Malware actors fly under the radar using legitimate network tools: study

Rapidly changing malware is often blamed for businesses' inability to spot telltale malicious code until it's well ensconced on the network, but a new study suggests that the challenges of spotting that malware may actually stem from the fact that attackers are leaning heavily on otherwise legitimate network tools to extract data from their victims' networks.

LightCyber's Cyber Weapons Report 2016, based on data collected from the company's Magna Behavioral Attach Detection platform, used deep packet inspection techniques to analyse traffic collected from hundreds of thousands of endpoints across more than 60 networks, belonging to companies from 1000 to 50,000 employees, during the first half of 2016.

Just 7.5 percent of observed attack-related activity was actually to malware, with a breakdown of the observed on-network activities suggested that half were related to reconnaissance while 19.6 percent reflected lateral movement across the network, 17.8 percent related to command-and-control activity, and 4.4 percent related to data exfiltration. “This is the 'below the waterline' activity associated with the vast iceberg of attacker activity that has previously gone undetected,” the report's authors wrote while noting that reconnaissance was an outlier because “reconnaissance is naturally rather noisy”.

The low level of actual malware-generated traffic confirmed that “trying to detect an active attack by hunting only for malware will be almost entirely fruitless,” the report concluded. “Once an attacker is inside a network, their operational activities rarely include malware and their activities will remain undetected.”

The time between infection and detection of an infection has been consistently identified as a key indicator of susceptibility to attack, with Mandiant Consulting's M-Trends 2016 report finding that the mean time to discovery had dropped from 416 days in 2012 to 146 days in 2015.

For LightCyber, the most commonly observed networking and hacking tools included the Angry IP Scanner port scanner, which accounted for 27 percent of the top 10 observed network traffic; multiple-host pinging tool PingInfoView (25 percent); the Nmap network-discovery tool (14.58 percent); the Ping utility (12.5 percent); and Mimikatz password extractor (6.25 percent); and others.

All told, some 1109 unique tools were identified as being used on the network during the attacks, leading the researchers to conclude that “once attackers gain access to a network, the vast majority of activity makes use of benign processes and tools, not malware.... When malicious actors carry out advanced attacks, they often rely on admin tools and even native utilities and web browsers to expand their reach within networks while avoiding detection.”

The findings have implications for the way that security specialists identify potential malicious activity: for example, lateral network movement, in which attackers try to access other machines on the system after an initial network penetration, may be typified by an unusual number of failed logins or unusual administrator-like activity – managing from a standard user account.

Another telltale sign is the use of administrator tools like the SecureCRT and Putty SSH/Telnet clients and the BeyondExec Remote Service, which was found on around 10 percent of examined systems; one monitored organisation discovered the tool was unexpectedly running on more than 40 network hosts.

While 99 percent of reconnaissance and lateral movement behaviour coming from legitimate apps or riskware – the remaining 1 percent came from malware including the Graftor Trojan, ShopAtHome Web monitor and Urlbot.NAO!tr keystroke logger – some 28 percent of suspicious processes associated with alerts were due to malware or riskware.

More than 70 percent of the active malware detected during the study was found only on one site – confirming widely reported observations that malware is regularly morphing to avoid detection by signature-based scanners.

This finding, combined with the firm's overall observations around the use of legitimate tools for nefarious purposes, reinforce the need for continuous network visibility and a focus on the behaviour that the tools are used to create, the report warns. “Identifying tools alone,” the report warns, “will mean forever remaining blind to this vast activity that exists below the waterline.”

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Nmapmalicious codesattacksLightCybercyber weaponsriskwarenetwork toolsmalwareMagna Systems

More about SSHTelnet

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by David Braue

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place