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Adversary versus target; all organizations participate in this daily cat-and-mouse. Organizations initially fought this battle on the technology front. Miss something? Find another new technology to address the gap. Over time, technology delivered interesting intel, but malicious activity still slipped through. Organizations then went on the hunt to find the “right” person with the “right” skill. And this cycle continues unabated – tech, people, tech, people, tech, people, etc.

Are things better? Undeniably. Can they be better still? Without question. But as long as the tech/people cycle continues, most organizations will never reach their cybersecurity goals because the goal will always be just out of reach by one person or one technology. To illustrate this, we’ll use the recent Exorcist 2.0 ransomware.

The Exorcist ransomware first appeared earlier in 2020. While not unheard of, it was still fascinating to find such a quick iteration to Exorcist 2.0 within only a couple of months. Quickly iterating malware tactics is commonplace for adversaries as it allows them to stay ahead of technique-based cybersecurity solutions. Think of traditional antivirus and its signature-based detections. Signatures are, in essence, a collection of tactics and techniques. Use a new technique, and it’s easy to bypass traditional antivirus. Next-Generation Antivirus attempts to address this limitation by adding automated analysis and correlation (i.e., machine learning) but, in reality, is only marginally more effective than traditional antivirus.

Now consider a behavior-based approach. Rather than relying on a relatively binary decision (is it known to be good or bad?), a behavior-based approach looks at the full sequence of events. Adversaries frequently change tactics, but the goal behind the tactics are universal – compromise an endpoint, move laterally, steal credentials, etc. So, when the GoSecure Active Response Center (ARC) saw familiar, yet slightly different, behaviors in late September, they knew something was up.

Running setup_install.exe is not, in itself, unusual, although the file name is suspicious. And a setup file creating several temp files is standard. But when the temp files start copying data from the installed browser’s directory into random text files, the game is afoot. Keep in mind, however, that none of this activity (so far) is known malicious. It has taken a behavior-based approach, combined with human review, to generate a level of suspicion. Even at this early stage, the GoSecure ARC is on high alert.

Screen Shot 1
High alert becomes well-founded when, almost immediately, outbound traffic to a highly suspicious IP address is detected. The return communication instructs the “setup” process to perform many actions using standard operating system files like cmd.exe. Here again, not entirely unusual but, based on the previous suspicious activity, the GoSecure threat hunters keep a close eye on all activity associated with the original EXE.

What follows are many actions not entirely unrelated to safe installer activities (delete temp files, install new files, create processes, etc.). But analyzed very closely, as the GoSecure ARC does every day, these actions are increasingly suspicious (create file oewvcabkhaw.exe, create a new process using this file, create more suspiciously named files such as poawhepvtl.exe). The coup de grâce comes when a malicious shortcut link, SmartClock.lnk, is added to the user’s startup folder. This shortcut links to a file that is activated using a Registry RunOnce entry, which is, subsequently, deleted.

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It was GoSecure’s combination of behavior-based technology and human review that allowed us to detect and mitigate this malicious activity. There was no way for traditional solutions to define the action as malicious as none of these tactics had been observed in just this way prior. And it took GoSecure Threat Hunters to identify suspicious activity, correlate all behaviors, and accurately classify the full sequence of events as malicious. Neither technology nor people, by themselves, could have resulted in the correct classification – it took the synergy between the two to stop this latest ransomware attack. It’s not technology OR people. Protecting your organization from today’s advanced attacks requires technology AND people, but…the right technology and the right people. And very few organizations have the resources to provide both.

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