AWS Security Blog

How AWS threat intelligence deters threat actors

Every day across the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud infrastructure, we detect and successfully thwart hundreds of cyberattacks that might otherwise be disruptive and costly. These important but mostly unseen victories are achieved with a global network of sensors and an associated set of disruption tools. Using these capabilities, we make it more difficult and expensive for cyberattacks to be carried out against our network, our infrastructure, and our customers. But we also help make the internet as a whole a safer place by working with other responsible providers to take action against threat actors operating within their infrastructure. Turning our global-scale threat intelligence into swift action is just one of the many steps that we take as part of our commitment to security as our top priority. Although this is a never-ending endeavor and our capabilities are constantly improving, we’ve reached a point where we believe customers and other stakeholders can benefit from learning more about what we’re doing today, and where we want to go in the future.

Global-scale threat intelligence using the AWS Cloud

With the largest public network footprint of any cloud provider, our scale at AWS gives us unparalleled insight into certain activities on the internet, in real time. Some years ago, leveraging that scale, AWS Principal Security Engineer Nima Sharifi Mehr started looking for novel approaches for gathering intelligence to counter threats. Our teams began building an internal suite of tools, given the moniker MadPot, and before long, Amazon security researchers were successfully finding, studying, and stopping thousands of digital threats that might have affected its customers.

MadPot was built to accomplish two things: first, discover and monitor threat activities and second, disrupt harmful activities whenever possible to protect AWS customers and others. MadPot has grown to become a sophisticated system of monitoring sensors and automated response capabilities. The sensors observe more than 100 million potential threat interactions and probes every day around the world, with approximately 500,000 of those observed activities advancing to the point where they can be classified as malicious. That enormous amount of threat intelligence data is ingested, correlated, and analyzed to deliver actionable insights about potentially harmful activity happening across the internet. The response capabilities automatically protect the AWS network from identified threats, and generate outbound communications to other companies whose infrastructure is being used for malicious activities.

Systems of this sort are known as honeypots—decoys set up to capture threat actor behavior—and have long served as valuable observation and threat intelligence tools. However, the approach we take through MadPot produces unique insights resulting from our scale at AWS and the automation behind the system. To attract threat actors whose behaviors we can then observe and act on, we designed the system so that it looks like it’s composed of a huge number of plausible innocent targets. Mimicking real systems in a controlled and safe environment provides observations and insights that we can often immediately use to help stop harmful activity and help protect customers.

Of course, threat actors know that systems like this are in place, so they frequently change their techniques—and so do we. We invest heavily in making sure that MadPot constantly changes and evolves its behavior, continuing to have visibility into activities that reveal the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of threat actors. We put this intelligence to use quickly in AWS tools, such as AWS Shield and AWS WAF, so that many threats are mitigated early by initiating automated responses. When appropriate, we also provide the threat data to customers through Amazon GuardDuty so that their own tooling and automation can respond.

Three minutes to exploit attempt, no time to waste

Within approximately 90 seconds of launching a new sensor within our MadPot simulated workload, we can observe that the workload has been discovered by probes scanning the internet. From there, it takes only three minutes on average before attempts are made to penetrate and exploit it. This is an astonishingly short amount of time, considering that these workloads aren’t advertised or part of other visible systems that would be obvious to threat actors. This clearly demonstrates the voracity of scanning taking place and the high degree of automation that threat actors employ to find their next target.

As these attempts run their course, the MadPot system analyzes the telemetry, code, attempted network connections, and other key data points of the threat actor’s behavior. This information becomes even more valuable as we aggregate threat actor activities to generate a more complete picture of available intelligence.

Disrupting attacks to maintain business as usual

In-depth threat intelligence analysis also happens in MadPot. The system launches the malware it captures in a sandboxed environment, connects information from disparate techniques into threat patterns, and more. When the gathered signals provide high enough confidence in a finding, the system acts to disrupt threats whenever possible, such as disconnecting a threat actor’s resources from the AWS network. Or, it could entail preparing that information to be shared with the wider community, such as a computer emergency response team (CERT), internet service provider (ISP), a domain registrar, or government agency so that they can help disrupt the identified threat.

As a major internet presence, AWS takes on the responsibility to help and collaborate with the security community when possible. Information sharing within the security community is a long-standing tradition and an area where we’ve been an active participant for years.

In the first quarter of 2023:

  • We used 5.5B signals from our internet threat sensors and 1.5B signals from our active network probes in our anti-botnet security efforts.
  • We stopped over 1.3M outbound botnet-driven DDoS attacks.
  • We shared our security intelligence findings, including nearly a thousand botnet C2 hosts, with relevant hosting providers and domain registrars.
  • We traced back and worked with external parties to dismantle the sources of 230k L7/HTTP(S) DDoS attacks.

Three examples of MadPot’s effectiveness: Botnets, Sandworm, and Volt Typhoon

Recently, MadPot detected, collected, and analyzed suspicious signals that uncovered a distributed denial of service (DDoS) botnet that was using the domain free.bigbots.[tld] (the top-level domain is omitted) as a command and control (C2) domain. A botnet is made up of compromised systems that belong to innocent parties—such as computers, home routers, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices—that have been previously compromised, with malware installed that awaits commands to flood a target with network packets. Bots under this C2 domain were launching 15–20 DDoS attacks per hour at a rate of about 800 million packets per second.

As MadPot mapped out this threat, our intelligence revealed a list of IP addresses used by the C2 servers corresponding to an extremely high number of requests from the bots. Our systems blocked those IP addresses from access to AWS networks so that a compromised customer compute node on AWS couldn’t participate in the attacks. AWS automation then used the intelligence gathered to contact the company that was hosting the C2 systems and the registrar responsible for the DNS name. The company whose infrastructure was hosting the C2s took them offline in less than 48 hours, and the domain registrar decommissioned the DNS name in less than 72 hours. Without the ability to control DNS records, the threat actor could not easily resuscitate the network by moving the C2s to a different network location. In less than three days, this widely distributed malware and the C2 infrastructure required to operate it was rendered inoperable, and the DDoS attacks impacting systems throughout the internet ground to a halt.

MadPot is effective in detecting and understanding the threat actors that target many different kinds of infrastructure, not just cloud infrastructure, including the malware, ports, and techniques that they may be using. Thus, through MadPot we identified the threat group called Sandworm—the cluster associated with Cyclops Blink, a piece of malware used to manage a botnet of compromised routers. Sandworm was attempting to exploit a vulnerability affecting WatchGuard network security appliances. With close investigation of the payload, we identified not only IP addresses but also other unique attributes associated with the Sandworm threat that were involved in an attempted compromise of an AWS customer. MadPot’s unique ability to mimic a variety of services and engage in high levels of interaction helped us capture additional details about Sandworm campaigns, such as services that the actor was targeting and post-exploitation commands initiated by that actor. Using this intelligence, we notified the customer, who promptly acted to mitigate the vulnerability. Without this swift action, the actor might have been able to gain a foothold in the customer’s network and gain access to other organizations that the customer served.

For our final example, the MadPot system was used to help government cyber and law enforcement authorities identify and ultimately disrupt Volt Typhoon, the widely-reported state-sponsored threat actor that focused on stealthy and targeted cyber espionage campaigns against critical infrastructure organizations. Through our investigation inside MadPot, we identified a payload submitted by the threat actor that contained a unique signature, which allowed identification and attribution of activities by Volt Typhoon that would otherwise appear to be unrelated. By using the data lake that stores a complete history of MadPot interactions, we were able to search years of data very quickly and ultimately identify other examples of this unique signature, which was being sent in payloads to MadPot as far back as August 2021. The previous request was seemingly benign in nature, so we believed that it was associated with a reconnaissance tool. We were then able to identify other IP addresses that the threat actor was using in recent months. We shared our findings with government authorities, and those hard-to-make connections helped inform the research and conclusions of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the U.S. government. Our work and the work of other cooperating parties resulted in their May 2023 Cybersecurity advisory. To this day, we continue to observe the actor probing U.S. network infrastructure, and we continue to share details with appropriate government cyber and law enforcement organizations.

Putting global-scale threat intelligence to work for AWS customers and beyond

At AWS, security is our top priority, and we work hard to help prevent security issues from causing disruption to your business. As we work to defend our infrastructure and your data, we use our global-scale insights to gather a high volume of security intelligence—at scale and in real time—to help protect you automatically. Whenever possible, AWS Security and its systems disrupt threats where that action will be most impactful; often, this work happens largely behind the scenes. As demonstrated in the botnet case described earlier, we neutralize threats by using our global-scale threat intelligence and by collaborating with entities that are directly impacted by malicious activities. We incorporate findings from MadPot into AWS security tools, including preventative services, such as AWS WAF, AWS Shield, AWS Network Firewall, and Amazon Route 53 Resolver DNS Firewall, and detective and reactive services, such as Amazon GuardDuty, AWS Security Hub, and Amazon Inspector, putting security intelligence when appropriate directly into the hands of our customers, so that they can build their own response procedures and automations.

But our work extends security protections and improvements far beyond the bounds of AWS itself. We work closely with the security community and collaborating businesses around the world to isolate and take down threat actors. In the first half of this year, we shared intelligence of nearly 2,000 botnet C2 hosts with relevant hosting providers and domain registrars to take down the botnets’ control infrastructure. We also traced back and worked with external parties to dismantle the sources of approximately 230,000 Layer 7 DDoS attacks. The effectiveness of our mitigation strategies relies heavily on our ability to quickly capture, analyze, and act on threat intelligence. By taking these steps, AWS is going beyond just typical DDoS defense, and moving our protection beyond our borders.

We’re glad to be able to share information about MadPot and some of the capabilities that we’re operating today. For more information, see this presentation from our most recent re:Inforce conference: How AWS threat intelligence becomes managed firewall rules, as well as an overview post published today, Meet MadPot, a threat intelligence tool Amazon uses to protect customers from cybercrime, which includes some good information about the AWS security engineer behind the original creation of MadPot. Going forward, you can expect to hear more from us as we develop and enhance our threat intelligence and response systems, making both AWS and the internet as a whole a safer place.

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Mark Ryland

Mark Ryland

Mark is a Director of Security at Amazon, based in Virginia. He has over 30 years of experience in the technology industry and has served in leadership roles in cybersecurity, software engineering, distributed systems, technology standardization, and public policy. An AWS veteran of over 12 years, he started as the Director of Solutions Architecture and Professional Services for the AWS Worldwide Public Sector team, and more recently founded and led the AWS Office of the CISO.