Another nation-state malware, Russian in origin:
In the early stages of the war in Ukraine in 2022, PIPEDREAM, a known malware was quietly on the brink of wiping out a handful of critical U.S. electric and liquid natural gas sites. PIPEDREAM is an attack toolkit with unmatched and unprecedented capabilities developed for use against industrial control systems (ICSs).
The malware was built to manipulate the network communication protocols used by programmable logic controllers (PLCs) leveraged by two critical producers of PLCs for ICSs within the critical infrastructure sector, Schneider Electric and OMRON.
CISA advisory. Wired article.
Posted on May 9, 2023 at 11:20 AM •
Here’s a piece of Chinese malware that infects SonicWall security appliances and survives firmware updates.
On Thursday, security firm Mandiant published a report that said threat actors with a suspected nexus to China were engaged in a campaign to maintain long-term persistence by running malware on unpatched SonicWall SMA appliances. The campaign was notable for the ability of the malware to remain on the devices even after its firmware received new firmware.
“The attackers put significant effort into the stability and persistence of their tooling,” Mandiant researchers Daniel Lee, Stephen Eckels, and Ben Read wrote. “This allows their access to the network to persist through firmware updates and maintain a foothold on the network through the SonicWall Device.”
To achieve this persistence, the malware checks for available firmware upgrades every 10 seconds. When an update becomes available, the malware copies the archived file for backup, unzips it, mounts it, and then copies the entire package of malicious files to it. The malware also adds a backdoor root user to the mounted file. Then, the malware rezips the file so it’s ready for installation.
“The technique is not especially sophisticated, but it does show considerable effort on the part of the attacker to understand the appliance update cycle, then develop and test a method for persistence,” the researchers wrote.
Posted on March 9, 2023 at 8:33 PM •
CISA, NSA, FBI, and similar organizations in the other Five Eyes countries are warning that attacks on MSPs—as a vector to their customers—are likely to increase. No details about what this prediction is based on. Makes sense, though. The SolarWinds attack was incredibly successful for the Russian SVR, and a blueprint for future attacks.
Posted on May 17, 2022 at 6:10 AM •
Symantec is reporting on an APT group linked to China, named Cicada. They have been attacking organizations in Japan and elsewhere.
Cicada has historically been known to target Japan-linked organizations, and has also targeted MSPs in the past. The group is using living-off-the-land tools as well as custom malware in this attack campaign, including a custom malware—Backdoor.Hartip—that Symantec has not seen being used by the group before. Among the machines compromised during this attack campaign were domain controllers and file servers, and there was evidence of files being exfiltrated from some of the compromised machines.
The attackers extensively use DLL side-loading in this campaign, and were also seen leveraging the ZeroLogon vulnerability that was patched in August 2020.
Interesting details about the group’s tactics.
Posted on November 20, 2020 at 6:05 AM •
xHelper is not interesting because of its infection mechanism; the user has to side-load an app onto his phone. It’s not interesting because of its payload; it seems to do nothing more than show unwanted ads. it’s interesting because of its persistence:
Furthermore, even if users spot the xHelper service in the Android operating system’s Apps section, removing it doesn’t work, as the trojan reinstalls itself every time, even after users perform a factory reset of the entire device.
How xHelper survives factory resets is still a mystery; however, both Malwarebytes and Symantec said xHelper doesn’t tamper with system services system apps. In addition, Symantec also said that it was “unlikely that Xhelper comes preinstalled on devices.”
In some cases, users said that even when they removed the xHelper service and then disabled the “Install apps from unknown sources” option, the setting kept turning itself back on, and the device was reinfected in a matter of minutes after being cleaned.
We first began seeing Xhelper apps in March 2019. Back then, the malware’s code was relatively simple, and its main function was visiting advertisement pages for monetization purposes. The code has changed over time. Initially, the malware’s ability to connect to a C&C server was written directly into the malware itself, but later this functionality was moved to an encrypted payload, in an attempt to evade signature detection. Some older variants included empty classes that were not implemented at the time, but the functionality is now fully enabled. As described previously, Xhelper’s functionality has expanded drastically in recent times.
We strongly believe that the malware’s source code is still a work in progress.
It’s a weird piece of malware. That level of persistence speaks to a nation-state actor. The continuous evolution of the malware implies an organized actor. But sending unwanted ads is far too noisy for any serious use. And the infection mechanism is pretty random. I just don’t know.
Posted on November 8, 2019 at 6:10 AM •
Interesting details on Olympic Destroyer, the nation-state cyberattack against the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Wired’s Andy Greenberg presents evidence that the perpetrator was Russia, and not North Korea or China.
EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Attribution to Russia is not new.
Posted on October 21, 2019 at 6:23 AM •
Reuters has a long article on the Chinese government APT attack called Cloud Hopper. It was much bigger than originally reported.
The hacking campaign, known as “Cloud Hopper,” was the subject of a U.S. indictment in December that accused two Chinese nationals of identity theft and fraud. Prosecutors described an elaborate operation that victimized multiple Western companies but stopped short of naming them. A Reuters report at the time identified two: Hewlett Packard Enterprise and IBM.
Yet the campaign ensnared at least six more major technology firms, touching five of the world’s 10 biggest tech service providers.
Also compromised by Cloud Hopper, Reuters has found: Fujitsu, Tata Consultancy Services, NTT Data, Dimension Data, Computer Sciences Corporation and DXC Technology. HPE spun-off its services arm in a merger with Computer Sciences Corporation in 2017 to create DXC.
Waves of hacking victims emanate from those six plus HPE and IBM: their clients. Ericsson, which competes with Chinese firms in the strategically critical mobile telecoms business, is one. Others include travel reservation system Sabre, the American leader in managing plane bookings, and the largest shipbuilder for the U.S. Navy, Huntington Ingalls Industries, which builds America’s nuclear submarines at a Virginia shipyard.
Posted on July 10, 2019 at 5:51 AM •
Both Kaspersky and Symantec have uncovered another piece of malware that seems to be a government design:
The malware—known alternatively as “ProjectSauron” by researchers from Kaspersky Lab and “Remsec” by their counterparts from Symantec—has been active since at least 2011 and has been discovered on 30 or so targets. Its ability to operate undetected for five years is a testament to its creators, who clearly studied other state-sponsored hacking groups in an attempt to replicate their advances and avoid their mistakes.
Part of what makes ProjectSauron so impressive is its ability to collect data from computers considered so sensitive by their operators that they have no Internet connection. To do this, the malware uses specially prepared USB storage drives that have a virtual file system that isn’t viewable by the Windows operating system. To infected computers, the removable drives appear to be approved devices, but behind the scenes are several hundred megabytes reserved for storing data that is kept on the “air-gapped” machines. The arrangement works even against computers in which data-loss prevention software blocks the use of unknown USB drives.
Kaspersky researchers still aren’t sure precisely how the USB-enabled exfiltration works. The presence of the invisible storage area doesn’t in itself allow attackers to seize control of air-gapped computers. The researchers suspect the capability is used only in rare cases and requires use of a zero-day exploit that has yet to be discovered. In all, Project Sauron is made up of at least 50 modules that can be mixed and matched to suit the objectives of each individual infection.
“Once installed, the main Project Sauron modules start working as ‘sleeper cells,’ displaying no activity of their own and waiting for ‘wake-up’ commands in the incoming network traffic,” Kaspersky researchers wrote in a separate blog post. “This method of operation ensures Project Sauron’s extended persistence on the servers of targeted organizations.”
We don’t know who designed this, but it certainly seems likely to be a country with a serious cyberespionage budget.
EDITED TO ADD (8/15): Nicholas Weaver comment on the malware and what it means.
Posted on August 15, 2016 at 1:43 PM •
Rob Joyce, the head of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) group—basically the country’s chief hacker—spoke in public earlier this week. He talked both about how the NSA hacks into networks, and what network defenders can do to protect themselves. Here’s a video of the talk, and here are two good summaries.
- Initial Exploitation
- Establish Persistence
- Install Tools
- Move Laterally
- Collect Exfil and Exploit
The event was the USENIX Enigma Conference.
The talk is full of good information about how APT attacks work and how networks can defend themselves. Nothing really surprising, but all interesting. Which brings up the most important question: why did the NSA decide to put Joyce on stage in public? It surely doesn’t want all of its target networks to improve their security so much that the NSA can no longer get in. On the other hand, the NSA does want the general security of US—and presumably allied—networks to improve. My guess is that this is simply a NOBUS issue. The NSA is, or at least believes it is, so sophisticated in its attack techniques that these defensive recommendations won’t slow it down significantly. And the Chinese/Russian/etc state-sponsored attackers will have a harder time. Or, at least, that’s what the NSA wants us to believe.
Wheels within wheels….
More information about the NSA’s TAO group is here and here. Here’s an article about TAO’s catalog of implants and attack tools. Note that the catalog is from 2007. Presumably TAO has been very busy developing new attack tools over the past ten years.
EDITED TO ADD (2/2): I was talking with Nicholas Weaver, and he said that he found these three points interesting:
- A one-way monitoring system really gives them headaches, because it allows the defender to go back after the fact and see what happened, remove malware, etc.
- The critical component of APT is the P: persistence. They will just keep trying, trying, and trying. If you have a temporary vulnerability—the window between a vulnerability and a patch, temporarily turning off a defense—they’ll exploit it.
- Trust them when they attribute an attack (e,g: Sony) on the record. Attribution is hard, but when they can attribute they know for sure—and they don’t attribute lightly.
Posted on February 1, 2016 at 6:42 AM •
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.