Look out, Europe – The hackers are coming
Date: Wed, 04/06/2016 - 13:04 Source: By Alan Zeichick, Principal Analyst, Camden Associates
Cylance Founder and CEO Stuart McClure
image credited to Cylance
The research showed that many seemingly unrelated attacks are linked – despite their having originated at different IP addresses, despite the wide variations in targets, from infrastructure concerns like oil and gas, electric utilities, finance, transportation and construction, and despite the attacks growing in sophistication over time.
The research into the attacks on Japanese and South Korean companies was conducted by SPEAR™, the security research team employed by Cylance®, a Southern California company that has developed an AI model to proactively protect against persistent threats and malware. In February 2016, Cylance was positioned in the Visionaries quadrant of the latest Gartner Magic Quadrant report for endpoint protection platforms.
In February 2016, the SPEAR team released a new report that details their extensive multi-year initiative to gather data about cyberattacks, and subject them to rigorous analysis. Called “Operation Dust Storm,” the report, written by Cylance’s Director of Threat Intelligence, Jon Gross, explains that many — if not all — of these attacks were either conducted by the same hackers, or supported by the same group of backers. (SPEAR means “Sophisticated Penetration, Exploitation, Analysis and Response.”)
“Attack telemetry in 2015 indicates the Dust Storm group has migrated from more traditional government and defense-related intelligence targets to exclusively seek out organizations involved in Japanese critical infrastructure and resources” the report explains, using the phrase “Dust Storm” to describe the cyberhackers.
There’s more to cybersecurity than “Dust Storm” – earlier, the Cylance SPEAR team wrote a report called “Operation Cleaver,” detailing attacks that originated in Iran.
“The focus of the Operation Cleaver report is on one particular Iranian team we’ve dubbed Tarh Andishan, the infrastructure they utilize, as well as their tactics, techniques and procedures,” writes Stuart McClure, CEO and President of Cylance. Roughly translated, “Tarh Andishan” means “thinkers” or “innovators.” McClure continues, “This team displays an evolved skillset and uses a complex infrastructure to perform attacks of espionage, theft, and the potential destruction of control systems and networks. While our investigation is ongoing, and we presently have limited visibility inside many of the compromised networks, Cylance observed Tarh Andishan actively targeting, attacking, and compromising more than 50 victims since at least 2012.”
Weathering the Dust Storm
As explained in the new “Operation Dust Storm” report, many of the initial hacks against Japan and South Korea exploited a number of weaknesses in Microsoft Windows. For example, an attack in April 2011 is described in this way: “The attack was initiated by a spear phishing email that contained a Word document embedded with a zero-day Flash exploit (CVE-2011-0611).”
As time went on, the nature of the attacks changed, as in one attack a few years later: “Beginning in February 2014, there was definitive evidence to suggest the group used a watering hole attack on a popular software reseller to deliver an Internet Explorer zero-day, CVE-2014-0322, to a number of unsuspecting targets.”
Why does SPEAR believe that these attacks are linked? As the report explains, the evidence became even more compelling in later stages: “Activity in 2015 was significantly more interesting, and prompted SPEAR to begin studying Operation Dust Storm’s other activities. SPEAR identified a number of second-stage backdoors with hardcoded proxy addresses and credentials. These proxy addresses revealed the attacker had compromised a number of Japanese companies involved in power generation, oil and natural gas, construction, finance, and transportation.”
A common factor appeared to be an archaic set of Microsoft software development tools used by the hackers to program backdoors. “The second-stage implants were also programmed and compiled using Microsoft Visual Studio 6; an archaic version of Visual Studio that seems to be preferred by malware authors. Despite using an old version of Visual Studio, the backdoor is well designed by comparison and provides a full suite of functionality to the attack.”
There were additional common factors as well. Many of the exploits studied by the SPEAR team linked back to a small group of remote servers, accessed by IP address or by a relatively small group of fully qualified URIs. The command language that the hackers could use to communicate with compromised systems, such as to download data, was consistent across this time period, even as the attack vectors themselves changed.
Even as the attacks progressed, there were clear signs that the cybercriminals were specifically looking at Japanese companies, as well as the Japanese subsidiaries of foreign companies based in South Korea. For example, many of the backdoors would attempt to detect whether or not the victim was using a Japanese keyboard via a call to the Windows API “GetKeyboardType.” There was some evidence to suggest Operation Dust Storm leveraged an Ichitaro zero-day “CVE-2013- 5990” exploit to target Japanese victims. Ichitaro is a popular Japanese word processing program designed by a company called JustSystems.
Evolution of Hacking Prowess
The initial sample of vulnerability exploits and backdoor code recovered by the SPEAR team were extremely blunt, unsophisticated and easy for the security industry to detect. That was in 2010. Later, the code became trickier to detect as the cybercriminals gained skills. Starting in 2011, the hackers took advantage of vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer 8, Yahoo, Windows Live, and Flash.
That’s not all. The hackers evolved the tactics used to break into systems. At first, they targeted their victims via spear-phishing – that is, sending target emails to employees of specific companies or government agencies. The emails appeared credible – but opening links in those messages either directly installed malware, redirected the end user to a website that installed malware, or opened documents that were themselves carriers of malware.
As the attackers became more savvy, they also deployed watering holes, where the hackers take over websites commonly used and trusted by their intended victims, and turn them into malware delivery systems. As industry workers visited those websites — which it would be perfectly appropriate to do – their computers became infected.
And then there’s Android, which the cyberhackers targeted for backdoors and data theft.
According to the report: “Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that the group adopted and eventually customized several Android backdoors to suit their purposes in the beginning of 2015. The group rapidly expanded their mobile operations in May 2015. The initial backdoors were relatively simple, and would continually forward all SMS messages and call information back to the command and control servers. Later variants became much more complex, and included the ability to enumerate and exfiltrate specific files directly from the infected devices. All of the identified victims for the Android Trojans resided in Japan or South Korea. The infrastructure to support the Android campaigns was massive in comparison to previous operations. More than two hundred domains have been identified to date.”
Who Is Behind These Attacks?
The SPEAR team is convinced that these attacks were planned, executed and financed by a nation/state – probably based in Asia. However, representatives of Cylance were unwilling to name or speculate about the specific nation/states behind Dust Storm, beyond stating, “Through Cylance research and analysis work, previously undocumented attacks indicate that this activity is directed by one threat actor or entity, and there is undoubtedly more to discover.”
A big question: Why Japan? Nobody is sure, because it’s unclear exactly what the hackers plan to achieve, beyond long-term infiltration of targeted companies and government organization.
“Since 2010, a threat group in Asia has been using various exploits to attack commercial interests around the globe, with a specific focus on Japan,” said Jon Miller, vice president of strategy, Cylance. “SPEAR’s current research indicates the group’s present focus has shifted specifically and exclusively to Japanese companies or Japanese subdivisions of larger foreign organizations. The group has also shown an ability to exploit Android-based mobile devices, illustrating that these types of attacks are more prevalent in the mobile-centric business cultures in Asia. The campaign continues to this day.”
These findings are profoundly disturbing. The SPEAR researchers have done tremendous work; their report is one of the most thorough in the industry, and reading it carefully, it’s clear that connecting the dots shows that a single group of attackers is behind Dust Storm.
Every CSO should read the ‘Operation Dust Storm’ report to understand the increasing sophistication of attacks, and in particular, how pervasive back doors are. In fact, the report should be read as a call to arms for every government organization, every infrastructure organization, and every business.
One of the investors in Cylance is Hiro Rio Maeda, Managing Director of Draper Nexus. Due to his special expertise in Japanese industry, Cylance asked him to comment on the “Operation Dust Storm” report. Mr. Maeda confirmed the likelihood that a single nation/state is behind the attacks, and that it’s critical that businesses and industries around the world understand that they are either under attack today — or they soon will be. “It’s not only Japan,” he said. “These attackers are also going after Korean, American, and European companies.”
That Brings Us Back to Operation Cleaver
While Operation Dust Storm followed attacks primarily targeting Asian firms, the Iranian hackers unmasked by Operation Cleaver had a wider range of operations — imperiling many European and Middle East countries.
According to Cylance’s McClure, “Since at least 2012, Iranian actors have directly attacked, established persistence in, and extracted highly sensitive materials from the networks of government agencies and major critical infrastructure companies in the following countries: Canada, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Kuwait, Mexico, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.”
The SPEAR team’s reports that the Iranian attackers targeted some of the most sensitive global critical infrastructure companies in the world, including military, oil and gas, airlines, airports, energy producers, utilities, transportation, healthcare, telecommunications, technology, manufacturing, education, aerospace, Defense Industrial Base (DIB), chemical companies and governments.
The following is a breakdown by country of which industries were targeted and/or victimized:
Canada: Energy and Utilities, Oil and Gas, Hospitals
France: Oil & Gas
Israel: Aerospace, Education
Kuwait: Oil and Gas, Telecommunications
Mexico: Oil and Gas
Pakistan: Airports, Hospitals, Technology, Airlines
Qatar: Oil and Gas, Government, Airlines
Saudi Arabia: Oil and Gas, Airports
South Korea: Airports, Airlines, Education, Technology, Heavy Manufacturing
Turkey: Oil and Gas
United Arab Emirates: Government, Airlines
United States: Airlines, Education, Chemicals, Transportation, Energy and Utilities, Military/Government, Defense Industrial Base