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Vulnerability exposes location of thousands of malware C&C servers

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A vulnerability in a tool used by cyber-criminal gangs is now helping researchers expose the locations of thousands of malware command-and-control (C&C) servers.

The vulnerability –now patched since the start of the year– affected Cobalt Strike, a legitimate penetration testing tool used by security researchers to emulate cyber-attacks.

Cobalt Strike has been around for more than a decade, but for the past five years, it has slowly been adopted by cyber-criminal groups as well.

Malware gangs and nation-state cyber-espionage groups have used Cobalt Strike because of its simple and very efficient client-server architecture.

Cyber-criminals use Cobalt Strike to host their C&C servers, and then deploy malware on company networks through Cobalt “beacons” they plant on infected hosts.

Over the past few years, Cobalt Strike slowly became the go-to toolkit for many threat actors, such as the FIN6 and FIN7 (Carbanak) cyber-criminal gangs, but also nation-state hackers such as APT29 (Cozy Bear).

But unbeknownst to all these hacker groups was that Fox-IT researchers discovered a bug in the Cobalt Strike server component. Built on NanoHTTPD, a Java-based web server, crooks didn’t know that it contained a bug that allowed Fox-IT to track them since 2015.

According to Fox-IT researchers, the NanoHTTPD server accidentally added an additional space in the server’s HTTP responses, like in the image below.


Image: Fox-IT

This extra whitespace allowed Fox-IT to detect Cobalt Strike communications between beacons and their C&C servers across the years, until January 2, 2019, when Cobalt Strike developers patched the bug and removed the extra space in version 3.13.

“In total Fox-IT has observed 7718 unique Cobalt Strike team server or NanoHTTPD hosts between the period of 2015-01 and 2019-02,” the company said in a blog post this week.

Because the issue is now patched, Fox-IT researchers revealed this little trick, along with a list of historical IP addresses that used to or are still hosting Cobalt Strike C&C servers.

The company hopes that security teams use this list to check their network logs for these IP addresses and identify past or current security breaches.

Some of these IP addresses might belong to legitimate Cobalt Strike instances hosted by security firms for testing purposes, but Fox-IT believes that many of these are also from hacker groups.

They said that a cursory examination of their list of 7,700+ IP addresses revealed malware C&C servers tied to China’s APT10 government hacking unit, the Bokbot banking trojan, and servers managed by remnants of the Cobalt Group (also known as FIN7 or Carbanak).

KnownSec 404 Team, a Chinese cyber-security company that runs the ZoomEye IoT search engine confirmed Fox-IT’s discovery by identifying 3,643 Cobalt Strike NanoHTTPD-based servers that are still operational at this moment –86 percent of which were also on Fox-IT’s list, the company said.

Fox-IT says that current scans for the extra whitespace are turning fewer and fewer results, as servers are getting patched.

However, the company says that most threat actors tend to use pirated, cracked, and unregistered versions of the Cobalt Strike software, and therefore will remain unpatched for a long time to come.

As legitimately-owned servers will receive the Cobalt Strike patch, most of the servers that will come up during scans in the coming future will most likely be part of malware operations.

Cobalt Strike servers stats

Image: Fox-IT

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Work from Home Security

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Spin Master is a leading global children’s entertainment company that invents toys and games, produces dozens of television and studio series that are distributed in 160 countries, and creates a variety of digital games played by more than 30 million children. What was once a small private company founded by childhood friends is now a public global supply chain with over 1,500 employees and 28 offices around the world.

Like most organizations in 2020, Spin Master had to adapt quickly to the new normal of remote work, shifting most of its production from cubicles in regional and head offices to hundreds of employees working from home and other remote locations.

This dramatic shift created potential security risks, as most employees were no longer behind the firewall on the corporate network. Without the implementation of hardened endpoint security, the door would be open for bad actors to infiltrate the organization, acquire intellectual property, and ransom customer information. Additionally, the potential downtime caused by a security breach could harm the global supply chain. With that in mind, Spin Master created a self-imposed 30-day deadline to extend its network protection capabilities to the edge.

Key Findings:

  • Think Long Term: The initial goal of establishing a stop-gap work-from-home (WFH) and work-from-anywhere (WFA) strategy has since morphed into a permanent strategy, requiring long-term solutions.
  • Gather Skills: The real urgency posed by the global pandemic made forging partnerships with providers that could fill all the required skill sets a top priority.
  • Build Momentum: The compressed timeline left no room for delay or error. The Board of Directors threw its support behind the implementation team and gave it broad budget authority to ensure rapid action, while providing active guidance to align strategy with action.
  • Deliver Value: The team established two key requirements that the selected partner must deliver: implementation support and establishing an ongoing managed security operations center (SOC).
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Key Criteria for Evaluating Privileged Access Management

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Privileged Access Management (PAM) enables administrative access to critical IT systems while minimizing the chances of security compromises through monitoring, policy enforcement, and credential management.

A key operating principle of all PAM systems is the separation of user credentials for individual staff members from the system administration credentials they are permitted to use. PAM solutions store and manage all of the privileged credentials, providing system access without requiring users to remember, or even know, the privileged password. Of course, all staff have their own unique user ID and password that they use to complete everyday tasks such as accessing email and writing documents. Users who are permitted to handle system administration tasks that require privileged credentials log into the PAM solution, which provides and controls such access according to predefined security policies. These policies control who is allowed to use which privileged credentials when, where, and for what tasks. An organization’s policy may also require logging and recording of the actions undertaken with the privileged credentials.

Once implemented, PAM will improve your security posture in several ways. The first is by segregating day-to-day duties from duties that require elevated access, reducing the risk of accidental privileged actions. Secondly, automated password management reduces the possibility that credentials will be shared while also lowering the risk if credentials are accidentally exposed. Finally, extensive logging and activity recording in PAM solutions aids audits of critical system access for both preventative and forensic security.

How to Read this Report

This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:

Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.

GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.

Vendor Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.

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Adventist Risk Management Data Protection Infrastructure

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Companies always want to enhance their ability to quickly address pressing business needs. Toward that end, they look for new ways to make their IT infrastructures more efficient—and more cost effective. Today, those pressing needs often center around data protection and regulatory compliance, which was certainly the case for Adventist Risk Management. What they wanted was an end-to-end, best-in-class solution to meet their needs. After trying several others, they found the perfect combination with HYCU and Nutanix, which provided:

  • Ease of deployment
  • Outstanding ROI
  • Overall TCO improvement

Nutanix Cloud Platform provides a software-defined hyperconverged infrastructure, while HYCU offers purpose-built backup and recovery for Nutanix. Compared to the previous traditional infrastructure and data protection solutions in use at Adventist Risk Management, Nutanix and HYCU simplified processes, speeding day-to-day operations up to 75%. Now, migration and update activities typically scheduled for weekends can be performed during working hours and help to increase IT staff and management quality of life. HYCU further increased savings by providing faster and more frequent points of recovery as well as better DR Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO) by increasing the ability to do daily backups from one to four per day.

Furthermore, the recent adoption of Nutanix Objects, which provides secure and performant S3 storage capabilities, enhanced the infrastructure by:

    • Improving overall performance for backups
    • Adding security against potential ransomware attacks
    • Replacing components difficult to manage and support

In the end, Nutanix and HYCU enabled their customer to save money, improve the existing environment, and, above all, meet regulatory compliance requirements without any struggle.

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