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LockBit locked out: Cyber community reacts

News that the prolific, dangerous and feared LockBit ransomware cartel has been significantly disrupted by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), the FBI and others, has been welcomed by the cyber security community.

Operation Cronos, which has been quietly unfolding over a period of several months, saw the NCA and partners compromise the gang’s infrastructure and seize assets including servers, bespoke tools, and dark web sites used by the operation and its affiliates.

The authorities have also frozen a number of cryptocurrency accounts linked to the LockBit gang, and we now know that two people have been taken into policy custody in Poland and Ukraine.

Experts upbeat

Among the security experts who reached out to Computer Weekly following the takedown, the mood was generally upbeat

“Lockbit rose to be the most prolific ransomware group since Conti departed the scene in mid-2022. The frequency of their attacks, combined with having no limits to what type of infrastructure they cripple has also made them the most destructive in recent years,” said Chester Wisniewski, director and global field CTO at Sophos. “Anything that disrupts their operations and sows distrust among their affiliates and suppliers is a huge win for law enforcement.”

ESET global cyber security advisor Jake Moore said: “It’s extremely difficult to catch cyber criminals, especially those in huge operational groups so disruption is a key police tactic. The takedown of LockBit’s website will be a massive blow to cyber criminals and although it won’t eradicate the problem, it will disrupt the criminal network potentially saving businesses millions of pounds in targeted activity.

“It shows the successes of law enforcement agencies working together in collaboration and how this remains the best way in targeting connected threat actors.

“Locating enough evidence is the most difficult aspect in any cyber crime investigation, but this highlights that with enough force and proactive policing, crime won’t always continue to pay,” said Moore.

WithSecure director of threat intelligence and outreach, Tim West, said the scale of the operation, details of which continue to emerge, was worthy of celebration.

“Commentary from European law enforcement describes a comprehensive seizure of all infrastructure required to run the ransomware operation. A staggered release of data on Lockbit’s own leak site is not only extremely embarrassing for Lockbit, but also may suggest they themselves do not know the extent of the action taken,” said West.

“One thing we do know is the collective of law enforcement agencies will certainly have carefully weighed short-term and long-term impact opportunity to ensure maximum disruption and impose maximum cost on Lockbit, and we support any and all action that dents or impedes their continued operation. For this reason, we celebrate what would no doubt have been a complex and difficult operation and offer congratulations to those involved.”

Jamie Moles, senior technical manager at ExtraHop, said that recent law enforcement moves to target cyber criminal infrastructure – see similar operations against the likes of Hive and ALPHV/BlackCat – were the right way to go.

“While sanctions on suspected gang members and bans on firms paying ransoms have been discussed in the past, these methods are largely ineffective. Gang members often reside in countries without extradition laws, and bans on paying ransoms punish the companies involved harder than the gangs such laws are designed to target,” said Moles.

“The ability for law enforcement to directly target the infrastructure these gangs rely on to sell stolen data, and take ransom payments, massively reduces the profitability of the venture. By creating a hostile environment for these gangs, we can see concerted efforts by law enforcement to curb malicious activity online is starting to bear fruit.”

Dark days on the dark web

Researchers at Searchlight Cyber, who have been hanging out on underground cyber crime forums to take the temperature of LockBit’s peers, said the gang’s demise has drawn a mixed response.

On the XSS Russian-speaking forum, on which LockBit’s main representative, LockBitSupp, was an active participant, a thread on the news has drawn over a hundred comments, many concerned about how a group of LockBit’s size and stature was taken down, others worried about the NCA’s seizure of its decryption keys.

On the whole, the general consensus is that some form of LockBit will live on – however, Searchlight’s experts noted that a number of characters seemed unsure as to whether they should be concerned or not, given the limited information available so far.

Was critical PHP vuln used against LockBit?

In a further boost to morale, other XSS forum members appeared to be actively blaming LockBit for bad operational security.

Among some of the more intriguing titbits to have trickled out in the past day include the possibility, teased by LockBit admins who remain at large, that the NCA and its partners turned a critical PHP vulnerability on the gang.

As always, statements made by cyber criminals should never be taken at face value. Nevertheless, the implication that LockBit’s downfall had more than a little to do with its failure to properly safeguard its own cyber security risk factors lends a pleasant irony to the story.

“Ransomware groups often leverage public-facing vulnerabilities to infect their victims with ransomware [but] this time, Operation Cronos gave LockBit operators a taste of their own medicine,” said Huseyin Can Yuceel, security researcher at Picus Security.

“According to LockBit admins, the law enforcement agencies exploited PHP CVE-2023-3824 vulnerability to compromise LockBit’s public-facing servers and gain access to LockBit source code, internal chat, victims’ details, and stolen data.”

CVE-2023-3824 is a critical vulnerability in the widely used PHP open source general-purpose scripting language. It arises in certain versions of the language when insufficient length checking may lead to a stack buffer overflow, resulting in memory corruption or remote code execution (RCE).

“Although the LockBit group claims to have untouched backup servers, it is unclear whether they will be back online. Currently, LockBit associates are not able to log in to LockBit services. In a Tox message, adversaries told their associates that they would publish a new leak site after the rebuild,” said Yuceel.

Rebuilding LockBit

It is to this point that many observers we caught up with return consistently – just because a cyber criminal enterprise has been significantly disrupted, it does not mean that this is the end of the road for LockBit.

“In the short term, this will go some way to stopping or reducing Lockbit infections. Over the longer term, I suspect it’ll be business as usual. If we consider the root cause issues that Lockbit exploits, none of these have been remediated by today’s news,” said Ed Williams, vice-president of pen testing for EMEA at Trustwave.

“The ability for internal, lateral movement is as trivial today as it was yesterday in most organisations. I would give it two to three months, after which we’ll see a reincarnation of this flavour of ransomware, which I suspect will be even more sophisticated as the threat actors will have taken lessons from today and be able to cover their tracks better going forward.”

Williams’ sentiment was shared by others. Matt Hull, NCC Group global head of threat intelligence, was among them. He said: “No doubt people will be wondering whether LockBit can bounce back. The group has claimed that they have backups of their systems and data. We have seen in the past various ransomware operators rebrand, join forces with other groups, or come back a few months later. 

“We will get a better idea over the coming days and weeks of the full extent of Operation Cronos, and the true capabilities of the LockBit group.”

Camellia Chan, CEO and co-founder of Flexxon, said: “We can’t expect the gang that hit ICBC [China’s largest bank] with a cyber attack so bad it disrupted the US treasury market to go down without a fight. LockBit could even re-invent itself in time, as we’ve seen with other ransomware gang rebrands. Plus, there’s no doubt there are other threat actors just around the corner. For businesses, this should be a wake-up call to bolster defences.”

Williams added: “The main issue is how quickly these ransomware groups can re-group and re-spawn their services with enhanced sophistication. It is a constant game of cat and mouse where innocent organisations need to continue to focus on securing themselves and making them a ‘tough nut to crack’.  Businesses around the globe should take today’s news as an opportunity to review their ‘three Ps’: passwords, patching and policies.”

Guidance for security in the wake of the LockBit takedown is clear – use the potential for a brief lull in ransomware activity to reinforce your defences.

“Companies should not scale down their efforts to protect their data, identities, and infrastructure,” said Netwrix EMEA field CISO and security research vice-president, Dirk Schrader.

“Heed the advice that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Make sure that you have your accounts protected using MFA, that privileges are reduced to the minimum needed to do the job and exist only just-in-time, that your systems are hardened, and your vital data is secured. We will see whether LockBit remains out of business, but for sure others are ready to fill the void.”

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