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8 takeaways from M-Trends 2023

James Harrison

Mandiant's annual M-Trends report delivers important lessons and deep insights from the cybersecurity frontline for security experts and business leaders alike. Intruder Product Lead, Andy Hornegold, has read the report so you don't have to - here's what he learned.  

“Excuse me, but you’ve been compromised”

External sources are now the leading informants of security breaches for organizations on a global scale, with a 63% share of notifications. This includes instances where ransomware actors demand payment. Even allowing for Mandiant’s work in Ukraine, the issue remains that security teams are failing to detect or become aware of compromises on their own.

Every minute that an attacker can spend on your network undetected could cause more and more potentially irrecoverable damage to your organization. The best way to protect your business? By continuously monitoring your evolving attack surface and running continuous, proactive vulnerability scans.  

“Will you be staying long?”

On the subject of how much damage a hacker can do in just one minute on your network, the report details the median dwell time that an attacker spends on a network they’ve compromised before they’re detected or have delivered their impact. And, it doesn’t make pretty reading: dropping from 21 days in 2021 to 16 days in 2022.  

While 16 days may seem long enough if you have continuous monitoring, there’s still a lot an attacker can achieve if you only run semi-regular scans or penetration tests. The fact that the majority of dwell time is 0-7 days should be cause for alarm too – the ‘smash and grab’ approach is increasingly used by criminals.

“Crime never pays”

Mandiant investigations involving ransomware decreased from 23% to 18% last year, and a few factors are likely to have influenced this. As above, Mandiant’s nation-state work, especially in Ukraine, may have skewed the statistics, but there’s also the ongoing government and legal enforcement efforts to disrupt ransomware services and individuals, which force wrongdoers to find new partners or alter their plans. It is also possible that increased cross-border cooperation is positively impacting operations.

“They’re just taking advantage”

So how are hackers getting in? It would seem that exploits remain the initial attack vector of choice for cybercriminals for a third year in a row. An exploit is a program or code designed to take advantage of a security vulnerability in a computer system or application, in order to infiltrate the system and install malware. Sitting at 32%, exploits continue to beat phishing at 22%, however Mandiant has categorized “internet facing servers” as a separate infection vector with only 2% of the share.

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(© Mandiant)

This is a global view but when you break it down by region, it becomes a lot more interesting. In the Americas, exploits are the most common problem at 38%, while in EMEA phishing is the problem (40% of all cases).

Mandiant believes phishing was the top infection vector in EMEA because the US has better phishing protection. Maybe EMEA is actually securing its external attack surface better and the US is lagging behind...

Next on the list is stolen credentials. The average individual has more than one hundred online accounts and will often use the same password for multiple logins, even for crucial business applications and remote connections to their company network. Scary, right? Well, this is why stolen credentials account for 14% of initial attack vectors: a malicious actor requires only one valid password to get in. If this isn’t a reason to place multi-factor authentication on every device and system your organization uses, we don’t know what is.  

“What’s it all for?”

Surprisingly, despite the decline in ransomware, data theft cases surged from 29% in 2021 to 40% in 2022. There were many high-profile cases last year. Most notably, in July, a hacker known as 'devil' announced on the BreachForums hacking forum the sale of 5.4 million Twitter accounts' data, which included email addresses and phone numbers belonging to "celebrities, companies, randoms, OGs". The breach was the result of exploiting a vulnerability discovered on Twitter in January 2022.

In November, another hacker published a dataset on the same forum claiming to be personal info for 487 million WhatsApp users from across the globe. These and the many others that took place affected the organizations reputationally and financially. T-Mobile still feels the pain of its data breach in 2021 – shelling out $350 million last year in customer pay outs alone.

“You are the weakest link”

Delving deeper into the analysis, let’s look at specific exploits and how they were (and can be) managed. According to Mandiant's findings, exploits were successfully used in 36% of investigations conducted in 2022, as opposed to 30% in 2021. Adversaries are continuing to rely on exploits to infiltrate and maintain their presence within networks. Notably, perimeter devices accessible via the internet, such as firewalls, virtualization solutions, and VPN devices, are highly valued targets for attackers.

Out of all investigations involving targeted vulnerabilities, the Log4j vulnerability was abused in 16% of cases. Log4j, part of the Apache Software Foundation library, is a widely used logging framework for Java developers, allowing them to log data, including user-generated content, into applications. In December 2021, a critical Remote Code Execution (RCE) exploit was found in Log4j (CVE-2021-44228), affecting all versions prior to 2.15.0. This vulnerability, dubbed Log4Shell, can grant unauthorized access to a server by allowing an attacker to execute code remotely.  

Given the widespread use of Log4j, the exploit is regarded as one of the most significant vulnerabilities of the last decade and Mandiant rated the risk as Critical. Using Log4j as a means to gain an initial foothold on a network, hackers wasted no time in going further and exploiting critical services. Due to the sheer volume of compromises, work to resolve and remediate it continued well into 2022.  

The second and third most notable vulnerabilities identified by Mandiant related to F5 Big-IP and VMware Workspace ONE Access and Identity Manager. You can get information on how to defend yourself from any of these such risks with our comprehensive guide.

“Where’s the malware?”

CobaltStrike still holds the top spot as the most detected malware family, comprising 15% of detections. Originally created for penetration testing, the tool is unfortunately frequently abused by cybercriminals to gain access to systems illegally.  

It’s used by state-sponsored groups in China, Russia, and Iran, but also by six financially motivated groups (FIN6, FIN7, FIN9, FIN11, FIN12) and a staggering 700 uncategorized and currently unattributable groups. CobaltStrike’s usage has been declining since 2021 but runners-up, systembc and metasploit, each hold only 4% of detections.

"Don’t scratch beneath the surface"

At Intruder, we talk a lot about how important it is to protect your external attack surface and Mandiant’s latest findings only reinforce that view. In the table from the report below, which displays a breakdown of the most commonly used MITRE ATT&CK techniques, you can see that nearly a quarter of them exploit public-facing applications. It’s simple really – just put greater focus on your cyber hygiene.

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(© Mandiant)

“That’s all folks”

As the report shows, cyber threats are increasing, adversaries are becoming more sophisticated, attacks becoming more automated and indiscriminate, and the responsibilities of IT security teams are getting heavier. Why not lighten the load? Try Intruder for free for 14 days and see how easy it can be to stay ahead of hackers.  

Release Date
Level of Ideal
Before CVE details are published
Limited public information is available about the vulnerability.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers, threat actors have to actively research type of vulnerability, location in vulnerable software and build an associated exploit.

Tenable release checks for 47.43% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 32.96%.
Day of CVE publish
Vulnerability information is publicly accessible.

Red teamers, security researchers, detection engineers and threat actors now have access to some of the information they were previously having to hunt themselves, speeding up potential exploit creation.

Tenable release checks for 17.12% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 17.69%.
First week since CVE publish
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 week.

The likelihood that exploitation in the wild is going to be happening is steadily increasing.

Tenable release checks for 10.9% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 20.69%.
Between 1 week and 1 month since CVE publish
Vulnerability information has been publicly available for up to 1 month, and some very clever people have had time to craft an exploit.

We’re starting to lose some of the benefit of rapid, automated vulnerability detection.

Tenable release checks for 9.58% of the CVEs they cover in this window, and Greenbone release 12.43%.
After 1 month since CVE publish
Information has been publicly available for more than 31 days.

Any detection released a month after the details are publicly available is decreasing in value for me.

Tenable release checks for 14.97% of the CVEs they cover over a month after the CVE details have been published, and Greenbone release 16.23%.

With this information in mind, I wanted to check what is the delay for both Tenable and Greenbone to release a detection for their scanners. The following section will focus on vulnerabilities which:

These are the ones where an attacker can point their exploit code at your vulnerable system and gain unauthorised access.

We’ve seen previously that Tenable have remote checks for 643 critical vulnerabilities, and OpenVAS have remote checks for 450 critical vulnerabilities. Tenable release remote checks for critical vulnerabilities within 1 month of the details being made public 58.4% of the time, but Greenbone release their checks within 1 month 76.8% of the time. So, even though OpenVAS has fewer checks for those critical vulnerabilities, you are more likely to get them within 1 month of the details being made public. Let’s break that down further.

In Figure 10 we can see the absolute number of remote checks released on a given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability has been published. What you can immediately see is that both Tenable and OpenVAS release the majority of their checks on or before the CVE details are made public; Tenable have released checks for 247 CVEs, and OpenVAS have released checks for 144 CVEs. Then since 2010 Tenable have remote released checks for 147 critical CVEs and OpenVAS 79 critical CVEs on the same day as the vulnerability details were published. The number of vulnerabilities then drops off across the first week and drops further after 1 week, as we would hope for in an efficient time-to-release scenario.

Figure 10: Absolute numbers of critical CVEs with a remote check release date from the date a CVE is published

While raw numbers are good, Tenable have a larger number of checks available so it could be unfair to go on raw numbers alone. It’s potentially more important to understand the likelihood that OpenVAS or Tenable will release a check of a vulnerability on any given day after a CVE for a critical vulnerability is released. In Figure 11 we can see that Tenable release 61% their checks on or before the date that a CVE is published, and OpenVAS release a shade under 50% of their checks on or before the day that a CVE is published.

Figure 11: Percentage chance of delay for critical vulnerabilities

So, since 2010 Tenable has more frequently released their checks before or on the same day as the CVE details have been published for critical vulnerabilities. While Tenable is leading at this point, Greenbone’s community feed still gets a considerable percentage of their checks out on or before day 0.

I thought I’d go another step further and try and see if I could identify any trend in each organisations release delay, are they getting better year-on-year or are their releases getting later? In Figure 12 I’ve taken the mean delay for critical vulnerabilities per year and plotted them. The mean as a metric is particularly influenced by outliers in a data set, so I expected some wackiness and limited the mean to only checks released 180 days prior to a CVE being published and 31 days after a CVE being published. These seem to me like reasonable limits, as anything greater than 6 months prior to CVE details being released is potentially a quirk of the check details and anything after a 1-month delay is less important for us.

What can we take away from Figure 12?

Figure 12: Release delay year-on-year (lower is better)

With the larger number of checks, and still being able to release a greater percentage of their remote checks for critical vulnerabilities Tenable could win this category. However, the delay time from 2019 and 2020 going to OpenVAS, and the trend lines being so close, I am going to declare this one a tie. It’s a tie.

The takeaway from this is that both vendors are getting their checks out the majority of the time either before the CVE details are published or on the day the details are published. This is overwhelmingly positive for both scanning solutions. Over time both also appear to be releasing remote checks for critical vulnerabilities more quickly.

Written by

James Harrison

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