Data Exfiltration: How Data Gets Out

Most attention goes to keeping hackers out. But once they're in, how do they extract data? Research shows it's often simple

By Nicholas J. Percoco, CSO |  Software, cyber crime

The automated method was custom written malware that took advantage of a flaw found in the security controls of the applications being used to process confidential data. Generally, many application security designs do not apply more controls and alerting capabilities over components that process data in the clear. A target system that receives data encrypted and stores data encrypted but transmits data to an upstream host is susceptible to a data breach while the data is processed by the target system. This occurs because data processed by a system must be decrypted in RAM for the application to understand it. During this process, cyber criminals in 2009 frequently employed RAM parsers--67 percent of SpiderLabs' investigations involving malware concluded that automated tools were used to harvest data out of RAM while the system was using the data in some capacity.

The average time the cyber criminals were able to access the target systems and data was 156 days. For that period of time, attackers entered the environment, set up their tools to remove data and also harvested the data before a single IT or security department reacted to their activities. Some 2009 investigations showed recurring activity from the same cyber criminals over the course of three years. Long times to detection were typical in 2009 and, seemingly armed with this knowledge, cyber criminals are not practicing stealth in their activities.

In 38 cases, cyber criminals used the remote access application previously utilized for initial entry to extract data. Other existing services, such as native FTP and HTTP client functionality, were also frequently leveraged for data extraction. Specifically, when malware was utilized for data extraction, FTP, SMTP and IRC functionality were regularly observed. (In reverse analysis of custom malware, binaries would disclose the existence of FTP functionality including hardcoded IP addresses and credentials.) With off-the-shelf malware, such as keystroke loggers, attackers most often used built-in FTP and e-mail capabilities to exfiltrate data. When e-mail services were employed for extraction, the attackers often opted to install a malicious SMTP server directly on the compromised system to ensure the data was properly routed.

Also see Inside the Global Hacker Service Economy

Only a single case contained the use of an encrypted channel for data extraction, further suggesting that criminals are rarely concerned with raising alarm. Due to natively available network services, lack of proper egress filtering and poor system monitoring practices, criminals are using available network services or choosing to install their own basic services.

It is clear that in all of these cases sensitive data was sent out of a target environment. During this time, the IT security teams did not detect the loss.


Originally published on CSO |  Click here to read the original story.
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