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Knowing Your Enemy: Anticipating Attackers’ Next Moves

Ep. 25

Anyone who’s ever watched boxing knows that great reflexes can be the difference between a championship belt and a black eye. The flexing of an opponent’s shoulder, the pivot of their hip - a good boxer will know enough not only to predict and avoid the incoming upper-cut, but will know how to turn the attack back on their opponent.  Microsoft’s newest capabilities in Defender puts cyber attackers in the ring and predicts their next attacks as the fight is happening. 

 

On today’s episode, hosts Nic Fillingham and Natalia Godyla speak with Cole Sodja, Melissa Turcotte, and Justin Carroll (and maybe even a secret, fourth guest!) about their blog post on Microsoft’s Security blog about the new capabilities of using an A.I. to see the attacker’s next move. 


In This Episode, You Will Learn:

• What kind of data is needed for this level of threat detection and prevention? 

• The crucial nature of probabilistic graphical modeling in this process 

• The synergistic relationship between the automated capabilities and the human analyst 

 

Some Questions We Ask:

• What kind of modeling is used and why? 

• What does the feedback loop between program and analyst look like? 

• What are the steps taken to identify these attacks? 

  

Resources:

Justin, Melissa’s, and Cole’s blog post: 

https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/2021/04/01/automating-threat-actor-tracking-understanding-attacker-behavior-for-intelligence-and-contextual-alerting/ 


Justin Carroll’s LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/justin-carroll-20616574/ 


Melissa Turcotte’s LinkedIn: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/mturcotte/ 


Cole Sodja’s LinkedIn: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/cole-sodja-a255361b/ 


Joshua Neil’s LinkedIn: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/josh-neil/ 


Nic Fillingham’s LinkedIn: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/


Natalia Godyla’s LinkedIn: 

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/ 


Related:

Security Unlocked: CISO Series with Bret Arsenault

https://SecurityUnlockedCISOSeries.com


Transcript

[Full transcript at https://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp25]


Nic Fillingham:

Hello, and welcome to Security Unlocked, a new podcast from Microsoft, where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft Security engineering and operations teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.


Natalia Godyla:

And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories for Microsoft Security, deep dive into the newest threat intel, research and data science.


Nic Fillingham:

And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft Security.


Natalia Godyla:

And now, let's unlock the pod. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Security Unlocked, and hello, Nic, how's it going?


Nic Fillingham:

It's going well, good to see you on the other side of this Teams call. Although, you and I were in person not 24 hours ago. You were here in Seattle, we were filming some more episodes of the Security Show. I don't think we've really given listeners of the podcast a full, meaty introduction to the Security Show, have we? Do you wanna let listeners know what they can find?


Natalia Godyla:

We play games and hang out with experts in the industry and we've done everything from building robots with folks, to building blocks, to painting our nails. You can find the Security Show on our YouTube channel, so, YouTube.com/MicrosoftSecurity or you can go to aka.ms/securityshow. We talk with Chris Wysopal, the CTO and co-founder of Veracode on modern secure software development, and Dave Kennedy, who comes to talk to us about SecOps and everything you need for a survival kit in SecOps, so come come check them out.


Nic Fillingham:

Bad news is you, you have to deal with, uh, Natalia and I on another, uh, media format. But before you go there, make sure you listen to today's episode of Security Unlocked. We have a couple of returning guests. We have Cole and Justin, who have been on before, as well as Josh Neil, who comes on in the, in the last few minutes. And new guest, Melissa. They're all from the Microsoft 365 Defender research team, and they all co-authored a blog from April 1st called Automating Threat Actor Tracking, Understanding Attacker Behavior for Intelligence and Contextual Alerting, which is exactly what it is but I think it buries the lead. Natalia, you had a great TL;DR, what did they do?


Natalia Godyla:

The team used statistics to predict the threat actor group and the next stage in the attack and really early in the attack, so that we could identify the attack and inform customers so that they could stop it. I think what's really incredible here is, not only the ability to predict that information, but to just do it so early in kill chain.


Nic Fillingham:

Within two minutes after an attack begin, using this model, Microsoft threat experts were able to send a notification to the customer to let them know an attack was underway. The customer was able to do, you know, the necessary things to get that attack shut down. We'd love, as always, your feedback. Send us emails, securityunlocked@microsoft.com. Hit us up on the Twitters. On with the pod.


Natalia Godyla:

On with the pod.


Nic Fillingham:

Well, welcome back to the Security Unlocked podcast, Cole and Justin, and welcome to the Security Unlocked podcast, Melissa. Thanks for joining us today. We have three wonderful guests, with maybe a, a fourth special guest appearing at the end. And today we're gonna be talking about a blog post appearing on the Security blog from April the 1st, called Automating Threat Actor Tracking, Understanding Attacker Behavior for Intelligence and Contextual Alerting. All of the authors from that blog are here with us. Cole, if I could start with you, if you could sort of reintroduce yourself to the audience, give us a little bit, uh, about your role, what you do at Microsoft, and then perhaps hand off to one of your colleagues for the next intro.


Cole Sodja:

Sure. Will do, thank you. So, hi, I'm Cole. I work in the Microsoft 356 Defender group. I'm a statistician. Primarily my responsibilities are driving, kind of, research and innovation in general, with supporting threat analytics, threat hunting, threat research in general. Yeah, been doing that for about three years now, and I love it, and I that's a little bit about myself, I'll hand it over to Melissa.


Melissa Turcotte:

All right. My name's Melissa, I work with Cole, so in the same group, Microsoft 365 Defender. I'm also a statistician by background. I've been in the cyber domain for about probably seven years now. I was working for Department of Energy research laboratory in their cyber research group for five years, and I joined Microsoft a year ago. I like all sorts of problems related to cyber. My expertise probably would be in anomaly detection, but anything related to cyber, and there's data in a problem, I like to be involved.


Nic Fillingham:

And Justin.


Justin Carroll:

Hey. I also work in the Microsoft 365 Defender team, doing threat intelligence. My main focus is uncovering new threats and actor groups and understanding what they're doing, different modifications to how they're conducting their attacks, and the outcomes of those attacks, and then figuring out the most effective ways to either, communicate that out to customers or action on detection capabilities to stop them from succeeding.


Nic Fillingham:

Listeners of the podcast will note that you have a super sweet ninja turtles tattoo, is that correct?


Justin Carroll:

This is accurate, this is definitely accurate.


Nic Fillingham:

And, and we may or may not have a super secret fourth guest on this episode, who may join us towards the end, who you would, you would know from an very early episode of the podcast, but perhaps we'll keep them secret until the very end. Thank you all for joining us, thank you for your time. Again, we're referring to a, a blog post that, that all of you authored from April 1st. This is a, quite a complex, and, and sort of technical blog post, which I know a lot of our audience will love.


Nic Fillingham:

I got a little lost in the math, but I, I absolutely was enthralled by what you all have undertaken here. Cole, if I could start with you, can you give us, give us an overview of what's covered in this blog post, and sort of what this project was, how you tackled it, and what we're gonna talk about, uh, on this episode today.


Cole Sodja:

Yeah. So if I step back, being someone kind of still fairly new in learning, uh, to cyber security, uh, I approached things pretty much with just using data, right? Doing data driven imprints, as I'd say. And through my research, what I started to, um, kinda ask myself is, can we kinda get ahead of cyber security attacks, you know, from a post-breach perspective? Once we see an adversary in a network, can we start to make some predictions, basically, on what they're likely gonna do? Who is the adversary, or is it human operated, is it an automated script, for example. And then if we recognize the adversary, kinda recognize their tactics, their techniques, their procedures, can we say, okay, we're, we're likely gonna see they're gonna ransom this enterprise, for example.


Cole Sodja:

So I tried to look at it as more of a data mining exercise initially, it's like, can I recognize these type of patterns, and then how predictive are these patterns that we're seeing in terms of what likely is gonna occur. Or put it another way, what type of threat is this, essentially, to the enterprise? So, so that's kinda the background, the motivation. Now, when I started this project, back with Justin and then with Melissa, it started really as let's look for particular, uh, threat actors that we're aware of, that we recognize, that we know about, and see, like, can we start, from a data perspective, classifying okay, is it this group, is it that group, and what does this group tend to do?


Cole Sodja:

And one of the challenges in that is, is sparsity. Basically, we don't have a lot of labels sitting around out there saying, it's threat actor group A, B, C, D, and so on. We have handfuls of those. Some of these actors, they don't tend to do attacks very frequently, right? They're extremely sparse. So, so one challenge of this, and one the motivation is, how can we actually partner with threat intelligence, for example, and our threat hunters, to try and essentially encode or extract some of their information to help us build models, to help us reason over the uncertainty, essentially.


Cole Sodja:

And when we say probabilistic modeling, that's what we mean. It's how do we actually quantify this uncertainty, both in what we believe about the actors, or the adversaries in general, as well as what they're gonna do, right, once they've breached your network. So that's kinda how it started, and what this blog's really about is kinda giving a walk-through, essentially, of what we did initially with this research. It started with, and Justin will talk about this in a moment, it started with looking at few, select threat actors that are very serious.


Cole Sodja:

We started to understand their behaviors more and more and we thought it was a good opportunity, initially, to try and build a model to, again, understand what they're doing, track what they're doing, because they do change their tactics over time, as well as just see if we could get ahead of them. Can we actually notify a customer in advance, before, uh, for example, their organization's ransomed? So, so that's one part of the blog that we'll discuss, and I'll hand it over to my good friend Justin to take it from here.


Justin Carroll:

So, like, one of the, the main challenges that we kinda face in the intelligence sphere is understanding the particulars of an actor and when they are present in an environment. A lot of times, you'll see the intelligence is really focused on a very particular indicator such as, like, a known IP address that's malicious, or a single behavior. But it's kinda difficult to frequently pivot them out to understand when a suspected attacker is in an environment. A lot of that is due because they don't always do the exact same behaviors when they are compromising... Organization or device. There will be some variation and it basically requires manual enrichment a lot of the times of devices to try and understand the specifics of the attacks and what


Justin Carroll:

... the final outcomes o- wh- out of that attack, so this opportunity presented one to work with data scientists to, like, really supercharge our efforts so that we could kinda come in understanding a much bigger picture and knowing, essentially, what behaviors that we saw occur and then which ones we might suspect. A lot of times with these human operated ransomware ones, the time to alert, to notify of the expected outcome is often fairly short, in particular with, uh, one of the ones that we worked on to kinda test this method out. We had seen very short instances from time to compromise to ransom, so, um, this was to try and see if we could have a, a highly confident method of enriching that intelligence, um, and then working with other teams to get those alerts out.


Natalia Godyla:

If I could jump in here for a moment. So, at the beginning of your description, you noted that typically you'd use manual enrichment. Can you talk a little bit about that? So prior to this probabilistic model, how did you go through that manual enrichment process to try to, uh, predict what threat actors they were or determine what stage of an attack it was?


Justin Carroll:

It would be something along the lines of, let's say, you had intelligence from either a partner team or open source intelligence that says, you know, "These threat actors are using this IP address as part of their attack," and then looking for the presence of that and then finding out what actually occurred on those devices to understand the entirety of the attack, or looking more generically and saying, like, "Okay, we know these attackers like to use a particular behavior as part of their credential theft," and then so looking for all sorts of instances of that credential theft and then kinda continuing to pivot down into one that is leading to the behavior that y- you're looking for. One of the difficulties that you'll see in particular with this and other actors is, like, they will use multiple shared open source tools and payloads. Um, many of them aren't even malware, they're clean tools with legitimate purposes, so it can make it difficult to try and suss out the ones from malicious versus administrative use, so you have to look for that combination of different behaviors to indicate something malicious is afoot.


Nic Fillingham:

Justin, if I look at the blog, I think it might be the first chapter here, there's a MITRE ATT&CK framework diagram, Figure One, and it, uh, outlines sort of the steps taken here for how this model was able to, with high confidence, identify the, the actor and, uh, send an alert to the customer who was able to shut it down. I wonder if you could sort of, could you walk us through this, these sort of six steps as an example of, of how this work, how this worked in, in sort of real life?


Justin Carroll:

Yeah. I can walk through basically from a model's perspective, essentially, how it works. Timing, that's more a function of, like, how the attack, uh, typically progresses with this actor. Technically speaking, what the model's really doing is it's encoding each behavior we have, in this case, each MITRE technique in particular in terms of what's the confidence that once we see, for example, initial access follow... Under, let's say, RDP brute force, followed by lateral tool transfer with subset of tools recognized, that particular sequence right there, that's where the model would be like, "Okay, the probability that it's this particular threat actor group conditional on those two things occurring in sequence will be X," and that sequence could occur in a matter of minutes or even days and weeks, dependent on the actor, of course, we're talking about.


Justin Carroll:

With the, the actor we're showing in this graph, this actor typically will penetrate a network through RDP brute force, but then w- sometimes the, they won't immediately transfer their tools. They might wait a day or two, or sometimes they'll, they'll do it very fast, like, once they basically compromise a log-in then, uh, they'll, they'll go to that machine, there might be some, um, discovery related commands before they transfer or they might just transfer their tools and then that will be the attack box, basically, in which they stage their attack, and then they'll do some additional things.


Justin Carroll:

So at each step, basically, or each stage of the attack, as we like to call it, the model is basically gonna then update its probabilities and say, "Okay, based on all the information I've seen up to this stage, the probability that it's this actor is P and now, conditional that it's this actor with probability P, the probability that we'll now see, for example, defense evasion and this 'tack will be Q," or, or we could even go further in the attack stage to say, "Now, given all this, what's the probability that we'll see, for example, ransomware or inhibit system recovery in the coming hour? Or in the coming, you know, X time?"


Justin Carroll:

So the model's able to do that, but it's primarily conditional on the stages it's observed up to a point in time, not so much in terms of the time it takes for the actors to do X.


Natalia Godyla:

So, in this blog and in our discussion today, we're gearing up to talk about probabilistic graphical modeling as a way to address the challenge that, Cole and Justin, you've set up for us today, and, and for any of our listeners who'd like to follow along in the blog, the blog is titled "Automating threat actor tracking: Understanding attacker behavior for intelligence and contextual alerting" and you can find it on the Microsoft Security blog. I'd love to dive into the probabilistic graphical modeling and perhaps start with a definition of what that means. So, M- Melissa, could you give us an overview of this approach?


Melissa Turcotte:

Yeah. We have this problem which what they are essentially saying is, we have a collection of things which... I'm a statistician so I often call them variables, but, you know, features, if you will, if that's m- more easy for you to understand, but we, th- these TTPs, th- right. The sets of things that the actors are doing, and we have a collection of them. And given some collection of these, we wanna make a statement about whether or not it's ransomware or whether it's not a specific threat actor, or a group of actors. Right? And this is, this is, like, a perfect, um, example of where probability can help you make these decision, and one thing I'd like to stress is that no one of these features gives you enough information about whether or not it's this actor or this, this group of actors, or it's ransomware, you know, whatever your variable interest is.


Melissa Turcotte:

It really is the collection of these together that, you know, kind of in Justin's mind, as an analyst, he's, he's making these connections in his head, and I wanna be able to replicate that in some sense, I wanna take into account his knowledge and kind of his decision making process, combined with the data that I have, to make these probabilistic statements about what I think is happening. And graphical models are really great here, probabilistic graphical models in particular, as they kind of provide this joint probability distribution over all these features, and the variable of interest, in this case, is kind of, maybe is it this actor, but not necessarily. I mainly wanna know something about any one of these other features. I may already know it's this actor, and I may wanna be like, "Wh- what are the common things I see this actor do?"


Melissa Turcotte:

So, so graphical models really shine in this case where you have this collection of things that you are observing, and you kind of want to ask questions about any subset of them. Given some observations of others, and so th- this is a really great tool to use in this setting, and it's also quite interpretable. So if you kind of look, if you're looking at the blog and you see this Figure Two, which is a toy example, but y- you kind of, as a human, you can look at that and you can kind of understand that, "Okay, so I'm seeing transfer tools and lateral movement are related." Um, and you can kind of understand sort of wh- what the relationships the model is making. Um, and so that kind of provides this extra, you know, benefit of this in that, yeah, I can talk an analyst through what this kind of is showing and then i- it's quite interpretable for them even if they don't understand the underlying maths, and that's kind of something we really wanna strive for. Um, you shouldn't have to understand the underlying maths to kind of understand the decisions that are being made.


Melissa Turcotte:

It's really attractive in this sense, and then the Bayesian networks, why I really like it is kind of, the Bayesian paradigm is... So you, you have, you know, statistics, generally, or data science, you have some data and you're kind of, you know, making inference given the set of data to make statements about things of interest. So the data tells you something about your beliefs and the state of the world, but you have your own subjective beliefs about wh- what you think could and could not happen. The, the Bayesian paradigm kind of combines those two things, so it's, you have your beliefs and then you have what the data is telling you, a- and your ultimate kind of predictions are based on the combination of those things. And generally, the, the way it works is the more data you have, the data will always win through.


Melissa Turcotte:

So this problem, bringing it back to attacker prediction, is a case where we don't have a lot of data, right? We don't... Companies get attacked... Or we say, companies get attacked all the time but not at the scale at which we collect the underlying data, so like, you know, we have, you know, you as a user are performing actions, logging into computers you use... You know, this shows up in the data thousands of times a day, whereas an attack happens kind of, like, on a monthly scale, so c- the scales of attacks to the data we're getting is just really small, and then when you go into attacks that kind of we've labeled as being attributed to a threat actor, I mean, that's even way smaller. So it's, it's kind of a small data problem, uh, in terms of the number of labels you have.


Melissa Turcotte:

But what we do have is this analysts who have spent years tracking these people and have their kind of, you know, beliefs about what they do and how they changed over time. And so we


Melissa Turcotte:

Wanna capture that. We definitely want to include the evidence we see and the data, but we wanna capture that really rich knowledge that we get from the analysts. And so kind of that's where the Bayesian network part becomes attractive because it, it provides a very principled way to, to capture the analysts' expertise, combine that information with the data we're seeing to make these ultimate predictions.


Natalia Godyla:

For our audience, could you really quickly describe a Bayesian network?


Melissa Turcotte:

So, a Bayesian network is a way of building a model for a collection of variables whereby the idea is that you have different variables which are related to each other. It, it, it kind of helps draw out or show what those relationships are so, like, in the graph, you know, if there's an arrow from impact... Or from transfer tools to impact that's saying if I see transfer tools, that has a direct impact... I'm gonna use the word impact twice here. Has a direct impact on whether or not I'm going to see impact. So, so it's kind of the way the variables relate to each other and the way the probabilities change according to those relationships. And so a Bayesian network encodes all this information.


Nic Fillingham:

If I can take another swing at that one... Thank you, Melissa. I'm wondering what were some of the other, uh, techniques that you either considered for this approach? Like, did you experiment with other methods and then ultimately chose Bayesian?


Melissa Turcotte:

Yes, um, in fact, uh, so the initial kind of... The perhaps most obvious thing to do is to c- to think of decision trees, right? You s- you're, you're, you're seeing, you know, these things over time. Okay, I saw, um, what was the first one? Initial access with this... You don't go as broad as initial access, but I saw initial access using this, you know, minor technique. And so you can kind of think, like, you, you, you have a tree that's kind of... Okay, I saw this, I didn't see this, but I saw this and I didn't see this, so now I think it's this actor. But kind of where this is preferable is the fact that, as Paul says, we don't want to see the whole attack happen before we make a statement about what we think it is. And Bayesian networks work really well in, in the absence of some observed variables.


Cole Sodja:

Yeah, I'll just quickly chime in. I agree with Melissa. So, I did experiments, for example, with several models including decision trees. Even, um, different forms of Bayesian decision trees like BART for example. And in addition to what Melissa is saying where, for example, predicting the probability that it's threat actor conditioned on certain variables we saw, uh, we might also, as Melissa pointed out, want to say, okay, let's predict, for example, that this threat actor is going to do impact or a certain form of impact. And with decision trees, that means basically you're building multiple decision trees to do that. You can't just build one decision tree... Well, let's put it this way. You can't easily build one decision tree to have multiple target variables. That's something you get for free with the Bayesian network. Another thing I'll say in addition to what, um... To marginalization is the Bayesian network is more general. So, it could actually handle kind of a broader graphical structure. The decision tree is a specific graph.


Cole Sodja:

So, it kind of already inhibits you, if you will, to learning a certain structure over the data. Whereas the Bayesian nets, they could give you a little more general structure. We could also build these models that are time dependent, what are called dynamic Bayesian networks. That's something much harder to do with tree models. So, it's just a more flexible model as well as I would say. In my experiments, the Bayesian network did perform better on average than the set of decision trees I considered.


Nic Fillingham:

I'd like to better understand the relationship between this model and folks like Justin. So, is Justin, as a very experienced threat analyst, is Justin helping you define labels and helping you sort of build some of the initial... I'm, gonna get the taxonomy wrong here, so please correct me. But the initial sort of properties of the model? Or is, is Justin, as an analyst, interpreting what you sort of think you have in the model? How, how do I understand the relationship between the analyst and, and how they're providing their expertise into, into this model?


Melissa Turcotte:

All three.


Nic Fillingham:

Oh, great. (laughs)


Melissa Turcotte:

All three things you said is actually correct. So, so hopefully we, we've explained it somewhat well. So, yes. The first stage, right Justin? The analysts are providing us our label data. So, yes. That's the first thing. And then they also help us kind of, you know, you have the raw data, but that's kind of... There's so much data processing that goes... That, that happens before it's kind of... This data's kind of in this tabular forms that's like, yes, we... You know, these are the features we are tracking, so think of your TTPs, the different notes in your graph. Getting the data into that, kind of that schema, the threat analysts help with. So, you know, help define what, what these tactics, techniques, and procedures are that we should track. Like you said, you, you can't be super broad. Lateral movement doesn't really have a lot of meaning, um, to kind of like the different ways in which someone can do lateral movement and how granular w- you want to go.


Melissa Turcotte:

So, we discuss with the analysts all the time to kind of build up, you know, the ontology, if you will. And then, you know, as a first stage, like I said, it's a small data sample, so we're like... Justin helps inform what the model thinks about in a probabilistic sense. So, you... One thing I might ask him, I, I would be like... If I saw net... you know I'm borrowing from our toy example, but if I saw a network scanning modify system process, transfer tools, but didn't see any of the others, do you think it would be this actor X? Or do you think it would be ransomware? And he would be like, hmm, I would probably 60% certain. I can take that information and encode that directly so that, in the absence of any data, the model would return 60%. It would... If I didn't see any data, it would return what Justin believed was the probability in the presence of a certain number of variables.


Melissa Turcotte:

And then we kind of see data and we update our beliefs over time based on that. And then, also, after we've kind of trained these things, I go back to Justin and say does this make sense to you? So, he, he's kind of involved in all three, the whole process.


Nic Fillingham:

Melissa, I think you're telling me you've built a virtual Justin.


Melissa Turcotte:

We... That, that is what we are literally trying to do. And back it up... And, you know, and back it up with data as well. I'd, I'd like to like... You know, I'm a firm believer that everyone has their subjective beliefs, Justin has beliefs as well. Oftentimes, I can prove analysts wrong. Be like, they think something, I'm like, well, the data is telling me something else. So, we need to figure out, you know, that discrepancy. But, yes. We are essentially trying to build virtual Jus- uh, Justins. Although, like, th- there... I don't think there's any stage upon which we won't need the analysts to constantly feed back in with the new information they have.


Nic Fillingham:

Got it. And then can it come full circle? Justin, how do you as an analyst, how do you get smarter and better at what you do by what this model is, is telling you? What's the feedback loop look like here for you?


Justin Carroll:

It's one of those where, basically, using the model kind of super-charged my abilities where, instead of having to look at this very granular kind of like ad hoc, oh, this may be interesting, now I have the instances already serviced to me, and I have a good understanding of what success rate through the kill chain the attacker was able to get. And maybe figure out which ones that I needed to enrich more to understand was there data that we can add into the model because they've done something different that we need to capture and then look for opportunities in that way. So, really, it's basically... It made it where, give or take, sometimes it would take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes sometimes to try and figure out, like, is this who I think it is? And like, what have they done? What are their goals? To just looking at the result from the model. And within usually seconds, being like, yeah, that looks exactly right. That's... It's confirmed, I think that's spot on.


Natalia Godyla:

So, Justin, was there something that was the most surprising in working with this model? Something that the model taught you either about threat actors or any details about the features?


Justin Carroll:

One of the things was kind of reexamining My confidence levels on different parts of the attack. Um, where Melissa was stating, for instance, you know, the data suggesting this and the models coming to this conclusion, uh, you know, thinking that it's this probability, and there would be times where I'd have to kind of reevaluate and think, like, hmm, I might've been missing something or overestimating the prevalence of a particular thing and saying it's related to such. Like, uh, I can tend to get very biased based on my narrow scope of the attacks that I'm looking at and think that it's related to this thing, but the model was able to provide a lot of clarity to some of the behaviors that maybe I didn't think were as confident a signal or extremely confident signal and I wasn't giving them the appropriate weight. That's one of the advantages of using it to understand what the attacker's doing, is I let it do much of the leg work once everything's kind of coded in. And then occasionally, like if we found opportunities where it was like, hmm, this still isn't quite right, then it could be tuned as a c- um, as necessary.


Justin Carroll:

I think that was probably one of the biggest ones of kind of trying to work through and actually spell out, like, my own thinking processes when I'm evaluating the data. It was something that you just kind of do without thinking, where you're constantly, as an intelligence analyst, looking at data and making conclusions on that data. But you're not usually saying, like, okay, I saw this so I'm gonna give it a 60% probability that it's this. And like, you're, you're just kind of sometimes it's either gut intuition or working on it that way. But actually having the model encode and return back what it was understanding made a, a pretty big impact in trying to understand how my own decision processes work and basically how best to kind of think


Justin Carroll:

About these different, wide array of attacks that we're constantly investigating.


Nic Fillingham:

The types of indicators that you're building this model on, again please correct me on my taxonomy here, but you're not looking for, you know, NFO files or like ASCII art or, you know, the actual threat actors name being sort of hidden somewhere in the jpeg that they drop as a, as a for the LOLs, like, they're... You're not looking for a sort of a literal signature of these threat actor groups, you're, you're, what you're, what you're doing is you're, you're seeing the actions that have been taken and without any other way of attributing them to an individual group, you're piecing them together.


Nic Fillingham:

And as you, as you get more actions and you piece them together based on the, the labels that you get from people like Justin, you're able to, to ultimately have a high probability that it's this threat group actor and they're doing this thing and they're likely to do this thing next. Have I got that right? You're, they're... In no way shape or form are you actually finding a secret text file that has the name, you know, the, the, the handles for all the hackers who are doing it for the LOLs.


Cole Sodja:

So let me just quickly jump in, you pretty much nailed it. I'll say this, so, we wanted to do both actually, right, because we don't want to restrain the model if it's, if core's gonna add predictive power, so like you said, we're not actually searching, grepping for example, for a threat actor name and some file or image, certainly not that level. But, for example, some of the actors, maybe they have common infrastructure, maybe they use particular types of tools in their attack typically, right? Like, maybe there's a SHA-1 out there they've used a lot in their attack, or, or recurring IP addresses they use as part of brute forcing.


Cole Sodja:

Those are there, but those are very specific and if you just relied on those, like Melissa was saying, either one or a few of those, you're not gonna generalize. You'll probably miss that attacker, right? But we certainly don't want to exclude it from the model because, um, if we happen to see that, the model will, uh, come back with a different type of probability, right? It'd be like, okay. Now the model might be more confident early, rather than waiting to see how the rest of the kill chain progresses. On the more general side, we probably won't go to the MITRE categories, 'cause they're a little too general, right? But if we go to some of the sub techniques, we don't actually have to look at the particular types of executables, or tools, or IPs used.


Cole Sodja:

Sometimes just the timing and sequencing is enough actually, to narrow down to, maybe not a particular threat actor, but a group of actors or, more generally, we can say with high competence, you know, this is a human adversary. They're taking this amount of time to do discovery commands, they're, they're doing lateral these type of ways. And the model could recognize that, even without knowing the particular commands, it's just seeing the more general techniques involved, right? So we do a bit of both, actually. We tend to want to rely more on, kind of, the general attacks or indicators as you're saying, that's right. But, we certainly don't want to throw away specifics that are reuse because we could get ahead of the attack much earlier too. So it's a bit of both at the end of the day.


Melissa Turcotte:

So yes, Nic, if, if, if you have an evil bit, look for the evil bit. You don't need data science for that.


Nic Fillingham:

(laughs)


Natalia Godyla:

And how is this model being used today, meaning is this a model that's being used by our internal security team to protect Microsoft and its customers, is it being used by a Microsoft threat experts group or is this actually embedded in some of our solutions today, and our customers are feeling that benefit? And what is the future intent of the model?


Justin Carroll:

One of those... So, there are multiple uses that are in place for the model. So one of the big things for me, so in my own selfish interest, it's intelligence, it's one of the easiest ways that I can keep tabs on the attacker and continually build new profiles and understand, basically, reports out, this is what they're doing, this is how they're doing it, this is how active they are. Like, are we seeing, you know, large volumes of their attack, are they taking a break, that kinda stuff. Then, the Microsoft threat experts are using it as a signal to help understand attacks early on in the kill chain so that they can get those notifications out ideally before the ransom, which can be quite difficult a lot of the times depending on the adversary and how quickly they seek to ransom. A lot of times there isn't a great deal of time.


Cole Sodja:

Yeah, there's other products, for example, M365D. So, um, there are plans, uh, it requires some engineering, ultimately, because this is a big product, um, huge customer base and so on. But there are already plans in motion to take what we've built already, as part of this framework, and integrate that into that product. There's other products as well, both from a threat intelligence perspective, and possibly kind of from SOC alerting perspective as well, that I'm in active discussions with other products across Microsoft to do the POC, make sure it works with their data, make sure they're comfortable and then work with their engineering team to at least get that in the plan. Those are ongoing discussion but M365D does have, kinda, I'll say, in their planning cycle, to get this in the product.


Nic Fillingham:

I wonder if this might be a good time to bring our secret special guest on microphone, Josh, if you're there, I think I might ask, uh, might wonder if you could jump in on this one. I think you've understated the power of what you've built here. From everything that you've just explained, you know, within a couple of minutes of a threat actor getting initial access to have a high probability index to be able to contact the customer and say, here's who we think is inside your network, here's what we think they're gonna do next, so they can shut it down. This is the next level, right? And, and Josh, when we interviewed you on episode three, you were hinting at this, if I'm not mistaken. Is this, is this sort of what you guys have been working on?


Joshua Neil:

Yeah, I'm so proud that we, that we took it from concept to realized value for the customers and, and at this point we've had that impact with your customers in stopping human operations. And, and so it's really exciting and, and it's, it's on the journey but, you know, if I extract an overall theme from this, it's consistent with that podcast that we had before because I was sort of complaining about AI. And I was sort of complaining about what we see in some of the, in some of the branding and marketing that, that folks do in, in cyber security. And I think this team and, and the work they've done exemplifies the right applications of data driven methods.


Joshua Neil:

There is no magical, artificial intelligence today. What there is is, and this is a, an experience that all of us on the data science team have had over the, over the past few years, and really for me about 20 years, is we can use data and some mathematics and some computing to begin to automate and accelerate what the humans are doing. And so, by sitting very closely with, and working very hard with the human experts like Justin, we're explicitly encoding their knowledge into models. So that's one thing is that the data science we're doing is to automate some of the stuff they're doing today. But the intention is not to solve the world, not to give our customers a license to solve security, we're, we're not gonna be able to do that. What we are able to do is uplift the sophistication of our customers operations.


Joshua Neil:

So, you know, what Justin sort of reflected on, uh, he's able to do a more interesting job, a more sophisticated job, because we're taking the data and his knowledge and encoding it and accelerating and automating some of the stuff that he's having to do manually now. And that's where the real nuts and bolts, you know, and the real rubber meets the road here, is that there's no magic gun that's gonna blow away all the adversaries with, with AI. What there is is hard work between data scientists and threat expertise to uplift their capabilities and accelerate their effectiveness in the face of the adversary. And that's what I would like to get across to the, to the listeners, is that by hard work and careful and close collaboration between data science and threat expertise, that's how we really make progress in this space.


Nic Fillingham:

Thank you so much Josh. And I just wanted to quickly clarify, from a previous comment from Cole, so this model is in use now, correct? Folks like Justin, Microsoft threat analysts, they are using this model now to make the model better, and to be able to get that additional information and those confidence levels in, in, in doing their analyst work. And so Microsoft threat expert customers are directly benefiting from this work, as of today. That's correct, is it?


Joshua Neil:

That's correct. We've sent targeted attack notifications to customers based on this model.


Nic Fillingham:

You've all been very, very, generous.


Natalia Godyla:

Thank you for that. And, and thank you to the whole team here for joining us on the show today.


Melissa Turcotte:

Absolutely.


Cole Sodja:

My pleasure.


Joshua Neil:

It was a lot of fun as always. And, and thank you, Nic and Natalia for this.


Natalia Godyla:

Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security, from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.


Nic Fillingham:

And don't forget to tweet us at MSFTSecurity or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on future episode. Until then, stay safe...


Natalia Godyla:

Stay secure.

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Ep. 36
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I'm Nic Fillingham.Natalia Godyla:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft Security, deep dive into the newest threat intel, research and data science.Nic Fillingham:And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft Security.Natalia Godyla:And now, let's unlock the pod. (music)Natalia Godyla:Welcome everyone to another episode of Security Unlocked. Today we are joined by first time guest, Arjmand Samuel, who is joining us to discuss IoT Security, which is fitting as he is an Azure IoT Security leader a Microsoft. Now, everyone has heard the buzz around IoT. There's been constant talk of it over the past several years, and, but now we've all also already had some experience with IoT devices in our personal life. Would about you, Nic? What do you use in your everyday life? What types of IoT devices?Nic Fillingham:Yeah. I've, I've got a couple of smart speakers, which I think a lot of people have these days. They seem to be pretty ubiquitous. And you know what? I sort of just assumed that they automatically update and they've got good security in them. I don't need to worry about it. Uh, maybe that's a bit naïve, but, but I sort of don't think of them as IoT. I just sort of, like, tell them what I music I want to play and then I tell them again, because they get it wrong. And then I tell them a third time, and then I go, "Ugh," and then I do it on my phone.Nic Fillingham:I also have a few cameras that are pointed out around the outside of the house. Because I live on a small farm with, with animals, I've got some sheep and pigs, I have to be on the look out for predators. For bears and coyotes and bobcats. Most of my IoT, though, is very, sort of, consummary. Consumers have access to it and can, sort of, buy it or it comes from the utility company.Natalia Godyla:Right. Good point. Um, today, we'll be talking with Arjmand about enterprise grade IoT and OT, or Internet of Things and operational technology. Think the manufacturing floor of, uh, plants. And Arjmand will walk us through the basics of IoT and OT through to the best practices for securing these devices.Nic Fillingham:Yeah. And we spent a bit of time talking about zero trust and how to apply a zero trust approach to IoT. Zero trust, there's sort of three main pillars to zero trust. It's verify explicitly, which for many customers just means sort of MFA, multi factorial authentication. It's about utilizing least privilege access and ensuring that accounts, users, devices just have access to the data they need at the time they need it. And then the third is about always, sort of, assuming that you've been breached and, sort of, maintaining thing philosophy of, of let's just assume that we're breached right now and let's engage in practices that would, sort of, help root out a, uh, potential breach.Nic Fillingham:Anyway, so, Arjmand, sort of, walks us through what it IoT, how does it relate to IT, how does it relate to operational technology, and obviously, what that zero trust approach looks like. On with the pod.Natalia Godyla:On with the pod. (music) Today, we're joined by Arjmand Samuel, principle program manager for the Microsoft Azure Internet of Things Group. Welcome to the show, Arjmand.Arjmand Samuel:Thank you very much, Natalia, and it's a pleasure to be on the show.Natalia Godyla:We're really excited to have you. Why don't we kick it off with talking a little bit about what you do at Microsoft. So, what does your day to day look like as a principle program manager?Arjmand Samuel:So, I am part of the Azure IoT Engineering Team. I'm a program manager on the team. I work on security for IoT and, uh, me and my team, uh, we are responsible for making sure that, uh, IoT services and clients like the software and run times and so on are, are built securely. And when they're deployed, they have the security properties that we need them and our customers demand that. So, so, that's what I do all a long.Nic Fillingham:And, uh, we're going to talk about, uh, zero trust and the relationship between a zero trust approach and IoT. Um, but before we jump into that, Arjmand, uh, we, we had a bit of a look of your, your bio here. I've got a couple of questions I'd love to ask, if that's okay. I want to know about your, sort of, tenure here at Microsoft. Y- y- you've been here for 13 years. Sounds like you started in, in 2008 and you started in the w- what was called the Windows Live Team at the time, as the security lead. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your, your entry in to Microsoft and being in security in Microsoft for, for that amount of time. You must have seen some, sort of, pretty amazing changes, both from an industry perspective and then also inside Microsoft.Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah, definitely. So, uh, as you said, uh, 2008 was the time, was the year when I came in. I came in with a, a, a degree in, uh, security, in- information security. And then, of course, my thinking and my whole work there when I was hired at Microsoft was to be, hey, how do we actually make sure that our product, which was Windows Live at that time, is secure? It has all the right security properties that, that we need that product to have. So, I- I came in, started working on a bunch of different things, including identity and, and there was, these are early times, right? I mean, we were all putting together this infrastructure, reconciling all the identity on times that we had. And all of those were things that we were trying to bring to Windows Live as well.Arjmand Samuel:So, I was responsible for that as well as I was, uh, working on making sure that, uh, our product had all the right diligence and, and security diligence that is required for a product to be at scale. And so, a bunch of, you know, things like STL and tech modeling and those kind of things. I was leading those efforts as well at, uh, Windows Live.Natalia Godyla:So, if 2008 Arjmand was talking to 2021 Arjmand, what would he be most surprised about, about the evolution over the past 13 years, either within Microsoft or just in the security industry.Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. Yeah. (laughs) That's a great, great question, and I think in the industry itself, e- evolution has been about how all around us. We are now engulfed in technology, connected technology. We call it IoT, and it's all around us. That was not the landscape 10, 15 years back. And, uh, what really is amazing is how our customers and partners are taking on this and applying this in their businesses, right? This meaning the whole industry of IoT and, uh, Internet of Things, and taking that to a level where every data, every piece of data in the physical world can be captured or can be acted upon. That is a big change from the last, uh, 10, 15 to where we are today.Nic Fillingham:I thought you were going to say TikTok dance challenges.Arjmand Samuel:(laughs)Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... because that's, that's where I would have gone.Arjmand Samuel:(laughs) that, too. That, too, right? (laughs)Nic Fillingham:That's a (laughs) digression there. So, I'm pretty sure everyone knows what IoT is. I think we've already said it, but let's just, sort of, start there. So, IoT, Internet of Things. Is, I mean, that's correct, right? Is there, is there multiple definitions of IoT, or is it just Internet of Things? And then, what does the definition of an Internet of Things mean?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. It;s a... You know, while Internet of Things is a very recognized acronym these days, but I think talking to different people, different people would have a different idea about how Internet of Thing could be defined. And the way I would define it, and again, not, not, uh, necessarily the authority or the, the only definition. There are many definitions, but it's about having these devices around us. Us is not just people but also our, our manufacturing processes, our cars, our, uh, healthcare systems, having all these devices around, uh, these environments. They are, these devices, uh, could be big, could be small. Could be as small as a very small temperature sensor collecting data from an environment or it could be a Roboticom trying to move a full car up and down an assembly line.Arjmand Samuel:And first of all, collecting data from these devices, then bringing them, uh, uh, using the data to do something interesting and insightful, but also beyond that, being able to control these devices based on those insights. So, now there's a feedback loop where you're collecting data and you are acting on that, that data as well. And that is where, how IoT is manifesting itself today in, in, in the world. And especially for our customers who are, who tend to be more industrial enterprises and so on, it's a big change that is happening. It's, it's a huge change that, uh, they see and we call it the transformation, the business transformation happening today. And part of that business transformation is being led or is being driven through the technology which we call IoT, but it's really a business transformation.Arjmand Samuel:It's really with our customers are finding that in order to remain competitive and in order to remain in business really, at the end of the day, they need to invest. They need to bring in all these technologies to bear, and Internet of Things happens that technology.Nic Fillingham:So, Arjmand, a couple other acronyms. You know, I think, I think most of our audience are pretty familiar with IoT, but we'll just sort of cover it very quickly. So, IoT versus IT. IT is, obviously, you know, information technology, or I think that's the, that's the (laughs) globally accepted-Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah.Nic Fillingham:... definition. You know, do you we think of IoT as subset of IT? What is the relationship of, of those two? I mean, clearly, there are three letters versus two letters, (laughs) but there is relationship there. Wh- wh- what are your thoughts?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. There's a relationship as well as there's a difference, and, and it's important to bring those two out. Information technology is IT, as we know it now for many years, is all about enterprises running their applications, uh, business applications mostly. For that, they need the network support. They need databases. They need applications to be secured and so on. So, all these have to work together. The function of IT, information technology, is to make sure that the, there is availability of all these resources, applications, networks and databases as well as you have them secured and private and so on.Arjmand Samuel:So, all of that is good, but IoT takes it to the next level where now it's not only the enterprise applications, but it's also these devices, which are now deployed by the enterprise. I mentioned Roboticoms. Measured in a conference room you have all these equipment in there, projection and temperature sensors and occupancy sensors and so on. So, all of those beco- are now the, the add on to what we used to call IT and we are calling it the IoT.Arjmand Samuel:Now, the interesting part here is in the industrial IoT space. Th- this is also called OT, operation technology. So, you know, within an organization there'll be IT and OT. OT's operation technology and these are the people or the, uh, function within an organization who deal with the, with the physical machines, the physical plant. You know, the manufacturing line, the conveyor belts, the Roboticoms, and these are called OT functions.Arjmand Samuel:The interesting part here is the goal of IT is different from the goal of OT. OT is all about availability. OT's all about safety, safety so that it doesn't hurt anybody working on the manufacturing line. OT's all about environmental concerns. So, it should not leak bad chemicals and so on. A while, if you talk about security, and this is, like, a few years back when we would talk about security with an OT person, the, the person who's actually... You know, these are people who actually wear those, uh, hard hats, you know, on, uh, a manufacturing plant. And if you talk about security to an OT person, they will typically refer to that guard standing outside and, and, uh, the-Nic Fillingham:Physical security.Arjmand Samuel:The physical security and the, the walls and the cameras, which would make sure that, you know, and then a key card, and that's about all. This was OT security, but now when we started going in and saying that, okay, all these machines can be connected to, to each other and you can collect all this data and then you can actually start doing something interesting with this data. That is where the definition of security and the functions of OT evolved. And not evolving, I mean different companies are at different stages, but they're now evolving where they're thinking, okay, it's not only about the guard standing outside. It's also the fact that the Roboticom could be taken over remotely and somebody outside, around the world, around the globe could actually be controlling that Roboticom to do something bad. And that realization and the fact that now you actually have to control it in the cyber sense and not only in the physical sense is the evolution that happened between OT.Arjmand Samuel:Now, IT and OT work together as well because the same networks are shared typically. Some of the applications that use the data from these devices are common. So, IT and OT, this is the other, uh, thing that has changed and, and we are seeing that change, is starting to work and come closer. Work together more. IoT's really different, but at the same time requires a lot of stuff that IT has traditionally done.Natalia Godyla:Hmm. So, what we considered to be simple just isn't simple anymore.Arjmand Samuel:That's life, right? (laughs) Yeah.Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Arjmand Samuel:(laughs)Natalia Godyla:So, today we wanted to talk about IoT security. So, let's just start with, with framing the conversation a little bit. Why is IoT security important and what makes it more challenging, different than traditional security?Arjmand Samuel:As I just described, right, I mean, we are now infusing compute and in every environment around us. I mean, we talked a little bit about the conveyor belt. Imagine the conference rooms, the smart buildings and, and all the different technologies that are coming in. These are technologies, while they're good, they're serve a scenario. They, they make things more efficient and so on, but they're also now a point of, uh, of failure for that whole system as well as a way for malicious sectors to bring in code if possible. And to either, uh, imagine a scenario where or an attack where a malicious sector goes into the conveyor belt and knows exactly the product that is passing through. And imagine that's something either takes the data and sells it to somebody or, worse case, stops the conveyor belt. That is millions of dollars of loss very, uh, that data that the company might be incurring.Arjmand Samuel:So, now that there's infused computer all around us, we are now living in a target which in a environment which can be attacked, and which can be used for bad things much more than what it was when we were only applications, networks and databases. Easy to put a wall around. Easy to understand what's going on. They're easy to lock down. But with all these devices around us, it's becoming much and much harder to do the same.Nic Fillingham:And then what sort of, if, if we think about IoT and IoT security, one of the things that, sort of, makes it different, I- I th- think, and here I'd love you to explain this, sort of... I- I'm thinking of it as a, as a, as a spectrum of IoT devices that, I mean, they have a CPU. They have some memory. They have some storage. They're, they're running and operating system in some capacity all the way through to, I guess, m- much more, sort of, rudimentary devices but do have some connection, some network connection in order for instruction or data to, sort of, move backwards and forwards. What is it that makes this collection of stuff difficult to protect or, you know, is it difficult to protect? And if so, why? And then, how do we think about the, the, the potential vectors for attack that are different in this scenario versus, you know, protecting lap tops and servers?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. That's a good one. So, uh, what happens is you're right. Uh, IoT devices can be big and small, all right. They could be a small MCU class device with a real-time operating system on it. Very small, very, uh, single purpose device, which is imagine collecting temperature or humidity only. Then we have these very big, what we call the edge or heavy edge devices, which are like server class devices running a Roboticom or, or even a gateway class device, which is aggregating data from many devices, right, as a, a, and then take, taking the data and acting on it.Arjmand Samuel:So, now with all this infrastructure, one of the key things that we have seen is diversity and heterogeneity of these devices. Not just in terms of size, but also in terms of who manufactured them, when they were manufactured. So, many of the temperature sensors in environments could be very old. Like, 20 years old and people are trying to use the same equipment and not have to change anything there. And which they can. Technically they could, but then those devices were never designed in for a connected environment for these, this data to actually, uh, be aggregated and sent on the network, meaning they per- perhaps did not have encryption built into it. So, we have to do something, uh, additional there.Arjmand Samuel:And so now with the diversity of devices, when they came in, the, the feature set is so diverse. Some of them were, are more recent, built with the right security principles and the right security properties, but then some of them might not be. So, this could raise a, a challenge where how do you actually secure an infrastructure where you have this whole disparity and many different types of devices, many different manufacturers, many of ages different for these devices. Security properties are different and as we all know talking about security, the attack would always come from the weakest link. So, the attacker would always find, within that infrastructure, the device which has the least security as a entry point into that infrastructure. So, we can't just say, "Oh, I'll just protect my gateway and I'm fine." We have to have some mitigation for everything on that network. Everything. Even the older ones, older devices. We call them brownfield devices because they tend to be old devices, but they're also part of the infrastructure.Arjmand Samuel:So, how do we actually think about brownfield and the, the newer ones we call greenfield devices? Brownfield and greenfield, how do we think about those given they will come from different vendors, different designs, different security properties? So, that's a key challenge today that we have. So, they want to keep those devices as well as make sure that they are secure because the current threat vectors and threat, uh, the, and attacks are, are much more sophisticated.Natalia Godyla:So, you have a complex set of devices that the security team has to manage and understand. And then you have to determine at another level which of those devices have vulnerabilities or which one is the most vulnerable, and then, uh, assume that your most vulnerable, uh, will be the ones that are exploited. It, so, is that, that typically the attack factor? It's going to be the, the weakest link, like you said? And h- how does an attacker try to breach the IoT device?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. And, and this is where we, we started using the term zero trust IoT.Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Arjmand Samuel:So, IoT devices are deployed in an environment which can not be trusted, should not be trusted. You should assume that there is zero trust in that environment, and then all these devices, when they are in there, you will do the right things. You'll put in the right mitigations so that the devices themselves are robust. Now, another example I always give here is, and, uh, I, your question around the attack vectors and, and how attacks are happening, typically in the IT world, now that we, we have the term defined, in the IT world, you will always have, you know, physical security. You will always put servers in a room and lock it, and, and so on, right, but in an IoT environment, you have compute devices. Imagine these are powerful edge nodes doing video analytics, but they're mounted on a pole next to a camera outside on the road, right? So, which means the physical access to that device can not be controlled. It could be that edge node, again, a powerful computer device with lots of, you know, CPU and, and so on, is deployed in a mall looking at video streams and analyzing those video streams, again, deployed out there where any attacker physically can get a hold of the device and do bad things.Arjmand Samuel:So, again, the attack vectors are also different between IT and OT or IoT in the sense that the devices might not be physically contained in a, in an environment. So, that puts another layer of what do we do to protect such, uh, environments?Nic Fillingham:And then I want to just talk about the role of, sort of, if we think about traditional computing or traditional, sort of, PC based computing and PC devices, a lot of the attack vectors and a lot of the, sort of, weakest link is the user and the user account. And that's why, you know, phishing is such a massive issue that if we can socially engineer a way for the person to give us their user name and password or whatever, we, we, we can get access to a device through the user account. IoT devices and OT devices probably don't use that construct, right? They probably, their userless. Is that accurate?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. That's very accurate. So, again, all of the attack vectors which we know from IT are still relevant because, you know, if you, there's a phishing attack and the administrator password is taken over you can still go in and destroy the infrastructure, both IT and IoT. But at the same time, these devices, these IoT devices typically do not have a user interacting with them, typically in the compute sense. You do not log into an IoT device, right? Except in sensor with an MCU, it doesn't even have a user experience, uh, a screen on it. And so, there is typically no user associated with it, and that's another challenge. So you need to still have an identity off the device, not on the device, but off the device, but that identity has to be intrinsic off the device. It has to be part of the device and it has to be stable. It has to be protected, secure, and o- on the device, but it does not typically a user identity.Arjmand Samuel:And, and that's not only true for temperature sensors. You know, the smaller MCU class devices. That's true for edge nodes as well. Typically, an edge node, and by the way, when I say the edge node, edge node is a full blown, rich operating system. CPU, tons of memory, even perhaps a GPU, but does not typically have a user screen, a keyboard and a mouse. All it has is a video stream coming in through some protocol and it's analyzing that and then making some AI decisions, decisions based on AI. And, and, but that's a powerful machine. Again, there might never ever be a user interactively signing into it, but the device has an identity of its own. It has to authenticate itself and it workload through other devices or to the Cloud. And all of that has to be done in a way where there is no user attached to it.Natalia Godyla:So, with all of this complexity, how can we think about protecting against IoT attacks. You discussed briefly that we still apply the zero trust model here. So, you know, at a high level, what are best practices for protecting IoT?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Now that we, we just described the environment, we described the devices and, and the attacks, right? The bad things that can happen, how do we do that? So, the first thing we want to do, talk about is zero trust. So, do not trust the environment. Even if it is within a factory and you have a guard standing outside and you have all the, you know, the physical security, uh, do not trust it because there are still vectors which can allow malicious sectors to come into those devices. So, that's the first one, zero trust.Arjmand Samuel:Uh, do not trust anything that is on the device unless you explicitly trust it, you explicitly make sure that you can go in and you can, attest the workload, as an example. You can attest the identity of the device, as an example. And you can associate some access control polices and you have to do it explicitly and never assume that this is, because it's a, uh, environment in a factory you're good. So, you never assume that. So, again, that's a property or a principle within zero trust that we always exercise.Arjmand Samuel:Uh, the other one is you always assume breach. You always assume that bad things will happen. I- it's not if they'll happen or not. It's about when they're s- uh, going to happen. So, for the, that thinking, then you're putting in place mitigations. You are thinking, okay, if bad things are going to happen, how do I contain the bad things? How do I contain? How do I make sure that first of all, I can detect bad things happening. And we have, and we can talk about some of the offerings that we have, like Defender for IoT as an example, which you can deploy on to the environment. Even if it's brownfield, you can detect bad things happening based on the network characteristics. So, that's Defender for IoT.Arjmand Samuel:And, and once you can detect bad things happening then you can do something about it. You get an alert. You can, you can isolate that device or take that device off the network and refresh it and do those kind of things. So, the first thing that needs to happen is you assume that it's going breach. You always assume that whatever you are going to trust is explicitly trusted. You always make sure that there is a way to explicitly trust, uh, uh, uh, either the workload or the device or the network that is connected onto the device.Nic Fillingham:So, if we start with verify explicitly, in the traditional compute model where it's a user on a device, we can verify explicitly with, usually, multi factor authentication. So, I have my user name and password. I add an additional layer of authentication, whether it's an, you know, app on my phone, a key or something, some physical device, there's my second factor and I'm, I'm verified explicitly in that model. But again, no users or the user's not, sort of, interacting with the device in, sort of, that traditional sense, so what are those techniques to verify explicitly on an IoT device?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah. I, exactly. So, we, in that white paper, which we are talking about, we actually put down a few things that you can actually do to, to, en- ensure that you have all the zero trust requirements together. Now, the first one, of course, is you need, uh, all devices to have strong identity, right? So, because identity is a code. If you can not identi- identify something you can not, uh, give it an access control policy. You can not trust the data that is coming out from that, uh, device. So, the first thing you do is you have a strong identity. By a strong identity we mean identity, which is rooted in hardware, and so, what we call the hardware based root of trust. It's technologies like TPM, which ensure that you have the private key, which is secured in our hardware, in the hardware and you can not get to it, so and so on. So, you, you ensure that you have a, a strong identity.Arjmand Samuel:You always have these privilege access so you do not... And these principles have been known to our IT operations forever, right? So, many years they have been refined and, uh, people know about those, but we're applying them to the IoT world. So, these privilege access, if our device is required to access another device or data or to push out data, it should only do that for the function it is designed for, nothing more than that. You should always have some level of, uh, device health check. Perhaps you should be able to do some kind of test station of the device. Again, there is no user to access the device health, but you should be able to do, and there are ways, there are services which allow you to measure something on the device and then say yes it's good or not.Arjmand Samuel:You should be able to do a continuous update. So, in case there is a device which, uh, has been compromised, you should be able to reclaim that device and update it with a fresh image so that now you can start trusting it. And then finally you should be able to securely monitor it. And not just the device itself, but now we have to technologies which can monitor the data which is passing through the network, and based on those characteristics can see if a device is attacked or being attacked or not. So, those are the kind of things that we would recommend for a zero trust environment to take into account and, and make those requirements a must for, for IoT deployments.Natalia Godyla:And what's Microsoft's role in protecting against these attacks?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. So, uh, a few products that we always recommend. If somebody is putting together a new IoT device right from the silicone and putting that device together, we have a great secure be design device, which is called Azure Sphere. Azure Sphere has a bunch of different things that it does, including identity, updates, cert management. All these are important functions that are required for that device to function. And so, a new device could use the design that we have for Azure Sphere.Arjmand Samuel:Then we have, a gateway software that you put on a gateway which allows you to secure the devices behind that gateway for on time deployments. We have Defender for IoT, again as I mentioned, but Defender for IoT is on-prem, so you can actually monitor all the tracks on the network and on the devices. You could also put a agent, a Micro Agent on these devices, but then it also connects to Azure Sentinel. Azure Sentinel is a enterprise class user experience for security administrators to know what bad things are happening on, on-prem. So, it, the whole end to end thing could works all the way from the network, brownfield devices to the Cloud.Arjmand Samuel:We also have things like, uh, IoT Hub Device Provisioning service. Device provisioning service is an interesting concept. I'll try to briefly describe that. So, what happens is when you have an identity on a device and you want to actually put that device, deploy that device in your environment, it has to be linked up with a service in the Cloud so that it can, it knows the device, there's an identity which is shared and so on. Now, you could do it manually. You could actually bring that device in, read a code, put it in the Cloud and your good to go because now the Cloud knows about that device, but then what do you do when you have to deploy a million devices? And we're talking about IoT scale, millions. A fleet of millions of devices. If you take that same approach of reading a key and putting it in the Cloud, one, you'd make mistakes. Second, you will probably need a lifetime to take all those keys and put them in the cloud.Arjmand Samuel:So, in order to solve that problem, we have the device provisioning service, which it's a service in the Cloud. It is, uh, linked up to the OEMs or manufacturing devices. And when you deploy our device in your field, you do not have to do any of that. Your credentials are passed between the service and the, and the device. So, so, that's another service. IoT Hub Device Provisioning Service.Arjmand Samuel:And then we have, uh, a work, the, uh, a piece of work that we have done, which is the Certification of IoT Devices. So, again, you need the devices to have certain security properties. And how do you do that? How do you ensure that they have the right security properties, like identity and cert management and update ability and so on, we have what we call the Edge Secured-core Certification as well as Azure Certified Device Program. So, any device which is in there has been tested by us and we certify that that device has the right security properties. So, we encourage our customers to actually pick from those devices so that they, they actually get the best security properties.Natalia Godyla:Wow. That's a lot, which is incredible. What's next for Microsoft's, uh, approach to IoT security?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, yeah. So, uh, one of the key things that we have heard our customers, anybody who's going into IoT ask the question, what is the risk I'm taking? Right? So, I'm deploying all these devices in my factories and Roboticom's connecting them, and so on, but there's a risk here. And how do I quantify that risk? How do I understand th- that risk and how do I do something about that risk?Arjmand Samuel:So, we, we got those questions many years back, like four, five years back. We started working with the industry and together with the Industrial Internet Consortium, IIC, which a consortium out there and there are many companies part of that consortium, we led something called The Security Maturity Model for IoT. So, so, we put down a set of principles and a set of processes you follow to evaluate the maturity of your security in IoT, right? So, it's a actionable thing. You take the document, you evaluate, and then once you have evaluated, it actually give you a score.It says you're level one, or two, or three, or four. Four, that's the authentication. All else is controlled management. And then based on th- that level, you know where you care, first of all. So, you know what your weaknesses are and what you need to do. So, that's a very actionable thing. But beyond that, if you're at level two and you want to be at level four, and by want to means your scenario dictates that you should be at level four, it is actionable. It gives you a list of things to do to go from level two to level four. And then you can reevaluate yourself and then you know that you're at level four. So, that's a maturityArjmand Samuel:Now, In order to operationalize that program with in partnership with IAC, we also have been, and IAC's help, uh, has been instrumental here, we have been working on a training program where we have been training auditors. These are IoT security auditors, third party, independent auditors who are not trained on SMMs Security Maturity Model. And we tell our customers, if you have a concern, get yourself audited using SMM, using the auditors and that will tell you where you are and where you need to go. So, it's evolving. Security for IoT's evolving, but I think we are at the forefront of that evolution.Nic Fillingham:Just to, sort of, finish up here, I'm thinking of some of the recent IoT security stories that were in the news. We won't mention any specifically, but there, there have been some recently. My take aways hearing those stories reading those stories in the news is that, oh, wow, there's probably a lot of organizations out here and maybe individuals at companies that are using IoT and OT devices that maybe don't see themselves as being security people or having to think about IoT security, you know T security. I just wonder if do you think there is a, a population of folks out here that don't think of themselves as IoT security people, but they really are? And then therefore, how do we sort of go find those people and help them go, get educated about securing IoT devices?Arjmand Samuel:Yeah, that's, uh, that's exactly what we are trying to do here. So, uh, people who know security can obviously know the bad things that can happen and can do something about it, but the worst part is that in OT, people are not thinking about all the bad things that can happen in the cyber world. You mentioned that example with that treatment plant. It should never have been connected to the network, unless required. And if it was connected to the, uh, to the network, to the internet, you should have had a ton a mitigations in place in case somebody was trying to come in and should have been stopped. And in that particular case, y- there was a phishing attack and the administrative password was, was taken over. But even with that, with the, some of our products, like Defender for IoT, can actually detect the administrative behavior and can, can detect if an administrator is trying to do bath things. It can still tell other administrators there's bad things happening.Arjmand Samuel:So, there's a ton of things that one could do, and it all comes down, what we have realized is it all comes down to making sure that this word gets out, that people know that there is bad things that can happen with IoT and it's not only your data being stolen. It's very bad things as in that example. And so, the word out, uh, so that we can, uh, we can actually make IoT more secure.Nic Fillingham:Got it. Arjmand, again, thanks so much for your time. It sounds like we really need to get the word out. IoT security is a thing. You know, if you work in an organization that employs IoT or OT devices, or think you might, go and download this white paper. Um, we'll put the link in the, uh, in the show notes. You can just search for it also probably on the Microsoft Security Blog and learn more about cyber security for IoT, how to apply zero trust model. Share it with your, with your peers and, uh, let's get as much education as we can out there.Arjmand Samuel:Thank you very much for this, uh, opportunity.Nic Fillingham:Thanks, Arjmand, for joining us. I think we'll definitely touch on cyber security for IoT, uh, in future episodes. So, I'd love to talk to you again. (music)Arjmand Samuel:Looking forward to it. (music)Natalia Godyla:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.Nic Fillingham:And don't forget to Tweet us @MSFTSecurity or email us at securityunlocked@Microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. (music) Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla:Stay secure. (music)
7/7/2021

Looking a Gift Card Horse in the Mouth

Ep. 35
Is it just me, or do you also miss the goodoledays of fraudulent activity?You remember the kind I’m talking about, theemails from princes around the world asking for just a couple hundred dollars to help them unfreeze or retrieve their massive fortune which they would share with you. Attacks havegrownmore nuanced, complex, and invasive since then, but because of the unbelievable talent at Microsoft, we’re constantly getting better at defending against it.On this episode of Security Unlocked, hosts Nic Fillingham and NataliaGodylasit down with returning champion, Emily Hacker, to discuss Business Email Compromise (BEC), an attack that has perpetrators pretending to be someone from the victim’s place of work and instructs them to purchase gift cards and send them to thescammer.Maybe it’s good tolookagift cardhorse in the mouth?In This Episode You Will Learn:Why BEC is such an effective and pervasive attackWhat are the key things to look out for to protect yourself against oneWhy BEC emails are difficult to trackSome Questions We Ask:How do the attackers mimic a true-to-form email from a colleague?Why do we classify this type of email attack separately from others?Why are they asking for gift cards rather than cash?Resources:Emily Hacker’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/emilydhacker/FBI’s2020Internet Crime Reporthttps://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2020_IC3Report.pdfNicFillingham’sLinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/NataliaGodyla’sLinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliagodyla/Microsoft Security Blog:https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/Related:Security Unlocked: CISO Series with Bret Arsenaulthttps://SecurityUnlockedCISOSeries.comTranscript:[Full transcript can be found athttps://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp35]Nic Fillingham:Hello, and welcome to Security Unlocked, a new podcast from Microsoft, where we unlock insights from the latest in news and research from across Microsoft security engineering and operations teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.Natalia Godyla:And I'm Natalia Godyla. In each episode, we'll discuss the latest stories from Microsoft security, deep dive into the newest thread intel, research and data science.Nic Fillingham:And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft security.Natalia Godyla:And now, let's unlock the pod.Nic Fillingham:Hello listeners, hello, Natalia, welcome to episode 35 of Security Unlocked. Natalia, how are you?Natalia Godyla:I'm doing well as always and welcome everyone to another show.Nic Fillingham:It's probably quite redundant, me asking you how you are and you asking me how you are, 'cause that's not really a question that you really answer honestly, is it? It's not like, "Oh, my right knee's packing at the end a bit," or "I'm very hot."Natalia Godyla:Yeah, I'm doing terrible right now, actually. I, I just, uh- Nic Fillingham:Everything is terrible.Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Well, uh, our guest today is, is a returning champ, Emily Hacker. This is her third, uh, appearance on Security Unlocked, and, and she's returning to talk to us about a, uh, new business email compromise campaign that she and her colleagues helped unearth focusing on some sort of gift card scam.Nic Fillingham:We've covered business email compromise before or BEC on the podcast. Uh, we had, uh, Donald Keating join us, uh, back in the early days of Security Unlocked on episode six. The campaign itself, not super sophisticated as, as Emily sort of explains, but so much more sort of prevalent than I think a lot of us sort of realize. BEC was actually the number one reported source of financial loss to the FBI in 2020. Like by an order of magnitude above sort of, you know, just places second place, third place, fourth place. You know, I think the losses were in the billions, this is what was reported to the FBI, so it's a big problem. And thankfully, we've got people like, uh, Emily on it.Nic Fillingham:Natalia, can you give us the TLDR on the, on the campaign that Emily helps describe?Natalia Godyla:Yeah, as you said, it's, uh, a BEC gift card campaign. So the attackers use typosquatted domains, and socially engineered executives to request from employees that they purchase gift cards. And the request is very vague. Like, "I need you to do a task for me, "or "Let me know if you're available." And they used that authority to convince the employees to purchase the gift cards for them. And they then co-converted the gift cards into crypto at, at scale to collect their payout.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, and we actually discuss with Emily that, that between the three of us, Natalia, myself and Emily, we actually didn't have a good answer for how the, uh- Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... these attackers are laundering these gift cards and, and converting them to crypto. So we're gonna, we're gonna go and do some research, and we're gonna hopefully follow up on a, on a future episode to better understand that process. Awesome. And so with that, on with the pod.Natalia Godyla:On with the pod.Nic Fillingham:Welcome back to the Security Unlocked podcast. Emily hacker, how are you?Emily Hacker:I'm doing well. Thank you for having me. How are you doing?Nic Fillingham:I'm doing well. I'm trying very hard not to melt here in Seattle. We're recording this at the tail end of the heat wave apocalypse of late June, 2021. Natalia, are you all in, I should have asked, have you melted or are you still in solid form?Natalia Godyla:I'm in solid form partially because I think Seattle stole our heat. I'm sitting in Los Angeles now.Nic Fillingham:Uh huh, got it. Emily, thank you for joining us again. I hope you're also beating the heat. You're here to talk about business email compromise. And you were one of the folks that co-authored a blog post from May 6th, talking about a new campaign that was discovered utilizing gift card scams. First of all, welcome back. Thanks for being a return guest. Second of all, do I get credit or do I get blame for the tweet that enabled you to, to- Emily Hacker:(laughs) It's been so long, I was hoping you would have forgotten.Nic Fillingham:(laughs) Emily and I were going backward forward on email, and I basically asked Emily, "Hey, Emily, who's like the expert at Microsoft on business email compromise?" And then Emily responded with, "I am."Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:As in, Emily is. And so I, I think I apologized profusely. If I didn't, let me do that now for not assuming that you are the subject matter expert, but that then birthed a very fun tweet that you put out into the Twitter sphere. Do you wanna share that with the listeners or is this uncomfortable and we need to cut it from the audio?Emily Hacker:No, it's fine. You can share with the listeners. I, uh- Nic Fillingham:(laughs)Emily Hacker:... I truly was not upset. I don't know if you apologized or not, because I didn't think it was the thing to apologize for. Because I didn't take your question as like a, "Hey," I'm like, "Can you like get out of the way I did not take it that way at all. It was just like, I've been in this industry for five years and I have gotten so many emails from people being like, "Hey, who's the subject matter in X?" And I'm always having to be like, "Oh, it's so and so," you know, or, "Oh yeah, I've talked to them, it's so-and-so." And for once I was like, "Oh my goodness, it me."Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Emily Hacker:Like I'm finally a subject matter in something. It took a long time. So the tweet was, was me being excited that I got to be the subject matter expert, not me being upset at you for asking who it was.Nic Fillingham:No, I, I took it in it's, I did assume that it was excitement and not crankiness at me for not assuming that it would be you. But I was also excited because I saw the tweet, 'cause I follow you on Twitter and I'm like, "Oh, that was me. That was me." And I got to use- Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... I got to use the meme that's the s- the, the weird side eye puppet, the side, side eye puppet. I don't know if that translates. There's this meme where it's like a we-weird sort of like H.R. Pufnstuf sort of reject puppet, and it's sort of like looking sideways to the, to the camera.Emily Hacker:Yes.Nic Fillingham:Uh, I've, and I've- Emily Hacker:Your response literally made me laugh a while though alone in my apartment.Nic Fillingham:(laughs_ I've never been able to use that meme in like its perfect context, and I was like, "This is it."Emily Hacker:(laughs) We just set that one up for a comedy home run basically.Nic Fillingham:Yes, yes, yes. And I think my dad liked the tweet too- Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... so I think I had that, so that was good.Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Um, he's like my only follower.Emily Hacker:Pure success.Nic Fillingham:Um, well, on that note, so yeah, we're here to talk about business email compromise, which we've covered on the, on the podcast before. You, as I said, uh, co-authored this post for May 6th. We'll have a, a broader conversation about BEC, but let's start with these post. Could you, give us a summary, what was discussed in this, uh, blog post back on, on May 6th?Emily Hacker:Yeah, so this blog post was about a specific type of business email compromise, where the attackers are using lookalike domains and lookalike email addresses to send emails that are trying, in this particular case, to get the user to send them a gift card. And so this is not the type of BEC where a lot of people might be thinking of in terms of conducting wire transfer fraud, or, you know, you read in the news like some company wired several million dollars to an attacker. That wasn't this, but this is still creating a financial impact and that the recipient is either gonna be using their own personal funds or in some cases, company funds to buy gift cards, especially if the thread actor is pretending to be a supervisor and is like, "Hey, you know, admin assistant, can you buy these gift cards for the team?" They're probably gonna use company funds at that point.Emily Hacker:So it's still something that we keep an eye out for. And it's actually, these gift card scams are far and away the most common, I would say, type of BEC that I am seeing when I look for BEC type emails. It's like, well over, I would say 70% of the BEC emails that I see are trying to do this gift card scam, 'cause it's a little easier, I would say for them to fly under the radar maybe, uh, in terms of just like, someone's less likely to report like, "Hey, why did you spend $30 on a gift card?" Than like, "Hey, where did those like six billion dollars go?" So like in that case, "This is probably a little easier for them to fly under the radar for the companies. But in terms of impact, if they send, you know, hundreds upon hundreds of these emails, the actors are still gonna be making a decent chunk of change at the end of the day.Emily Hacker:In this particular instance, the attackers had registered a couple hundred lookalike domains that aligned with real companies, but were just a couple of letters or digits off, or were using a different TLD, or use like a number or sort of a letter or something, something along the lines to where you can look at it and be like, "Oh, I can tell that the attacker is pretending to be this other real company, but they are actually creating their own."Emily Hacker:But what was interesting about this campaign that I found pretty silly honestly, was that normally when the attacker does that, one would expect them to impersonate the company that their domain is looking like, and they totally didn't in this case. So they registered all these domains that were lookalike domains, but then when they actually sent the emails, they were pretending to be different companies, and they would just change the display name of their email address to match whoever they were impersonating.Emily Hacker:So one of the examples in the blog. They're impersonating a guy named Steve, and Steve is a real executive at the company that they sent this email to. But the email address that they registered here was not Steve, and the domain was not for the company that Steve works at. So they got a little bit, I don't know if they like got their wires crossed, or if they just were using the same infrastructure that they were gonna use for a different attack, but these domains were registered the day before this attack. So it definitely doesn't seem like opportunistic, and which it doesn't seem like some actors were like, "Oh, hey look, free domains. We'll send some emails." Like they were brand new and just used for strange purposes.Natalia Godyla:Didn't they also fake data in the headers? Why would they be so careless about connecting the company to the language in the email body but go through the trouble of editing the headers?Emily Hacker:That's a good question. They did edit the headers in one instance that I was able to see, granted I didn't see every single email in this attack because I just don't have that kind of data. And what they did was they spoofed one of the headers, which is an in-reply-to a header, which makes it, which is the header that would let us know that it's a real reply. But I worked really closely with a lot of email teams and we were able to determine that it wasn't indeed a fake reply.Emily Hacker:My only guess, honestly, guess as to why that happened is one of two things. One, the domain thing was like a, a mess up, like if they had better intentions and the domain thing went awry. Or number two, it's possible that this is multiple attackers conducting. If one guy was responsible for the emails with the mess of domains, and a different person was responsible for the one that had the email header, like maybe the email header guy is just a little bit more savvy at whose job of crime than the first guy.Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:Yeah, I li- I like the idea of, uh, sort of ragtag grubbing. I don't mean to make them an attractive image, but, you know, a ragtag group of people here. And like, you've got a very competent person who knows how to go and sort of spoof domain headers, and you have a less competent person who is- Emily Hacker:Yeah. It's like Pinky and the Brain.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, it is Pinky and the Brain. That's fantastic. I love the idea of Pinky and the Brain trying to conduct a multi-national, uh- Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:... BEC campaign as their way to try and take over the world. Can we back up a little bit? We jumped straight into this, which is totally, you know, we asked you to do that. So, but let's go back to a little bit of basics. BEC stands for business email compromise. It is distinct from, I mean, do you say CEC for consumer email compromise? Like what's the opposite side of that coin? And then can you explain what BEC is for us and why we sort of think about it distinctly?Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative), so I don't know if there's a term for the non-business side of BEC other than just scam. At its basest form, what BEC is, is just a scam where the thread actors are just trying to trick people out of money or data. And so it doesn't involve any malware for the most part at the BEC stage of it. It doesn't involve any phishing for the most part at the BEC stage of it. Those things might exist earlier in the chain, if you will, for more sophisticated attacks. Like an attacker might use a phishing campaign to get access before conducting the BEC, or an attacker might use like a RAT on a machine to gain access to emails before the actual BEC. But the business email compromise email itself, for the most part is just a scam. And what it is, is when an attacker will pretend to be somebody at a company and ask for money data that can include, you know, like W-2's, in which case that was still kind of BEC.Emily Hacker:And when I say that they're pretending to be this company, there's a few different ways that that can happen. And so, the most, in my opinion, sophisticated version of this, but honestly the term sophisticated might be loaded and arguable there, is when the attacker actually uses a real account. So business email compromise, the term might imply that sometimes you're actually compromising an email. And those are the ones where I think are what people are thinking of when they're thinking of these million billion dollar losses, where the attacker gains access to an email account and basically replies as the real individual.Emily Hacker:Let's say that there was an email thread going on between accounts payable and a vendor, and the attacker has compromised the, the vendor's email account, well, in the course of the conversation, they can reply to the email and say, "Hey, we just set up a new bank account. Can you change the information and actually wire the million dollars for this particular project to this bank account instead?" And if the recipient of that email is not critical of that request, they might actually do that, and then the money is in the attacker's hands. And it's difficult to be critical of that request because it'll sometimes literally just be a reply to an ongoing email thread with someone you've probably been doing business with for a while, and nothing about that might stand out as strange, other than them changing the account. It can be possible, but difficult to get it back in those cases. But those are definitely the ones that are, I would say, the most tricky to spot.Emily Hacker:More common, I would say, what we see is the attacker is not actually compromising an email, not necessarily gaining access to it, but using some means of pretending or spoofing or impersonating an email account that they don't actually have access to. And that might include registering lookalike domains as in the case that we talked about in this blog. And that can be typosquatted domains or just lookalike domains, where, for example, I always use this example, even though I doubt this domain is available, but instead of doing microsoft.com, they might do Microsoft with a zero, or like Microsoft using R-N-I-C-R-O-S-O-F-t.com. So it looks like an M at first glance, but it's actually not. Or they might do something like microsoft-com.org or something, which that obviously would not be available, but you get the point. Where they're just getting these domains that kind of look like the right one so that somebody, at first glance, will just look up and be like, "Oh yeah, that looks like Microsoft. This is the right person."Emily Hacker:They might also, more commonly, just register emails using free email services and either do one of two things, make the email specific to the person they're targeting. So let's say that an attacker was pretending to be me. They might register emilyhacker@gmail.com, or more recently and maybe a little bit more targeted, they might register like emily.hacker.microsoft.com@gmail.com, and then they'll send an email as me. And then on the, I would say less sophisticated into the spectrum, is when they are just creating an email address that's like bob@gmail.com. And then they'll use that email address for like tons of different targets, like different victims. And they'll either just change the display name to match someone at the company that they're targeting, or they might just change it to be like executive or like CEO or something, which like the least believable of the bunch in my opinion is when they're just reusing the free emails.Emily Hacker:So that's kind of the different ways that they can impersonate or pretend to be these companies, but I see all of those being used in various ways. But for sure the most common is the free email service. And I mean, it makes sense, because if you're gonna register a domain name that cost money and it takes time and takes skill, same with compromising an email account, but it's quick and easy just to register a free email account. So, yeah.Nic Fillingham:So just to sort of summarize here. So business email compromise i-is obviously very complex. There's lots of facets to it.Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:It sounds like, first of all, it's targeted at businesses as opposed to targeted individuals. In targeted individuals is just more simple scams. We can talk about those, but business email compromise, targeted at businesses- Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... and the end goal is probably to get some form of compromise, and which could be in different ways, but some sort of compromise of a communication channel or a communication thread with that business to ultimately get some money out of them?Emily Hacker:Yep, so it's a social engineering scheme to get whatever their end goals are, usually money. Yeah.Nic Fillingham:Got it. Like if I buy a gift card for a friend or a family for their birthday, and I give that to them, the wording on the bottom says pretty clearly, like not redeemable for cash. Like it's- Emily Hacker:So- Nic Fillingham:... so what's the loophole they're taking advantage of here?Emily Hacker:Criminals kind of crime. Apparently- Natalia Godyla:(laughs)Emily Hacker:... there are sites, you know, on the internet specifically for cashing out gift cards for cryptocurrency.Nic Fillingham:Hmm.Emily Hacker:And so they get these gift cards specifically so that they can cash them out for cryptocurrency, which then is a lot, obviously, less traceable as opposed to just cash. So that is the appeal of gift cards, easier to switch for, I guess, cryptocurrency in a much less traceable manner for the criminals in this regard. And there are probably, you know, you can sell them. Also, you can sell someone a gift card and be like, "Hey, I got a $50 iTunes gift card. Give me $50 and you got an iTunes gift card." I don't know if iTunes is even still a thing. But like that is another means of, it's just, I think a way of like, especially the cryptocurrency one, it's just a way of distancing themselves one step from the actual payout that they end up with.Nic Fillingham:Yeah, I mean, it's clearly a, a laundering tactic.Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:It's just, I'm trying to think of like, someone's eventually trying to get cash out of this gift card-Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... and instead of going into Target with 10,000 gift cards, and spending them all, and then turning right back around and going to the returns desk and saying like, "I need to return these $10,000 that I just bought."Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:I guess I'm just puzzled as to how, at scale- Emily Hacker:Yeah.Nic Fillingham:... and I guess that's the key word here, at scale, at a criminal scale, how are they, what's the actual return? Are they getting, are they getting 50 cents on the dollar? Are they getting five cents on the dollar? Are they getting 95 cents on the dollar? Um, it sounds like, maybe I don't know how to ask that question, but I think it's a fascinating one, I'd love to learn more about.Emily Hacker:It is a good question. I would imagine that the, the sites where they exchange them for cryptocurrency are set up in a way where rather than one person ending up with all the gift cards to where that you have an issue, like what you're talking about with like, "Hey, uh, can I casually return these six million gift cards?" Like rather than that, they're, it's more distributed. But there probably is a surcharge in terms of they're not getting a one-to-one, but it's- Nic Fillingham:Yeah.Emily Hacker:... I would not imagine that it's very low. Or like I would not imagine that they're getting five cents on the dollar, I would imagine it's higher than that.Nic Fillingham:Got it.Emily Hacker:But I don't know. So, that's a good question.Natalia Godyla:And we're talking about leveraging this cryptocurrency model to cash them out. So has there been an increase in these scams because they now have this ability to cash them out for crypto? Like, was that a driver?Emily Hacker:I'm not sure. I don't know how long the crypto cash out method has been available.Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Emily Hacker:I've only recently learned about it, but that's just because I don't spend, I guess I don't spend a lot of time dealing with that end of the scam. For the most part, my job is looking at the emails themselves. So, the, learning what they're doing once they get the gift cards was relatively new to me, but I don't think it's new to the criminals. So it's hard for me to answer that question, not knowing how long the, the crypto cash out method has been available to them. But I will say that it does feel like, in the last couple of years, gift card scams have just been either increasing or coming into light more, but I think increasing.Nic Fillingham:Emily, what's new about this particular campaign that you discussed in the blog? I-it doesn't look like there's something very new in the approach here. This feels like it's a very minor tweak on techniques that have been employed for a while. Tell me what's, what's new about this campaign? (laughs)Emily Hacker:(laughs) Um, so I would agree that this is not a revolutionary campaign.Nic Fillingham:Okay.Emily Hacker:And I didn't, you know, choose to write this one into the blog necessarily because it's revolutionary, but rather because this is so pervasive that I felt like it was important for Microsoft customers to be aware that this type of scam is so, I don't know what word, now we're both struggling with words, I wanna say prolific, but suddenly the definition of that word seems like it doesn't fit in that sentence.Nic Fillingham:No, yeah, prolific, that makes sense. Emily Hacker:Okay.Nic Fillingham:Like, this is, it sounds like what you're saying is, this blog exists not because this campaign is very unique and some sort of cutting-edge new technique, it exists because it's incredibly pervasive.Emily Hacker:Yes.Nic Fillingham:And lots and lots of people and lots and lots of businesses are probably going to get targeted by it. Emily Hacker:Exactly.Nic Fillingham:And we wanna make sure everyone knows about it.Emily Hacker:And the difference, yes, and the, the only real thing that I would say set this one apart from some of the other ones, was the use of the lookalike domains. Like so many of the gift cards scams that I see, so many of the gift cards scams that I see are free email accounts, Gmail, AOL, Hotmail, but this one was using the lookalike domains. And that kind of gave us a little bit more to talk about because we could look into when the domains were registered. I saw that they were registered the day, I think one to two days before the attack commenced. And that also gave us a little bit more to talk about in terms of BEC in the blog, because this kind of combined a couple of different methods of BEC, right? It has the gift cards scam, which we see just all the time, but it also had that kind of lookalike domain, which could help us talk about that angle of BEC.Emily Hacker:But I had been, Microsoft is, is definitely starting to focus in on BEC, I don't know, starting to focus in, but increasing our focus on BEC. And so, I think that a lot of the stuff that happens in BEC isn't new. Because it's so successful, there's really not much in the way of reason for the attackers to shift so dramatically their tactics. I mean, even with the more sophisticated attacks, such as the ones where they are compromising an account, those are still just like basic phishing emails, logging into an account, setting up forwarding rules, like this is the stuff that we've been talking about in BEC for a long time. But I think Microsoft is talking about these more now because we are trying to get the word out, you know, about this being such a big problem and wanting to shift the focus more to BEC so that more people are talking about it and solving it. Natalia Godyla:It seemed like there was A/B testing happening with the cybercriminals. They had occasionally a soft intro where someone would email and ask like, "Are you available?" And then when the target responded, they then tried to get money from that individual, or they just immediately asked for money.Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Natalia Godyla:Why the different tactics? Were they actually attempting to be strategic to test which version worked, or was it just, like you said, different actors using different methods?Emily Hacker:I would guess it's different actors using different methods or another thing that it could be was that they don't want the emails to say the same thing every time, because then it would be really easy for someone like me to just identify them- Natalia Godyla:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Emily Hacker:... in terms of looking at mail flow for those specific keywords or whatever. If they switch them up a little bit, it makes it harder for me to find all the emails, right? Or anybody. So I think that could be part of the case in terms of just sending the exact same email every time is gonna make it really easy for me to be like, "Okay, well here's all the emails." But I think there could also be something strategic to it as well. I just saw one just yesterday actually, or what day is it, Tuesday? Yeah, so it must've been yesterday where the attacker did a real reply.Emily Hacker:So they sent the, the soft opening, as you said, where it just says, "Are you available?" And then they had sent a second one that asked that full question in terms of like, "I'm really busy, I need you to help me, can you call me or email me," or something, not call obviously, because they didn't provide a phone number. Sometimes they do, but in this case, they didn't. And they had actually responded to their own email. So the attacker replied to their own email to kind of get that second push to the victim. The victim just reported the email to Microsoft so they didn't fall for it. Good for them. But it does seem that there might be some strategy involved or desperation. I'm not sure which one.Natalia Godyla:(laughs) Fine line between the two.Emily Hacker:(laughs)Nic Fillingham:I'd want to ask question that I don't know if you can answer, because I don't wanna ask you to essentially, you know, jeopardize any operational security or sort of tradecraft here, but can you give us a little tidbit of a glimpse of your, your job, and, and how you sort of do this day-to-day? Are you going and registering new email accounts and, and intentionally putting them in dodgy places in hopes of being the recipient? Or are you just responding to emails that have been reported as phishing from customers? Are you doing other things like, again, I don't wanna jeopardize any of your operational security or, you know, the processes that you use, but how do you find these?Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:And how do you then sort of go and follow the threads and uncover these campaigns?Emily Hacker:Yeah, there's a few ways, I guess that we look for these. We don't currently have any kind of like Honey accounts set up or anything like that, where we would be hoping to be targeted and find them this way. I know there are different entities within Microsoft who are, who do different things, right? So my team is not the entity that would be doing that. So my team's job is more looking at what already exists. So we're looking at stuff that customers have reported, and we're also looking at open source intelligence if anyone else has tweeted or released a blog or something about an ongoing BEC campaign, that might be something that then I can go look at our data and see if we've gotten.Emily Hacker:But the biggest way outside of those, those are the two, like I would say smaller ways. The biggest way that we find these campaigns is we do technique tracking. So we have lots of different, we call them traps basically, and they run over all mail flow, and they look for certain either keywords or there are so many different things that they run on. Obviously not just keywords, I'm just trying to be vague here. But like they run on a bunch of different things and they have different names. So if an email hits on a certain few items, that might tell us, "Hey, this one might be BEC," and then that email can be surfaced to me to look into.Emily Hacker:Unfortunately, BEC is very, is a little bit more difficult to track just by the nature of it not containing phishing links or malware attachments or anything along those lines. So it is a little bit more keyword based. And so, a lot of times it's like looking at 10,000 emails and looking for the one that is bad when they all kind of use the same keywords. And of course, we don't just get to see every legitimate email, 'cause that would be like a crazy customer privacy concern. So we only get to really see certain emails that are suspected malicious by the customer, in which case it does help us a little bit because they're already surfacing the bad ones to us.Emily Hacker:But yeah, that's how we find these, is just by looking for the ones that already seem malicious kind of and applying logic over them to see like, "Hmm, this one might be BEC or," you know, we do that, not just for BEC, but like, "Hmm, this one seems like it might be this type of phishing," or like, "Hmm, this one seems like it might be a buzz call," or whatever, you know, these types of things that will surface all these different emails to us in a way that we can then go investigate them.Nic Fillingham:So for the folks listening to this podcast, what do you want them to take away from this? What you want us to know on the SOC side, on the- Emily Hacker:Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham:... on the SOC side? Like, is there any additional sort of, what are some of the fundamentals and sort of basics of BEC hygiene? Is there anything else you want folks to be doing to help protect the users in their organizations?Emily Hacker:Yeah, so I would say not to just focus on monitoring what's going on in the end point, because BEC activity is not going to have a lot, if anything, that's going to appear on the end point. So making sure that you're monitoring emails and looking for not just emails that contain malicious links or attachments, but also looking for emails that might contain BEC keywords. Or even better, if there's a way for you to monitor your organization's forwarding rules, if a user suddenly sets up a, a slew of new forwarding rules from their email account, see if there's a way to turn that into a notification or an alert, I mean, to you in the SOC. And that's a really key indicator that that might be BEC, not necessarily gift cards scam, but BEC.Emily Hacker:Or see if there is a way to monitor, uh, not monitor, but like, if your organization has users reporting phishing mails, if you get one that's like, "Oh, this is just your basic low-level credential phishing," don't just toss it aside and be like, "Well, that was just one person and has really crappy voicemail phish, no one's going to actually fall for that." Actually, look and see how many people got the email. See if anybody clicked, force password resets on the people that clicked, or if you can't tell who clicked on everybody, because it really only takes one person to have clicked on that email and you not reset their password, and now the attackers have access to your organization's email and they can be conducting these kinds of wire transfer fraud.Emily Hacker:So like, and I know we're all overworked in this industry, and I know that it can be difficult to try and focus on everything at once. And especially, you know, if you're being told, like our focus is ransomware, we don't want to have ransomware. You're just constantly monitoring end points for suspicious activity, but it's important to try and make sure that you're not neglecting the stuff that only exists in email as well. Natalia Godyla:Those are great suggestions. And I'd be remiss not to note that some of those suggestions are available in Microsoft Defender for Office 365, like the suspicious forwarding alerts or attack simulation training for user awareness. But thank you again for joining us, Emily, and we hope to have you back on the show many more times.Emily Hacker:Yeah, thanks so much for having me again.Natalia Godyla:Well, we had a great time unlocking insights into security from research to artificial intelligence. Keep an eye out for our next episode.Nic Fillingham:And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity, or email us at securityunlocked@microsoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on our future episode. Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla:Stay secure.