Ransomware in the cloud

January 11, 2024


Recently we were engaged by a company after they were targeted by a ransomware attack in their AWS environment. In this blog we want to show you what happened and how we were able to piece together the picture based on available logging.

Due to confidentiality we will be using censored screenshots to protect our client’s information. They approved the publication of this blog, to prevent other companies from becoming a victim to a similar attack.

Attack overview

The overall attack activity is mapped to the MITRE ATT&CK steps as shown in the figure below:

Incident timeline

Initial Access

The threat actor was able to get into the environment due to accidentally exposed long-term credentials. The first malicious activity happened outside of the 90-day retention period of CloudTrail. However, based on analysis of subsequent events and open-source analysis we were able to determine that a specific access key was used which was publicly exposed. Luckily the access key was for an account that only had rights to a specific S3 bucket.


Following the initial access the threat actor performed the following activities for reconnaissance.

Most of the activities are self-explanatory and they are attempts to list other users, buckets and any available access keys.

The more interesting calls are around Quotas the ListServiceQuotas and GetSendQuota events are related to the AWS Simple Email Solution (SES) service. We’ve seen that SES is an interesting attack vector for threat actors, because they can leverage SES for spamming and (spear)phishing campaigns. Because the access keys that were used for making these calls had limited permissions these calls all resulted in AccessDenied events as shown in an example below.

In the above example we can see that the treat actor also uses the AWS CLI package on a Windows host and used the aws s3 ls command. (reference)


The threat actor attempted to create a number of additional users which is captured in CloudTrail under the CreateUser event name. The following user creations were attempted:

  • root
  • adminz
  • deploy
  • s3mize
  • ses-smtp-user.<date-time-of-creation>

All of the above actions were again denied. Note that the SES user has a default naming convention which will tell you the (attempted) creation date and time. Also the attempt to create a root user is interesting as each AWS account by default has a root user. By creating an IAM user with the name root it might be a method to stay under the radar. We were unable to find any interesting leads on the other user accounts in public code repositories, but maybe someone else knows more.


Whilst most of the attempted activity failed, using the access key the threat actor did have full access to a S3 bucket. The threat actor used this access to exfiltrate data. We were able to confirm this by using the AWS billing information which contained an entry for a GetObject Operation which is recorded when a file is downloaded from a S3 bucket. The AWS billing can be a useful tool for detecting data exfiltration, as any data leaving the AWS buckets incurs egress costs that are recorded in the bill.

If you want to investigate this yourself, use the following process:

  • Go to AWS billing, then select Cost & Usage Reports;
  • Select the Create a Usage Report link under AWS Usage Report and select the time period of the incident and the S3 service;
  • Open the CSV file in something like Excel and sort by the UsageValue column from large to small;
  • Filter on DataTransfer-Out or C3DataTransfer-Out Bytes in the UsageTypecolumn;
  • Search for the GetObjectOperation which contains file downloads;
  • You’ll get one or more entries with aggregated data for a period of 1-hour related to outgoing data transfers.

In case of data being exfiltrated from a bucket you could see something like this in the billing report:

In the above example, data was transferred out of the EU region from a bucket named Invictus-test-bucket. With this information, we know the time period during which the transfer occurred and the number of bytes that were transferred. The billing information doesn’t show where the transfer went, but it can help figure out if data was exfiltrated, especially if there’s no record of it in CloudTrail.


After the exfiltration of the data the threat actor, disabled bucket versioning, deleted data from several buckets and left behind a ransom note.

As mentioned earlier data events were not audited in CloudTrail for this environment, so we can’t see the individual delete events, but the data from the bucket was deleted. It’s also interesting to see what the threat actor did before file deletion. The following events were recorded in CloudTrailGetBucketVersioning and PutBucketVersioning.

Versioning in Amazon S3 is a means of keeping multiple variants of an object in the same bucket. You can use the S3 Versioning feature to preserve, retrieve, and restore every version of every object stored in your buckets. With versioning you can recover more easily from both unintended user actions and application failures. Source

The threat actor used the GetBucketVersioningcall to establish whether versioning was enabled for the S3 bucket. Versioning would’ve allowed our client to easily restore data if it was deleted. In this case the versioning was enabled, the next call was to change the versioning settings with PutBucketVersioning as shown in the picture below.

We’ve censored some confidential details such as the bucket and user that performed the action. Important to know is that the userName field will contain the user responsible for this action and the bucketName will contain the bucket for which the versioning was changed. Under Status we can see that the versioning was ‘Suspended’.

Ransomware note

The following ransomware note was left behind in the affected buckets.

CloudTrail events

The below table highlights the CloudTrail events we’ve come across for this case. You can use these events for manual alerting in CloudWatch or setup rules in your SIEM. We’ve added a note on the usability of the events to detect threats based on our experience, it might be different for your environment.


The following recommendations are tailored to the prevention, detection, response and recovery of a ransomware incident in AWS.

  • Enable a trail in CloudTrail to store data in a S3 bucket which allows for longer data retention;
  • Enabled CloudTrail for data events, this can generate a lot of events and comes with an added cost, prioritize based on where your most important data is stored;
  • Limit the usage of long-term access key, where possible use IAM roles. E.g. use an IAM role for an application hosted on EC2 that needs to store data in an S3 bucket and not an access key;
  • Protect your access keys by regularly rotating them and monitoring for abuse, follow best practices guide by AWS;
  • Enable bucket versioning with MFA delete, this will limit the ability to change bucket versioning settings, because MFA is required;
  • Use AWS Backup for immutable backups, excellent blog by AWS here.


Ransomware is a threat for all organizations not just limited to on-premise environments. Threat actors will follow you to the cloud and a misconfiguration in the cloud is very easy to make with some very serious consequences as highlighted in this case.

Indicators Of Compromise (IOCs)

Please find below a list of IOCs we encountered during this attack.

About Invictus Incident Response

We are an incident response company and we ❤️ the cloud and specialise in supporting organisations facing a cyber attack. We help our clients stay undefeated!

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