Sophos released new findings into the connections between the most prominent ransomware groups this past year, including Royal, in its report, “Clustering Attacker Behavior Reveals Hidden Patterns.” Over the course of three months beginning in January 2023, Sophos X-Ops investigated four different ransomware attacks, one involving Hive, two by Royal, and one by Black Basta, and noticed distinct similarities between the attacks.
Despite Royal being a notoriously closed off group that doesn’t openly solicit affiliates from underground forums, granular similarities in the forensics of the attacks suggest all three groups are sharing either affiliates or highly specific technical details of their activities. Sophos is tracking and monitoring the attacks as a “cluster of threat activity” that defenders can use to speed up detection and response times.
“Because the ransomware-as-a-service model requires outside affiliates to carry out attacks, it’s not uncommon for there to be crossover in the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) between these different ransomware groups. However, in these cases, the similarities we’re talking about are at a very granular level. These highly specific, unique behaviors suggest that the Royal ransomware group is much more reliant on affiliates than previously thought. The new insights we’ve gained about Royal’s work with affiliates and possible ties to other groups speak to the value of Sophos’ in-depth, forensic investigations,” said Andrew Brandt, principal researcher, Sophos.
The unique similarities include using the same specific usernames and passwords when the attackers took over systems on the targets, delivering the final payload in .7z archive named after the victim organization, and executing commands on the infected systems with the same batch scripts and files.
Sophos X-Ops succeeded in uncovering these connections following a three-month long investigation into four ransomware attacks. The first attack involved Hive ransomware in January 2023. This was followed by Royals’ attacks in February and March 2023 and, later, in March, Black Basta’s. Near the end of January this year, a large portion of Hive’s operation was disbanded following a sting operation by the FBI. This operation could have led Hive affiliates to seek new employment—perhaps with Royal and Black Basta—which would explain the similarities in the ensuing ransomware attacks.
Because of the similarities between these attacks, Sophos X-Ops began tracking all four ransomware incidents as a cluster of threat activity.
“While threat activity clusters can be a stepping stone to attribution, when researchers focus too much on the ‘who’ of an attack, then they can miss critical opportunities for strengthening defenses. Knowing highly specific attacker behavior helps managed detection and response teams react faster to active attacks. It also helps security providers create stronger protections for customers. When protections are based on behaviors, it doesn’t matter who is attacking—Royal, Black Basta, or otherwise—potential victims will have the necessary security measures in place to block subsequent attacks that display some of the same distinct characteristics,” said Brandt.