Insights: 49ers’ Clash with BlackByte Before Super Bowl

by | Feb 5, 2024

Introduction (Pre-Game)

As Super Bowl LVIII draws near, both sports enthusiasts and cybers ecurity experts recall the 49ers’ tough times leading up to Super Bowl 56. That day, the 49ers battled an unusual foe off the field: the cyber threat from the ransomware group BlackByte. The event, marked by the leak of crucial financial information online, highlights important lessons in cyber resilience and defensive tactics.

The attackers broke in using three Microsoft Exchange server flaws, identified as CVE-2021-34473CVE-2021-34523, and CVE-2021-31207, for initial access. These security gaps allowed the culprits to infiltrate, navigate through the network, and steal data for their own servers.

The Opening Play – Attack Anatomy

Exploiting CVE-2021-34473 initiated the breach, allowing hackers to run code on the Exchange Server without authentication. CVE-2021-34523, granting higher access in Exchange’s PowerShell, and CVE-2021-31207, which allows code execution after authentication, exacerbated this issue. Together, these vulnerabilities created a perfect storm, allowing BlackByte unfettered access to the 49ers’ corporate network.

The Field Expands – Vulnerability Landscape

Veriti Research found over 4,000 exposed instances to these vulnerabilities, mainly in the U.S., with high exploitation risks according to EPSS scores: 97% for CVE-2021-31207 and CVE-2021-34473, 60% for CVE-2021-34523. The vulnerability exposure extends beyond the sports industry, posing a systemic risk across various sectors.

In 2021, The Houston Rockets became a high-profile target for the Babuk ransomware group, which managed to exfiltrate an estimated 500 gigabytes of sensitive data, including contracts, financial documents, and non-disclosure agreements, by utilizing the same vulnerabilities described above.

Defense on the Ropes – Broader Implications

The playbook used against the 49ers is not unique. Other ransomware groups like HIVE, Conti, BlackCat, and BianLian have employed similar strategies. These incidents reveal a major gap in cyber security: the neglect of known vulnerabilities and the inadequacy of endpoint defenses.

Adjusting the Game Plan – Remediation Strategies

The 49ers’ cyber ordeal and ongoing security threats highlight the pressing need for strong cyber practices and proactive defense:

Virtual Patching: 

Critical for immediate protection against known vulnerabilities. However, Veriti’s findings show a significant shortfall in applying these defenses, with 26% of organizations missing out due to misconfigurations.

Reinforcing Endpoint Defense:

The disablement of critical tools like Microsoft Defender, often by mistake, in many organizations highlights the need for vigilant configuration management and monitoring. Veriti found that a majority of surveyed organizations had unintentionally disabled Defender, removing a crucial layer of defense against malware and ransomware.

Credential Harvesting Prevention:

Lateral movement aided by credential theft remains a favored tactic. Enabling Local Security Authority (LSA) protection can mitigate this risk. Even in organizations with advanced IT environments, the inconsistent application of LSA protection leaves security personnel and executives especially vulnerable.

Post-Game Recap: Lessons from the Digital Sidelines

As organizations worldwide tune in to Super Bowl LVIII, let them also heed the lessons of the 49ers’ experience. Cyber security is not a spectator sport, but a critical, ongoing battle requiring constant vigilance, timely updates, and a commitment to comprehensive defense strategies.

In conclusion, as we celebrate athletic prowess on the field, let us not neglect the cyber security arena. The 49ers’ clash with BlackByte serves as a wakeup call to defend our online spaces with as much diligence and planning as we do in sports.

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