Demystifying Domain Generation Algorithm: A Cybersecurity Menace
Commonly used strategies to protect against cyber threats is to block suspicious domains, URLs, and IP addresses.
APT29, also known as CozyBear or The Dukes, a cyber attack group that has been active since 2008, pioneered malware that collected first-stage command and control (C2) instructions from well-known public websites to circumvent basic firewall defenses. By using sophisticated “domain generation algorithms,” such malwares avoid hard-coding C2 domains or IP addresses to carry out attacks — thus circumventing most threat intelligence measures.
In cybersecurity, one of the most commonly used strategies to protect against cyber threats is to block suspicious domains, URLs, and IP addresses. However, with threat actors becoming increasingly sophisticated, methods have evolved that manage to bypass these defenses. One such technique is known as the Domain Generation Algorithm (DGA). It is commonly used by malware authors to communicate with their command and control servers, allowing them to remotely control infected devices and steal sensitive information.
DGA attacks represent a key component of the ongoing arms race between cyber attackers and defenders: the relentless creativity of those who aim to do harm. In this blog, we'll explore the ins and outs of Domain Generation Algorithm and its role in cyberattacks. We'll explain what DGA is, how it works, and why it's a significant threat to cybersecurity. We'll also examine the types of malwares that use DGA, the damage they can cause, and how security professionals can protect against these attacks.
Domain Generation Algorithm (DGA) is a sophisticated technique used by cybercriminals to generate a large number of domain names dynamically. Essentially, it is a mathematical algorithm that creates unique domain names based on certain variables, such as the date and time, a seed value, or other parameters. These domains can be used by malware to communicate with command-and-control servers or to execute other malicious activities. Because the domains are generated dynamically, they can change frequently, making it more difficult for security researchers to track and identify the malware's communication patterns.
DGA is particularly useful for evading detection by security tools and researchers. By generating a large number of domains, the malware can make it harder to block or filter network traffic associated with the malicious domains. Additionally, since the domains are generated randomly, they can include multiple subdomains, top-level domains, or other variations that make them difficult to detect or block.
One key difference between DGA-generated domains and regular domain names is that DGA-generated domains often use random characters and strings of words that don't make sense in a human-readable format. As a result, it can be challenging for humans to recognize these domains as malicious. Moreover, while some security tools can analyze the domain names' structure and detect patterns that may indicate malicious activity, the dynamic nature of DGA-generated domains increases the odds of failure.
Some of the most common malwares associated with DGA include ransomware, botnets, and banking Trojans. These malware strains are able to generate thousands of domain names per day, making it difficult for security professionals to block communication channels and prevent attacks. For instance, GameOver Zeus, was a famous botnet that leveraged DGA and was used to steal banking credentials and other sensitive information from infected computers, its variants generating 1,000 and 10,000 domains per day.
As mentioned above, a DGA works by generating domain names that serve as meeting points for malware command and control servers. To avoid detection by security researchers, these domains need to be as unpredictable as possible. The process needs to be fast and anonymous, with a low registration cost for the domains.
DGAs follow a three-element structure consisting of a base element called a seed, an element that changes with time, and Top Level Domains (TLDs). Once the hacker knows the domain name, they register it and create a communication channel for the malware. When the domain is taken down, the malware and C&C server are quickly switched. This large number of meeting points makes it challenging to shut down the malware, eliminating the need for threat actors to come up with new malware versions or set up new servers. Malware and ransomware receive instructions by communicating with command and control systems, such as whom to target and encryption keys for ransomware.
The core purpose of the DGA technique is to enable malware attacks — not to directly harm the target. This means that the best practices that prevent normal malware attacks can also protect against DGA-related attacks to a certain extent, such as using security software that can identify and prevent malware attacks, keeping software updated, and avoiding opening attachments from unknown sources.
However, since DGAs can be used to bypass ad blockers through domain fluxing, which involves constant switching of domains to evade detection by ad blockers' blocklists, signature filters, and reputation systems, additional measures are needed to ensure a more robust security posture and create an extra layer of security.
DGA domains can be detected in two ways: reactionary or real-time. Reactionary methods involve checking DNS responses, IP location, WHOIS, and TLS certificate information. Real-time methods involve analyzing the domain name and looking for unnatural sequences of characters.
Some best practices can help organizations minimize the threat of DGA-backed malware attacks. These include:
Following a comprehensive set of endpoint security best practices can be one of the best ways to keep your organization safe from malware attacks, even those that are designed to bypass common security measures. This is because endpoint security is a model designed to protect enterprise networks' perimeter by securing every device that connects to it. Since DGA attacks typically leverage compromised endpoints, it is essential to implement effective endpoint security measures to reduce the risk of such attacks. However, enforcing such a diverse range of best practices can be a mammoth task, especially since it involves finding the right security tools that would together do the best job of keeping your business safe.
Queue, Evren: an all-in-one enterprise-grade operating system that offers built-in endpoint security features. Built with a robust set of security measures, Evren ensures the integrity and safety of user data hosted on their platform, with all data stored encrypted at rest, backed up securely, and transferred using 256-bit SSL encryption. As an initial step towards improved security, Evren starts with a comprehensive security audit to identify current gaps in your organization’s security and ensure that those gaps are adequately covered upon migration to Evren. Designed on the principles of zero trust and least privilege, Evren actively works towards minimizing end-user negligence on all connected devices.
Evren also offers critical security features on its OS platform that incorporate some of the most significant best practices against DGA-backed attacks. For instance, Evren’s advanced URL filtering offers both blacklisting and whitelisting. Blacklist filtering involves blocking access to URLs, domains, and IP addresses that have been previously identified as malicious, while whitelist filtering ensures that access is allowed only to pre-approved, trusted domains, blocking everything else. This method can be an effective defense against DGA attacks, as any domains generated through DGA that are not on the whitelist will be blocked. For updates and security fixes, Evren leverages managed services, to ensure automatic and seamless patch management. Its Internal Vulnerability Management Policy keeps all un-managed systems up-to-date and free of known vulnerabilities.
Attacks fuelled by DGA can be overwhelming due to their incessant and hard-to-evade nature. Whether it’s DGA attacks or other malwares, the Evren OS serves as a proactive shield that stops unknown threats before they reach your system.
Secure your enterprise today and defend against the cyber threats of tomorrow. Contact us now to schedule a free security audit to help you identify both current and potential vulnerabilities in your network. With the Evren OS, you can start building a stronger, more resilient cybersecurity infrastructure for your enterprise, safeguarding your sensitive information and staying one step ahead of the constantly evolving cyber threat landscape. https://www.evren.co/contact