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New Ransomware Targets Industrial Control Systems

EKANS is a new ransomware that targets industrial control systems:

But EKANS also uses another trick to ratchet up the pain: It’s designed to terminate 64 different software processes on victim computers, including many that are specific to industrial control systems. That allows it to then encrypt the data that those control system programs interact with. While crude compared to other malware purpose-built for industrial sabotage, that targeting can nonetheless break the software used to monitor infrastructure, like an oil firm’s pipelines or a factory’s robots. That could have potentially dangerous consequences, like preventing staff from remotely monitoring or controlling the equipment’s operation.

EKANS is actually the second ransomware to hit industrial control systems. According to Dragos, another ransomware strain known as Megacortex that first appeared last spring included all of the same industrial control system process-killing features, and may in fact be a predecessor to EKANS developed by the same hackers. But because Megacortex also terminated hundreds of other processes, its industrial-control-system targeted features went largely overlooked.

Speculation is that this is criminal in origin, and not the work of a government.

It’s also the first malware that is named after a Pokémon character.

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Technical Report of the Bezos Phone Hack

Motherboard obtained and published the technical report on the hack of Jeff Bezos’s phone, which is being attributed to Saudi Arabia, specifically to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

…investigators set up a secure lab to examine the phone and its artifacts and spent two days poring over the device but were unable to find any malware on it. Instead, they only found a suspicious video file sent to Bezos on May 1, 2018 that “appears to be an Arabic language promotional film about telecommunications.”

That file shows an image of the Saudi Arabian flag and Swedish flags and arrived with an encrypted downloader. Because the downloader was encrypted this delayed or further prevented “study of the code delivered along with the video.”

Investigators determined the video or downloader were suspicious only because Bezos’ phone subsequently began transmitting large amounts of data. “[W]ithin hours of the encrypted downloader being received, a massive and unauthorized exfiltration of data from Bezos’ phone began, continuing and escalating for months thereafter,” the report states.

“The amount of data being transmitted out of Bezos’ phone changed dramatically after receiving the WhatsApp video file and never returned to baseline. Following execution of the encrypted downloader sent from MBS’ account, egress on the device immediately jumped by approximately 29,000 percent,” it notes. “Forensic artifacts show that in the six (6) months prior to receiving the WhatsApp video, Bezos’ phone had an average of 430KB of egress per day, fairly typical of an iPhone. Within hours of the WhatsApp video, egress jumped to 126MB. The phone maintained an unusually high average of 101MB of egress data per day for months thereafter, including many massive and highly atypical spikes of egress data.”

The Motherboard article also quotes forensic experts on the report:

A mobile forensic expert told Motherboard that the investigation as depicted in the report is significantly incomplete and would only have provided the investigators with about 50 percent of what they needed, especially if this is a nation-state attack. She says the iTunes backup and other extractions they did would get them only messages, photo files, contacts and other files that the user is interested in saving from their applications, but not the core files.

“They would need to use a tool like Graykey or Cellebrite Premium or do a jailbreak to get a look at the full file system. That’s where that state-sponsored malware is going to be found. Good state-sponsored malware should never show up in a backup,” said Sarah Edwards, an author and teacher of mobile forensics for the SANS Institute.

“The full file system is getting into the device and getting every single file on there­ — the whole operating system, the application data, the databases that will not be backed up. So really the in-depth analysis should be done on that full file system, for this level of investigation anyway. I would have insisted on that right from the start.”

The investigators do note on the last page of their report that they need to jailbreak Bezos’s phone to examine the root file system. Edwards said this would indeed get them everything they would need to search for persistent spyware like the kind created and sold by the NSO Group. But the report doesn’t indicate if that did get done.

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ToTok Is an Emirati Spying Tool

The smartphone messaging app ToTok is actually an Emirati spying tool:

But the service, ToTok, is actually a spying tool, according to American officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and a New York Times investigation into the app and its developers. It is used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.

ToTok, introduced only months ago, was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week, according to app rankings and App Annie, a research firm.

Apple and Google have removed it from their app stores. If you have it on your phone, delete it now.

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xHelper Malware for Android

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.

From Symantec:

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.

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Eavesdropping on SMS Messages inside Telco Networks

Fireeye reports on a Chinese-sponsored espionage effort to eavesdrop on text messages:

FireEye Mandiant recently discovered a new malware family used by APT41 (a Chinese APT group) that is designed to monitor and save SMS traffic from specific phone numbers, IMSI numbers and keywords for subsequent theft. Named MESSAGETAP, the tool was deployed by APT41 in a telecommunications network provider in support of Chinese espionage efforts. APT41’s operations have included state-sponsored cyber espionage missions as well as financially-motivated intrusions. These operations have spanned from as early as 2012 to the present day. For an overview of APT41, see our August 2019 blog post or our full published report.

Yet another example that demonstrates why end-to-end message encryption is so important.

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Details on Uzbekistan Government Malware: SandCat

Kaspersky has uncovered an Uzbeki hacking operation, mostly due to incompetence on the part of the government hackers.

The group’s lax operational security includes using the name of a military group with ties to the SSS to register a domain used in its attack infrastructure; installing Kaspersky’s antivirus software on machines it uses to write new malware, allowing Kaspersky to detect and grab malicious code still in development before it’s deployed; and embedding a screenshot of one of its developer’s machines in a test file, exposing a major attack platform as it was in development. The group’s mistakes led Kaspersky to discover four zero-day exploits SandCat had purchased from third-party brokers to target victim machines, effectively rendering those exploits ineffective. And the mistakes not only allowed Kaspersky to track the Uzbek spy agency’s activity but also the activity of other nation-state groups in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who were using some of the same exploits SandCat was using.

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New Reductor Nation-State Malware Compromises TLS

Kaspersky has a detailed blog post about a new piece of sophisticated malware that it’s calling Reductor. The malware is able to compromise TLS traffic by infecting the computer with hacked TLS engine substituted on the fly, “marking” infected TLS handshakes by compromising the underlining random-number generator, and adding new digital certificates. The result is that the attacker can identify, intercept, and decrypt TLS traffic from the infected computer.

The Kaspersky Attribution Engine shows strong code similarities between this family and the COMPfun Trojan. Moreover, further research showed that the original COMpfun Trojan most probably is used as a downloader in one of the distribution schemes. Based on these similarities, we’re quite sure the new malware was developed by the COMPfun authors.

The COMpfun malware was initially documented by G-DATA in 2014. Although G-DATA didn’t identify which actor was using this malware, Kaspersky tentatively linked it to the Turla APT, based on the victimology. Our telemetry indicates that the current campaign using Reductor started at the end of April 2019 and remained active at the time of writing (August 2019). We identified targets in Russia and Belarus.

[…]

Turla has in the past shown many innovative ways to accomplish its goals, such as using hijacked satellite infrastructure. This time, if we’re right that Turla is the actor behind this new wave of attacks, then with Reductor it has implemented a very interesting way to mark a host’s encrypted TLS traffic by patching the browser without parsing network packets. The victimology for this new campaign aligns with previous Turla interests.

We didn’t observe any MitM functionality in the analyzed malware samples. However, Reductor is able to install digital certificates and mark the targets’ TLS traffic. It uses infected installers for initial infection through HTTP downloads from warez websites. The fact the original files on these sites are not infected also points to evidence of subsequent traffic manipulation.

The attribution chain from Reductor to COMPfun to Turla is thin. Speculation is that the attacker behind all of this is Russia.

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New Unpatchable iPhone Exploit Allows Jailbreaking

A new iOS exploit allows jailbreaking of pretty much all version of the iPhone. This is a huge deal for Apple, but at least it doesn’t allow someone to remotely hack people’s phones.

Some details:

I wanted to learn how Checkm8 will shape the iPhone experience­ — particularly as it relates to security­ — so I spoke at length with axi0mX on Friday. Thomas Reed, director of Mac offerings at security firm Malwarebytes, joined me. The takeaways from the long-ranging interview are:

  • Checkm8 requires physical access to the phone. It can’t be remotely executed, even if combined with other exploits.

  • The exploit allows only tethered jailbreaks, meaning it lacks persistence. The exploit must be run each time an iDevice boots.

  • Checkm8 doesn’t bypass the protections offered by the Secure Enclave and Touch ID.

  • All of the above means people will be able to use Checkm8 to install malware only under very limited circumstances. The above also means that Checkm8 is unlikely to make it easier for people who find, steal or confiscate a vulnerable iPhone, but don’t have the unlock PIN, to access the data stored on it.

  • Checkm8 is going to benefit researchers, hobbyists, and hackers by providing a way not seen in almost a decade to access the lowest levels of iDevices.

Also:

“The main people who are likely to benefit from this are security researchers, who are using their own phone in controlled conditions. This process allows them to gain more control over the phone and so improves visibility into research on iOS or other apps on the phone,” Wood says. “For normal users, this is unlikely to have any effect, there are too many extra hurdles currently in place that they would have to get over to do anything significant.”

If a regular person with no prior knowledge of jailbreaking wanted to use this exploit to jailbreak their iPhone, they would find it extremely difficult, simply because Checkm8 just gives you access to the exploit, but not a jailbreak in itself. It’s also a ‘tethered exploit’, meaning that the jailbreak can only be triggered when connected to a computer via USB and will become untethered once the device restarts.

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New Research into Russian Malware

There’s some interesting new research about Russian APT malware:

The Russian government has fostered competition among the three agencies, which operate independently from one another, and compete for funds. This, in turn, has resulted in each group developing and hoarding its tools, rather than sharing toolkits with their counterparts, a common sight among Chinese and North Korean state-sponsored hackers.

“Every actor or organization under the Russain APT umbrella has its own dedicated malware development teams, working for years in parallel on similar malware toolkits and frameworks,” researchers said.

“While each actor does reuse its code in different operations and between different malware families, there is no single tool, library or framework that is shared between different actors.”

Researchers say these findings suggest that Russia’s cyber-espionage apparatus is investing a lot of effort into its operational security.

“By avoiding different organizations re-using the same tools on a wide range of targets, they overcome the risk that one compromised operation will expose other active operations,” researchers said.

This is no different from the US. The NSA malware released by the Shadow Brokers looked nothing like the CIA “Vault 7” malware released by WikiLeaks.

The work was done by Check Point and Intezer Labs. They have a website with an interactive map.

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Massive iPhone Hack Targets Uyghurs

China is being blamed for a massive surveillance operation that targeted Uyghur Muslims. This story broke in waves, the first wave being about the iPhone.

Earlier this year, Google’s Project Zero found a series of websites that have been using zero-day vulnerabilities to indiscriminately install malware on iPhones that would visit the site. (The vulnerabilities were patched in iOS 12.1.4, released on February 7.)

Earlier this year Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) discovered a small collection of hacked websites. The hacked sites were being used in indiscriminate watering hole attacks against their visitors, using iPhone 0-day.

There was no target discrimination; simply visiting the hacked site was enough for the exploit server to attack your device, and if it was successful, install a monitoring implant. We estimate that these sites receive thousands of visitors per week.

TAG was able to collect five separate, complete and unique iPhone exploit chains, covering almost every version from iOS 10 through to the latest version of iOS 12. This indicated a group making a sustained effort to hack the users of iPhones in certain communities over a period of at least two years.

Four more news stories.

This upends pretty much everything we know about iPhone hacking. We believed that it was hard. We believed that effective zero-day exploits cost $2M or $3M, and were used sparingly by governments only against high-value targets. We believed that if an exploit was used too frequently, it would be quickly discovered and patched.

None of that is true here. This operation used fourteen zero-days exploits. It used them indiscriminately. And it remained undetected for two years. (I waited before posting this because I wanted to see if someone would rebut this story, or explain it somehow.)

Google’s announcement left out of details, like the URLs of the sites delivering the malware. That omission meant that we had no idea who was behind the attack, although the speculation was that it was a nation-state.

Subsequent reporting added that malware against Android phones and the Windows operating system were also delivered by those websites. And then that the websites were targeted at Uyghurs. Which leads us all to blame China.

So now this is a story of a large, expensive, indiscriminate, Chinese-run surveillance operation against an ethnic minority in their country. And the politics will overshadow the tech. But the tech is still really impressive.

EDITED TO ADD: New data on the value of smartphone exploits:

According to the company, starting today, a zero-click (no user interaction) exploit chain for Android can get hackers and security researchers up to $2.5 million in rewards. A similar exploit chain impacting iOS is worth only $2 million.

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