Increasing Capabilities of LockBit 2.0 Gang Per Our Incident Response Experience in Q1 2022 Impacts Over One Hundred Hong Kong and Macau Organisations; Exploit Acknowledged by SonicWall as CVE-2022-22279
In the first quarter of 2022, DarkLab responded to several ransomware incidents impacting organisations in the financial services, real estate, and manufacturing sectors across Hong Kong, China and Asia Pacific. In all such incidents, the presence of the LockBit executable file, .lockbit extension files, and the StealBit malware suggests that affiliates of the cybercriminal group that operates the LockBit 2.0 Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) was likely behind the incidents.
LockBit 2.0 RaaS is a well-documented group with established tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) that has been active since 2019. During our incident response investigations, we found LockBit affiliates exploiting two victims’ SonicWall Secure Remote Access (SRA) Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Network (SSLVPN) appliance to establish a foothold in their networks. In the first instance, the affiliate exploited a known SQL injection (SQLi) vulnerability to obtain valid usernames and passwords. Given the multi-factor authentication (MFA) access control was not enabled, they were able to achieve initial access relatively easily. In the second instance, the affiliate performed follow-up actions to retrieve the time-based one-time password (TOTP) which enabled the circumvention of the MFA access control.
In this blog post we will report on their novel technique to exploit SonicWall SSLVPN appliances and bypass MFA. According to results from open source internet search engines, over one hundred Hong Kong and Macau organisations may be susceptible to this exploit based on their reported use of potentially vulnerable appliances. This exploit disclosed by DarkLab has since been acknowledged by SonicWall as CVE-2022-22279.
A second blog post will then outline the LockBit affiliates’ TTPs as observed in our incident response experience. The final blog post will explore the potential factors that enables the LockBit RaaS group to continue innovating at a rapid pace and cement their position as a major player in the ransomware threat landscape.
The typical modus operandi of LockBit 2.0 affiliates is to gain access to a victim network by exploiting known vulnerabilities of public-facing services, including vulnerable SSLVPN. In particular, CVE-2018-13379  has been the preferred vulnerability in many incidents, including those DarkLab responded to in January and February 2022. The vulnerability is several years old, and LockBit 2.0 affiliates were still able to capitalise on the exploit that allows for unauthenticated users to download system files through crafted HTTP resources requests. Other affiliates have been reported to gain initial access by conducting Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) brute forcing or through purchasing access to compromised servers via underground markets.
However, in two incidents that DarkLab responded to in March 2022 we observed a new infection vector. Affiliates were observed to exploit a known but relatively obscure SQLi vulnerability – either CVE-2019-7481  or CVE-2021-20028  – in a novel manner to retrieve user session data stored in the SonicWall SSLVPN appliance to the affiliate’s local endpoint. Retrieved data included valid usernames, passwords, and the TOTP. In doing so, the affiliates could circumvent the MFA access control, impersonate any user to gain initial access, and subsequently deploy ransomware.
The latter incidents we responded to in March 2022 were noteworthy for two reasons. First, LockBit affiliates were not reported to have exploited SonicWall SSLVPN products in the past. Second, this was the first publicly observed instance that the known SQLi vulnerability could be exploited by threat actors to extract the TOTP SHA-1 tokens of onboarded users. Affiliates could then generate the QR code containing the required information to generate one time passwords (OTP) in an authenticator app of their choice. This proved to be an innovative way to circumvent the existing MFA access controls. The observation of the exploitation suggests the affiliates of LockBit now have additional tools in their arsenal, and indicates the importance they place in continuous improvement as the group looks to differentiate itself from competitors.
Impact to Hong Kong and Macau
DarkLab replicated and verified the novel exploitation method of the post-authentication vulnerability through internal testing of several known impacted SonicWall SSLVPN firmware. We have shared all relevant details, including the technical exploit code, with the SonicWall Product Security Incident Response Team (PSIRT) in March 2022 to ensure organisations are protected. We will not publicly disclose exact exploitation details to avoid replication by malicious actors.
Per subsequent communications with SonicWall PSIRT, we understood that the upgrades to SonicWall SMA firmware 10.2.0.7-34sv or above, and 18.104.22.168-28sv or above in February 2021 to address CVE-2021-20016 included comprehensive code-strengthening that proactively prevented malicious attackers from exploiting this vulnerability to circumvent the MFA access control. On 12 April 2022, SonicWall PSIRT released the following advisory acknowledging the vulnerability CVE-2022-22279
As of the time of writing, we have not observed from our deep and dark web monitoring any specific intentions by threat actors to leverage this post-authentication vulnerability to target organisations in Hong Kong and Macau. However, we observed that Russian-speaking threat actors had been discussing this vulnerability in early February 2022, with posts from two underground forums – exploit[.]in and xss.[.]is – containing conversation details of purchasing the exploit code and outlining at a high-level the follow-up actions that can be taken to extract the TOTP from the active sessionid.
As a result of the LockBit incidents and various hacker chatter, we were concerned that local organisations may have missed SonicWall PSIRT’s advisory note; after all, we still observed compromises that resulted from the exploitation of CVE-2018-13379 on unpatched Fortinet SSLVPN appliances in February 2022. To that end, we conducted a passive, non-intrusive scan of both CVE-2019-7481 or CVE-2021-20028 on the full Internet Protocol address (IP address) range of Hong Kong and Macau. The preliminary results indicated that at least 100 organisations were vulnerable to CVE-2021-20028, with half of those also vulnerable to CVE-2019-7481.
DarkLab has since proactively contacted dozens of potentially affected organisations to alert them of the potential risks they faced. However, given there were a series of critical vulnerabilities pertaining to SonicWall SSLVPN appliances released in June 2021, it is likely that those may be exploited through other innovative methods by threat actors. For example, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) listed CVE-2021-20016 as another SQLi vulnerability that allows a remote unauthenticated attacker to perform SQL query to access username password and other session related information in SMA100 build version 10.x. , which aligned with our communication with SonicWall’s PSIRT. We foresee that if left unpatched, this could pose a threat that adversaries may exploit to gain unauthorised access through exploitation of this vulnerability.
|CVE Number||Product||Vulnerability Name||Date Added to Catalogue||Short Description|
|CVE-2021-20021||SonicWall Email Security||Privilege Escalation Exploit Chain||3 November 2021||A vulnerability in version 10.0.9.x allows an attacker to create an administrative account by sending a crafted HTTP request to the remote host.|
|CVE-2021-20022||SonicWall Email Security||Privilege Escalation Exploit Chain||3 November 2021||A vulnerability in version 10.0.9.x allows a post-authenticated attacker to upload an arbitrary file to the remote host.|
|CVE-2021-20023||SonicWall Email Security||Privilege Escalation Exploit Chain||3 November 2021||A vulnerability in version 10.0.9.x allows a post-authenticated attacker to read an arbitrary file on the remote host.|
|CVE-2021-20016||SonicWall SSLVPN SMA100||SQL Injection Vulnerability||3 November 2021||A vulnerability in SMA100 build version 10.x allows a remote unauthenticated attacker to perform SQL query to access username, password and other session related information.|
|CVE-2021-20018||SMA 100 Appliances||Stack-Based Buffer Overflow Vulnerability||28 January 2022||SonicWall SMA 100 devices are vulnerable to an unauthenticated stack-based buffer overflow vulnerability where exploitation can result in code execution.|
|CVE-2021-20028||SonicWall SRA||SQL Injection Vulnerability||28 March 2022||SRA products contain an improper neutralisation of a SQL Command leading to SQL injection.|
The ongoing evolution of TTPs allowed LockBit’s affiliates to become the most prolific ransomware actors in 2022. Between 1 January and 31 March 2022, the group claimed 223 victims on their dark web leak site, compared to Conti’s 125. This equates to more than one-third of all known ransomware incidents for Q1 2022. To put it in another way, over the same period LockBit’s affiliates claimed almost 10 percent more victims than the other 24 known ransomware groups combined (223 compared to 164). LockBit’s reported activities have also increased over the course of the first three months of 2022. The gang claimed 112 victims in March, while it published details of 111 companies in the previous two months combined. This suggest an ongoing trend highlighting how LockBit will likely remain the most active ransomware-as-a-service offering for the coming months.
Lockbit 2.0 affiliates work on behalf of the Lockbit group to conduct ransomware campaigns against organisations and industries across the globe. The affiliates’ abilities to conduct the intrusion and execution of Lockbit 2.0 ransomware vary, and through these incidents we observed affiliates with a diversified capability and skillset exploit a known SQLi vulnerability in a novel way to circumvent the MFA access control and obtain initial access. At least 100 organisations in Hong Kong and Macau are at potential immediate risk, and we foresee that if left unpatched, this could pose a threat that adversaries may exploit to gain unauthorised access through exploitation of this vulnerability. We will continue to monitor the situation and assist organisations as needed. In the next blog post, we will also share further details on the TTPs leveraged by LockBit affiliates as a result of our recent incident response experience with reference to the MITRE ATT&CK Framework, such that organisations can better prevent and detect malicious activities related to this RaaS group.
For organisations that have deployed the vulnerable versions of SonicWall SRA SSLVPN, we recommend the following actions immediately in the following order:
- Upgrade legacy SRA SSLVPN device(s) running firmware 8.x given they are not supported by SonicWall; apply patches to the impacted versions of the 9.x or 10.x firmware.
- Reset all user account Active Directory credentials that had previously authenticated via the SonicWall SRA SSLVPN. In particular, the Active Directory credentials that is tied to the SonicWall SRA device for authentication purpose should be changed.
- Re-bind users’ second authentication factor (e.g., Google or Microsoft Authenticator) app with an updated TOTP, and ensure that users store their newly generated backup codes securely.
- Review the privileges granted to the Active Directory account tied to the SonicWall SRA device for user authentication purpose, and remove excess permissions where possible to adhere to the principle of least privilege. In general, Domain Administrator privilege should not be used.
- Perform a review of access management with respect to identity and network access (e.g., removal of legacy and unused accounts, housekeeping of privileges for all accounts, and enforce network segmentation to tighten access to key servers).
Meanwhile, defending against undisclosed exploits are extremely challenging, but not impossible if organisations adopt a defense-in-depth approach. The following guiding principles should be observed:
- Require multi-factor authentication for all services to the extent possible, especially on external remote services.
- Implement a robust threat and vulnerability management programme that leverages cyber threat intelligence to achieve a resilient security posture. Specifically:
- Maintain regular cybersecurity patching hygiene practices, including a robust baseline that patched known exploited vulnerabilities and aims to reduce known attack surface.
- Leverage cyber threat intelligence to prioritise the remediation scale and timeline on a risk-based approach, through the incorporation of indications and warnings regarding trending threats per available proof-of-concept code, active exploitation by threat actors, and Darknet chatter.
- Maintain “tertiary” offline backups (i.e., tertiary backup) that are encrypted and immutable (i.e., cannot be altered or deleted). This should be atop of your existing secondary data backups that should adopt security best practices, in particular network segmentation with your production and/or primary site.
- Develop and regularly test the business continuity plan, ensuring that the entire backup, restoration and recovery lifecycle is drilled to ensure the organisation’s operations are not severely interrupted.
MITRE ATT&CK TTPs Leveraged
We include the observed MITRE ATT&CK tactics and techniques elaborated from part one of the blogpost. We will expand this list as we deep-dive into the affiliates’ TTPs as observed from our incident response experience in Q1 2022.
- Initial Access: Exploit Public-Facing Application (T1190)
- Initial Access: Valid Accounts (T1078)
- Impact: Data Encrypted for Impact (T1486)
Indicators of Compromise (IoCs)
We include the observed IoCs elaborated from part one of the blogpost. We will expand this list as we deep-dive into the affiliates’ TTPs as observed from our incident response experience in Q1 2022.
|.lockbit||Encrypted Files Extension|
Feel free to contact us at [darklab dot cti at hk dot pwc dot com] for any further information.