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Sophos Researchers Uncover New Python Ransomware Targeting an ESXi Server and Virtual Machines in an Ultra-High-Speed Attack

Sophos, a global leader in next-generation cybersecurity, has released details of a new ransomware written in Python that attackers used to compromise and encrypt virtual machines hosted on an ESXi hypervisor. The report, “Python Ransomware Script Targets ESXi Server for Encryption,” details a sniper-like operation that took less than three hours to progress from breach to encryption.

“This is one of the fastest ransomware attacks Sophos has ever investigated and it appeared to precision-target the ESXi platform,” said Andrew Brandt, principal researcher at Sophos. “Python is a coding language not commonly used for ransomware. However, Python is pre-installed on Linux-based systems such as ESXi, and this makes Python-based attacks possible on such systems. ESXi servers represent an attractive target for ransomware threat actors because they can attack multiple virtual machines at once, where each of the virtual machines could be running business-critical applications or services. Attacks on hypervisors can be both fast and highly disruptive. Ransomware operators including DarkSide and REvil have targeted ESXi servers in attacks.”

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Attack Timeline

The Sophos investigation revealed that the attack began at 12:30 a.m. on a Sunday, when the ransomware operators broke into a TeamViewer account running on a computer that belonged to a user who also had domain administrator access credentials.

According to the investigators, 10 minutes later, the attackers used the Advanced IP Scanner tool to look for targets on the network. The investigators believe the ESXi Server on the network was vulnerable because it had an active Shell, a programming interface that IT teams use for commands and updates. This allowed the attackers to install a secure network communications tool called Bitvise on the machine belonging to the domain administrator, which gave them remote access to the ESXi system, including the virtual disk files used by the virtual machines. At around 3:40 a.m., the attackers deployed the ransomware and encrypted these virtual hard drives hosted on the ESXi server.

Security Advice

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“Administrators who operate ESXi or other hypervisors on their networks should follow security best practices. This includes using unique, difficult to brute-force passwords and enforcing the use of multi-factor authentication wherever possible,” said Brandt. “The ESXi Shell can and should be disabled whenever it is not being used by staff for routine maintenance, for instance, during the installation of patches. The IT team can do this by either using controls on the server console or through the software management tools provided by the vendor.”

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Sophos endpoint products, such Intercept X, protect users by detecting the actions and behaviors of ransomware and other attacks. The act of attempting to encrypt files is blocked by the CryptoGuard feature. Security guidance specific to ESXi hypervisors is available online.

Sophos further recommends the following standard best practices to help defend against ransomware and related cyberattacks:

At a Strategic Level

  • Deploy layered protection. As more ransomware attacks begin to involve extortion, backups remain necessary, but insufficient. It is more important than ever to keep adversaries out in the first place, or to detect them quickly, before they cause harm. Use layered protection to block and detect attackers at as many points as possible across an estate
  • Combine human experts and anti-ransomware technology. The key to stopping ransomware is defense-in-depth that combines dedicated anti-ransomware technology and human-led threat hunting. Technology provides the scale and automation an organization needs, while human experts are best able to detect the tell-tale tactics, techniques and procedures that indicate an attacker is attempting to get into the environment. If organizations don’t have the skills in house, they can enlist support from cybersecurity specialists

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[To share your insights with us, please write to sghosh@martechseries.com]

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