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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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Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications

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Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.

Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection

“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”

In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.

A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.

Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.

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When Is a DevSecOps Vendor Not a DevSecOps Vendor?

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DevOps’ general aim is to enable a more efficient process for producing software and technology solutions and bringing stakeholders together to speed up delivery. But we know from experience that this inherently creative, outcome-driven approach often forgets about one thing until too late in the process—security. Too often, security is brought into the timeline just before deployment, risking last minute headaches and major delays. The security team is pushed into being the Greek chorus of the process, “ruining everyone’s fun” by demanding changes and slowing things down.

But as we know, in the complex, multi-cloud and containerized environment we find ourselves in, security is becoming more important and challenging than ever. And the costs of security failure are not only measured in slower deployment, but in compliance breaches and reputational damage.

The term “DevSecOps” has been coined to characterize how security needs to be at the heart of the DevOps process. This is in part principle and part tools. As a principle, DevSecOps fits with the concept of “shifting left,” that is, ensuring that security is treated as early as possible in the development process. So far, so simple.

From a tooling perspective, however, things get more complicated, not least because the market has seen a number of platforms marketing themselves as DevSecOps. As we have been writing our Key Criteria report on the subject, we have learned that not all DevSecOps vendors are necessarily DevSecOps vendors. Specifically, we have learned to distinguish capabilities that directly enable the goals of DevSecOps from a process perspective, from those designed to support DevSecOps practices. We could define them as: “Those that do, and those that help.”

This is how to tell the two types of vendor apart and how to use them.

Vendors Enabling DevSecOps: “Tools That Do”

A number of tools work to facilitate the DevSecOps process -– let’s bite the bullet and call them DevSecOps tools. They help teams set out each stage of software development, bringing siloed teams together behind a unified vision that allows fast, high-quality development, with security considerations at its core. DevSecOps tools work across the development process, for example:

  • Create: Help to set and implement policy
  • Develop: Apply guidance to the process and aid its implementation
  • Test: Facilitate and guide security testing procedures
  • Deploy: Provide reports to assure confidence to deploy the application

The key element that sets these tool sets apart is the ability to automate and reduce friction within the development process. They will prompt action, stop a team from moving from one stage to another if the process has not adequately addressed security concerns, and guide the roadmap for the development from start to finish.

Supporting DevSecOps: “Tools That Help”

In this category we place those tools which aid the execution, and monitoring, of good DevSecOps principles. Security scanning and application/infrastructure hardening tools are a key element of these processes: Software composition analysis (SCA) forms a part of the development stage, static/dynamic application security testing (SAST/DAST) is integral to the test stage and runtime app protection (RASP) is a key to the Deploy stage.

Tools like this are a vital part of the security layer of security tooling, especially just before deployment – and they often come with APIs so they can be plugged into the CI/CD process. However, while these capabilities are very important to DevSecOps, they can be seen in more of a supporting role, rather than being DevSecOps tools per se.

DevSecOps-washing is not a good idea for the enterprise

While one might argue that security should never have been shifted right, DevSecOps exists to ensure that security best practices take place across the development lifecycle. A corollary exists to the idea of “tools that help,” namely that organizations implementing these tools are not “doing DevSecOps,” any more than vendors providing these tools are DevSecOps vendors.

The only way to “do” DevSecOps is to fully embrace security at a process management and governance level: This means assessing risk, defining policy, setting review gates, and disallowing progress for insecure deliverables. Organizations that embrace DevSecOps can get help from what we are calling DevSecOps tools, as well as from scanning and hardening tools that help support its goals.

At the end of the day, all security and governance boils down to risk: If you buy a scanning tool so you can check a box that says “DevSecOps,” you are potentially adding to your risk posture, rather than mitigating it. So, get your DevSecOps strategy fixed first, then consider how you can add automation, visibility, and control using “tools that do,” as well as benefit from “tools that help.”

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High Performance Application Security Testing

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research. It is hosted by an expert in Application and API testing, and GigaOm analyst, Jake Dolezal. His presentation will focus on the results of high performance testing we completed against two security mechanisms: ModSecurity on NGINX and NGINX App Protect. Additionally, we tested the AWS Web Application Firewall (WAF) as a fully managed security offering.

While performance is important, it is only one criterion for a Web Application Firewall selection. The results of the report are revealing about these platforms. The methodology will be shown with clarity and transparency on how you might replicate these tests to mimic your own workloads and requirements.

Register now to join GigaOm and sponsor NGINX for this free expert webinar.

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