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The Language of Cybercrime

Ep. 22

How many languages do you speak? The average person only speaks one or two languages, and for most people that’s plenty because even as communities are becoming more global, languages are still very much tied to geographic boundaries. But what happens when you go on the internet where those regions don’t exist the same way they do in real life? Because the internet connects people from every corner of the world, cybercriminals can perpetrate scams in countries thousands of miles away. So how do organizations like Microsoft’s Digital Crime Unit combat cybercrime when they don’t even speak the language of the perpetrators?  

 

On today’s episode of Security Unlocked, hosts Nic Fillingham and Natalia Godyla sit down with Peter Anaman, Principal Investigator on the Digital Crimes Unit, to discuss how Peter looks at digital crimes in a very interconnected world and how language and culture play into the crimes being committed, who’s behind them, and how to stop them.  


In This Episode, You Will Learn:

• Some of the tools the Digital Crime Unit at Microsoft uses to catch criminals.  

• How language and cultural factors into cyber crime 

• Why cyber crime has been on the rise since Covid began 


Some Questions We Ask:

• How has understanding a specific culture helped crack a case? 

• How does a lawyer who served as an officer in the French Army wind up working at Microsoft? 

• Are there best practices for content creators to stay safe from cyber crime? 


Resources

Peter Anaman’s LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/anamanp/ 


Nic Fillingham’s LinkedIn:

https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicfill/ 


Natalia Godyla’s LinkedIn:

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


Microsoft Security Blog 

https://www.microsoft.com/security/blog/


Related:

Security Unlocked: CISO Series with Bret Arsenault

https://SecurityUnlockedCISOSeries.com


Transcript

[Full transcript can be found at https://aka.ms/SecurityUnlockedEp22]


Nic:

(music)


Nic:

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's Security Engineering and Operations Teams. I'm Nic Fillingham.


Natalia:

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


Nic:

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


Natalia:

And now, let's unlock the pod.


Natalia:

Hello, Nic. How is it going?


Nic:

Hello, Natalia. I'm very well, thank you. I'm very excited for today's episode. We talk with Peter Anaman, who is a return guest. Uh, he was on an earlier episode where we talked about business email compromise and some of the findings in the 2020 Microsoft Digital Defense Report. And Peter had such great stories that he shared with us in that conversation, that we thought let's bring him back. And let's, let's get the full picture. And wow, did we cover some topics in this conversation. I don't even know where to begin. How would, what's your TLDR for this one, Natalia?


Natalia:

Well, whenever your friends or family think about cyber security, this is it. One of the stories that really stuck out to me is, Peter went undercover, and has actually gone undercover multiple times, but in this one instance he used the cultural context from his family history, as well as the languages that he knows to gain trust with a bad actor group and catch them out. It's incredible. He speaks so many languages and he told so many stories about how he applies that to his day-to-day work in such interesting ways.


Nic:

Yeah, I love, for those of you who listened to the podcast, Peter really illustrates how knowledge of multiple cultures, knowledge of multiple languages, understanding how those cultures and languages can sort of intersect and ebb and flow. Peter has used that as powerful tools in his career. I think it's fascinating to hear those examples. Other listeners of the podcast who, who do have more than one language, who do understand and have experience across multiple cultures, maybe oughta see some, uh, some interesting opportunities for themselves in, in, in cyber security maybe moving forward.


Nic:

I also thought it was fascinating to hear Peter talk about working to try and get funds and sort of treasures and I think gold, l-literal gold that was taken during the second world war. And getting them back to it's original owner. Sort of like, a repatriation effort. As you say, Natalia, these are all things that I think our friends and family think of when they hear the words cyber security. Oh, I'm in cyber security. I'm an investigator in cyber security. And they have this sort of, visions, these Hollywood visions.


Nic:

This is, that's Peter. That's what he's done. And he's, he talk about it in his episode. It's a great episode.


Natalia:

And with that, on with the pod.


Nic:

On with the pod.


Nic:

(music)


Natalia:

Welcome back to Security Unlocked, Peter Anaman.


Peter:

Thank you very much. Thanks for having me back.


Natalia:

Well, it was a pleasure to talk to you, first time around. So I'm really excited for the second conversation. And in this conversation we really love to chat about your career in cyber security. How you got here? Um, what you're doing? So let's kick it off with a little bit of a refresher for the audience.


Natalia:

What do you do at Microsoft and what does your day-to-day look like?


Peter:

So in Microsoft, I work within the legal department. Within a group called the Digital Crimes Unit. We are a team of lawyers, investigators and analysts who look at protecting our customers and our online services from, um, organized crime or attacks against the system. And so we, we bring, for example, civil and criminal referrals in order to do that action. On a day-by-day basis, it's very, very varied. I focus more on business email compromise present with some, with some assistance on ransomware attacks and looking at the depths and the affiliates there. As well as looking at some attacks against the infrastructure based on automated systems.


Peter:

So it's kind of varied. So on a day, I could, for example, be running some crystal queries or some specialized database queries in order to look for patterns in unauthorized or illegal activity taking place in order to quickly protect our customers. At the same time, I have to prepare reports. So there's a lot of report writing just to make sure that we can articulate the evidence that we have. And to ensure we respect privacy and all the other rules, you know, when we present the data.


Peter:

And also, in addition to that, uh, big part of it is actually learning. So I take my time to look at trends of what's going on. Learn new skills in order to know that I can adapt and automate some of the processes I do.


Nic:

Peter, as someone with an accent, uh, I'm always intrigued by other people's accents. May I inquire as to your accent, sir. Um, I'm hearing, I think I'm hearing like, British. I'm hearing French. There's other things there.


Peter:

(laughs)


Nic:

Would you elaborate for us?


Peter:

Yes, of course. Of course. Oh so, I was born in Ghana, West Africa and spent my youth there. And later on went to the UK where I learned that, I had to have elocution lessons to speak like the queen. And so I had lesson and my accent became British. So but at the same time, I'm actually a French national. Um, I've been in the French army as an officer. And so, that's where the French part is. And throughout, I've lived in different countries doing for work. Uh, so I've learned a bit of German, a bit of Spanish on the way.


Nic:

I, I actually cheated. I looked at your, um, LinkedIn profile and I see you have six languages listed.


Peter:

Yes.


Nic:

The two, the two that you didn't mention, I am embarrassingly ignorant of Fante? And T-Twi, Twi? What are they?


Peter:

Twi and Fante are two of the languages that are spoken in Ghana. They're local languages. And so growing up, I always had that around me. When I went to my father's village where his, we communicate in that language. English is kind of the National Language but within the country, people really speak their own languages. So I've ticked it off now. Can I speak fluently in, in it? No, I've been away for too long. But if you put me there, I would understand everything they're saying.


Nic:

What are the roots of those two languages? Are they related at all? Or are they completely separate?


Peter:

They are related but one, one person cannot always understand the other. If you look more broadly, you look at for example, the African continent all are, you'll find that there are over, from what we understand, over, what was it? 2,000 languages are spoken on the continent. So sometimes a person, say on the east coast doesn't understand the person in the west coast, you know. And, and it's fascinating because, you know, when we look at cyber crime, we are facing a global environment. Which is actually pretty carved out, right? The physical world is still pretty segmented.


Peter:

And so when, for example, investigating some crimes taking place in Nigeria, well they speak pidgin English. And so we have to try and adapt to that to understand, what do they really mean when they say, X or Y? And so, you know, it kind of opens our mind at, as we're doing the investigations. So we have to really try and understand the local reality because the internet is not just one place. And I think, you know, working for, you know, Microsoft and with such an amazing diverse team, we've been able to share knowledge.


Peter:

So for example, in the case I mentioned, I went to my colleague in Lagos, Abuja. He went, oh, that's what it means. And we're like, okay great. That one makes a lot more sense. And so we can move on. So we have this kind of richness in the team that allows us to lean on each other and, you know, sort of drive impact. But yeah, language is very important. (laughs)


Natalia:

I was gonna ask, do you have any interesting examples in which the culture was really important to cracking in the case or understanding a specific part of a case that you were working?


Peter:

Yes. So there was one case I worked on earlier on which was in Lithuania. And in Lithuania, for a very long time, this group had been under investigation but they were very good at their Op Sec and used some, uh, different types of encryption and obsolete, obsolete communication to hide themselves. But what I learned from the chats and when I was, this was in an IRC, it started in IRC channels and then moved out of there afterwards. But I noticed that there was a lot of Italy. There was a lot of Italian references. And my grandfather was Sicilian so I've spent time in Italy. So I kind of understood that they traveled to Italy.


Peter:

So in part of the persona, I made reference to Sicily. And I just said, you know, that's where my grandfather's from. And this, didn't give a name obviously, but it kind of brought them closer, right? Because like, oh, yeah we, we get it. And after about two, three months, I was able to get them to send me pictures of them going on vacation in Italy. And unfortunately for them, the picture had geo-location on it. And also, we were able to blow it up to get the background of where they were in the airport and using the camera from the airport, we were able to identify who they were. And then go back to the passport, find their path and they got arrested a few weeks later.


Peter:

So but to get that picture, to get that inner information required a kind of, trust that was being built in the virtual world and that comes from trying to understand the culture. By teasing out, asking questions about who are you and what do you like. So that's just one example.


Nic:

N-no pressure in answering this question and we'll even, we'll even cut it out of the edit if it's one you don't wanna go with.


Peter:

(laughs) Sure.


Nic:

If you're good with it. But um, uh, I heard you now talk about personas and identities and y-you just sort of hinted at it in the answer to the previous question. It sounds like some of the work that you have done in the past has been about creating and adopting personas in order to go and learn more information about bad actors and groups out there in, uh, in cyber land. Is that accurate and are you able to talk about what that role and that sort of, that work look like, when you're performing it?


Peter:

Yeah. So before you have


Peter:

...persona, you have to understand where that persona's gonna be acted, right?


Peter:

And I'll give you an, an example of a story. Once I had to go to LA to give a presentation and when I got to the airport I got a cab. And in the cab I looked at the guy's, the license plate of the, of the person. And I said, I bet you, I can guess, which country you were born in. He was like, an African American kind of person. He goes, impossible. No one has guessed it, you will never know. I was, all right. Are you ready? You're from Ghana. And his mind was blown. He was like, how, how did you pin that to one country? I was like, well, in your name, you have Kwesi. And I know if you're born in a country, in Ghana and have Kwesi, it means you're born on a Sunday. So that fact that you have your, that name there, that means you were born from Ghana. He goes, you are right. And so that was that.


Peter:

And I said, I miss some food, the cuisine from my, from, from Ghana. And he goes, oh, I know a great place. It's in Compton. I said, go. Uh, when? So I went into my restroom, showered, go ready, try to g-got into a taxi and he goes, I'm not going into Compton. I was like, well, why not? I wanna go to that restaurant. And he goes, oh, no, no, no. I'm going to get robbed or something bad is going to happen to me. I was like, but it- By the way, he left, he went, I had a great meal. Afterwards, I spent two hours in the restaurant 'cause no taxi would come and pick me up. And eventually, the waitress took me to a local casino. And I got a cab there and I got back.


Peter:

Where, where I'm going with this story is about the environment. I didn't know what Compton meant, right? So if I created a persona that went there that didn't know the environment, they would not succeed. They would stick out like a sore thumb. They would, they would fail. So the first idea, is always to understand what are the different protocols.


Peter:

If I'm looking at, for example, FTP or IRC, the different peer-to-peer networks. Or I'm looking at NNTP and the old internet, you know. All of those work, you need different tools to work there. Different ways to collect evidence and different breadcrumbs you could leave that you need to know it may be needed. Because when you're there, you're there, right? And it's, you're leaving, you're leaving a mark. Also some people say, use proxies. Well, the problem with proxies that someone could know you got a proxy on. Because well, there's lots of systems out there. So it's about using the system. Understanding how it's interconnected so that when you show up, you show up without too much suspicion.


Peter:

The other thing I learned is that the personas have to, have to be kind of, sad. 'Cause what I found is that when they were a bit sad, like, I'm happy with your work and things like that. What I found, that's me, right? I found that people were more interested because people are kind by nature, right? And so when they see that you're sad, they're more likely to communicate with you. While, while if you're too confident, I can do everything. They're like, uh, no, that person.


Peter:

So I try to like, psychologically look at ways to make the person as real as possible, based on my experience, right, because if it was based on me, I would be called out. Because I will be inventing a character that's, was not real. If you try to give me a trick question, because it's based on me, the answer's gonna be the same. I've got, the persona is me. It's just different. And so that's how I took my time to understand it. I spend a lot of time learning the internet, the protocols, you know, how does P2P actually work. When I, going to an IRC channel or when I'm looking at the peer-to-peer network and looking at the net flow. So the data which is passing from my computer upload. What other information is flowing.


Peter:

Because if I can see it, they can see it, right? And at the same time I have to have the tools. So I was very fortunate to have, for example, some tools that can switch my IP address with any country, like, every minute. So I could really change personas and change location really rapidly and no one would know better 'cause I'm using different personas in different contexts, right?


Peter:

Now, I never lie. One of, one of the clear things is that you never, I never try and do anything illegal because I have to assume that law enforcement is on the other side. And that's not what I'm trying to do. So I'm not gonna commit the crime. I'm not going to encourage you to do the crime. I'm just listening and just being curious about you. But then people make mistakes because they share, they over share sometimes without knowing. Maybe they're too tired or something.


Natalia:

I have a bit of a strange question. So with the lockdown, culturally, people are expressing publicly that they feel like they're over sharing. Because they're all locked indoors. They have, their only outlet is to share online. So have you noticed that in your work in security? Do, are people over sharing in that underground world as well? Or there, there hasn't been an equal shift?


Peter:

No, I, I, I, actually think it's getting worse. Um, and part of the reason is, as more people go online, they're speaking more about how to be anonymous. So for example, I've seen a rapid increase in BackConnect. These are residential IP addresses used as proxies. Well 'cause now they're communicating to each other, saying, hey, we're all online and this is how you can get found out. And so there actually there's more sharing going on. You know, I look at this, many more VPN services out there. It just seems, they're better prepared. Now, obviously, we see a lot more, right? So I'm definitely seeing more sophistication because people are spending more time online. So they, they're not walking around waiting for the bus. They're reading, they're learning, they're adapting. They communicate with each other.


Peter:

I've even found like, cyber crime as a service, we've found clusters of groups of people. And when you look at that network, you could see. They're saying, oh, I offer phishing pages or I offer VPN. They become specialized. So now you have people that are saying, I am just gonna focus on getting your, for example, some exploits. Or I'm just gonna focus on getting you, um, some red team work so that you can go and drop your ransomware. You know what, they, they've become more specialized actually because they're online. And they've got the time to learn.


Nic:

Peter, you mentioned earlier, some time you spent in, I think, was it the French army, is that correct?


Peter:

Yes, that's correct.


Nic:

Do you want to talk about that? Was that your foray into security? Did it, did it begin with your career in the army? Or did it begin before then?


Peter:

Hmm. I think it started probably before then. In a sense that, once I left high school, I decided I wanted to study law. Because I wanted the system that I was gonna be working in. And so I went to law school, uh, in the UK. And when I came out, unfortunately, the market was not as good. So I couldn't get a job. And when I looked around at what other trenches I had. I found there was an accelerated cause to become an officer in the French Army. It's a bit like, West Point in the US. Or, and so to do that, it was basically two years, it a two year program condensed into four months. It was hard. And so (laughs) I-


Nic:

It was what? No sleep? Is that what it was? (laughs)


Peter:

Ahhh. I've lived through little sleep.


Nic:

No sleep before meals.


Peter:

Yeah. I had to, you know, even- Well one time, I even had to evacuated because I got hyperten- you know, uh, hypothermia. (laughs) It was, uh, sort of a character build, character builder, I like to call it that. Uh, but really I think that started the path. Uh, but for the security side was, was after that. So, 'cause of my debts from law school, I, I left the army and I went to, back to the UK. And there, the first job I found was to be a paralegal, photocopying accounts, bank accounts opened between 1933 and 1947. It was part of something called a survey. And it actually had something to do with the Nazi gold.


Peter:

So what happened is that during the second world war, a lot of peop- uh, people of Jewish origin, saw that they were gonna be persecuted and took their money to, uh, Switzerland and put them in numbered accounts. And kept the number in their head. While unfortunately, so many of them sadly, uh, were victimized, they died. And the number died with them. Well, the money stayed in the accounts and over time because the accounts were dormant, well, you had charges. And so the money left.


Peter:

And so this was something that Paul Volcker, I believe it was, started the survey to get the Swiss banks to comply and give the money back to the families as result. So I was part of a team investigating one of the banks there. And although I started photocopying, I looked at, using my military skills, to be very efficient. So I was the best photocopier.


Natalia:

(laughs)


Peter:

And uh, and we were five levels underground. And that's what I did and I worked hard. And then after a few weeks, I got promoted to manage, uh, photocopiers. The people photocopying. We were a great team. And after that, they realized I was still hanging around because everyone was sleeping. 'Cause working five levels underground is a bit depressing sometimes.


Peter:

And so eventually, I became a data analyst. And so now I had to do the research on the accounts to try and find someone writing in pen, oh, this number is related to this other main account. Or this there piece of evidence is linked to this name. And so basically, for about, I think about three years, I basically, I eventually ran the French team and we looked at all the French cards opened from that period. And that started the investigations and sort of, trying to think deeper into evidence and how to make it work.


Natalia:

I really didn't think of myself as being cool before this, but I'm definitely not cool after hearing this. It's been validated, these stories are way beyond me.


Peter:

(laughs) Well, no. Just stories.


Natalia:

(laughs) So what brought you to Microsoft? That how did you go from piracy investigation to working at Microsoft as an investigator?


Peter:

So what took place was actually, my troubles created by Microsoft. So back in 2000 it was Microsoft who actually saw that the internet was becoming something that could really hurt internet commerce and e-commerce of role and wanted to make sure


Peter:

But they could contribute to it, and participate by building this capacity. And all the way through, they were one of my clients, at, essentially. And at some point, I realized that in my career, working for different customers, clients is great, because you learn, you don't have something different. So, for example, a software company is very different to a games company. Is different to a publishing company, is different to a mo- motion picture company, although it's digital piracy, it's actually very different in many respects. And I have- I saw how Microsoft was investing more in the cloud at that time, and I saw that as a big opportunity to really help a bigger threat to the system, right?


Peter:

And when I say to the system, E-commerce, 'cause everything was booming, this was in like 2008. And so, I decided that I would work for them. And actually, they offered me the job. So, I- I didn't, you know, I'm very privileged to be where I am now. But the, the, the way they positioned it is that they were looking for someone to help develop systems to map out, create a heat map of online piracy. I was like, "Wow, this is a global effort." So, uh, that's what I came on board with. And I built actually, a, a system similar to Minority Report, whereby I got basically these crawlers that I built that would go out and visit all these pirate sites. And you'll find this fascinating 'cause... Well, I found it fascinating, in some cases-


Natalia:

(laughs).


Peter:

... as we accessed the forums that we're offering, you know, download sale, RapidShare was one of the companies at the time, as we shut them down, they have crawlers in the forum, which will go and replace them. So, we had machine or machine wars, where we would shut down a URL, and then they would put another one. The problem is that our system was infinite. That is, we can, the machine can keep clicking. For them, they had about 10 groups of files. And so once they reached number 10, that was it. So, I found a way to automate the systems. And then after that using the, the Kinect, do you remember the Xbox Kinect?


Nic:

Cer- certainly.


Peter:

Managed to hack that, and the way it happened is that I built a map on Bing, whereby the Kinect could look in my body structure. And as I moved my hand, it would drill in to a country. And when I pushed, it would create, like, a, a table on the window with the number of infringements, what products were offered, when was the last time it was detected. And then, I could just wave it away and it would go, and then I could spin the world, it was a 3D map to go to another country and say, "What are the concentrations of piracy?" In this way, we had a visualized way of looking at crime as they were taking place online, and then zoom in and say, "We need to spend more effort here." Right?


Peter:

So, as well, just getting data analytics, but in a 3D format. And so, that was part of the excitement when I joined, is how to do that. Another example is, I found that, I read some research where it said that basically humans only spend a minute and a half on any search query. You know, in itself it doesn't mean much. But imagine you have a timer and it's one second, two seconds, three seconds, right? You're waiting for a minute and a half, right? So, 90 seconds, let's double that and say 180 seconds. Basically, let's say three minutes, it means that if you go to anyone you know, and ask them, "Go and search for Britney Spears downloads." And you look too, go, do, do the search, and they will click a link, nothing. Go next, click next, and they'll keep going.


Peter:

Before the three minute mark, they'll stop. They'll change the query, they'll do something different. Because they wouldn't get a result. Which means that when you do a search, and a search has got a million results, uh, it doesn't really matter. People are not going to go through the million. So, I started to think about the problems that when executives and people were saying, "Oh, I go on the internet, and I can find bad stuff." I was like, "Okay, but you can do like in three minutes. How about I build a robot that will pretend to be you, and go and find the infringements within that three minute window? Which is about 400 URLs. But I'm going to hit it with like send 100 queries, distributed."


Peter:

All of a sudden, we were finding the infringements before anyone could click on it, because we would report it to Google, Bing, Yandex, Baidu. And they would remove it from the, from the search results. And then, we had a measurement system, which would check and see, if I was a human, how many seconds would it take before I found an active download? Right? You could automate it. And so, we had a dashboard that could show that, and it worked. You know, we could, we saw a decline in the number of complaints because, well, it wasn't as visible. Now, if you knew where the pirate bay was, yeah, okay. But that wasn't really what we were doing. We were looking at protecting people from getting downloads which contain malware, or something nefarious, right? And, and, so we built these systems to protect consumers, essentially.


Natalia:

So, is there a connection, or maybe a community behind the work that you've done in piracy and the world of copyright? Uh, any, any best practices that are shared with content creators who are equally concerned with a malware being in their content, or just the sheer, the sheer fact that someone is pirating their content?


Peter:

I think from a contents per- perspective, and there are several amazing organizations out there, such as the BSA, Business Software Alliance, you have the MPAA, you know, you have the RIAA, and also IACC, the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition. Who have just incredible guidance for their members, which are specialized. So, for example, when you look at counterfeit goods, that's a very different thing to like, say, video, because video is distributed in a diff- different way. But one thing, which I think is important is that you don't just leave your, your house open, you lock it with a key, otherwise, someone will just come in and take your stuff.


Peter:

So, I think the same with contents, that when we create content, we have to find a way to work not only with different organizations that are looking to protect those rights, but also assume your own responsibility of locking your door. For example, what security could you put on it? Right? To maintain it? And how could you work with law enforcement who are there to protect the law, right? There are, I think there are different things that could be considered but most of it really, I would say the best is to start with the industry association, because they are much more specialized, and can give better advice, depending on the nature of the content that the person has.


Peter:

But, you know, when we were looking at online piracy, it wasn't just online piracy, because, you know, Microsoft participated in something called Operation Pangea. This was an Interpol driven operation where we found that a Russian organization that was distributing software for download in the millions of dollars, we took action to dismantle their payment mechanism. So, Visa and MasterCard would stop the payment on their website. So, they moved to prescription drugs, and they started selling prescription drugs. And so, for certain, it's really not in Microsoft's mandate to do that, right?


Peter:

But what we did is that we provided the expertise, and the knowledge we have to law enforcement to detect these websites. There were about 10,000 of them, and then drill down to say, "What's the payment gateway?" Because that's a choke point, you know, a criminal, definitely does what he does for the money. You know, you're not gonna rob a bank if there's no money there, right? So, with that in mind, they were able to do really, massively disrupt this organization. And that's because Microsoft looks at providing its expertise, and also learning from other people's expertise, right? But to tackle this bigger problem that impacts all of us.


Nic:

Peter, I'd love to circle back to language for a sec here. And when you were talking about the languages that you speak, and, and the importance of understanding culture. From your perspective, do you think there are countries, language groups, ethnic groups that are disproportionately... Well, I'm trying to think of the most elegant way to say, not protected or not protected as well as they could because they speak a language that is, you know, not as prevalent? So, you know, I looked at, you know, I'd never heard of the two, the two, uh, Ghanaian languages that you had on your-


Peter:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Nic:

... on your profile there, I'm not even gonna say them right, but Fante and-


Peter:

(laughs), so, it's Fante and Twi.


Nic:

Fante and Twi. So-


Peter:

Perfect.


Nic:

... native Fante, and Twi, I'm, I'm assuming there's, there's hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of speakers of those-


Peter:

Yeah. Yes, absolutely.


Nic:

... two languages?


Peter:

Yes, yeah.


Nic:

Do AI and ML systems allow for supporting people that, you know, either don't speak English, or a sort of major international language?


Peter:

You're touching on something, which is very near and dear to me, 'cause it's a whole different conversation. And if you look at the history of language, there's, a, a great group of seminars written about it. It's actually I think, I believe, somewhere, I read somewhere that 60% of languages are actually not written. Right? And yes, you can go and see Microsoft has, translates between say, 60 or 100 pairs of languages, and Google the same. But what about the others? What about the thousands of others, that I think there are over 6,000 languages in the world. You're right. I mean, earlier this year, if I may be personal, I'm trying to adopt a baby girl. And so, I went to Ghana to try and manage the situation, which is very slow.


Peter:

And when I was there, I just saw the reality that, you know, they don't have access to resources, right? Because a book costs money. And so even for AI, how would they even know what AI is? So, I think there is an increasing gap, which is taking place. We can't keep build, building bigger walls, because it's just not going to work. We gotta be, we gotta think bigger than that. And so, one of the ideas is that when we look at some of the criminals, like I've had quite a few of them, a lot of them go to the same technical universities, for example, in West Africa. Well, why is that? It's cause I think they develop skills, and then they leave, and they can't get a job. And so, they end up being pulled into a life of cybercrime. So, culture


Peter:

It's I think becoming an important thing is that, there is a bigger and bigger divide 'cause not as many people have access to the resources, and how can we as a community who do have access, sort of proactively contribute to that? 'Cause we can't, there's no way you can, you know, just Nigeria has 190 million people. That's a lot of people, that's a lot people. The African continent has 1.2 billion. Asia, four billion, was like, um, I think it's like, is it two, three billion? No, two billion? Something like that but it's a lot people-


Nic:

It's a lot.


Peter:

... outside, right? (laughs). And so I think, I'm glad you brought that up 'cause I think it's a- an interesting conversation that we need to develop even, even more.


Natalia:

So, just trying to distill some of that down. So, are, are you saying then that, uh, at least when we're looking at language, there is a greater diversity of threat actors than there are targets? That those targets are centralized more around English speakers, but because of disproportionate opportunities in other parts of the world, we see threat actors across a number of different languages, across a number of different cultures?


Peter:

Yes. I, I think that's, that's a goo- uh, kind of a good summary of that, but I'll probably take it a step further and say, from my vantage point, again, you know, there are many other more brilliant people out there than me, I can only speak of what I've seen. I still find there are concentrations, right? When you look at business email compromise, and you go and pick up a newspaper and say, "Show me all articles about BEC, the biggest crime right now in the world, and show me all the people who've been arrested." Guess what? They're all from one place, West Africa. Why? Because if you look at the history of that crime, BEC, it was a ruse. Before that it used to be called, it was all under the category of Advanced E-fraud, but it used to be a lottery scam. Oh, the Bill and Melinda Gates lottery, you've won $25 million, or, uh, the Nigerian prince, right?


Peter:

Some people call 419 which is a criminal code in Nigeria. And then it went further back, they used to send faxes. Or, a lot of people developed a culture called the Yahoo boys, right? They it called Yahoo-Yahoo. And what they do is you go on YouTube, and you search for Yahoo-Yahoo, you'll see them like there's a whole culture behind that. They're dancing, they say, "This is my Monday car, my Tuesday car." And because they're making money and their communities are not, the community helps them because they get money. The stolen money is shared, and so now it becomes harder to break that because it becomes part of a culture. And so, that's why we see a lot more there I think than for example, in the US, or in Russia or in other countries it's 'cause I think there was, there's a, they have this kind of lead way that they'd be doing it for a lot longer and have a better sense of how to be sly.


Nic:

It sounds like the, the principles of reducing crime apply just as generally in the cyberspace as they do too in the, the non-cyber space. Whereas if you can give opportunities and lu- you know, um, lucrative opportunities to people, to utilize the skills that they've developed, both sort of in an orthodox or in an unorthodox fashion-


Peter:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Nic:

... then they're gonna put those skills to good use. But if you, if you train them up and then don't give them any way of using those skills to, to go, you know, ma- make a living in a, in a positive sense, they're, they're gonna turn to other, other avenues. Sounds like in, in, in parts of West Africa, that is business email compromise.


Peter:

Right, it is. And if I could just add two things there, one is that, you know, when I started looking at how to address cyber, online criminality, I have to look at the physical part of it. And in the physical world, there's actually, I call them neighborhoods. You have good neighborhoods, and bad neighborhoods, right? There are some neighborhoods you go to, no one's going to pick pockets you, right? Everyone's got a nice car or whatever. The other neighborhoods you go to, and there are some shady people in the corner, probably selling drugs or something. You know, uh, I'm, I'm being very simplistic, but I'm just trying to say, there are differences in neighborhoods in the physical world, and those need to be looked at as well. Because even if you gave education or a job to someone in a bad neighborhood, because of the environmental pressure, they may not be able to leave that neighborhood because they could be pressured into it.


Peter:

Online it's the same, I found that you see there are clusters of criminal activities that happen. And in those virtual they're interconnected, it's like, like two, or three levels, they know each other mostly. And so, we can have this kind of, we have to think more holistically, I suppose. I'm trying to say, Nic, that, it, we also have to look at the neighborhood and how do you make sure, for example, that neighborhood they have a sports field or the streets are clean because it makes you feel good, right? There's, there are other environmental factors that I think we may need to consider in a more holistic way. We, we can move much faster that way, because there are different factors, uh, which contribute to this.


Nic:

So, Peter, I honestly feel like we could keep chatting for the next four hours, right?


Natalia:

(laughs), I know.


Peter:

(laughs).


Nic:

We, we, (laughs). We, we've already, (laughs), eaten up a, a lot of your time, and we've covered a lot of ground. I'd love to circle back one final time to, to language and really sort of ask you is, eh, maybe it's not language, but is there something that you sort of feel particularly passionate about in your career at Microsoft? What you've done so far, what you're working on, and what you hope to do moving forward, is language and opening up accessibility through language, and other sort of cultural diversity? You, you, you, spoke a lot about that in the last sort of, you know, 45 minutes. Is that, is that something that you're personally, uh, invested in, and would like to work more on in the future? And, and if not, what other areas are you, are you looking forward to in the future?


Peter:

It's, it's absolutely something I'm, I'm very passionate about. And within Microsoft, as an example, the company has invested a lot in diversity and inclusion and equity, and it ended last year, but I was the president of the Africans in Microsoft employee resource group, for example, which has close to a thousand people. And all of it is about helping, working in a two way street, where we help our community, who are at times new in the country. And so, don't understand the cultural differences and how do we help them better, not integrate, but be themselves. And also, allow others that don't understand that they may be a minority, but there's so much richness to that diversity and how it makes teams stronger, because then you're not all looking through the same lens and you can bring in, you know, different perspectives about it. So, I'm absolutely invested in that, not just here in the US but also, you know, the African continent.


Peter:

And, and I'm very fortunate to be working in a company that's actually pushing me to do that. You know, the company is, is doing amazing things when it comes to diversity and inclusion. And yes, there's room to be made, but at least they're active. Going back really quickly to what you mentioned about language and AI, when we look at the internet, the internet is still zeros and ones. So, when you look at machine learning models, a lot of it is looking for like over 250 signals, right? In a, in one site. And it's not just about the language, it's about different languages, computer code and human code. And so, the machines are bringing those two together, which can help better secure platforms.


Natalia:

And just as we wrap up here, is there anything you want to plug? Any resources, any groups that you'd like to share with our audience?


Peter:

I think for me, you know, always try and keep updated on security. So, you know, the Microsoft Security Bulletin is a, is a great source for, uh, up-to-date information. Also, I think there are many other organizations that people can search for and reach out to me on the antenna. If you're not a bad guy or girl, I'll-


Natalia:

(laughs).


Peter:

... I'll share, (laughs), we, we can, um, actually, you know, I try to mentor as many people in our industry because, eh, together we become stronger. So, do reach out if you want to.


Natalia:

Awesome. Thank you for that, Peter. It was great having you on the show again, and I can honestly say, we'd be happy to have you back, and it was infinitely fascinating.


Peter:

Thank you very much for the invitation again. And, uh, it was a pleasure participating.


Natalia:

By the way, [foreign language 00:38:17].


Peter:

Uh, there you go.


Natalia:

If you ever want to.


Peter:

(laughs).


Natalia:

(laughs).


Peter:

(laughs).


Nic:

Natalia, I didn't know you speak Spanish.


Natalia:

(laughs).


Peter:

(laughs).


Natalia:

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


Nic:

And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity or mail us at securityunlockedatmicrosoft.com with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.


Natalia:

Stay secure.

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Ep. 28
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I'm Nick Fillingham.Natalia Godyla: (00:20)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: (00:30)And profile some of the fascinating people working on artificial intelligence in Microsoft Security.Natalia Godyla: (00:36)And now, let's unlock the pod.Nic Fillingham: (00:40)Hello, the internet. Hello, listeners. Welcome to episode 28 of Security Unlocked. Nic and Natalia back with you once again for a, a regular, uh, episode of the podcast. Natalia, how are you?Natalia Godyla: (00:50)Hi, Nic. I'm doing well. I'm stoked to have Emily Hacker, a threat analyst at Microsoft back on the show today.Nic Fillingham: (00:58)Yes, Emily is back on the podcast discussing a blog that she co-authored with Justin Carroll, another return champ here on the podcast, called Investigating a Unique Form of Email Delivery for IcedID Malware, the emphasis is on form was, uh, due to the sort of word play there. That's from April 9th. Natalia, TLDR, here. What's, what's Emily talking about in this blog?Natalia Godyla: (01:19)In this blog she's talking about how attackers are delivering IcedID malware through websites contact submission forms by impersonating artists who claim that the companies use their artwork illegally. It's a new take targeting the person managing the submission form.Nic Fillingham: (01:34)Yeah, it's fascinating. The attackers here don't need to go and, you know, buy or steal email lists. They don't need to spin up, uh, you know, any e- email infrastructure or get access to botnets. They're, they're really just finding websites that have a contact as form. Many do, and they are evading CAPTCHA here, and we talk about that with, with, with, uh, Emily about they're somehow getting around the, the CAPTCHA technology to try and weed out automation. But they are getting around that which sort of an interesting part of the conversation.Nic Fillingham: (02:03)Before we get into that conversation, though, a reminder to Security Unlock listeners that we have a new podcast. We just launched a new podcast in partnership with the CyberWire. It is Security Unlocked: CISO Series with Bret Arsenault. Bret Arsenault is the chief information security officer, the CISO, for Microsoft, and we've partnered with him and his team, uh, as well as the CyberWire, to create a brand new podcast series where Bret gets to chat with security and technology leaders at Microsoft as well as some of his CISO peers across the industry. Fantastic conversations into some of the biggest challenges in cyber security today, some of the strategies that these big, big organizations are, are undertaking, including Microsoft, and some practical guidance that really is gonna mirror the things that are being done by security teams here at Microsoft and are some of Microsoft's biggest customers.Nic Fillingham: (02:52)So, I urge you all to, uh, go check that one out. You can find it at the CyberWire. You can also go to www.securityunlockedcisoseries.com, and that's CISO as in C-I-S-O. CISO or CISO, if you're across the pond, securityunlockedcisoseries.com, but for now, on with the pod.Natalia Godyla: (03:12)On with the pod.Nic Fillingham: (03:18)Welcome back to the Security Unlocked Podcast. Emily Hacker, thanks for joining us.Emily Hacker: (03:22)Thank you for having me again.Nic Fillingham: (03:24)Emily, you are, uh, coming back to the podcast. You're a returning champion. Uh, this is, I think your, your second appearance and you're here-Emily Hacker: (03:30)Yes, it is.Nic Fillingham: (03:30)... on behalf of your colleague, uh, Justin Carroll, who has, has also been on multiple times. The two of you collaborated on a blog post from April the 9th, 2021, called Investigating a Unique Form-Emily Hacker: (03:43)(laughs)Nic Fillingham: (03:43)... in, uh, "Form", of email delivery for IcedID malware. The form bit is a pun, is a play on words.Emily Hacker: (03:51)Mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham: (03:51)I- is it not?Emily Hacker: (03:53)Oh, it definitely is. Yeah.Nic Fillingham: (03:54)(laughs) I'm glad I picked up on that, which is a, you know, fascinating, uh, campaign that you've uncovered, the two of you uncovered and you wrote about it on the blog post. Before we jump into that, quick recap, please, if you could just reintroduce yourself to the audience. Uh, what, what do you do? What's your day-to-day look like? Who do you work with?Emily Hacker: (04:09)Yeah, definitely. So, I am a threat intelligence analyst, and I'm on the Threat Intelligence Global Engagement and Response team here at Microsoft. And, I am specifically focused on mostly email-based threats, and, as you mentioned on this blog I collaborate with my coworker, Justin Carroll, who is more specifically focused on end-point threats, which is why we collaborated on this particular blog and the particular investigation, because it has both aspects. So, I spend a lot of my time investigating both credential phishing, but also malicious emails that are delivering malware, such as the ones in this case. And also business email, compromise type scam emails.Nic Fillingham: (04:48)Got it. And so readers of the Microsoft Security Blog, listeners of Security Unlocked Podcast will know that on a regular basis, your team, and then other, uh, threat intelligence teams from across Microsoft, will publish their findings of, of new campaigns and new techniques on the blog. And then we, we try and bring those authors onto the podcast to tell us about what they found that's what's happened in this blog. Um, the two of you uncovered a new, a unique way of attackers to deliver the IcedID malware. Can you walk us through this, this campaign and this technique that you, you both uncovered?Emily Hacker: (05:21)Yeah, definitely. So this one was really fun because as I mentioned, it evolved both email and endpoint. So this one was, as you mentioned, it was delivering IcedID. So we initially found the IcedID on the endpoint and looking at how this was getting onto various endpoints. We identified that it was coming from Outlook, which means it's coming from email. So we can't see too much in terms of the email itself from the endpoint, we can just see that it came from Outlook, but given the network connections that the affected machines were making directly after accessing Outlook, I was able to find the emails in our system that contains emails that have been submitted by user 'cause either reported to junk or reported as phish or reported as a false positive, if they think it's not a phish. And so that's where I was actually able to see the email itself and determined that there was some nefarious activity going on here.Emily Hacker: (06:20)So the emails in this case were really interesting in that they're not actually the attacker sending an email to a victim, which is what we normally see. So normally the attacker will either, you know, compromise a bunch of senders and send out emails that way, which is what we've seen a lot in a lot of other malware or they'll create their own attacker infrastructure and send emails directly that way. In this case, the attackers were abusing the contact forms on the websites. So if you are visiting a company's website and you're trying to contact them a lot of times, they're not going to just have a page where they offer up their emails or their phone numbers. And you have to fill in that form, which feels like it goes into the void sometimes. And you don't actually know who it went to in this case, the, the attackers were abusing hundreds of these contact forms, not just targeting any specific company.Emily Hacker: (07:08)And another thing that was unique about this is that for some of the affected companies that we had observed, I went and looked at their websites and their contact form does require a CAPTCHA. So it does appear that the attackers in this case have automated the filling out of these contact forms. And that they've automated a way around these CAPTCHAs, just given the, the sheer volume of these emails I'm seeing. This is a good way of doing this because for the attacker, this is a much more high fidelity method of contacting these companies because they don't have to worry about having an incorrect email address if they have gotten a list off of like Pastebin or a list, you know, they purchased a list perhaps from another criminal. Emily Hacker: (07:52)A lot of times in those cases, if they're emailing directly, there's gonna be some, some false emails in those lists that just don't get delivered. With the contact form, they're designed to be delivered. So it's gonna give the attacker a higher chance of success in terms of being delivered to a real inbox.Natalia Godyla: (08:11)And so when we, we talk about the progression of the attack, they're automating this process of submitting to these contact forms. What are they submitting in the form? What is the, and what is the end goal? So there's malware somewhere in their-Emily Hacker: (08:27)Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).Natalia Godyla: (08:27)... response. What next?Emily Hacker: (08:29)Yeah. It's a really good question. So the emails or rather the contact form submissions themselves, they're all containing a, a lore. So the contents themselves are lore that the attacker is pretending to be a, um, artist, a photographer, and illustrator, something along those lines. There's a handful of different jobs that they're pretending to be. And they are claiming that the company that they are contacting has used an image that belongs to the artist, illustrator, photographer on their website without permission. And so the attacker is saying, "You used my art without permission. I'm going to sue you if you don't take this down, if you wanna know what aren't talking about, click on this link and it'll show you the exact art that I'm talking about or the exact photo." What have you, all of the emails were virtually identical in terms of the content and the lore.Emily Hacker: (09:21)The attacker was using a bunch of different fake emails. So when you fill out a contact form, you have to put your email so the, the company can contact you, I guess, in reply, if they need to. And the attackers, almost every single email that I looked at had a different fake attacker email, but they did all follow a really consistent pattern in terms of the, the name, Mel and variations on that name. So they had like Melanie, I saw like Molina, like I said, there was hundreds of them. So the email would be Mel and then something relating to photography or illustration or art, just to add a little bit more credence, I think to their, to their lore. It made it look like the email address was actually associated with a real photographer. The, the attacker had no need to actually register or create any of those emails because they weren't sending from those emails. They were sending from the contact form. So it made it a lot easier for the attacker to appear legitimate without having to go through the trouble of creating legitimate emails. Emily Hacker: (10:16)And then the, um, the email itself from the recipients view would appear other than the fact that it felt fishy, at least to me, but, you know, I literally do this for a living. So maybe just everything feels fishy to me. Other than that, the email itself is going to appear totally legitimate because since it's coming through the contact form, it's not going to be from an email address. They don't recognize because a lot of times these contact forms are set up in a way where it'll send from the recipient's domain. So for example, a contact form, I don't know if this is how this works, but just as an example at Microsoft might actually send from Microsoft.com or the other large percentage of these that I saw were sent from the contact form hosting provider. So there are a lot of providers that host is kind of content for companies. And so the emails would be coming from those known email addresses and the emails themselves are gonna contain all of the expected fields, all in all. It's basically a legitimate email other than the fact that it's malicious.Nic Fillingham: (11:17)And, and just reading through the sample email that you, that you have in the blog post here, like sort of grammatically speaking it's, it reads very legitimately like, the-Emily Hacker: (11:26)Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham: (11:27)... you know, the s- the, the grammar and the spelling is, it's colloquial, but it's, but it seems, you know, pretty legitimate. The idea of a photographer, a freelance photographer, stumbling upon their images being used without permission. You know, you hear stories of that happening. That seems to be somewhat plausible, not knowing how to contact the, the infringing organization. And then therefore going to the generic contact us form like this all, this all seems quite plausible. Emily Hacker: (11:52)And, definitely. And it's als one of those situations where even though, like I said, I do this for a living, so I read this and I was like, there's no way that's legit. But if my job was to be responsible for that email inbox, where stuff like this came in, it would be hard for me to weigh the consequences of like, is it more likely that this is like a malicious email? Or is it yeah. Is it possible that this is legit? And if I ignore it, my company is gonna get sued. Like, I feel like that kind of would give the recipient that, that weird spot of being like, "I don't want to infect the company with malware, or, you know, I don't wanna click on a phishing link if that's what this is, but also if I don't and then we get sued, is it my fault?"Emily Hacker: (12:33)I just, I, I feel for the recipient. So I, I understand why people would be clicking on this one and infecting themselves. And speaking of clicking on that is the other thing that's included in this email. So that was the last bit of this email that turns us from just being weird/legitimate, to totally malicious. All of the emails contain a link. And, um, the links themselves are also abusing legitimate infrastructure. So that's, uh, the next bit of abused, legitimate infrastructure that just adds that next bit of like believability if that's a word to this campaign.Nic Fillingham: (13:05)It is a word.Emily Hacker: (13:06)Okay, good believability. Is that the, the links, you know, we're, if you don't work insecurity, and even if you do work in security, we're all kind of trained like, "Oh, check the links, hover over the links and make sure it's going somewhere that you expect and make sure it's not going to like bad site dot bad, dot bad or something," you know, but these don't do that. All of the emails contained a sites.google.comm link. And I've looked at literally hundreds of these, and they all contain, um, a different URL, but the same sites.google.com domain. If you click on the link, when you receive the email, it'll take you actually to a legitimate Google authentication page that'll ask you to log in with your Google credentials, which again, every step along the way of this, of the email portion of this, of this attack, the attacker just took extra steps to make it seem as real as possible, or to almost like every piece of security advice. Emily Hacker: (14:01)I feel like they did that thing. So it seemed more legitimate because it's not a phishing page. It's not like a fake Google page that's stealing your credentials. It's a real where you would log in with your real Google credentials. Another thing that this does outside of just adding an air of legitimacy to the emails, it also can make it difficult for some security automation products. So a product that would be looking at emails and detonating the link to see if they're malicious and this case, it would detonate the link and it would land on, you know, a real Google authentication page. And in some cases it may not be able to authenticate. And then it would just mark these as good, because it would see what it expected to see. So, outside of just seeming legit, it also makes, you know, security products make this think it's more legit as well. But from there, the, uh, user would be redirected through a series of attacker own domains and would eventually download a zip file, which if they unzipped, they would find the IcedID payload.Emily Hacker: (15:06)So in this case, it's delivering IcedID, although this technique could be used to deliver other stuff as well, but it's not necessarily surprising that it's delivering IcedID right now, because pretty much everything I feel like I'm seeing lately as I study. And I don't think I'm alone in that there's murmurings that IcedID might be replacing Emotets now that you Emotet has been taken down in terms of being, you know, the annoyingly present malware. (laughs) So this is just one of many delivery methods that we've seen for IcedID malware lately. It's certainly in my opinion, one of the more interesting ones, because in the past, we've seen IcedID delivered a lot via email, but, um, just delivered via, you know, the normal type of malicious email if you will, with a compromised email sending with a, a zip attachment, this is much more interesting.Emily Hacker: (15:56)But in this case, if the user downloaded the payload, the payload would actually do many things. So in this case, it was looking for machine information. It was looking to see what kind of security tools were in place to see what kind of antivirus the machine was running. It was getting IP and system information. It was getting, you know, domain information and also looking to access credentials that might be stored in your browser. And on top of that, it was also dropping Cobalt Strike, which is another fun tool that we see used in every single incident lately. It feels like, um, which means that this can give attacker full control of a compromised device.Natalia Godyla: (16:38)So, what are we doing to help protect customers against IcedID? In the blog you stated that we are partnering with a couple of organizations, as well as working with Google.Emily Hacker: (16:52)Yes. So we have notified Google of this activity because it is obviously abusing some of their infrastructure in terms of the sites at Google.com. And they seem to be doing a pretty good job in terms of finding these and taking them down pretty quickly. A lot of times that I'll see new emails come in, I'll go to, you know, click on the link and see what it's doing. And the site will already be taken down, which is good. However, the thing about security is that a lot of times we were playing Catch Up or like, Whack-A-Mole, where they're always just gonna be a step ahead of us because we can't pre block everything that they're going to do. So this is still, um, something that we're also trying to keep an eye on from, from the delivery side as well. Emily Hacker: (17:34)Um, one thing to note is that since these are coming from legitimate emails that are expected is that I have seen a fair bit like, uh, a few of these, uh, actually, um, where the, the customers have their environment configured in a way where even if we mark it as phish, it still ends up delivered. So they have a, what is like a mail flow rule that might be like allow anything from our contact form, which makes sense, because they wouldn't wanna be blocking legitimate requests from co- from customers in their contact form. So with that in mind, we also wanna be looking at this from the endpoint. And so we have also written a few rules to identify the behaviors associated with the particular IcedID campaign. Emily Hacker: (18:16)And it will notify users if the, the behaviors are seen on their machine, just in case, you know, they have a mail flow rule that has allowed the email through, or just in case the attackers change their tactics in the email, and it didn't hit on our rule anymore or something, and a couple slipped through. Then we would still identify this on the endpoint and not to mention those behaviors that the rules are hitting on are before the actual IcedID payload is delivered. So if everything went wrong in the email got delivered and Google hadn't taken the site down yet, and the behavioral rule missed, then the payload itself is detected as I study by our antivirus. So there's a lot in the way of protections going in place for this campaign.Nic Fillingham: (18:55)Emily, I, I wanna be sort of pretty clear here with, with folks listening to the podcast. So, you know, you've, you've mentioned the, the sites.google.com a, a couple of times, and really, you're not, you're not saying that Google has been compromised or the infrastructure is compromised simply that these attackers have, uh, have come up with a, a, you know, pretty potentially clever way of evading some of the detections that Google, uh, undoubtedly runs to abuse their, their hosting services, but they could just evasively has been targeting OneDrive or-Emily Hacker: (19:25)Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).Nic Fillingham: (19:25)... some other cloud storage.Emily Hacker: (19:25)That's correct. And we do see, you know, attackers abusing our own infrastructure. We've seen them abusing OneDrive, we've seen them abusing SharePoint. And at Microsoft, we have teams, including my team devoted to finding when that's occurring and remediating it. And I'm sure that Google does too. And like I said, they're doing a pretty done a good job of it. By the time I get to a lot of these sites, they're already down. But as I mentioned, security is, is a game of Whack-A-Mole. And so for, from Google point of view, I don't envy the position they're in because I've seen, like I mentioned hundreds upon hundreds of these emails and each one is a using a unique link. So they can't just outright block this from occurring because the attacker will just go and create another one.Natalia Godyla: (20:05)So I have a question that's related to our earlier discussion. You, you mentioned that they're evading the CAPTCHA. I thought that the CAPTCHA was one of the mechanisms in place to reduce spam. Emily Hacker: (20:19)Mh-mm-hmm (affirmative).Natalia Godyla: (20:19)So how is it doing that? Does this also indicate that we're coming to a point where we need to have to evolve the mechanisms on the forms to be a little bit more sophisticated than CAPTCHA?Emily Hacker: (20:33)I'm not entirely sure how the attackers are doing this because I don't know what automation they're using. So I can't see from their end, how they're evading the CAPTCHA. I can just see that some of the websites that I know that they have abused have a CAPTCHA in place. I'm not entirely sure.Nic Fillingham: (20:52)Emily is that possible do you think that one of the reasons why CAPTCHA is being invaded. And we talked earlier about how the, sort of the grammar of these mails is actually quite sophisticated. Is it possible? This is, this is a hands on keyboard manual attack? That there's actually not a lot of automation or maybe any automation. And so this is actually humans or a human going through, and they're evading CAPTCHA because they're actually humans and not an automated script?Emily Hacker: (21:17)There was another blog that was released about a similar campaign that was using the abusing of the contact forms and actually using a very similar lore with the illustrators and the, the legal Gotcha type thing and using sites.google.com. That was actually, it was very well written and it was released by Cisco Talos at the end of last year, um, at the end of 2020. So I focused a lot on the email side of this and what the emails themselves looked like and how we could stop these emails from happening. And then also what was happening upon clicks over that, like I said, we could see what was happening on the endpoint and get these to stop. Emily Hacker: (21:55)This blog actually focused a lot more on the technical aspect of what was being delivered, but also how it was being delivered. And one thing that they noted here was that they were able to see that the submissions were performed in an automated mechanism. So Cisco Talos was able to see that these are indeed automated. I suspected that they were automated based on the sheer volume, but I Talos is very good. They're very good intelligence organization. And I felt confident upon reading their blog that this was indeed automated, how it's being captured though, I still don't know.Natalia Godyla: (22:35)What's next for your research on IcedID? Does this round out your team's efforts in understanding this particular threat, or are, are you now continuing to review the emails, understand more of the attack?Emily Hacker: (22:52)So this is certainly not the end for IcedID. Through their Microsoft Security Intelligence, Twitter account. I put out my team and I put out a tweet just a couple of weeks ago, about four different IcedID campaigns that we were seeing all at the same time. I do believe this was one of them. They don't even seem related. There was one that was emails that contained, um, zip files. There was one that contained emails that contained password protected zip files that was targeting specifically Italian companies. There was this one, and then there was one that was, um, pretending to be Zoom actually. And that was even a couple of weeks ago. So there's gonna be more since then. So it's something that, like I mentioned briefly earlier, IcedID almost feels to be kind of, it feels a little bit like people are calling it like a, the next wave of replacement after Emotech are taken down. Emily Hacker: (23:43)And I don't know necessarily that that's true. I don't know that this will be the new Emotech so to speak, Emotech was Emotech And IcedID is IcedID but it does certainly feel like I've been seeing it a lot more lately. A lot of different attackers seem to be using it and therefore it's being delivered in different ways. So I think that it's gonna be one that my team is tracking for awhile, just by nature of different attackers using it, different delivery mechanisms. And it'll be, it'll be fun to see where this goes.Nic Fillingham: (24:13)What is it about this campaign or about this particular technique that makes it your Moby Dick-Emily Hacker: (24:17)(laughs) Nic Fillingham: (24:17)... if I may use the analogy.Emily Hacker: (24:20)I don't know. I've been thinking about that. And I think it has to do with the fact that it is so, like, it just feels like a low blow. I don't know. I think that's literally it like they're abusing the company's infrastructure. They're sending it to like people whose job is to make sure that their companies are okay. They're sending a fake legal threat. They're using legit Google sites. They're using a legit Google authentication, and then they're downloading IcedID. Like, can you at least have the decency, descend to crappy like unprotected zip attachment so that-Nic Fillingham: (24:49)(laughs)Emily Hacker: (24:49)... we at least know you're malicious, like, come on. It's just for some reason it, I don't know if it's just 'cause it's different or if it's because I'm thinking back to like my day before security. And I, if I saw this email as this one that I would fall for, like maybe. And so I think that there's just something about that and about the, the fact that it's making it harder to, to fully scope and to really block, because we don't want to block legitimate contact emails from being delivered to these companies. And obviously they don't want that either. So I think that's it.Nic Fillingham: (25:22)What is your guidance to customers? You know, I'm a security person working at my company and I wanna go run this query. If I run this, I feel like I'm gonna get a ton of results. What do I do from there?Emily Hacker: (25:33)That's a good question. So this is an advanced hunting query, which can be used in the Microsoft Security portal. And it's written in advanced hunting query language. So if a customer has access to that portal, they can just copy and paste and search, but you're right. It is written fairly generically to a point where if you don't have, you know, advanced hunting, you can still read this and search and whatever methodology, whatever, you know, searching capabilities you do have, you would just have to probably rewrite it. But what this one is doing the top one, 'cause I, I have two of them written here. The first one is looking specifically at the email itself. So that rejects that's written there is the, um, site.google.com.Emily Hacker: (26:16)All of the emails that we have seen associated with this have matched on that rejects. There was this morning, like I said, I was talking to a different team that was also looking into this and I'm trying to identify if she found, um, a third pattern, if she did, I will update the, um, AHQ and we have, we can post AHQ publicly on the Microsoft advanced hunting query, get hub repo, which means that customers can find them if we, if we change them later and I'll be doing that if that's the case, but point being this rejects, basically it takes the very long, full URL of this site.google.com and matches on the parts that are fairly specific to this email.Emily Hacker: (27:02)So they all contain, you know, some of them contain ID, some of them don't, but they all contain that like nine characters, they all contain view. It's just certain parts of the URL that we're seeing consistently. And that's definitely not by itself going to bubble up just the right emails, which is why have it joined on the email events there. And from there, the, I have instructed the users to replace the following query with the subject line generated by their own contacts, their own websites contact submission form. What I have in there are just a few sample subject lines. So if your website contact form generates the subject line of contact us or new submission or contact form, then those will work. But if the website con-, you know, contact form, I've seen a bunch of different subject lines. Then what this does is that it'll join the two. So that it's only gonna bubble up emails that have that sites.google.com with that specific pattern and a subject line relating to the contact form. Emily Hacker: (28:02)And given the searching that I've done, that should really narrow it down. I don't think there's going to be a ton in the way of other contact emails that are using sites.google.com that are showing up for these people. I wouldn't be surprised if this did return one email and it turned out to be a malicious email related to this campaign. But if the contact form generates its own subject line per what the user inputs on the website, then, you know, the screenshots that are in the blog may help with that, but it might be more difficult to find in that case. There's a second advanced hunting query there, which we'll find on the endpoint.Natalia Godyla: (28:37)And I know we're just about at time here, but one quick question on endpoint security. So if a customer is using Microsoft Defender for endpoint, will it identify and stop IcedID?Emily Hacker: (28:49)Yes, it will. The IcedID payload in this case, we're seeing Defender detecting it and blocking it. And that was what, one of the things I was talking about earlier is that Defender is actually doing such a good job. That it's a little bit difficult for me to see what's, uh, gonna happen next because I'm limited to, um, seeing kind of what is happening on customer boxes. And so, because our products are doing such a good job of blocking this, it means that I don't have a great view of what the attacker was going to do next because they can't, 'cause we're blocking it. So it's of mostly a win, but it's stopping me from seeing if they are planning on doing, you know, ransomware or whatever, but I'd rather not know if it means that our customers are protected from this.Nic Fillingham: (29:32)Well, Emily Hacker, thank you so much for your time. Thanks to you and Justin for, for working on this. Um, we'd love to have you back again on Security Unlocked to learn more about some of the great work you're doing.Emily Hacker: (29:41)Definitely, thank you so much for having me.Natalia Godyla: (29:47)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: (29:54)And don't forget to tweet us @msftsecurity or email us at securityunlockedatmicrosoft.com, with topics you'd like to hear on a future episode. Until then, stay safe.Natalia Godyla: (30:05)Stay secure.