How to discover cyberattacks in time to avoid disaster

Without IT systems, modern life does not exist. Whether we are turning on our dishwasher, ordering food, working, watching a movie or even just turning the lights on, we are using computers and networked services. The connection of everything in networks brings a lot of benefits – but can also make the infrastructure of modern societies very fragile.

Bus stop with networked information boards
Cyber attacks can make society stop. That’s why we need to stop the attackers early in the kill-chain!

When society moved online, so did crime. We hear a lot about nation state attacks, industrial espionage and cyber warfare, but for most of us, the biggest threat is from criminals trying to make money through theft, extortion and fraud. The difference from earlier times is that we are not only exposed to “neighborhood crime”; through the Internet we are exposed to criminal activities executed by criminals anywhere on the planet. 

We see in media reports every week that organizations are attacked. They cause serious disruptions, and the cost can be very high. Over Christmas we had several attacks happening in Norway that had real consequences for many people: 

  • Nortura, a cooperative owned by Norwegian farmers that processes meat and eggs, was hit by a cyber attack that made them take many systems offline. Farmers could not deliver animals for slaughtering, and distribution of meat products to stores was halted. This is still the situation on 2 January 2022, and the attack was made public on 21 December 2021. 
  • Amedia, a media group publishing mostly local newspapers, was hit with ransomware. The next 3 days following the attack on the 28th of December, most of Amedia’s print publications did not come out. They managed to publish some print publications through collaboration with other media houses. 
  • Nordland fylkeskommune (a “fylkeskomune” is a regional administrative level between municapalities and the central government in Norway) and was hit with an attack on 23 December 2021. Several computer systems used by the educational sector have been taken offline, according to media reports. 

None of the reports mentioned above have been linked to the log4shell chaos just before Christmas. The Amedia incident has been linked to the Printer Nightmare vulnerability that caused panic earlier in 2021. 

What is clear is that there is a serious and very real threat to companies from cyber attacks – affecting not only the companies directly, but entire supply chains. The three attacks mentioned above all happened within two weeks. They caused disruption of people’s work, education and media consumption. When society is this dependent on IT systems, attacks like these have real consequences, not only financially, but to quality of life.

This blog post is about how we can improve our chances of detecting attacks before data is exfiltrated, before data is encrypted, before supply chains collapse and consumers get angry. We are not discussing what actions to take when you detect the attack, but we will assume you already have an incident response plan in place.

How an attack works and what you can detect

Let’s first look at a common model for cyber attacks that fit quite well with how ransomware operators execute; the cyber kill-chain. An attacker has to go through certain phases to succeed with an attack. The kill-chain model uses 7 phases. A real attack will jump a bit back and forth throughout the kill-chain but for discussing what happens during the attack, it is a useful mental model. In the below table, the phases marked in yellow will often produce detectable artefacts that can trigger incident response activities. The blue phases of weaponization (usually not detectable) and command & control, actions on objectives (too late for early response) are not discussed further. 

Defensive thinking using a multi-phase attack model should take into account that the earlier you can detect an attack, the more likely you are to avoid the most negative consequences. At the same time, the earlier phases give you detections with more uncertainty, so you do risk initiating response activities that can hurt performance based on false positives. 

Detecting reconnaissance

Before the attack happens, the attacker will identify the victim. For some attacks this is completely automated but serious ransomware attacks are typically human directed and will involve some human decision making. In any case, the attacker will need to know some things about your company to attack it. 

  • What domain names and URL’s exist?
  • What technologies are used, preferably with version numbers so that we can identify potential vulnerabilities to exploit?
  • Who are the people working there, what access levels do they have and what are their email addresses? This can be used for social engineering attacks, e.g. delivering malicious payloads over email. 

These activities are often difficult to detect. Port scans and vulnerability scans of internet exposed infrastructure are likely to drown in a high number of automated scans. Most of these are happening all the time and not worth spending time reacting to. However, if you see unusual payloads attempted, more thorough scans, or very targeted scans on specific systems, this can be a signal that an attacker is footprinting a target. 

Other information useful to assess the risk of an imminent attack would be news about attacks on other companies in the same business sector, or in the same value chain. Also attacks on companies using similar technical set-ups (software solutions, infrastructure providers, etc) could be an early warning signal. In this case, it would be useful to prepare a list of “indicators of compromise” based on those news reports to use for threat hunting, or simply creating new alerts in monitoring systems. 

Another common indicator that footprinting is taking place, is an increase in the number of social engineering attempts to elicit information. This can be over phone, email, privacy requests, responses to job ads, or even in person. If such requests seem unusual it would be useful for security if people would report it so that trends or changes in frequency can be detected. 

Detecting delivery of malicious payloads

If you can detect that a malicious payload is being delivered you are in a good position to stop the attack early enough to avoid large scale damage. The obvious detections would include spam filters, antivirus alerts and user reports. The most common initial intrusion attack vectors include the following: 

  • Phishing emails (by far the most common)
  • Brute-force attacks on exposed systems with weak authentication systems
  • Exploitation of vulnerable systems exposed to the Internet

Phishing is by far the most common attack vector. If you can reliably detect and stop phishing attacks, you are reducing your risk level significantly. Phishing attacks usually take one of the following forms: 

  • Phishing for credentials. This can be username/password based single-factor authentication, but also systems protected by MFA can be attacked with easy to use phishing kits. 
  • Delivery of attachments with malicious macros, typically Microsoft Office. 
  • Other types of attachments with executable code, that the user is instructed to execute in some way

Phishing attacks create a number of artefacts. The first is the spam filter and endpoint protection; the attacker may need several attempts to get the payload past first-line of defences. If there is an increase in phishing detections from automated systems, be prepared for other attacks to slip past the filters. 

The next reliable detection is a well-trained workforce. If people are trained to report social engineering attempts and there is an easy way to do this, user reports can be a very good indicator of attacks. 

For brute-force attacks, the priority should be to avoid exposing vulnerable systems. In addition, creating alerts on brute-force type attacks on all exposed interfaces would be a good idea. It is then especially important to create alerts to successful attempts. 

For web applications, both application logs and WEF logs can be useful. The main problem is again to recognize the attacks you need to worry about in all the noise from automated scans. 

Detecting exploitation of vulnerabilities

Attackers are very interested in vulnerabilities that give them access to “arbitrary code execution”, as well as “escalation of privileges”. Such vulnerabilities will allow the attacker to install malware and other tools on the computer targeted, and take full control over it. The primary security control to avoid this, is good asset management and patch management. Most attacks are exploiting vulnerabilities where a patch exists. This works because many organizations are quite late at patching systems. 

A primary defense against exploitation of known vulnerabilities is endpoint protection systems, including anti-virus. Payloads that exploit the vulnerabilities are recognized by security companies and signatures are pushed to antivirus systems. Such detections should thus be treated as serious threat detections. It is all well and good that Server A was running antivirus that stopped the attack, but what if virus definitions were out of date on Server B?

Another important detection source here would be the system’s audit logs. Did the exploitation create any unusual processes? Did it create files? Did it change permissions on a folder? Log events like this should be forwarded to a tamper proof location using a suitable log forwarding solution. 

To detect exploitation based on log collection, you will be most successful if you are focusing on known vulnerabilities where you can establish patterns that will be recognizable. For example, if you know you have vulnerable systems that cannot be patched for some reason, establishing specific detections for exploitation can be very very valuable. For tips on log forwarding for intrusion detection in Windows, Microsoft has issued specific policy recommendations here

Detecting installation (persistence)

Detecting installation for persistence is usually quite easy using native audit logs. Whenever a new service is created, a scheduled task is created, or a cron job, an audit log entry should be made. Make sure this is configured across all assets. Other automated execution patterns should also be audited, for example autorun keys in the Windows registry, or programs set to start automatically when a user logs in.

Another important aspect is to check for new user accounts on the system. Account creation should thus also be logged. 

On web servers, installation of web shells should be detected. Web shells can be hard to detect. Because of this, it is a good idea to monitor file integrity of the files on the server, so that a new or changed file would be detected. This can be done using endpoint protection systems.

How can we use these logs to stop attackers?

Detecting attackers will not help you unless you take action. You need to have an incident response plan with relevant playbooks for handling detections. This post is already long enough, but just like the attack, you can look at the incident response plan as a multi-phase activity. The plan should cover: 

  1. Preparations (such as setting up logs and making responsibilities clear)
  2. Detection (how to detect)
  3. Analysis and triage (how to classify detections into incidents, and to trigger a formal response, securing forensic evidence)
  4. Containment (stop the spread, limit the blast radius)
  5. Eradication (remove the infection)
  6. Recovery (recover the systems, test the recovery)
  7. Lessons learned (how to improve response capability for the next attack, who should we share it with)

You want to know how to deal with the data you have collected to decide whether this is a problem or not, and what to do next. Depending on the access you have on endpoints and whether production disturbances during incident response are acceptable, you can automate part of the response. 

The most important takeaway is:

Set up enough sensors to detect attacks early. Plan what to do when attacks are detected, and document it. Perform training exercises on simulated attacks, even if it is only tabletop exercises. This will put you in a much better position to avoid disaster when the bad guys attack! 

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