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Ruthlessness, Scale, and Sophistication: How Cyber Crime Evolved in 2021

Threat groups vastly increased the scope and sophistication of their attacks in 2021. They claimed a string of high-profile successes, hitting critical infrastructure systems and targets in the private sector particularly hard. High-profile breaches like HAFNIUM Group’s exploitation of the Microsoft® Exchange Server and the supply chain attacks on Kaseya and SolarWinds made headlines. Meanwhile, the rampant growth of ransomware continued unabated, even as the U.S. Department of Justice established a Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force.

Misuse of Cobalt Strike

In 2021, BlackBerry collected insights and trends from over 7,000 Cobalt Strike Team Servers and 60,000 Beacons. The resulting threat intelligence is in the BlackBerry® 2022 Threat Report  and further detailed in our eBook Finding Beacons in the Dark: A Guide to Cyber Threat Intelligence

Recent discoveries include:

  • Threat actors are increasingly turning to legitimate cloud providers for Cobalt Strike hosting
  • Ports 80, 443, and 8080 are typically open in most environments, making them an obvious choice for command-and-control (C2) traffic
  • Cobalt Strike Beacons were used in 2021 to execute C2 injection attacks through domain fronting, DNS redirectors, process spawning, malleable profile masking, and leaked public keys

Surging Supply Chain Attacks

Threat actors focused on supply chains in 2021 and met with considerable success. The supply chain is an appealing target for threat groups for several reasons, including:

  • Supply chains are complex and expansive, making them difficult to secure effectively
  • A successful supply chain attack can severely impact multiple targets at once
  • Many organizations still implicitly trust their supply chain, allowing these attacks to bypass cybersecurity measures
  • A lack of supply chain visibility represents a significant challenge for threat monitoring and forensics

Advanced persistent threat (APT) groups claimed responsibility for 50% of recent supply chain attacks. Their success rate may indicate more of these attacks on the horizon.

Log4j/Log4Shell Exploits

Log4j is an open-source logging package used by countless frameworks and applications. Last year, it was discovered to contain a crippling vulnerability. The vulnerability can be exploited by feeding susceptible applications a specially crafted text snippet, which may allow attackers to perform remote code execution. 

Log4Shell is troubling for several reasons:

  • Shortly after being revealed, attacks targeting the vulnerability numbered several million per hour
  • It’s difficult to tell which applications or services are at risk
  • The exploit does not leverage malicious software and is undetectable by many security tools
  • The widespread use of Log4j means the vulnerability could be a problem for years to come

Exotic and Obscure Programming Languages

Threat actors often use obscure languages to develop, rewrite, or create a wrapper or loader for malware families. This technique was used heavily over the past year for several reasons:

  • Enhancing performance
  • Bypassing security tools
  • Thwarting signature-based antivirus detection
  • Cross-compiling to target multiple operating systems

BlackBerry has observed threat actors recently adopting Go, D, Nim, and Rust in their attacks.

Initial Access Brokers (IABs)

The BlackBerry Research and Intelligence team identified a previously undocumented IAB dubbed Zebra2104. IABs gain unlawful access into an organization’s network, then sell the access on the dark web. Through comprehensive investigation, we discovered links between Zebra2104 and MountLocker, Phobos, and StrongPity aka Promethium.

Major Attack Types in 2021

Ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) providers have been behind some of the highest-profile cyberattacks of 2021. Several groups were shut down after the Colonial Pipeline attack, yet others have risen to take their place. Modern ransomware is often provisioned to clients as a service and may use a double extortion scheme by exfiltrating encrypted data and threatening its release.

The most common ransomware strains in 2021 included:

Infostealers vary in terms of the information they collect, which may include web data, authentication details, credit card information, crypto wallets, and FTP data. The most prominent infostealers of 2021 were:

  • RedLine
  • Agent Tesla
  • Ficker
  • Hancitor (aka Chanitor)


The Top 10 Malware Threats in 2021

Adversarial AI Attacks

Although still a nascent field, adversarial learning saw some further development in 2021. The primary goal of adversarial learning is to train AI threats to fool cybersecurity. In fact, adversarial algorithms have been used to modify malicious files to allow them to bypass both heuristic and machine learning (ML)-aided defenses.

Fortunately, such changes are not easy to make, so most adversarial attacks use something known as a bulk iterative strategy. Still, these algorithms cause concern, particularly since the files they generate appear to be transferable between models. This may mean an attack trained to overcome one defense might be capable of bypassing dozens of commercial cybersecurity products.

Looking Back to See the Road Ahead

Throughout 2021, organized, sophisticated attacks made headlines, with ransomware playing a key role. Threat actors demonstrated their skill, flexibility, and adaptability, adopting and mimicking private sector capabilities to great effect. Attacks on the supply chain heavily influenced last year’s threat landscape, as attackers compromised single targets to hit thousands of victims downstream.

Likewise, the people and organizations standing against attackers have begun to employ new tactics, tools, and frameworks to combat all kinds of digital threats. Governments are more engaged in the cybersecurity space than ever before, with multiple agencies releasing new guidelines and requirements for software and supply chain security. BlackBerry, as always, is working to advance cybersecurity solutions that protect people and organizations worldwide.

The BlackBerry 2022 Threat Report is a high-level examination of the current advancements and events impacting cybersecurity. It’s our unique piece of the security puzzle, shared with the hope of improving the cyber resilience of organizations and individuals worldwide. For a deep dive into the cybersecurity issues of the past year, download the BlackBerry 2022 Threat Report.

Whatever security challenge you may be facing, our team of experts can help. Contact a BlackBerry Cybersecurity expert today.

Mark Mariani

About Mark Mariani

Mark Mariani is the Product Marketing Director of the BlackBerry cybersecurity business unit.