Microsoft Defender Thwarted Akira Ransomware Attack on an Industrial Engineering Firm

Cyber Security Threat Summary:
Microsoft says their Microsoft Defender for Endpoint helped block a large-scale hacking campaign carried out by the Akira ransomware group, which they track as Storm-1567. The attack which took place in early June was aimed at an industrial engineering organization.

According to their blog post, “In this attack, the threat actor leveraged devices that were not onboarded to Microsoft Defender for Endpoint for most of the attack stages, a defense evasion tactic we’ve seen in other attacks. While visibility by our endpoint solution could have blocked the attack earlier in the attack chain and helped to protect the organization’s devices much sooner, Defender for Endpoint nonetheless successfully prevented the ransomware stage, protecting all onboarded devices in the organization from getting encrypted.”

Microsoft Defender was able to prevent breached accounts from being used to access endpoints and other resources on the network. This limited the groups ability to move laterally regardless of the stolen account’s Active Directory state of privilege level. Microsoft says identifying and containing compromised user accounts is a effective tactic to prevent attacks from progressing. Microsoft has added user containment to the automatic attack disruption capability in Microsoft Defender for Endpoint, a unique and innovative defense mechanism that stops human-operated attacks in their tracks.

Security Officer Comments:
Akira is a relatively new piece of ransomware and has been active since around March of this year. The threat actors typically target organizations in multiple industries including, education, finance, and real estate. Notably, the group uses a Linux based encryptor, which they have used to target VMware ESXi servers. Akira is most likely a closed ransomware offering and not openly marketed as ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS).

Ransomware operators will often target organizations in critical manufacturing. Many of these victims cannot afford disruptions to their operations, and may be more inclined to pay a ransom to become operational again. In the case of JBS Foods and Colonial Pipeline, there can be immediate ramifications for the general public, which can further incentivize victims into paying.

In this attack, the threat actors scanned devices, attempted to tamper with security products, and conducted lateral movement with Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), all during a Sunday evening when the company’s SOC team would be at limited capacity.

The blog highlights the challenges of defending against human-operated attacks. “Human-operated attacks are driven by humans with hands-on-keyboard access to the network who make decisions at every stage of their attack. Attack patterns vary depending on what attackers find in the target network. Protecting against such highly skilled, profit-driven, and determined adversaries is not trivial. These attackers leverage key principles of on-premises Active Directory environments, which provide an active domain administrator account unlimited access to domain resources. Once attackers obtain accounts with sufficient privileges, they can conduct malicious activities like lateral movement or data access using legitimate administrative tools and protocols” (Microsoft, 2023).

Suggested Correction(s):
Backup your data, system images, and configurations, regularly test them, and keep the backups offline: Ensure that backups are regularly tested and that they are not connected to the business network, as many ransomware variants try to find and encrypt or delete accessible backups. Maintaining current backups offline is critical because if your network data is encrypted with ransomware, your organization can restore systems.

Update and patch systems promptly: This includes maintaining the security of operating systems, applications, and firmware in a timely manner. Consider using a centralized patch management system; use a risk- based assessment strategy to drive your patch management program.

Test your incident response plan: There's nothing that shows the gaps in plans more than testing them. Run through some core questions and use those to build an incident response plan: Are you able to sustain business operations without access to certain systems? For how long? Would you turn off your manufacturing operations if business systems such as billing were offline?

Check Your Security Team's Work: Use a 3rd party pen tester to test the security of your systems and your ability to defend against a sophisticated attack. Many ransomware criminals are aggressive and sophisticated and will find the equivalent of unlocked doors.

Segment your networks: There's been a recent shift in ransomware attacks – from stealing data to disrupting operations. It's critically important that your corporate business functions and manufacturing/production operations are separated and that you carefully filter and limit internet access to operational networks, identify links between these networks and develop workarounds or manual controls to ensure ICS networks can be isolated and continue operating if your corporate network is compromised. Regularly test contingency plans such as manual controls so that safety critical functions can be maintained during a cyber incident.

Train employees: Email remains the most vulnerable attack vector for organizations. Users should be trained how to avoid and spot phishing emails. Multi Factor authentication can help prevent malicious access to sensitive services.