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A Thorn in Attackers’ Sides: How Darktrace Uncovered a CACTUS Ransomware Infection | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware


This blog examines CACTUS, a relatively new strain of ransomware that first appeared in the threat landscape in March 2023. In November 2023, Darktrace detected CACTUS ransomware on a US customer network and was able to provide full visibility over the attack and its kill chain.

What is CACTUS Ransomware?

In May 2023, Kroll Cyber Threat Intelligence Analysts identified CACTUS as a new ransomware strain that had been actively targeting large commercial organizations since March 2023 [1]. CACTUS ransomware gets its name from the filename of the ransom note, “cAcTuS.readme.txt”. Encrypted files are appended with the extension “.cts”, followed by a number which varies between attacks, e.g. “.cts1” and “.cts2”.

As the cyber threat landscape adapts to ever-present fast-paced technological change, ransomware affiliates are employing progressively sophisticated techniques to enter networks, evade detection and achieve their nefarious goals.

How does CACTUS Ransomware work?

In the case of CACTUS, threat actors have been seen gaining initial network access by exploiting Virtual Private Network (VPN) services. Once inside the network, they may conduct internal scanning using tools like SoftPerfect Network Scanner, and PowerShell commands to enumerate endpoints, identify user accounts, and ping remote endpoints. Persistence is maintained by the deployment of various remote access methods, including legitimate remote access tools like Splashtop, AnyDesk, and SuperOps RMM in order to evade detection, along with malicious tools like Cobalt Strike and Chisel. Such tools, as well as custom scripts like TotalExec, have been used to disable security software to distribute the ransomware binary. CACTUS ransomware is unique in that it adopts a double-extortion tactic, stealing data from target networks and then encrypting it on compromised systems [2].

At the end of November 2023, cybersecurity firm Arctic Wolf reported instances of CACTUS attacks exploiting vulnerabilities on the Windows version of the business analytics platform Qlik, specifically CVE-2023-41266, CVE-2023-41265, and CVE-2023-48365, to gain initial access to target networks [3]. The vulnerability tracked as CVE-2023-41266 can be exploited to generate anonymous sessions and perform HTTP requests to unauthorized endpoints, whilst CVE-2023-41265 does not require authentication and can be leveraged to elevate privileges and execute HTTP requests on the backend server that hosts the application [2].

Darktrace’s Coverage of CACTUS Ransomware

In November 2023, Darktrace observed malicious actors leveraging the aforementioned method of exploiting Qlik to gain access to the network of a customer in the US, more than a week before the vulnerability was reported by external researchers.

Here, Qlik vulnerabilities were successfully exploited, and a malicious executable (.exe) was detonated on the network, which was followed by network scanning and failed Kerberos login attempts. The attack culminated in the encryption of numerous files with extensions such as “.cts1”, and SMB writes of the ransom note “cAcTuS.readme.txt” to multiple internal devices, all of which was promptly identified by Darktrace DETECT™.

While traditional rules and signature-based detection tools may struggle to identify the malicious use of a legitimate business platform like Qlik, Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was able to confidently identify anomalous use of the tool in a CACTUS ransomware attack by examining the rarity of the offending device’s surrounding activity and comparing it to the learned behavior of the device and its peers.

Unfortunately for the customer in this case, Darktrace RESPOND™ was not enabled in autonomous response mode during their encounter with CACTUS ransomware meaning that attackers were able to successfully escalate their attack to the point of ransomware detonation and file encryption. Had RESPOND been configured to autonomously act on any unusual activity, Darktrace could have prevented the attack from progressing, stopping the download of any harmful files, or the encryption of legitimate ones.

Cactus Ransomware Attack Overview

Holiday periods have increasingly become one of the favoured times for malicious actors to launch their attacks, as they can take advantage of the festive downtime of organizations and their security teams, and the typically more relaxed mindset of employees during this period [4].

Following this trend, in late November 2023, Darktrace began detecting anomalous connections on the network of a customer in the US, which presented multiple indicators of compromise (IoCs) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with CACTUS ransomware. The threat actors in this case set their attack in motion by exploiting the Qlik vulnerabilities on one of the customer’s critical servers.

Darktrace observed the server device making beaconing connections to the endpoint “zohoservice[.]net” (IP address: 45.61.147.176) over the course of three days. This endpoint is known to host a malicious payload, namely a .zip file containing the command line connection tool PuttyLink [5].

Darktrace’s Cyber AI Analyst was able to autonomously identify over 1,000 beaconing connections taking place on the customer’s network and group them together, in this case joining the dots in an ongoing ransomware attack. AI Analyst recognized that these repeated connections to highly suspicious locations were indicative of malicious command-and-control (C2) activity.

Figure 1: Cyber AI Analyst Incident Log showing the offending device making over 1,000 connections to the suspicious hostname “zohoservice[.]net” over port 8383, within a specific period.

The infected device was then observed downloading the file “putty.zip” over a HTTP connection using a PowerShell user agent. Despite being labelled as a .zip file, Darktrace’s detection capabilities were able to identify this as a masqueraded PuttyLink executable file. This activity resulted in multiple Darktrace DETECT models being triggered. These models are designed to look for suspicious file downloads from endpoints not usually visited by devices on the network, and files whose types are masqueraded, as well as the anomalous use of PowerShell. This behavior resembled previously observed activity with regards to the exploitation of Qlik Sense as an intrusion technique prior to the deployment of CACTUS ransomware [5].

The downloaded file’s URI highlighting that the file type (.exe) does not match the file's extension (.zip). Information about the observed PowerShell user agent is also featured.
Figure 2: The downloaded file’s URI highlighting that the file type (.exe) does not match the file’s extension (.zip). Information about the observed PowerShell user agent is also featured.

Following the download of the masqueraded file, Darktrace observed the initial infected device engaging in unusual network scanning activity over the SMB, RDP and LDAP protocols. During this activity, the credential, “service_qlik” was observed, further indicating that Qlik was exploited by threat actors attempting to evade detection. Connections to other internal devices were made as part of this scanning activity as the attackers attempted to move laterally across the network.

Numerous failed connections from the affected server to multiple other internal devices over port 445, indicating SMB scanning activity.
Figure 3: Numerous failed connections from the affected server to multiple other internal devices over port 445, indicating SMB scanning activity.

The compromised server was then seen initiating multiple sessions over the RDP protocol to another device on the customer’s network, namely an internal DNS server. External researchers had previously observed this technique in CACTUS ransomware attacks where an RDP tunnel was established via Plink [5].

A few days later, on November 24, Darktrace identified over 20,000 failed Kerberos authentication attempts for the username “service_qlik” being made to the internal DNS server, clearly representing a brute-force login attack. There is currently a lack of open-source intelligence (OSINT) material definitively listing Kerberos login failures as part of a CACTUS ransomware attack that exploits the Qlik vulnerabilities. This highlights Darktrace’s ability to identify ongoing threats amongst unusual network activity without relying on existing threat intelligence, emphasizing its advantage over traditional security detection tools.

Kerberos login failures being carried out by the initial infected device. The destination device detected was an internal DNS server.
Figure 4: Kerberos login failures being carried out by the initial infected device. The destination device detected was an internal DNS server.

In the month following these failed Kerberos login attempts, between November 26 and December 22, Darktrace observed multiple internal devices encrypting files within the customer’s environment with the extensions “.cts1” and “.cts7”. Devices were also seen writing ransom notes with the file name “cAcTuS.readme.txt” to two additional internal devices, as well as files likely associated with Qlik, such as “QlikSense.pdf”. This activity detected by Darktrace confirmed the presence of a CACTUS ransomware infection that was spreading across the customer’s network.

The model, 'Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB', triggered in response to SMB file writes of the ransom note, ‘cAcTuS.readme.txt’, that was observed on the customer’s network.
Figure 5: The model, ‘Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB’, triggered in response to SMB file writes of the ransom note, ‘cAcTuS.readme.txt’, that was observed on the customer’s network.
CACTUS ransomware extensions, “.cts1” and “.cts7”, being appended to files on the customer’s network.
Figure 6: CACTUS ransomware extensions, “.cts1” and “.cts7”, being appended to files on the customer’s network.

Following this initial encryption activity, two affected devices were observed attempting to remove evidence of this activity by deleting the encrypted files.

Attackers attempting to remove evidence of their activity by deleting files with appendage “.cts1”.
Figure 7: Attackers attempting to remove evidence of their activity by deleting files with appendage “.cts1”.

Conclusion

In the face of this CACTUS ransomware attack, Darktrace’s anomaly-based approach to threat detection enabled it to quickly identify multiple stages of the cyber kill chain occurring in the customer’s environment. These stages ranged from ‘initial access’ by exploiting Qlik vulnerabilities, which Darktrace was able to detect before the method had been reported by external researchers, to ‘actions on objectives’ by encrypting files. Darktrace’s Self-Learning AI was also able to detect a previously unreported stage of the attack: multiple Kerberos brute force login attempts.

If Darktrace’s autonomous response capability, RESPOND, had been active and enabled in autonomous response mode at the time of this attack, it would have been able to take swift mitigative action to shut down such suspicious activity as soon as it was identified by DETECT, effectively containing the ransomware attack at the earliest possible stage.

Learning a network’s ‘normal’ to identify deviations from established patterns of behaviour enables Darktrace’s identify a potential compromise, even one that uses common and often legitimately used administrative tools. This allows Darktrace to stay one step ahead of the increasingly sophisticated TTPs used by ransomware actors.

Credit to Tiana Kelly, Cyber Analyst & Analyst Team Lead, Anna Gilbertson, Cyber Analyst

Appendices

References

[1] https://www.kroll.com/en/insights/publications/cyber/cactus-ransomware-prickly-new-variant-evades-detection

[2] https://www.bleepingcomputer.com/news/security/cactus-ransomware-exploiting-qlik-sense-flaws-to-breach-networks/

[3] https://explore.avertium.com/resource/new-ransomware-strains-cactus-and-3am

[4] https://www.soitron.com/cyber-attackers-abuse-holidays/

[5] https://arcticwolf.com/resources/blog/qlik-sense-exploited-in-cactus-ransomware-campaign/

Darktrace DETECT Models

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)

Anomalous Connection / PowerShell to Rare External

Device / New PowerShell User Agent

Device / Suspicious SMB Scanning Activity

Anomalous File / EXE from Rare External Location

Anomalous Connection / Unusual Internal Remote Desktop

User / Kerberos Password Brute Force

Compromise / Ransomware / Ransom or Offensive Words Written to SMB

Unusual Activity / Anomalous SMB Delete Volume

Anomalous Connection / Multiple Connections to New External TCP Port

Compromise / Slow Beaconing Activity To External Rare  

Compromise / SSL Beaconing to Rare Destination  

Anomalous Server Activity / Rare External from Server  

Compliance / Remote Management Tool On Server

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)  

Compromise / Suspicious File and C2  

Device / Internet Facing Device with High Priority Alert  

Device / Large Number of Model Breaches  

Anomalous File / Masqueraded File Transfer

Anomalous File / Internet facing System File Download  

Anomalous Server Activity / Outgoing from Server

Device / Initial Breach Chain Compromise  

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Medium Period)  

Compromise / Agent Beacon (Long Period)  

List of IoCs

IoC – Type – Description

zohoservice[.]net: 45.61.147[.]176 – Domain name: IP Address – Hosting payload over HTTP

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT; Windows NT 10.0; en-US) WindowsPowerShell/5.1.17763.2183 – User agent -PowerShell user agent

.cts1 – File extension – Malicious appendage

.cts7- File extension – Malicious appendage

cAcTuS.readme.txt – Filename -Ransom note

putty.zip – Filename – Initial payload: ZIP containing PuTTY Link

MITRE ATT&CK Mapping

Tactic – Technique  – SubTechnique

Web Protocols: COMMAND AND CONTROL – T1071 -T1071.001

Powershell: EXECUTION – T1059 – T1059.001

Exploitation of Remote Services: LATERAL MOVEMENT – T1210 – N/A

Vulnerability Scanning: RECONAISSANCE     – T1595 – T1595.002

Network Service Scanning: DISCOVERY – T1046 – N/A

Malware: RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT – T1588 – T1588.001

Drive-by Compromise: INITIAL ACCESS – T1189 – N/A

Remote Desktop Protocol: LATERAL MOVEMENT – 1021 -T1021.001

Brute Force: CREDENTIAL ACCESS        T – 1110 – N/A

Data Encrypted for Impact: IMPACT – T1486 – N/A

Data Destruction: IMPACT – T1485 – N/A

File Deletion: DEFENSE EVASION – T1070 – T1070.004

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