New ransomware trend exploits vulnerability in Hong Kong’s VPNs
The fast pace of criminals’ innovation is an ever-recurring theme in cyber security. When the cybercriminal underground economy is particularly saturated, threat actors will likely be driven to explore new ways to differentiate their offering in the illicit cybercriminal market and increase revenue. This is what we are currently observing among ransomware operators. Many ransomware variants have been released in recent years. In the last several months, however, a smaller group of ransomware-as-a-service providers emerged with new a tactic to extort their victims.
DarkLab’s Threat Intelligence team is currently tracking multiple ransomware groups that, in addition to encrypting victims’ data, also steal sensitive files and threaten their public release if ransom demands are not met. The extortionists’ goal is to apply additional pressure on victims by threatening reputational damage and potential regulatory fines if sensitive data is leaked, on top of hindering systems availability.
DarkLab incident response team has observed multiple such incidents affecting Hong Kong organisations, highlighting how ransomware leak attacks are a significant and current threat for companies in the region as well as globally. DarkLab has experience in dealing with Maze and NetWalker ransomware attacks in Hong Kong. This article aims to first shed light on each malware’s background, and then to discuss some of the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) we observed in our incident response investigations.
The RaaS model and its implications
Maze and NetWalker ransomware variants are developed by a core group of cybercriminals and then leased to other criminal operators, called affiliates, on deep and dark web forums. This model is usually referred to as ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS), where operators and developers share profits in an agreed percentage.
RaaS means that different operators of the same ransomware group can target multiple companies at the same time, regardless of their size or geographical location. Ransomware operators are independent actors, so they may differ in the attack tactics exploited. This makes the job of network defenders more challenging because of the larger set of potential tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to mitigate.
Some RaaS developers, like those of NetWalker, only accept affiliates with proven technical skills and existing access to multiple corporate networks. Stricter cybercriminal candidate screening is leading to an increase in targeted ransomware attacks exploiting external network systems. Exposed remote desktop protocol (RDP) and vulnerable internet-facing services are increasingly more likely entry points than untargeted phishing emails.
The rise of crypt and leak
Since the end 2019, some ransomware groups have begun threatening to release sensitive victim’s data if their ransomware demand are not met. Maze went a step further and set up a dedicated website to publicly shame victims and leak data. More groups, including NetWalker, are now maintaining their own leak websites on the clearnet or on tor hidden services. DarkLab is currently tracking 13 ransomware leak websites, highlighting the rapidly increasing scale of this crypt and leak trend.
This new pressure tactic by ransomware operators has significant implications for companies. Previously, an efficient back-up policy would potentially guarantee a timely recovery from ransomware attacks. Now that ransomware groups also leak data, back-ups are not enough anymore. Organisations must ensure that sound cyber security hygiene is maintained at all times to prevent a ransomware intrusion from taking place at all.
Maze ransomware appeared in May 2019, but it began leaking victim’s data only in 2020. The group maintains two sites, one to publish victim data (see figure 1), the other to communicate with its victims and let them decrypt some test files (see figure 2). Both have a back-up tor hidden service counterpart to avoid take down by law enforcement.
Figure 1 – redacted screenshot of Maze ransomware leak site
Figure 2 – Screenshot of Maze ransomware chat site
Figure 3 – Geography of Maze’s victims posted on their site
Figure 4 – Sectorial breakdown of Maze’s victims posted on their site
NetWalker ransomware is based on a previous variant called Mailto and was rebranded in its current name in March 2020, despite little change in its code. The developers of NetWalker recruit affiliates on Russian-language cybercriminal forums and particularly look for individuals with network intrusion experience. The group has allegedly been very successful since its inception. NetWalker developers claimed to have gained millions of US dollars since March, although it remains unclear whether this is just an exaggeration to attract more affiliates to their program or not.
NetWalker also operates a website that lists their victims and leaks their data. We noticed that the group behind NetWalker selectively deletes victims’ entries from their website overtime, so the range of targeted organisations is likely more extensive than that presented in the graphs below.
Figure 5 – Redacted screenshot of NetWalker ransomware leak site
Figure 6 – Geographical breakdown of NetWalker’s victims posted on their site, more have likely been targeted and not posted online or deleted from existing victims’ list
Figure 7 – Sectorial breakdown of NetWalker’s victims posted on their site, more sectors have likely been targeted
Observed tactics, techniques, and procedures
DarkLab incident response investigations found that operators of both Maze and Ransomware exploited a known Pulse Secure VPN vulnerability – CVE-2019-11510 – to gain initial access to victims in Hong Kong. The same vulnerability has been exploited by multiple ransomware groups against other high profile targets, including by Sodinokibi against Travelex in January.
In both cases, the remote access technology SSLVPN was Active Directory (AD) authenticated, giving attackers a legitimate network account early on in their intrusion. Once inside the victim’s network, the attackers would conduct enumeration and other reconnaissance activities by, for instance, searching for password files in share folders. The attackers will also actively look for idle and vulnerable servers with intentions to expand their foothold.
During our investigations we found that both intruders used common hacking tools, although with some differences. Tools observed include windows administration tools like psexec, open source tools for lateral movement like crackmapexec, PowerShell versions of Mimikatz and PowerView for credential theft, further enumeration and privilege escalation, as well as off-the-shelf network scanners.
The Maze and NetWalker operators eventually managed to obtain access to administrator accounts, which allowed them in both cases to disable anti-virus solutions on network end points. Similarly, creation of new domain administrator accounts allowed them persistence on the network.
From such privileged positions the operators staged malware and other required artefacts on accessible locations in the victims’ networks, such as shared folders – for NetWalker – and NETLOGON folders – for Maze. We suspect that in both incidents scripts were used to automatically spread the ransomware in the network.
In the case of Maze, the deployment script would also disable endpoints’ protection software, and enable services, such as Windows Remote Management, that would allow re-entry. Maze operators also abused group policy objects (GPOs) to weaken their endpoint defences by changing configurations, and to redeploy the malware to new machines. The latter would ensure that the ransomware would also spread to endpoints after they shut down or if they joined the network at a later time.
The double extortion of crypt and leak groups and the growing trend of targeted attacks against external network infrastructure makes ransomware leaks one of the most significant threats to companies, regardless of sectors. The recent targeting of Hong Kong organisations by Maze and NetWalker also reaffirms how the SAR’s threat landscape is closely associated with threat trends worldwide.
Companies in Hong Kong should therefore adopt a proactive approach to review their security posture and avoid targeted network intrusions in the first place. Presence of timely back-ups can help restore system availability but it is not an effective mitigation against the increasing threat of ransomware data leak. Organisations should also focus on maintaining situational awareness on developments in the global threat landscape, as threats to companies abroad are likely to quickly become threats to Hong Kong organisations too.
Indicators of Compromise
|c45ebccb7dc2bbc34c51c82c3eba6448||apply.ps1||Generates GPO package to disable AV, settings|
|0e7d5d16e03393605f5f4862f1b9cc37||crackmapexec.exe||Lateral movement tool|
|d6a246a98a0387e2a5f9d95ddd8ae164||syspool.exe||Lightweight network scanner|
|84ddf23d4307b1a9989352f4845d0ede||city.ps1||NetWalker PowerShell script|