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Yet Another Russian Hack of the NSA — This Time with Kaspersky’s Help

The Wall Street Journal has a bombshell of a story. Yet another NSA contractor took classified documents home with him. Yet another Russian intelligence operation stole copies of those documents. The twist this time is that the Russians identified the documents because the contractor had Kaspersky Labs anti-virus installed on his home computer.

This is a huge deal, both for the NSA and Kaspersky. The Wall Street Journal article contains no evidence, only unnamed sources. But I am having trouble seeing how the already embattled Kaspersky Labs survives this.

WSJ follow up. Four more news articles.

EDITED TO ADD: This is either an example the Russians subverting a perfectly reasonable security feature in Kaspersky’s products, or Kaspersky adding a plausible feature at the request of Russian intelligence. In the latter case, it’s a nicely deniable Russian information operation. In either case, it’s an impressive Russian information operation.

What’s getting a lot less press is yet another NSA contractor stealing top-secret cyberattack software. What is it with the NSA’s inability to keep anything secret anymore?

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Russian Hacking Tools Codenamed WhiteBear Exposed

Kaspersky Labs exposed a highly sophisticated set of hacking tools from Russia called WhiteBear.

From February to September 2016, WhiteBear activity was narrowly focused on embassies and consular operations around the world. All of these early WhiteBear targets were related to embassies and diplomatic/foreign affair organizations. Continued WhiteBear activity later shifted to include defense-related organizations into June 2017. When compared to WhiteAtlas infections, WhiteBear deployments are relatively rare and represent a departure from the broader Skipper Turla target set. Additionally, a comparison of the WhiteAtlas framework to WhiteBear components indicates that the malware is the product of separate development efforts. WhiteBear infections appear to be preceded by a condensed spearphishing dropper, lack Firefox extension installer payloads, and contain several new components signed with a new code signing digital certificate, unlike WhiteAtlas incidents and modules.

The exact delivery vector for WhiteBear components is unknown to us, although we have very strong suspicion the group spearphished targets with malicious pdf files. The decoy pdf document above was likely stolen from a target or partner. And, although WhiteBear components have been consistently identified on a subset of systems previously targeted with the WhiteAtlas framework, and maintain components within the same filepaths and can maintain identical filenames, we were unable to firmly tie delivery to any specific WhiteAtlas component. WhiteBear focused on various embassies and diplomatic entities around the world in early 2016 — tellingly, attempts were made to drop and display decoy pdf’s with full diplomatic headers and content alongside executable droppers on target systems.

One of the clever things the tool does is use hijacked satellite connections for command and control, helping it evade detection by broad surveillance capabilities like what what NSA uses. We’ve seen Russian attack tools that do this before. More details are in the Kaspersky blog post.

Given all the trouble Kaspersky is having because of its association with Russia, it’s interesting to speculate on this disclosure. Either they are independent, and have burned a valuable Russian hacking toolset. Or the Russians decided that the toolset was already burned — maybe the NSA knows all about it and has neutered it somehow — and allowed Kaspersky to publish. Or maybe it’s something in between. That’s the problem with this kind of speculation: without any facts, your theories just amplify whatever opinion you had previously.

Oddly, there hasn’t been much press about this. I have only found one story.

EDITED TO ADD: A colleague pointed out to me that Kaspersky announcements like this often get ignored by the press. There was very little written about ProjectSauron, for example.

EDITED TO ADD: The text I originally wrote said that Kaspersky released the attacks tools, like what Shadow Brokers is doing. They did not. They just exposed the existence of them. Apologies for that error — it was sloppy wording.

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APT10 and Cloud Hopper

There’s a new report of a nation-state attack, presumed to be from China, on a series of managed ISPs. From the executive summary:

Since late 2016, PwC UK and BAE Systems have been assisting victims of a new cyber espionage campaign conducted by a China-based threat actor. We assess this threat actor to almost certainly be the same as the threat actor widely known within the security community as ‘APT10’. The campaign, which we refer to as Operation Cloud Hopper, has targeted managed IT service providers (MSPs), allowing APT10 unprecedented potential access to the intellectual property and sensitive data of those MSPs and their clients globally. A number of Japanese organisations have also been directly targeted in a separate, simultaneous campaign by the same actor.

We have identified a number of key findings that are detailed below.

APT10 has recently unleashed a sustained campaign against MSPs. The compromise of MSP networks has provided broad and unprecedented access to MSP customer networks.

  • Multiple MSPs were almost certainly being targeted from 2016 onwards, and it is likely that APT10 had already begun to do so from as early as 2014.

  • MSP infrastructure has been used as part of a complex web of exfiltration routes spanning multiple victim networks.

[…]

APT10 focuses on espionage activity, targeting intellectual property and other sensitive data.

  • APT10 is known to have exfiltrated a high volume of data from multiple victims, exploiting compromised MSP networks, and those of their customers, to stealthily move this data around the world.

  • The targeted nature of the exfiltration we have observed, along with the volume of the data, is reminiscent of the previous era of APT campaigns pre-2013.

PwC UK and BAE Systems assess APT10 as highly likely to be a China-based threat actor.

  • It is a widely held view within the cyber security community that APT10 is a China-based threat actor.

  • Our analysis of the compile times of malware binaries, the registration times of domains attributed to APT10, and the majority of its intrusion activity indicates a pattern of work in line with China Standard Time (UTC+8).

  • The threat actor’s targeting of diplomatic and political organisations in response to geopolitical tensions, as well as the targeting of specific commercial enterprises, is closely aligned with strategic Chinese interests.

I know nothing more than what’s in this report, but it looks like a big one.

Press release.

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Yet Another Government-Sponsored Malware

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.

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How the Iranian Government Hacks Dissidents

Citizen Lab has a new report on an Iranian government hacking program that targets dissidents. From a Washington Post op-ed by Ron Deibert:

Al-Ameer is a net savvy activist, and so when she received a legitimate looking email containing a PowerPoint attachment addressed to her and purporting to detail “Assad Crimes,” she could easily have opened it. Instead, she shared it with us at the Citizen Lab.

As we detail in a new report, the attachment led our researchers to uncover an elaborate cyberespionage campaign operating out of Iran. Among the malware was a malicious spyware, including a remote access tool called “Droidjack,” that allows attackers to silently control a mobile device. When Droidjack is installed, a remote user can turn on the microphone and camera, remove files, read encrypted messages, and send spoofed instant messages and emails. Had she opened it, she could have put herself, her friends, her family and her associates back in Syria in mortal danger.

Here’s the report. And a news article.

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New NSA Documents on Offensive Cyberoperations

Appelbaum, Poitras, and others have another NSA article with an enormous Snowden document dump on Der Spiegel, giving details on a variety of offensive NSA cyberoperations to infiltrate and exploit networks around the world. There’s a lot here: 199 pages. (Here they are in one compressed archive.)

Paired with the 666 pages released in conjunction with the December 28 Spiegel article (compressed archive here) on NSA cryptanalytic capabilities, we’ve seen a huge amount of Snowden documents in the past few weeks. According to one tally, it runs 3,560 pages in all.

Hacker News thread.

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