The dozens of cybercriminals that made up the Conti group continue to launch campaigns unabated. Previously in 2022, I blogged about how following the Conti Leaks, the operators of Conti continued on via multiple rebranded ransomware campaigns, such as Royal, BlackBasta, and Quantum, among others.
Since my last two blogs on the Conti/TrickBot gang, multiple members of the Conti and TrickBot group have been officially sanctioned by the US and UK government in February 2023 and September 2023, formally confirming attribution to Russia-based threat actors. The sanctions are a vital step in the right direction and helps the public and law makers understand what organized cybercrime looks like and the scale of the fight on our hands.
In this blog, however, I wanted to explore the ransomware campaign called Akira that appeared in March 2023 and focus on how Akira connected to Conti. Akira is a rapidly growing threat to civil society and critical infrastructure and is the ransomware group I believe researchers and governments should be monitoring more closely.
Background on Akira
Adversaries and Victims
the operators of Akira ransomware are financially motivated cybercriminals. They are in it for the money and have made a lot of it already
in 2023, how much exactly is not clear. But public media
reports state that between March and July 2023, the group has compromised at
least 63 victims, which is around four organizations hit by Akira
ransomware per week that we know about. From negotiations seen by BleepingComputer, the ransomware gang demands ransoms ranging from a $200,000 to millions of dollars.
The group performs the usual double extortion campaigns,
whereby the victim’s files and information are stolen and shared to their Tor data
leak site (DLS) if the ransom is not paid. Private cybersecurity vendors also
track the Akira operators as Punk Spider (CrowdStrike) and Gold Sahara
being connected to Conti, the Akira operators are likely connected to other
ransomware operations too, such as Snatch and BlackByte. In an August 2023, researchers
an open directory of tools used by an Akira operator that were also likely being
used by a threat actor with connections to Snatch ransomware. In July 2023, media
reports shared that Yamaha’s Canadian music division was listed on the Akira
DLS, which was after they were listed on BlackByte’s DLS in June 2023. The connections
between Akira and other ransomware gangs highlight that those who deploy Akira are
likely affiliated with more than one ransomware crew, as Microsoft found is usually
the case among affiliates.
victims have been located around the world, but most that have appeared on their
Tor DLS have been from North America. Akira attacks have impacted a wide range
of industries, such as education, financial services, manufacturing, professional
services, and healthcare. Most of the victims have been small-to-medium
businesses (SMBs) with a few recognizable brand names, such as Yamaha.
Capabilities and Infrastructure
been multiple versions of the Akira ransomware family and it has been deployed across
domains and Hyper-V
virtual infrastructure, as well as VMware
ESXi hypervisors with Linux
virtual machines (VMs). The first version of Akira was written in C++ and
appended files with the “.akira” extension and dropped a ransom note called “akira_readme.txt”
that is at least partially based on Conti’s V2 source code, according to malware
analysts at Avast who also released a decryptor for Akira on 29 June 2023.
However, a new version was shortly released that patched the decryption
flaw on 2 July 2023. Since then, in late August 2023, a new revamped version
of Akira appeared developed in
Rust. This time it was called “megazord.exe” and appended “.powerranges”
extension to encrypted files.
common initial access vector the Akira operators have used appears to be via
brute-forcing Cisco VPN devices with single-factor authentication only. The
Akira operator that was also tied to Snatch was also found exploiting
Fortinet devices vulnerable to CVE-2019-6693
for initial access. Incident responders have also said that they believe Akira
operators likely purchase
VPN credentials from cybercrime marketplaces fuelled by infostealer malware botnets
or from potentially from initial access brokers (IABs).
extracting tools and tradecraft from numerous threat reports
on Akira, the operators have been known to leverage the same arsenal of tools time and time again, but may substitute some depending on the environment. These can be broken down into the following
- External Reconnaissance:
Masscan and ReconFTW
- Internal Enumeration:
PCHunter64, Advanced IP Scanner, LANsweeper, SharpHound, AdFind, SoftPerfect NetScan,
and Windows Nltest
Theft: Minidump, Mimikatz, LaZagne, and DonPAPI
RMM tools, such as AnyDesk, RustDesk, Radmin
, and ScreenConnect,
as well as disabling firewalls followed by enabling RDP, and PuTTy. The SystemBC crimeware RAT has also been used Akira.
Evasion: Disable EDR tools with Terminator.exe and ToolPow, as well as batch
scripts for disabling LSA Protection and Windows Defender
Movement: Impacket (wmiexec.py and atexec.py), RDP, and SSH
Searching and downloading files from Microsoft SharePoint
Compression tools (7zip, WinRAR, etc) as well as Rclone, FileZilla, and WinSCP
Cloudflare Tunnel (Cloudflared), MobaXterm, and Ngrok
- Impact: Akira
ransomware, usually launched via PsExec
ransomware has been deployed and the data is stolen, Akira begins the
negotiations. This includes requesting the victim to visit Akira’s Green MS-DOS
style Tor Negotiation site (akiralkzxzq2dsrzsrvbr2xgbbu2wgsmxryd4csgfameg52n7efvr2id[.]onion)
via the ransom note. And if the victim refuses to pay the ransom, they are
listed on Akira’s DLS (akiral2iz6a7qgd3ayp3l6yub7xx2
Figure 1: Akira’s Negotiation Portal (left) and Data Leak Site (right)
something to note about Akira’s DLS is that it does not actually host the stolen
data like another ransomware Tor DLSs. This gang has decided to use Magnet Links that
require Torrenting software to download and view stolen data. This is a trend that other ransomware groups have followed, such as CL0P following the MOVEit breaches earlier in 2023.
Figure 2: Victim post on Akira’s DLS with Magnet Links
Akira’s similarities with Conti
Now, let’s lay all the evidence out and examine the similarities and overlaps between Conti and Akira. The main notable links are as follows:
- To start,
both Conti and Akira are double extortion ransomware groups and Akira appeared almost
a year after Conti shut down its Tor DLS. Many of Akira’s victims are the same
as Conti’s, those being primarily North American businesses. Plus, much like
Conti, there are versions of Akira ransomware that can target Windows domains or
VMware ESXi hypervisors with Linux VMs.
analysts have noted several code similarities between Conti and Akira ransomware, such as the list
of file type and directory exclusions, the structure of the file tail, the implementation
of ChaCha 2008, and the code for key generation.
of negotiation chats between Akira and their victims have also been made
public. These logs revealed that Akira operators use a script to begin negotiations
just as Conti did, demonstrating behavioral similarity in campaign style.
- In August
2021, a disgruntled member of Conti leaked
the gang’s playbook for launching templated attacks. Conti created this
playbook to scale up operations and launch ransomware attacks more frequently,
earning them more money. Akira campaigns have followed a very similar set of
TTPs as the Conti playbook. The following tools used by Akira operators that
are also mentioned in the Conti playbook
include: Minidump, Mimikatz, AdFind, PChunter, PsExec, NetScan, Windows nltest,
PuTTy, WinSCP, FileZilla, and AnyDesk.
- The SystemBC
crimeware RAT that has been used in Akira campaigns has also been used by Conti
and Ryuk operators. In Microsoft also highlighted that it is a specific operator
they track as DEV-0237
that shifted SystemBC from Cobalt Strike during Conti campaigns.
analytics on Akira’s
Bitcoin transactions by incident responders also revealed that on at least
three occasions, Akira operators have sent ransom funds to addresses affiliated
with known Conti wallets. These transactions also equalled more than 600,000 USD.
Based on the evidence gathered about Akira, it is my assessment that the operators behind Akira ransomware as linked to Conti with high confidence. The are numerous links at multiple levels, there is
a combination of numerous technical and behavioral ties between the two groups.
One of the most telling connection is arguably the bitcoin transactions between Akira and known Conti wallets. The lack of any serious blockchain obfuscation techniques, such as using a mixing service or chain hopping, has made it trivial for investigators trace Akira ransom payments ultimately back to Conti with high confidence.
Even without these Bitcoin transactions as damning evidence, there are clear similarities between Akira and Conti TTPs. However, due to the Conti ransomware source code getting leaked as well as the playbook getting leaked, it is not impossible for threat actors to imitate Conti’s success. But the fact Akira is sending funds back to Conti, does make it seem they are almost certainly working with former Conti members (who are sanctioned).
If you are a victim of Akira and you are considering paying the ransom, you are potentially dealing with the sanctioned Russian men mentioned at the start of
this blog. Paying the ransom is funding the Russia-based organized cybercrime
syndicates that threaten our civil society and critical infrastructure. Think about that next time a hospital is ransomed. Company
executives at victim organizations need to realize that paying a sanctioned Russia-based
cybercriminal group for a decryption key is hardly different from terrorist financing.