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Get the latest threat analysis from the ReliaQuest Threat Research Team. ReliaQuest ShadowTalk Weekly podcast featuring discussions on the latest cybersecurity news and threat research.
ReliaQuest's ShadowTalk is a weekly podcast featuring discussions on the latest cybersecurity news and threat research. ShadowTalk's hosts come from threat intelligence, threat hunting, security research, and leadership backgrounds providing practical perspectives on the week's top cybersecurity stories.
February 20, 2024
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The final quarter of 2023 brought many of us festivities, time off work, and warm memories. Simultaneously, cyber-threat actors were busy finding new and innovative ways to wage attacks. As it turns out, innocent employees were actually (unknowingly) helping those threat actors: In Q4 2023 user behavior proved a key factor in opening the door to attackers.
Below we explore that trend, and others that affected ReliaQuest customers in Q4, including the MITRE ATT&CK techniques used for initial access, command-and-control (C2), defense evasion, and impact. Spoiler alert: They’re all likely to be seen again in the coming months. And we’ve got tips to stay one step ahead.
Your network security is only as strong as your weakest link, and organizations are full of these weak links…we’re all familiar with the “problem existing between keyboard and chair” (aka PEBKAC). Our data showing threat activity against our customers in Q4 2023 revealed that the vast majority of initial-access activity was aided by user actions during social engineering. These attacks exploit features typical of human beings: curiosity, naivety, and occasional carelessness.
Most attacks began with an unsuspecting employee clicking on a phishing link. This trend is consistent with the findings from our Q3 2024. Luckily for attackers, phishing and similar techniques are the easiest and cheapest of all ways to gain initial access to a target system, thanks to resources like phishing-as-a-service (PhaaS) toolkits.
We saw spearphishing in abundant use, but also drive-by compromise. Often referred to as drive-by download, this is when a person visits a seemingly-benign-but-compromised website, and malware is immediately downloaded to their computer.
Figure 1: Initial-access TTPs observed in Q4 2023 ReliaQuest customer incidents
To counter these techniques, ReliaQuest protects customers by using numerous detection rules and a specialized Phishing Analyzer. You can also protect yourself from the above initial-access techniques by:
With one foot in the door of a targeted system, a threat actor typically does everything in their power to make the most of it. But they need to work undetected, bypassing, or eluding security measures.
In Q4 2023, command obfuscation was the defense-evasion technique most used in our customers’ environments. The attackers increased the complexity of their command code to make it less intelligible to security tools (which are trained to identify certain patterns). Just like a student might add white text to a Word document to trick the word-count feature, hackers add whitespace and special characters to confuse your expensive anti-malware tools.
Figure 2: Defense evasion TTPs observed in Q4 2023 ReliaQuest customer incidents
We’ve created a set of detection rules in our GreyMatter platform to keep our customers safe from even the most obfuscated commands. You can also take the following steps:
After evading detection tools, the attacker wants to set up a C2 system to communicate with compromised systems. In most of the activity observed within ReliaQuest customer environments, C2 was established through HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure), the primary protocol used to send data between a web browser and a website. To an attacker’s advantage, it does so in an encrypted manner and typically slips past firewalls. Suspicious traffic blends with everyday traffic, and security teams are none the wiser.
Figure 3: C2 TTPs observed in Q4 2023 ReliaQuest customer incidents
GreyMatter can help with detection rules aimed at high-risk HTTPS and suspicious traffic, but here’s what you can do:
Q4 marked a final blow in an already costly year for the cyber-compromised; financial theft was, overwhelmingly, the most common way attackers created an impact on our customers. Whether they used ransomware, business email compromise, data theft, or cryptocurrency network exploitation, one goal was always in mind: get rich quick(ly).
Figure 4: Impact TTPs observed in Q4 2023 ReliaQuest customer incidents
Our data shows an overall increase in extortion activity, particularly in ransomware and data theft extortion—2023 was a record-breaking year in that regard.
Unlike January gym rats, threat actors are unlikely to abandon their plans in 2024. Many of the techniques seen in Q4 2023 will probably continue to be widely used this year. (Get the full picture of 2023 threats in our year-end blog.)
By staying one step ahead of attackers, ReliaQuest will continue pursue the most up-to-date and forward-looking means of protection, keeping our customers informed and responsive along the way. If you’d like a slice of this cybersecurity pie, find out more about our GreyMatter platform and request a demo today.
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