c145f2e15a036bb1e557e89d6fd428e724 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
afab34235b7f170150f180c7afb9e3b4e504a84559bbd03ab71e64e3b6541149 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
36759cab7043cd7561ac6c3968832b30c9a442eff4d536e901d4ff70aef4d32d SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
481dc99903aa270d286f559b17194b1a25deca8a64a5ec4f13a066637900221e SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
6e5d49f604730ef4c05cfe3f64a7790242e71b4ecf1dc5109d32e811acf0b053 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload
32ff0e5d87ec16544b6ff936d6fd58023925c3bdabaf962c492f6b078cb01914 SHA-256 Hive Rust variant payload

NOTE: These indicators shouldn’t be considered exhaustive for this observed activity.

Detections

Microsoft 365 Defender

Microsoft Defender Antivirus

Microsoft Defender Antivirus provides detection for this threat under the following family names with build version 1.367.405.0 or later.

  • Ransom:Win64/Hive
  • Ransom:Win32/Hive

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint detection

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint customers may see any or a combination of the following alerts as an indication of possible attack. These alerts are not necessarily an indication of a Hive compromise, but should be investigated:

  • Ransomware behavior detected in the file system
  • File backups were deleted
  • Possible ransomware infection modifying multiple files
  • Possible ransomware activity
  • Ransomware-linked emerging threat activity group detected

Advanced hunting queries

Microsoft Sentinel

To locate possible Hive ransomware activity mentioned in this blog post, Microsoft Sentinel customers can use the queries detailed below:

Identify Hive ransomware IOCs

This query identifies a match across various data feeds for IOCs related to Hive ransomware.

https://github.com/Azure/Azure-Sentinel/blob/master/Detections/MultipleDataSources/HiveRansomwareJuly2022.yaml

Identify backup deletion

This hunting query helps detect a ransomware’s attempt to delete backup files.

https://github.com/Azure/Azure-Sentinel/blob/master/Hunting%20Queries/MultipleDataSources/BackupDeletion.yaml

Identify Microsoft Defender Antivirus detection of Hive ransomware

This query looks for Microsoft Defender Antivirus detections related to the Hive ransomware and joins the alert with other data sources to surface additional information such as device, IP, signed-in users, etc.

https://github.com/Azure/Azure-Sentinel/blob/master/Detections/SecurityAlert/HiveRansomwareAVHits.yaml

The post Hive ransomware gets upgrades in Rust appeared first on Microsoft Security Blog.

The many lives of BlackCat ransomware

June 13th, 2022 No comments

The BlackCat ransomware, also known as ALPHV, is a prevalent threat and a prime example of the growing ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) gig economy. It’s noteworthy due to its unconventional programming language (Rust), multiple target devices and possible entry points, and affiliation with prolific threat activity groups. While BlackCat’s arrival and execution vary based on the actors deploying it, the outcome is the same—target data is encrypted, exfiltrated, and used for “double extortion,” where attackers threaten to release the stolen data to the public if the ransom isn’t paid.

First observed in November 2021, BlackCat initially made headlines because it was one of the first ransomware families written in the Rust programming language. By using a modern language for its payload, this ransomware attempts to evade detection, especially by conventional security solutions that might still be catching up in their ability to analyze and parse binaries written in such language. BlackCat can also target multiple devices and operating systems. Microsoft has observed successful attacks against Windows and Linux devices and VMWare instances.

As we previously explained, the RaaS affiliate model consists of multiple players: access brokers, who compromise networks and maintain persistence; RaaS operators, who develop tools; and RaaS affiliates, who perform other activities like moving laterally across the network and exfiltrating data before ultimately launching the ransomware payload. Thus, as a RaaS payload, how BlackCat enters a target organization’s network varies, depending on the RaaS affiliate that deploys it. For example, while the common entry vectors for these threat actors include remote desktop applications and compromised credentials, we also saw a threat actor leverage Exchange server vulnerabilities to gain target network access. In addition, at least two known affiliates are now adopting BlackCat: DEV-0237 (known for previously deploying Ryuk, Conti, and Hive) and DEV-0504 (previously deployed Ryuk, REvil, BlackMatter, and Conti).

Such variations and adoptions markedly increase an organization’s risk of encountering BlackCat and pose challenges in detecting and defending against it because these actors and groups have different tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Thus, no two BlackCat “lives” or deployments might look the same. Indeed, based on Microsoft threat data, the impact of this ransomware has been noted in various countries and regions in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

Human-operated ransomware attacks like those that deploy BlackCat continue to evolve and remain one of the attackers’ preferred methods to monetize their attacks. Organizations should consider complementing their security best practices and policies with a comprehensive solution like Microsoft 365 Defender, which offers protection capabilities that correlate various threat signals to detect and block such attacks and their follow-on activities.

In this blog, we provide details about the ransomware’s techniques and capabilities. We also take a deep dive into two incidents we’ve observed where BlackCat was deployed, as well as additional information about the threat activity groups that now deliver it. Finally, we offer best practices and recommendations to help defenders protect their organizations against this threat, including hunting queries and product-specific mitigations.

BlackCat’s anatomy: Payload capabilities

As mentioned earlier, BlackCat is one of the first ransomware written in the Rust programming language. Its use of a modern language exemplifies a recent trend where threat actors switch to languages like Rust or Go for their payloads in their attempt to not only avoid detection by conventional security solutions but also to challenge defenders who may be trying to reverse engineer the said payloads or compare them to similar threats.

BlackCat can target and encrypt Windows and Linux devices and VMWare instances. It has extensive capabilities, including self-propagation configurable by an affiliate for their usage and to environment encountered.

In the instances we’ve observed where the BlackCat payload did not have administrator privileges, the payload was launched via dllhost.exe, which then launched the following commands below (Table 1) via cmd.exe. These commands could vary, as the BlackCat payload allows affiliates to customize execution to the environment.

The flags used by the attackers and the options available were the following: -s -d -f -c; –access-token; –propagated; -no-prop-servers

Screenshot of BlackCat ransomware deployment options and subcommands with corresponding descriptions.
Figure 1. BlackCat payload deployment options
Command Description
[service name] /stop Stops running services to allow encryption of data  
vssadmin.exe Delete Shadows /all /quiet Deletes backups to prevent recovery
wmic.exe Shadowcopy Delete Deletes shadow copies
wmic csproduct get UUID Gets the Universally Unique Identifier (UUID) of the target device
reg add HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services \LanmanServer\Parameters /v MaxMpxCt /d 65535 /t REG_DWORD /f Modifies the registry to change MaxMpxCt settings; BlackCat does this to increase the number of outstanding requests allowed (for example, SMB requests when distributing ransomware via its PsExec methodology)
for /F \”tokens=*\” %1 in (‘wevtutil.exe el’) DO wevtutil.exe cl \”%1\” Clears event logs
fsutil behavior set SymlinkEvaluation R2L:1 Allows remote-to-local symbolic links; a symbolic link is a file-system object (for example, a file or folder) that points to another file system object, like a shortcut in many ways but more powerful
fsutil behavior set SymlinkEvaluation R2R:1 Allows remote-to-remote symbolic links
net use \\[computer name]  /user:[domain]\[user] [password] /persistent:no Mounts network share
Table 1. List of commands the BlackCat payload can run

User account control (UAC) bypass

BlackCat can bypass UAC, which means the payload will successfully run even if it runs from a non-administrator context. If the ransomware isn’t run with administrative privileges, it runs a secondary process under dllhost.exe with sufficient permissions needed to encrypt the maximum number of files on the system.

Domain and device enumeration

The ransomware can determine the computer name of the given system, local drives on a device, and the AD domain name and username on a device. The malware can also identify whether a user has domain admin privileges, thus increasing its capability of ransoming more devices.

Self-propagation

BlackCat discovers all servers that are connected to a network. The process first broadcasts NetBIOS Name Service (NBNC) messages to check for these additional devices. The ransomware then attempts to replicate itself on the answering servers using the credentials specified within the config via PsExec.

Hampering recovery efforts

BlackCat has numerous methods to make recovery efforts more difficult. The following are commands that might be launched by the payload, as well as their purposes:

  • Modify boot loader
    • “C:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe” /c “bcdedit /set {default}”
    • “C:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe” /c “bcdedit /set {default} recoveryenabled No”
  • Delete volume shadow copies
    • “C:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe” /c “vssadmin.exe Delete Shadows /all /quiet”
    • “C:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe” /c “wmic.exe Shadowcopy Delete”
  • Clear Windows event logs
    • “C:\Windows\system32\cmd.exe” /c “cmd.exe /c  for /F \”tokens=*\” Incorrect function. in (‘ wevtutil.exe el ‘) DO wevtutil.exe cl \”Incorrect function. \””

Slinking its way in: Identifying attacks that can lead to BlackCat ransomware

Consistent with the RaaS model, threat actors utilize BlackCat as an additional payload to their ongoing campaigns. While their TTPs remain largely the same (for example, using tools like Mimikatz and PsExec to deploy the ransomware payload), BlackCat-related compromises have varying entry vectors, depending on the ransomware affiliate conducting the attack. Therefore, the pre-ransom steps of these attacks can also be markedly different.

For example, our research noted that one affiliate that deployed BlackCat leveraged unpatched Exchange servers or used stolen credentials to access target networks. The following sections detail the end-to-end attack chains of these two incidents we’ve observed.

Case study 1: Entry via unpatched Exchange

In one incident we’ve observed, attackers took advantage of an unpatched Exchange server to enter the target organization.

Diagram with icons and timeline depicting different attack stages, starting with the exploitation of an Exchange server vulnerability and ending with the deployment of BlackCat ransomware and double extortion.
Figure 2. Observed BlackCat ransomware attack chain via Exchange vulnerability exploitation

Discovery

Upon exploiting the Exchange vulnerability, the attackers launched the following discovery commands to gather information about the device they had compromised:

  • cmd.exe and the commands ver and systeminfo – to collect operating system information
  • net.exe – to determine domain computers, domain controllers, and domain admins in the environment

After executing these commands, the attackers navigated through directories and discovered a passwords folder that granted them access to account credentials they could use in the subsequent stages of the attack. They also used the del command to delete files related to their initial compromise activity.

The attackers then mounted a network share using net use and the stolen credentials and began looking for potential lateral movement targets using a combination of methods. First, they used WMIC.exe using the previously gathered device name as the node, launched the command whoami /all, and pinged google.com to check network connectivity. The output of the results were then written to a .log file on the mounted share. Second, the attackers used PowerShell.exe with the cmdlet Get-ADComputer and a filter to gather the last sign-in event.

Lateral movement

Two and a half days later, the attackers signed into one of the target devices they found during their initial discovery efforts using compromised credentials via interactive sign-in. They opted for a credential theft technique that didn’t require dropping a file like Mimikatz that antivirus products might detect. Instead, they opened Taskmgr.exe, created a dump file of the LSASS.exe process, and saved the file to a ZIP archive.

The attackers continued their previous discovery efforts using a PowerShell script version of ADRecon (ADRecon.ps1), which is a tool designed to gather extensive information about an Active Directory (AD) environment. The attacker followed up this action with a net scanning tool that opened connections to devices in the organization on server message block (SMB) and remote desktop protocol (RDP). For discovered devices, the attackers attempted to navigate to various network shares and used the Remote Desktop client (mstsc.exe) to sign into these devices, once again using the compromised account credentials.

These behaviors continued for days, with the attackers signing into numerous devices throughout the organization, dumping credentials, and determining what devices they could access.

Collection and exfiltration

On many of the devices the attackers signed into, efforts were made to collect and exfiltrate extensive amounts of data from the organization, including domain settings and information and intellectual property. To do this, the attackers used both MEGAsync and Rclone, which were renamed as legitimate Windows process names (for example, winlogon.exe, mstsc.exe).

Exfiltration of domain information to identify targets for lateral movement

Collecting domain information allowed the attackers to progress further in their attack because the said information could identify potential targets for lateral movement or those that would help the attackers distribute their ransomware payload. To do this, the attackers once again used ADRecon.ps1with numerous PowerShell cmdlets such as the following:

  • Get-ADRGPO – gets group policy objects (GPO) in a domain
  • Get-ADRDNSZone – gets all DNS zones and records in a domain
  • Get-ADRGPLink – gets all group policy links applied to a scope of management in a domain

Additionally, the attackers dropped and used ADFind.exe commands to gather information on persons, computers, organizational units, and trust information, as well as pinged dozens of devices to check connectivity.

Exfiltration for double extortion

Intellectual property theft likely allowed the attackers to threaten the release of information if the subsequent ransom wasn’t paid—a practice known as “double extortion.” To steal intellectual property, the attackers targeted and collected data from SQL databases. They also navigated through directories and project folders, among others, of each device they could access, then exfiltrated the data they found in those. 

The exfiltration occurred for multiple days on multiple devices, which allowed the attackers to gather large volumes of information that they could then use for double extortion.

Encryption and ransom

It was a full two weeks from the initial compromise before the attackers progressed to ransomware deployment, thus highlighting the need for triaging and scoping out alert activity to understand accounts and the scope of access an attacker gained from their activity. Distribution of the ransomware payload using PsExec.exe proved to be the most common attack method.

Screenshot of the ransom note displayed by BlackCat ransomware. It informs affected users that sensitive data from their network has been downloaded and that they must act quicky and pay the ransom if they don't want the data to be published.
Figure 3. Ransom note displayed by BlackCat upon successful infection

Case study 2: Entry via compromised credentials

In another incident we observed, we found that a ransomware affiliate gained initial access to the environment via an internet-facing Remote Desktop server using compromised credentials to sign in.

Diagram with icons and timeline depicting different attack stages, starting with the attacker using stolen credentials to sign into Remote Desktop and ending with the deployment of BlackCat ransomware.
Figure 4. Observed BlackCat ransomware attack chain via stolen credentials

Lateral movement

Once the attackers gained access to the target environment, they then used SMB to copy over and launch the Total Deployment Software administrative tool, allowing remote automated software deployment. Once this tool was installed, the attackers used it to install ScreenConnect (now known as ConnectWise), a remote desktop software application.

Credential theft

ScreenConnect was used to establish a remote session on the device, allowing attackers interactive control. With the device in their control, the attackers used cmd.exe to update the Registry to allow cleartext authentication via WDigest, and thus saved the attackers time by not having to crack password hashes. Shortly later, they used the Task Manager to dump the LSASS.exe process to steal the password, now in cleartext.

Eight hours later, the attackers reconnected to the device and stole credentials again. This time, however, they dropped and launched Mimikatz for the credential theft routine, likely because it can grab credentials beyond those stored in LSASS.exe. The attackers then signed out.

Persistence and encryption

A day later, the attackers returned to the environment using ScreenConnect. They used PowerShell to launch a command prompt process and then added a user account to the device using net.exe. The new user was then added to the local administrator group via net.exe.

Afterward, the attackers signed in using their newly created user account and began dropping and launching the ransomware payload. This account would also serve as a means of additional persistence beyond ScreenConnect and their other footholds in the environment to allow them to re-establish their presence, if needed. Ransomware adversaries are not above ransoming the same organization twice if access is not fully remediated.

Chrome.exe was used to navigate to a domain hosting the BlackCat payload. Notably, the folder structure included the organization name, indicating that this was a pre-staged payload specifically for the organization. Finally, the attackers launched the BlackCat payload on the device to encrypt its data.

Ransomware affiliates deploying BlackCat

Apart from the incidents discussed earlier, we’ve also observed two of the most prolific affiliate groups associated with ransomware deployments have switched to deploying BlackCat. Payload switching is typical for some RaaS affiliates to ensure business continuity or if there’s a possibility of better profit. Unfortunately for organizations, such adoption further adds to the challenge of detecting related threats.

Microsoft tracks one of these affiliate groups as DEV-0237. Also known as FIN12, DEV-0237 is notable for its distribution of Hive, Conti, and Ryuk ransomware. We’ve observed that this group added BlackCat to their list of distributed payloads beginning March 2022. Their switch to BlackCat from their last used payload (Hive) is suspected to be due to the public discourse around the latter’s decryption methodologies.

DEV-0504 is another active affiliate group that we’ve seen switching to BlackCat for their ransomware attacks. Like many RaaS affiliate groups, the following TTPs might be observed in a DEV-0504 attack:

  • Entry vector that can involve the affiliate remotely signing into devices with compromised credentials, such as into devices running software solutions that allow for remote work
  • The attackers’ use of their access to conduct discovery on the domain
  • Lateral movement that potentially uses the initial compromised account
  • Credential theft with tools like Mimikatz and Rubeus

DEV-0504 typically exfiltrates data on devices they compromise from the organization using a malicious tool such as StealBit—often named “send.exe” or “sender.exe”. PsExec is then used to distribute the ransomware payload. The group has been observed delivering the following ransom families before their adoption of BlackCat beginning December 2021:

  • BlackMatter
  • Conti
  • LockBit 2.0
  • Revil
  • Ryuk

Defending against BlackCat ransomware

Today’s ransomware attacks have become more impactful because of their growing industrialization through the RaaS affiliate model and the increasing trend of double extortion. The incidents we’ve observed related to the BlackCat ransomware leverage these two factors, making this threat durable against conventional security and defense approaches that only focus on detecting the ransomware payloads. Detecting threats like BlackCat, while good, is no longer enough as human-operated ransomware continues to grow, evolve, and adapt to the networks they’re deployed or the attackers they work for.

Instead, organizations must shift their defensive strategies to prevent the end-to-end attack chain. As noted above, while attackers’ entry points may vary, their TTPs remain largely the same. In addition, these types of attacks continue to take advantage of an organization’s poor credential hygiene and legacy configurations or misconfigurations to succeed. Therefore, defenders should address these common paths and weaknesses by hardening their networks through various best practices such as access monitoring and proper patch management. We provide detailed steps on building these defensive strategies against ransomware in this blog.

In the BlackCat-related incidents we’ve observed, the common entry points for ransomware affiliates were via compromised credentials to access internet-facing remote access software and unpatched Exchange servers. Therefore, defenders should review their organization’s identity posture, carefully monitor external access, and locate vulnerable Exchange servers in their environment to update as soon as possible. The financial impact, reputation damage, and other repercussions that stem from attacks involving ransomware like BlackCat are not worth forgoing downtime, service interruption, and other pain points related to applying security updates and implementing best practices.

Leveraging Microsoft 365 Defender’s comprehensive threat defense capabilities

Microsoft 365 Defender helps protect organizations from attacks that deliver the BlackCat ransomware and other similar threats by providing cross-domain visibility and coordinated threat defense. It uses multiple layers of dynamic protection technologies and correlates threat data from email, endpoints, identities, and cloud apps. Microsoft Defender for Endpoint detects tools like Mimikatz, the actual BlackCat payload, and subsequent attacker behavior. Threat and vulnerability management capabilities also help discover vulnerable or misconfigured devices across different platforms; such capabilities could help detect and block possible exploitation attempts on vulnerable devices, such as those running Exchange. Finally, advanced hunting lets defenders create custom detections to proactively surface this ransomware and other related threats.

Additional mitigations and recommendations

Defenders can also follow the following steps to reduce the impact of this ransomware:

Microsoft 365 Defender customers can also apply the additional mitigations below:

  • Use advanced protection against ransomware.
  • Turn on tamper protection in Microsoft Defender for Endpoint to prevent malicious changes to security settings. Enable network protection in Microsoft Defender for Endpoint and Microsoft 365 Defender to prevent applications or users from accessing malicious domains and other malicious content on the internet.
  • Ensure Exchange servers have applied the mitigations referenced in the related Threat Analytics report.
  • Turn on the following attack surface reduction rules to block or audit activity associated with this threat:
    • Block credential stealing from the Windows local security authority subsystem (lsass.exe)
    • Block process creations originating from PSExec and WMI commands
    • Block executable files from running unless they meet a prevalence, age, or trusted list criterion

For a full list of ransomware mitigations regardless of threat, refer to this article: Rapidly protect against ransomware and extortion.

Learn how you can stop attacks through automated, cross-domain security and built-in AI with Microsoft Defender 365.

Microsoft 365 Defender Threat Intelligence Team

Appendix

Microsoft 365 Defender detections

Microsoft Defender Antivirus

Microsoft Defender for Endpoint EDR

Alerts with the following titles in the security center can indicate threat activity on your network:

  • An active ‘BlackCat’ ransomware was detected
  • ‘BlackCat’ ransomware was detected
  • BlackCat ransomware

Hunting queries

Microsoft 365 Defender

To locate possible ransomware activity, run the following queries.

Suspicious process execution in PerfLogs path

Use this query to look for processes executing in PerfLogs—a common path used to place the ransomware payloads.

DeviceProcessEvents
| where InitiatingProcessFolderPath has "PerfLogs"
| where InitiatingProcessFileName matches regex "[a-z]{3}.exe"
| extend Length = strlen(InitiatingProcessFileName)
| where Length == 7

Suspicious registry modification of MaxMpxCt parameters

Use this query to look for suspicious running processes that modify registry settings to increase the number of outstanding requests allowed (for example, SMB requests when distributing ransomware via its PsExec methodology).

DeviceProcessEvents
| where ProcessCommandLine has_all("LanmanServer", "parameters", "MaxMpxCt", "65535")

Suspicious command line indicative of BlackCat ransom payload execution

Use these queries to look for instances of the BlackCat payload executing based on a required command argument for it to successfully encrypt ‘–access-token’.

DeviceProcessEvents
| where ProcessCommandLine has_all("--access-token", "-v") 
| extend CommandArguments = split(ProcessCommandLine, " ")
| mv-expand CommandArguments
| where CommandArguments matches regex "^[A-Fa-f0-9]{64}$"
DeviceProcessEvents
| where InitiatingProcessCommandLine has "--access-token"
| where ProcessCommandLine has "get uuid"

Suspected data exfiltration

Use this query to look for command lines that indicate data exfiltration and the indication that an attacker may attempt double extortion.

DeviceNetworkEvents
| where InitiatingProcessCommandLine has_all("copy", "--max-age", "--ignore-existing", "--multi-thread-streams", "--transfers") and InitiatingProcessCommandLine has_any("ftp", "ssh", "-q")

The post The many lives of BlackCat ransomware appeared first on Microsoft Security Blog.

Ransomware-as-a-service: Understanding the cybercrime gig economy and how to protect yourself

Microsoft processes 24 trillion signals every 24 hours, and we have blocked billions of attacks in the last year alone. Microsoft Security tracks more than 35 unique ransomware families and 250 unique threat actors across observed nation-state, ransomware, and criminal activities.

That depth of signal intelligence gathered from various domains—identity, email, data, and cloud—provides us with insight into the gig economy that attackers have created with tools designed to lower the barrier for entry for other attackers, who in turn continue to pay dividends and fund operations through the sale and associated “cut” from their tool’s success.

The cybercriminal economy is a continuously evolving connected ecosystem of many players with different techniques, goals, and skillsets. In the same way our traditional economy has shifted toward gig workers for efficiency, criminals are learning that there’s less work and less risk involved by renting or selling their tools for a portion of the profits than performing the attacks themselves. This industrialization of the cybercrime economy has made it easier for attackers to use ready-made penetration testing and other tools to perform their attacks.

Within this category of threats, Microsoft has been tracking the trend in the ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) gig economy, called human-operated ransomware, which remains one of the most impactful threats to organizations. We coined the industry term “human-operated ransomware” to clarify that these threats are driven by humans who make decisions at every stage of their attacks based on what they find in their target’s network.

Unlike the broad targeting and opportunistic approach of earlier ransomware infections, attackers behind these human-operated campaigns vary their attack patterns depending on their discoveries—for example, a security product that isn‘t configured to prevent tampering or a service that’s running as a highly privileged account like a domain admin. Attackers can use those weaknesses to elevate their privileges to steal even more valuable data, leading to a bigger payout for them—with no guarantee they’ll leave their target environment once they’ve been paid. Attackers are also often more determined to stay on a network once they gain access and sometimes repeatedly monetize that access with additional attacks using different malware or ransomware payloads if they aren’t successfully evicted.

Ransomware attacks have become even more impactful in recent years as more ransomware-as-a-service ecosystems have adopted the double extortion monetization strategy. All ransomware is a form of extortion, but now, attackers are not only encrypting data on compromised devices but also exfiltrating it and then posting or threatening to post it publicly to pressure the targets into paying the ransom. Most ransomware attackers opportunistically deploy ransomware to whatever network they get access to, and some even purchase access to networks from other cybercriminals. Some attackers prioritize organizations with higher revenues, while others prefer specific industries for the shock value or type of data they can exfiltrate.

All human-operated ransomware campaigns—all human-operated attacks in general, for that matter—share common dependencies on security weaknesses that allow them to succeed. Attackers most commonly take advantage of an organization’s poor credential hygiene and legacy configurations or misconfigurations to find easy entry and privilege escalation points in an environment. 

In this blog, we detail several of the ransomware ecosystems  using the RaaS model, the importance of cross-domain visibility in finding and evicting these actors, and best practices organizations can use to protect themselves from this increasingly popular style of attack. We also offer security best practices on credential hygiene and cloud hardening, how to address security blind spots, harden internet-facing assets to understand your perimeter, and more. Here’s a quick table of contents:

  1. How RaaS redefines our understanding of ransomware incidents
    • The RaaS affiliate model explained
    • Access for sale and mercurial targeting
  2. “Human-operated” means human decisions
    • Exfiltration and double extortion
    • Persistent and sneaky access methods
  3. Threat actors and campaigns deep dive: Threat intelligence-driven response to human-operated ransomware attacks
  4. Defending against ransomware: Moving beyond protection by detection

How RaaS redefines our understanding of ransomware incidents

With ransomware being the preferred method for many cybercriminals to monetize attacks, human-operated ransomware remains one of the most impactful threats to organizations today, and it only continues to evolve. This evolution is driven by the “human-operated” aspect of these attacks—attackers make informed and calculated decisions, resulting in varied attack patterns tailored specifically to their targets and iterated upon until the attackers are successful or evicted.

In the past, we’ve observed a tight relationship between the initial entry vector, tools, and ransomware payload choices in each campaign of one strain of ransomware. The RaaS affiliate model, which has allowed more criminals, regardless of technical expertise, to deploy ransomware built or managed by someone else, is weakening this link. As ransomware deployment becomes a gig economy, it has become more difficult to link the tradecraft used in a specific attack to the ransomware payload developers.

Reporting a ransomware incident by assigning it with the payload name gives the impression that a monolithic entity is behind all attacks using the same ransomware payload and that all incidents that use the ransomware share common techniques and infrastructure. However, focusing solely on the ransomware stage obscures many stages of the attack that come before, including actions like data exfiltration and additional persistence mechanisms, as well as the numerous detection and protection opportunities for network defenders.

We know, for example, that the underlying techniques used in human-operated ransomware campaigns haven’t changed very much over the years—attacks still prey on the same security misconfigurations to succeed. Securing a large corporate network takes disciplined and sustained focus, but there’s a high ROI in implementing critical controls that prevent these attacks from having a wider impact, even if it’s only possible on the most critical assets and segments of the network. 

Without the ability to steal access to highly privileged accounts, attackers can’t move laterally, spread ransomware widely, access data to exfiltrate, or use tools like Group Policy to impact security settings. Disrupting common attack patterns by applying security controls also reduces alert fatigue in security SOCs by stopping the attackers before they get in. This can also prevent unexpected consequences of short-lived breaches, such as exfiltration of network topologies and configuration data that happens in the first few minutes of execution of some trojans.

In the following sections, we explain the RaaS affiliate model and disambiguate between the attacker tools and the various threat actors at play during a security incident. Gaining this clarity helps surface trends and common attack patterns that inform defensive strategies focused on preventing attacks rather than detecting ransomware payloads. Threat intelligence and insights from this research also enrich our solutions like Microsoft 365 Defender, whose comprehensive security capabilities help protect customers by detecting RaaS-related attack attempts.

The RaaS affiliate model explained

The cybercriminal economy—a connected ecosystem of many players with different techniques, goals, and skillsets—is evolving. The industrialization of attacks has progressed from attackers using off-the-shelf tools, such as Cobalt Strike, to attackers being able to purchase access to networks and the payloads they deploy to them. This means that the impact of a successful ransomware and extortion attack remains the same regardless of the attacker’s skills.

RaaS is an arrangement between an operator and an affiliate. The RaaS operator develops and maintains the tools to power the ransomware operations, including the builders that produce the ransomware payloads and payment portals for communicating with victims. The RaaS program may also include a leak site to share snippets of data exfiltrated from victims, allowing attackers to show that the exfiltration is real and try to extort payment. Many RaaS programs further incorporate a suite of extortion support offerings, including leak site hosting and integration into ransom notes, as well as decryption negotiation, payment pressure, and cryptocurrency transaction services

RaaS thus gives a unified appearance of the payload or campaign being a single ransomware family or set of attackers. However, what happens is that the RaaS operator sells access to the ransom payload and decryptor to an affiliate, who performs the intrusion and privilege escalation and who is responsible for the deployment of the actual ransomware payload. The parties then split the profit. In addition, RaaS developers and operators might also use the payload for profit, sell it, and run their campaigns with other ransomware payloads—further muddying the waters when it comes to tracking the criminals behind these actions.

Diagram showing the relationship between players in the ransomware-as-a-service affiliate model. Access brokers compromise networks and persist on systems. The RaaS operator develops and maintain tools. The RaaS affiliate performs the attack.
Figure 1. How the RaaS affiliate model enables ransomware attacks

Access for sale and mercurial targeting

A component of the cybercriminal economy is selling access to systems to other attackers for various purposes, including ransomware. Access brokers can, for instance, infect systems with malware or a botnet and then sell them as a “load”. A load is designed to install other malware or backdoors onto the infected systems for other criminals. Other access brokers scan the internet for vulnerable systems, like exposed Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) systems with weak passwords or unpatched systems, and then compromise them en masse to “bank” for later profit. Some advertisements for the sale of initial access specifically cite that a system isn’t managed by an antivirus or endpoint detection and response (EDR) product and has a highly privileged credential such as Domain Administrator associated with it to fetch higher prices.

Most ransomware attackers opportunistically deploy ransomware to whatever network they get access to. Some attackers prioritize organizations with higher revenues, while some target specific industries for the shock value or type of data they can exfiltrate (for example, attackers targeting hospitals or exfiltrating data from technology companies). In many cases, the targeting doesn’t manifest itself as specifically attacking the target’s network, instead, the purchase of access from an access broker or the use of existing malware infection to pivot to ransomware activities.

In some ransomware attacks, the affiliates who bought a load or access may not even know or care how the system was compromised in the first place and are just using it as a “jump server” to perform other actions in a network. Access brokers often list the network details for the access they are selling, but affiliates aren’t usually interested in the network itself but rather the monetization potential. As a result, some attacks that seem targeted to a specific industry might simply be a case of affiliates purchasing access based on the number of systems they could deploy ransomware to and the perceived potential for profit.

“Human-operated” means human decisions

Microsoft coined the term “human-operated ransomware” to clearly define a class of attacks driven by expert human intelligence at every step of the attack chain and culminate in intentional business disruption and extortion. Human-operated ransomware attacks share commonalities in the security misconfigurations of which they take advantage and the manual techniques used for lateral movement and persistence. However, the human-operated nature of these actions means that variations in attacks—including objectives and pre-ransom activity—evolve depending on the environment and the unique opportunities identified by the attackers.

These attacks involve many reconnaissance activities that enable human operators to profile the organization and know what next steps to take based on specific knowledge of the target. Many of the initial access campaigns that provide access to RaaS affiliates perform automated reconnaissance and exfiltration of information collected in the first few minutes of an attack.

After the attack shifts to a hands-on-keyboard phase, the reconnaissance and activities based on this knowledge can vary, depending on the tools that come with the RaaS and the operator’s skill. Frequently attackers query for the currently running security tools, privileged users, and security settings such as those defined in Group Policy before continuing their attack. The data discovered via this reconnaissance phase informs the attacker’s next steps.

If there’s minimal security hardening to complicate the attack and a highly privileged account can be gained immediately, attackers move directly to deploying ransomware by editing a Group Policy. The attackers take note of security products in the environment and attempt to tamper with and disable these, sometimes using scripts or tools provided with RaaS purchase that try to disable multiple security products at once, other times using specific commands or techniques performed by the attacker.  

This human decision-making early in the reconnaissance and intrusion stages means that even if a target’s security solutions detect specific techniques of an attack, the attackers may not get fully evicted from the network and can use other collected knowledge to attempt to continue the attack in ways that bypass security controls. In many instances, attackers test their attacks “in production” from an undetected location in their target’s environment, deploying tools or payloads like commodity malware. If these tools or payloads are detected and blocked by an antivirus product, the attackers simply grab a different tool, modify their payload, or tamper with the security products they encounter. Such detections could give SOCs a false sense of security that their existing solutions are working. However, these could merely serve as a smokescreen to allow the attackers to further tailor an attack chain that has a higher probability of success. Thus, when the attack reaches the active attack stage of deleting backups or shadow copies, the attack would be minutes away from ransomware deployment. The adversary would likely have already performed harmful actions like the exfiltration of data. This knowledge is key for SOCs responding to ransomware: prioritizing investigation of alerts or detections of tools like Cobalt Strike and performing swift remediation actions and incident response (IR) procedures are critical for containing a human adversary before the ransomware deployment stage.

Exfiltration and double extortion

Ransomware attackers often profit simply by disabling access to critical systems and causing system downtime. Although that simple technique often motivates victims to pay, it is not the only way attackers can monetize their access to compromised networks. Exfiltration of data and “double extortion,” which refers to attackers threatening to leak data if a ransom hasn’t been paid, has also become a common tactic among many RaaS affiliate programs—many of them offering a unified leak site for their affiliates. Attackers take advantage of common weaknesses to exfiltrate data and demand ransom without deploying a payload.

This trend means that focusing on protecting against ransomware payloads via security products or encryption, or considering backups as the main defense against ransomware, instead of comprehensive hardening, leaves a network vulnerable to all the stages of a human-operated ransomware attack that occur before ransomware deployment. This exfiltration can take the form of using tools like Rclone to sync to an external site, setting up email transport rules, or uploading files to cloud services. With double extortion, attackers don’t need to deploy ransomware and cause downtime to extort money. Some attackers have moved beyond the need to deploy ransomware payloads and are shifting straight to extortion models or performing the destructive objectives of their attacks by directly deleting cloud resources. One such extortion attackers is DEV-0537 (also known as LAPSUS$), which is profiled below.  

Persistent and sneaky access methods

Paying the ransom may not reduce the risk to an affected network and potentially only serves to fund cybercriminals. Giving in to the attackers’ demands doesn’t guarantee that attackers ever “pack their bags” and leave a network. Attackers are more determined to stay on a network once they gain access and sometimes repeatedly monetize attacks using different malware or ransomware payloads if they aren’t successfully evicted.

The handoff between different attackers as transitions in the cybercriminal economy occur means that multiple attackers may retain persistence in a compromised environment using an entirely different set of tools from those used in a ransomware attack. For example, initial access gained by a banking trojan leads to a Cobalt Strike deployment, but the RaaS affiliate that purchased the access may choose to use a less detectable remote access tool such as TeamViewer to maintain persistence on the network to operate their broader series of campaigns. Using legitimate tools and settings to persist versus malware implants such as Cobalt Strike is a popular technique among ransomware attackers to avoid detection and remain resident in a network for longer.

Some of the common enterprise tools and techniques for persistence that Microsoft has observed being used include:

  • AnyDesk
  • Atera Remote Management
  • ngrok.io
  • Remote Manipulator System
  • Splashtop
  • TeamViewer

Another popular technique attackers perform once they attain privilege access is the creation of new backdoor user accounts, whether local or in Active Directory. These newly created accounts can then be added to remote access tools such as a virtual private network (VPN) or Remote Desktop, granting remote access through accounts that appear legitimate on the network. Ransomware attackers have also been observed editing the settings on systems to enable Remote Desktop, reduce the protocol’s security, and add new users to the Remote Desktop Users group.

The time between initial access to a hands-on keyboard deployment can vary wildly depending on the groups and their workloads or motivations. Some activity groups can access thousands of potential targets and work through these as their staffing allows, prioritizing based on potential ransom payment over several months. While some activity groups may have access to large and highly resourced companies, they prefer to attack smaller companies for less overall ransom because they can execute the attack within hours or days. In addition, the return on investment is higher from companies that can’t respond to a major incident. Ransoms of tens of millions of dollars receive much attention but take much longer to develop. Many groups prefer to ransom five to 10 smaller targets in a month because the success rate at receiving payment is higher in these targets. Smaller organizations that can’t afford an IR team are often more likely to pay tens of thousands of dollars in ransom than an organization worth millions of dollars because the latter has a developed IR capability and is likely to follow legal advice against paying. In some instances, a ransomware associate threat actor may have an implant on a network and never convert it to ransom activity. In other cases, initial access to full ransom (including handoff from an access broker to a RaaS affiliate) takes less than an hour.

Funnel diagram showing targeting and rate of success. Given 2,500 potential target orgs, 60 encounter activity associated with known ransomware attackers. Out of these, 20 are successfully compromised, and 1 organization sees a successful ransomware event.
Figure 2. Human-operated ransomware targeting and rate of success, based on a sampling of Microsoft data over six months between 2021 and 2022

The human-driven nature of these attacks and the scale of possible victims under control of ransomware-associated threat actors underscores the need to take targeted proactive security measures to harden networks and prevent these attacks in their early stages.

Threat actors and campaigns deep dive: Threat intelligence-driven response to human-operated ransomware attacks

For organizations to successfully respond to evict an active attacker, it’s important to understand the active stage of an ongoing attack. In the early attack stages, such as deploying a banking trojan, common remediation efforts like isolating a system and resetting exposed credentials may be sufficient. As the attack progresses and the attacker performs reconnaissance activities and exfiltration, it’s important to implement an incident response process that scopes the incident to address the impact specifically. Using a threat intelligence-driven methodology for understanding attacks can assist in determining incidents that need additional scoping.

In the next sections, we provide a deep dive into the following prominent ransomware threat actors and their campaigns to increase community understanding of these attacks and enable organizations to better protect themselves:

Microsoft threat intelligence directly informs our products as part of our commitment to track adversaries and protect customers. Microsoft 365 Defender customers should prioritize alerts titled “Ransomware-linked emerging threat activity group detected”. We also add the note “Ongoing hands-on-keyboard attack” to alerts that indicate a human attacker is in the network. When these alerts are raised, it’s highly recommended to initiate an incident response process to scope the attack, isolate systems, and regain control of credentials attackers may be in control of.

A note on threat actor naming: as part of Microsoft’s ongoing commitment to track both nation-state and cybercriminal threat actors, we refer to the unidentified threat actors as a “development group”. We use a naming structure with a prefix of “DEV” to indicate an emerging threat group or unique activity during investigation. When a nation-state group moves out of the DEV stage, we use chemical elements (for example, PHOSPHOROUS and NOBELIUM) to name them. On the other hand, we use volcano names (such as ELBRUS) for ransomware or cybercriminal activity groups that have moved out of the DEV state. In the cybercriminal economy, relationships between groups change very rapidly. Attackers are known to hire talent from other cybercriminal groups or use “contractors,” who provide gig economy-style work on a limited time basis and may not rejoin the group. This shifting nature means that many of the groups Microsoft tracks are labeled as DEV, even if we have a concrete understanding of the nature of the activity group.

DEV-0193 cluster (Trickbot LLC): The most prolific ransomware group today

A vast amount of the current cybercriminal economy connects to a nexus of activity that Microsoft tracks as DEV-0193, also referred to as Trickbot LLC. DEV-0193 is responsible for developing, distributing, and managing many different payloads, including Trickbot, Bazaloader, and AnchorDNS. In addition, DEV-0193 managed the Ryuk RaaS program before the latter’s shutdown in June 2021, and Ryuk’s successor, Conti as well as Diavol. Microsoft has been tracking the activities of DEV-0193 since October 2020 and has observed their expansion from developing and distributing the Trickbot malware to becoming the most prolific ransomware-associated cybercriminal activity group active today. 

DEV-0193’s actions and use of the cybercriminal gig economy means they often add new members and projects and utilize contractors to perform various parts of their intrusions. As other malware operations have shut down for various reasons, including legal actions, DEV-0193 has hired developers from these groups. Most notable are the acquisitions of developers from Emotet, Qakbot, and IcedID, bringing them to the DEV-0193 umbrella.

A subgroup of DEV-0193, which Microsoft tracks as DEV-0365, provides infrastructure-as-a-service for cybercriminals. Most notably, DEV-0365 provides Cobalt Strike Beacon-as-a-service. These DEV-0365 Beacons have replaced unique C2 infrastructure in many active malware campaigns. DEV-0193 infrastructure has also been implicated in attacks deploying novel techniques, including exploitation of CVE-2021-40444. 

The leaked chat files from a group publicly labeled as the “Conti Group” in February 2022 confirm the wide scale of DEV-0193 activity tracked by Microsoft. Based on our telemetry from 2021 and 2022, Conti has become one of the most deployed RaaS ecosystems, with multiple affiliates concurrently deploying their payload—even as other RaaS ecosystems (DarkSide/BlackMatter and REvil) ceased operations. However, payload-based attribution meant that much of the activity that led to Conti ransomware deployment was attributed to the “Conti Group,” even though many affiliates had wildly different tradecraft, skills, and reporting structures. Some Conti affiliates performed small-scale intrusions using the tools offered by the RaaS, while others performed weeks-long operations involving data exfiltration and extortion using their own techniques and tools. One of the most prolific and successful Conti affiliates—and the one responsible for developing the “Conti Manual” leaked in August 2021—is tracked as DEV-0230. This activity group also developed and deployed the FiveHands and HelloKitty ransomware payloads and often gained access to an organization via DEV-0193’s BazaLoader infrastructure.

ELBRUS: (Un)arrested development

ELBRUS, also known as FIN7, has been known to be in operation since 2012 and has run multiple campaigns targeting a broad set of industries for financial gain. ELBRUS has deployed point-of-sale (PoS) and ATM malware to collect payment card information from in-store checkout terminals. They have also targeted corporate personnel who have access to sensitive financial data, including individuals involved in SEC filings.

In 2018, this activity group made headlines when three of its members were arrested. In May 2020, another arrest was made for an individual with alleged involvement with ELBRUS. However, despite law enforcement actions against suspected individual members, Microsoft has observed sustained campaigns from the ELBRUS group itself during these periods.

ELBRUS is responsible for developing and distributing multiple custom malware families used for persistence, including JSSLoader and Griffon. ELBRUS has also created fake security companies called “Combi Security” and “Bastion Security” to facilitate the recruitment of employees to their operations under the pretense of working as penetration testers.

In 2020 ELBRUS transitioned from using PoS malware to deploying ransomware as part of a financially motivated extortion scheme, specifically deploying the MAZE and Revil RaaS families. ELBRUS developed their own RaaS ecosystem named DarkSide. They deployed DarkSide payloads as part of their operations and recruited and managed affiliates that deployed the DarkSide ransomware. The tendency to report on ransomware incidents based on payload and attribute it to a monolithic gang often obfuscates the true relationship between the attackers, which is very accurate of the DarkSide RaaS. Case in point, one of the most infamous DarkSide deployments wasn’t performed by ELBRUS but by a ransomware-as-a-service affiliate Microsoft tracks as DEV-0289.

ELBRUS retired the DarkSide ransomware ecosystem in May 2021 and released its successor, BlackMatter, in July 2021. Replicating their patterns from DarkSide, ELBRUS deployed BlackMatter themselves and ran a RaaS program for affiliates. The activity group then retired the BlackMatter ransomware ecosystem in November 2021.

While they aren’t currently publicly observed to be running a RaaS program, ELBRUS is very active in compromising organizations via phishing campaigns that lead to their JSSLoader and Griffon malware. Since 2019, ELBRUS has partnered with DEV-0324 to distribute their malware implants. DEV-0324 acts as a distributor in the cybercriminal economy, providing a service to distribute the payloads of other attackers through phishing and exploit kit vectors. ELBRUS has also been abusing CVE-2021-31207 in Exchange to compromise organizations in April of 2022, an interesting pivot to using a less popular authenticated vulnerability in the ProxyShell cluster of vulnerabilities. This abuse has allowed them to target organizations that patched only the unauthenticated vulnerability in their Exchange Server and turn compromised low privileged user credentials into highly privileged access as SYSTEM on an Exchange Server.  

DEV-0504: Shifting payloads reflecting the rise and fall of RaaS programs

An excellent example of how clustering activity based on ransomware payload alone can lead to obfuscating the threat actors behind the attack is DEV-0504. DEV-0504 has deployed at least six RaaS payloads since 2020, with many of their attacks becoming high-profile incidents attributed to the “REvil gang” or “BlackCat ransomware group”. This attribution masks the actions of the set of the attackers in the DEV-0504 umbrella, including other REvil and BlackCat affiliates. This has resulted in a confusing story of the scale of the ransomware problem and overinflated the impact that a single RaaS program shutdown can have on the threat environment.  

Timeline showing DEV-0505's ransomware payloads over time.
Figure 3. Ransomware payloads distributed by DEV-0504 between 2020 and April 2022

DEV-0504 shifts payloads when a RaaS program shuts down, for example the deprecation of REvil and BlackMatter, or possibly when a program with a better profit margin appears. These market dynamics aren’t unique to DEV-0504 and are reflected in most RaaS affiliates. They can also manifest in even more extreme behavior where RaaS affiliates switch to older “fully owned” ransomware payloads like Phobos, which they can buy when a RaaS isn’t available, or they don’t want to pay the fees associated with RaaS programs.

DEV-0504 appears to rely on access brokers to enter a network, using Cobalt Strike Beacons they have possibly purchased access to. Once inside a network, they rely heavily on PsExec to move laterally and stage their payloads. Their techniques require them to have compromised elevated credentials, and they frequently disable antivirus products that aren’t protected with tamper protection.

DEV-0504 was responsible for deploying BlackCat ransomware in companies in the energy sector in January 2022. Around the same time, DEV-0504 also deployed BlackCat in attacks against companies in the fashion, tobacco, IT, and manufacturing industries, among others.

DEV-0237: Prolific collaborator

Like DEV-0504, DEV-0237 is a prolific RaaS affiliate that alternates between different payloads in their operations based on what is available. DEV-0237 heavily used Ryuk and Conti payloads from Trickbot LLC/DEV-0193, then Hive payloads more recently. Many publicly documented Ryuk and Conti incidents and tradecraft can be traced back to DEV-0237.

After the activity group switched to Hive as a payload, a large uptick in Hive incidents was observed. Their switch to the BlackCat RaaS in March 2022 is suspected to be due to public discourse around Hive decryption methodologies; that is, DEV-0237 may have switched to BlackCat because they didn’t want Hive’s decryptors to interrupt their business. Overlap in payloads has occurred as DEV-0237 experiments with new RaaS programs on lower-value targets. They have been observed to experiment with some payloads only to abandon them later.

Timeline diagram showing DEV-0237's ransomware payloads over time.
Figure 4. Ransomware payloads distributed by DEV-0237 between 2020 and April 2022

Beyond RaaS payloads, DEV-0237 uses the cybercriminal gig economy to also gain initial access to networks. DEV-0237’s proliferation and success rate come in part from their willingness to leverage the network intrusion work and malware implants of other groups versus performing their own initial compromise and malware development.

Relationship diagram showing the relationship between DEV-0237 and DEV-0447, DEV-0387, and DEV-0193.
Figure 5. Examples of DEV-0237’s relationships with other cybercriminal activity groups

Like all RaaS operators, DEV-0237 relies on compromised, highly privileged account credentials and security weaknesses once inside a network. DEV-0237 often leverages Cobalt Strike Beacon dropped by the malware they have purchased, as well as tools like SharpHound to conduct reconnaissance. The group often utilizes BITSadmin /transfer to stage their payloads. An often-documented trademark of Ryuk and Conti deployments is naming the ransomware payload xxx.exe, a tradition that DEV-0237 continues to use no matter what RaaS they are deploying, as most recently observed with BlackCat. In late March of 2022, DEV-0237 was observed to be using a new version of Hive again.

DEV-0206 and DEV-0243: An “evil” partnership

Malvertising, which refers to taking out a search engine ad to lead to a malware payload, has been used in many campaigns, but the access broker that Microsoft tracks as DEV-0206 uses this as their primary technique to gain access to and profile networks. Targets are lured by an ad purporting to be a browser update, or a software package, to download a ZIP file and double-click it. The ZIP package contains a JavaScript file (.js), which in most environments runs when double-clicked. Organizations that have changed the settings such that script files open with a text editor by default instead of a script handler are largely immune from this threat, even if a user double clicks the script.

Once successfully executed, the JavaScript framework, also referred to SocGholish, acts as a loader for other malware campaigns that use access purchased from DEV-0206, most commonly Cobalt Strike payloads. These payloads have, in numerous instances, led to custom Cobalt Strike loaders attributed to DEV-0243. DEV-0243 falls under activities tracked by the cyber intelligence industry as “EvilCorp,”  The custom Cobalt Strike loaders are similar to those seen in publicly documented Blister malware’s inner payloads. In DEV-0243’s initial partnerships with DEV-0206, the group deployed a custom ransomware payload known as WastedLocker, and then expanded to additional DEV-0243 ransomware payloads developed in-house, such as PhoenixLocker and Macaw.

Around November 2021, DEV-0243 started to deploy the LockBit 2.0 RaaS payload in their intrusions. The use of a RaaS payload by the “EvilCorp” activity group is likely an attempt by DEV-0243 to avoid attribution to their group, which could discourage payment due to their sanctioned status.

Attack chain diagram showing DEV-0206 gaining access to target organizations and deploying JavaScript implant. After which, DEV-0243 begins hands-on keyboard actions.
Figure 6. The handover from DEV-0206 to DEV-0243

DEV-0401: China-based lone wolf turned LockBit 2.0 affiliate

Differing from the other RaaS developers, affiliates, and access brokers profiled here, DEV-0401 appears to be an activity group involved in all stages of their attack lifecycle, from initial access to ransomware development. Despite this, they seem to take some inspiration from successful RaaS operations with the frequent rebranding of their ransomware payloads. Unique among human-operated ransomware threat actors tracked by Microsoft, DEV-0401 is confirmed to be a China-based activity group.

DEV-0401 differs from many of the attackers who rely on purchasing access to existing malware implants or exposed RDP to enter a network. Instead, the group heavily utilizes unpatched vulnerabilities to access networks, including vulnerabilities in Exchange, Manage Engine AdSelfService Plus, Confluence, and Log4j 2. Due to the nature of the vulnerabilities they preferred, DEV-0401 gains elevated credentials at the initial access stage of their attack.

Once inside a network, DEV-0401 relies on standard techniques such as using Cobalt Strike and WMI for lateral movement, but they have some unique preferences for implementing these behaviors. Their Cobalt Strike Beacons are frequently launched via DLL search order hijacking. While they use the common Impacket tool for WMI lateral movement, they use a customized version of the wmiexec.py module of the tool that creates renamed output files, most likely to evade static detections. Ransomware deployment is ultimately performed from a batch file in a share and Group Policy, usually written to the NETLOGON share on a Domain Controller, which requires the attackers to have obtained highly privileged credentials like Domain Administrator to perform this action.

Timeline diagram showing DEV-0401's ransomware payloads over time
Figure 7. Ransomware payloads distributed by DEV-0401 between 2021 and April 2022

Because DEV-0401 maintains and frequently rebrands their own ransomware payloads, they can appear as different groups in payload-driven reporting and evade detections and actions against them. Their payloads are sometimes rebuilt from existing for-purchase ransomware tools like Rook, which shares code similarity with the Babuk ransomware family. In February of 2022, DEV-0401 was observed deploying the Pandora ransomware family, primarily via unpatched VMware Horizon systems vulnerable to the Log4j 2 CVE-2021-44228 vulnerability.

Like many RaaS operators, DEV-0401 maintained a leak site to post exfiltrated data and motivate victims to pay, however their frequent rebranding caused these systems to sometimes be unready for their victims, with their leak site sometimes leading to default web server landing pages when victims attempt to pay.  In a notable shift—possibly related to victim payment issues—DEV-0401 started deploying LockBit 2.0 ransomware payloads in April 2022.

DEV-0537: From extortion to destruction

An example of a threat actor who has moved to a pure extortion and destruction model without deploying ransomware payloads is an activity group that Microsoft tracks as DEV-0537, also known as LAPSUS$. Microsoft has detailed DEV-0537 actions taken in early 2022 in this blog. DEV-0537 started targeting organizations mainly in Latin America but expanded to global targeting, including government entities, technology, telecom, retailers, and healthcare. Unlike more opportunistic attackers, DEV-0537 targets specific companies with an intent. Their initial access techniques include exploiting unpatched vulnerabilities in internet-facing systems, searching public code repositories for credentials, and taking advantage of weak passwords. In addition, there is evidence that DEV-0537 leverages credentials stolen by the Redline password stealer, a piece of malware available for purchase in the cybercriminal economy. The group also buys credentials from underground forums which were gathered by other password-stealing malware.

Once initial access to a network is gained, DEV-0537 takes advantage of security misconfigurations to elevate privileges and move laterally to meet their objectives of data exfiltration and extortion. While DEV-0537 doesn’t possess any unique technical capabilities, the group is especially cloud-aware. They target cloud administrator accounts to set up forwarding rules for email exfiltration and tamper with administrative settings on cloud environments. As part of their goals to force payment of ransom, DEV-0537 attempts to delete all server infrastructure and data to cause business disruption. To further facilitate the achievement of their goals, they remove legitimate admins and delete cloud resources and server infrastructure, resulting in destructive attacks. 

DEV-0537 also takes advantage of cloud admin privileges to monitor email, chats, and VOIP communications to track incident response efforts to their intrusions. DEV-0537 has been observed on multiple occasions to join incident response calls, not just observing the response to inform their attack but unmuting to demand ransom and sharing their screens while they delete their victim’s data and resources.

Defending against ransomware: Moving beyond protection by detection

A durable security strategy against determined human adversaries must include the goal of mitigating classes of attacks and detecting them. Ransomware attacks generate multiple, disparate security product alerts, but they could easily get lost or not responded to in time. Alert fatigue is real, and SOCs can make their lives easier by looking at trends in their alerts or grouping alerts into incidents so they can see the bigger picture. SOCs can then mitigate alerts using hardening capabilities like attack surface reduction rules. Hardening against common threats can reduce alert volume and stop many attackers before they get access to networks. 

Attackers tweak their techniques and have tools to evade and disable security products. They are also well-versed in system administration and try to blend in as much as possible. However, while attacks have continued steadily and with increased impact, the attack techniques attackers use haven’t changed much over the years. Therefore, a renewed focus on prevention is needed to curb the tide.

Ransomware attackers are motivated by easy profits, so adding to their cost via security hardening is key in disrupting the cybercriminal economy.

Building credential hygiene

More than malware, attackers need credentials to succeed in their attacks. In almost all attacks where ransomware deployment was successful, the attackers had access to a domain admin-level account or local administrator passwords that were consistent throughout the environment. Deployment then can be done through Group Policy or tools like PsExec (or clones like PAExec, CSExec, and WinExeSvc). Without the credentials to provide administrative access in a network, spreading ransomware to multiple systems is a bigger challenge for attackers. Compromised credentials are so important to these attacks that when cybercriminals sell ill-gotten access to a network, in many instances, the price includes a guaranteed administrator account to start with.

Credential theft is a common attack pattern. Many administrators know tools like Mimikatz and LaZagne, and their capabilities to steal passwords from interactive logons in the LSASS process. Detections exist for these tools accessing the LSASS process in most security products. However, the risk of credential exposure isn’t just limited to a domain administrator logging in interactively to a workstation. Because attackers have accessed and explored many networks during their attacks, they have a deep knowledge of common network configurations and use it to their advantage. One common misconfiguration they exploit is running services and scheduled tasks as highly privileged service accounts.

Too often, a legacy configuration ensures that a mission-critical application works by giving the utmost permissions possible. Many organizations struggle to fix this issue even if they know about it, because they fear they might break applications. This configuration is especially dangerous as it leaves highly privileged credentials exposed in the LSA Secrets portion of the registry, which users with administrative access can access. In organizations where the local administrator rights haven’t been removed from end users, attackers can be one hop away from domain admin just from an initial attack like a banking trojan. Building credential hygiene is developing a logical segmentation of the network, based on privileges, that can be implemented alongside network segmentation to limit lateral movement.

Here are some steps organizations can take to build credential hygiene:

  • Aim to run services as Local System when administrative privileges are needed, as this allows applications to have high privileges locally but can’t be used to move laterally. Run services as Network Service when accessing other resources.
  • Use tools like LUA Buglight to determine the privileges that applications really need.
  • Look for events with EventID 4624 where the logon type is 2, 4, 5, or 10 and the account is highly privileged like a domain admin. This helps admins understand which credentials are vulnerable to theft via LSASS or LSA Secrets. Ideally, any highly privileged account like a Domain Admin shouldn’t be exposed on member servers or workstations.
  • Monitor for EventID 4625 (Logon Failed events) in Windows Event Forwarding when removing accounts from privileged groups. Adding them to the local administrator group on a limited set of machines to keep an application running still reduces the scope of an attack as against running them as Domain Admin.
  • Randomize Local Administrator passwords with a tool like Local Administrator Password Solution (LAPS) to prevent lateral movement using local accounts with shared passwords.
  • Use a cloud-based identity security solution that leverages on-premises Active Directory signals get visibility into identity configurations and to identify and detect threats or compromised identities

Auditing credential exposure

Auditing credential exposure is critical in preventing ransomware attacks and cybercrime in general. BloodHound is a tool that was originally designed to provide network defenders with insight into the number of administrators in their environment. It can also be a powerful tool in reducing privileges tied to administrative account and understanding your credential exposure. IT security teams and SOCs can work together with the authorized use of this tool to enable the reduction of exposed credentials. Any teams deploying BloodHound should monitor it carefully for malicious use. They can also use this detection guidance to watch for malicious use.

Microsoft has observed ransomware attackers also using BloodHound in attacks. When used maliciously, BloodHound allows attackers to see the path of least resistance from the systems they have access, to highly privileged accounts like domain admin accounts and global administrator accounts in Azure.

Prioritizing deployment of Active Directory updates

Security patches for Active Directory should be applied as soon as possible after they are released. Microsoft has witnessed ransomware attackers adopting authentication vulnerabilities within one hour of being made public and as soon as those vulnerabilities are included in tools like Mimikatz. Ransomware activity groups also rapidly adopt vulnerabilities related to authentication, such as ZeroLogon and PetitPotam, especially when they are included in toolkits like Mimikatz. When unpatched, these vulnerabilities could allow attackers to rapidly escalate from an entrance vector like email to Domain Admin level privileges.

Cloud hardening

As attackers move towards cloud resources, it’s important to secure cloud resources and identities as well as on-premises accounts. Here are ways organizations can harden cloud environments:

Cloud identity hardening

Multifactor authentication (MFA)

  • Enforce MFA on all accounts, remove users excluded from MFA, and strictly require MFA from all devices, in all locations, at all times.
  • Enable passwordless authentication methods (for example, Windows Hello, FIDO keys, or Microsoft Authenticator) for accounts that support passwordless. For accounts that still require passwords, use authenticator apps like Microsoft Authenticator for MFA. Refer to this article for the different authentication methods and features.
  • Identify and secure workload identities to secure accounts where traditional MFA enforcement does not apply.
  • Ensure that users are properly educated on not accepting unexpected two-factor authentication (2FA).
  • For MFA that uses authenticator apps, ensure that the app requires a code to be typed in where possible, as many intrusions where MFA was enabled (including those by DEV-0537) still succeeded due to users clicking “Yes” on the prompt on their phones even when they were not at their computers. Refer to this article for an example.
  • Disable legacy authentication.

Cloud admins

Addressing security blind spots

In almost every observed ransomware incident, at least one system involved in the attack had a misconfigured security product that allowed the attacker to disable protections or evade detection. In many instances, the initial access for access brokers is a legacy system that isn’t protected by  antivirus or EDR solutions. It’s important to understand that the lack security controls on these systems that have access to highly privileged credentials act as blind spots that allow attackers to perform the entire ransomware and exfiltration attack chain from a single system without being detected. In some instances, this is specifically advertised as a feature that access brokers sell.

Organizations should review and verify that security tools are running in their most secure configuration and perform regular network scans to ensure appropriate security products are monitoring and protecting all systems, including servers. If this isn’t possible, make sure that your legacy systems are either physically isolated through a firewall or logically isolated by ensuring they have no credential overlap with other systems.

For Microsoft 365 Defender customers, the following checklist eliminates security blind spots:

  • Turn on cloud-delivered protection in Microsoft Defender Antivirus to cover rapidly evolving attacker tools and techniques, block new and unknown malware variants, and enhance attack surface reduction rules and tamper protection.
  • Turn on tamper protection features to prevent attackers from stopping security services.
  • Run EDR in block mode so that Microsoft Defender for Endpoint can block malicious artifacts, even when a non-Microsoft antivirus doesn’t detect the threat or when Microsoft Defender Antivirus is running in passive mode. EDR in block mode also blocks indicators identified proactively by Microsoft Threat Intelligence teams.
  • Enable network protection to prevent applications or users from accessing malicious domains and other malicious content on the internet.
  • Enable investigation and remediation in full automated mode to allow Microsoft Defender for Endpoint to take immediate action on alerts to resolve breaches.
  • Use device discovery to increase visibility into the network by finding unmanaged devices and onboarding them to Microsoft Defender for Endpoint.
  • Protect user identities and credentials using Microsoft Defender for Identity, a cloud-based security solution that leverages on-premises Active Directory signals to monitor and analyze user behavior to identify suspicious user activities, configuration issues, and active attacks.

Reducing the attack surface

Microsoft 365 Defender customers can turn on attack surface reduction rules to prevent common attack techniques used in ransomware attacks. These rules, which can be configured by all Microsoft Defender Antivirus customers and not just those using the EDR solution, offer significant hardening against attacks. In observed attacks from several ransomware-associated activity groups, Microsoft customers who had the following rules enabled were able to mitigate the attack in the initial stages and prevented hands-on-keyboard activity:

In addition, Microsoft has changed the default behavior of Office applications to block macros in files from the internet, further reduce the attack surface for many human-operated ransomware attacks and other threats.

Hardening internet-facing assets and understanding your perimeter

Organizations must identify and secure perimeter systems that attackers might use to access the network. Public scanning interfaces, such as RiskIQ, can be used to augment data. Some systems that should be considered of interest to attackers and therefore need to be hardened include:

  • Secure Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) or Windows Virtual Desktop endpoints with MFA to harden against password spray or brute force attacks.
  • Block Remote IT management tools such as Teamviewer, Splashtop, Remote Manipulator System, Anydesk, Atera Remote Management, and ngrok.io via network blocking such as perimeter firewall rules if not in use in your environment. If these systems are used in your environment, enforce security settings where possible to implement MFA.

Ransomware attackers and access brokers also use unpatched vulnerabilities, whether already disclosed or zero-day, especially in the initial access stage. Even older vulnerabilities were implicated in ransomware incidents in 2022 because some systems remained unpatched, partially patched, or because access brokers had established persistence on a previously compromised systems despite it later being patched.

Some observed vulnerabilities used in campaigns between 2020 and 2022 that defenders can check for and mitigate include:

Ransomware attackers also rapidly adopt new vulnerabilities. To further reduce organizational exposure, Microsoft Defender for Endpoint customers can use the threat and vulnerability management capability to discover, prioritize, and remediate vulnerabilities and misconfigurations.

Microsoft 365 Defender: Deep cross-domain visibility and unified investigation capabilities to defend against ransomware attacks

The multi-faceted threat of ransomware requires a comprehensive approach to security. The steps we outlined above defend against common attack patterns and will go a long way in preventing ransomware attacks. Microsoft 365 Defender is designed to make it easy for organizations to apply many of these security controls.

Microsoft 365 Defender’s industry-leading visibility and detection capabilities, demonstrated in the recent MITRE Engenuity ATT&CK® Evaluations, automatically stop most common threats and attacker techniques. To equip organizations with the tools to combat human-operated ransomware, which by nature takes a unique path for every organization, Microsoft 365 Defender provides rich investigation features that enable defenders to seamlessly inspect and remediate malicious behavior across domains.

Learn how you can stop attacks through automated, cross-domain security and built-in AI with Microsoft Defender 365.

Join our research team at the Microsoft Security Summit digital event on May 12 to learn what developments Microsoft is seeing in the threat landscape, as well as how we can help your business mitigate these types of attacks. Ask your most pressing questions during the live chat Q&A. Register today.

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