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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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New Technique to Hijack Social Media Accounts

Access Now has documented it being used against a Twitter user, but it also works against other social media accounts:

With the Doubleswitch attack, a hijacker takes control of a victim’s account through one of several attack vectors. People who have not enabled an app-based form of multifactor authentication for their accounts are especially vulnerable. For instance, an attacker could trick you into revealing your password through phishing. If you don’t have multifactor authentication, you lack a secondary line of defense. Once in control, the hijacker can then send messages and also subtly change your account information, including your username. The original username for your account is now available, allowing the hijacker to register for an account using that original username, while providing different login credentials.

Three news stories.

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Spear Phishing Attacks

Really interesting research: “Unpacking Spear Phishing Susceptibility,” by Zinaida Benenson, Freya Gassmann, and Robert Landwirth.

Abstract: We report the results of a field experiment where we sent to over 1200 university students an email or a Facebook message with a link to (non-existing) party pictures from a non-existing person, and later asked them about the reasons for their link clicking behavior. We registered a significant difference in clicking rates: 20% of email versus 42.5% of Facebook recipients clicked. The most frequently reported reason for clicking was curiosity (34%), followed by the explanations that the message fit recipient’s expectations (27%). Moreover, 16% thought that they might know the sender. These results show that people’s decisional heuristics are relatively easy to misuse in a targeted attack, making defense especially challenging.

Black Hat presentation on the research.

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Tainted Leaks

Last year, I wrote about the potential for doxers to alter documents before they leaked them. It was a theoretical threat when I wrote it, but now Citizen Lab has documented this technique in the wild:

This report describes an extensive Russia-linked phishing and disinformation campaign. It provides evidence of how documents stolen from a prominent journalist and critic of Russia was tampered with and then “leaked” to achieve specific propaganda aims. We name this technique “tainted leaks.” The report illustrates how the twin strategies of phishing and tainted leaks are sometimes used in combination to infiltrate civil society targets, and to seed mistrust and disinformation. It also illustrates how domestic considerations, specifically concerns about regime security, can motivate espionage operations, particularly those targeting civil society.

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Is WhatsApp Hacked?

Forbes is reporting that the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer Wintego has a man-in-the-middle exploit against WhatsApp.

It’s a weird story. I’m not sure how they do it, but something doesn’t sound right.

Another possibility is that CatchApp is malware thrust onto a device over Wi-Fi that specifically targets WhatsApp. But it’s almost certain the product cannot crack the latest standard of WhatsApp cryptography, said Matthew Green, a cryptography expert and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute. Green, who has been impressed by the quality of the Signal code, added: “They would have to defeat both the encryption to and from the server and the end-to-end Signal encryption. That does not seem feasible at all, even with a Wi-Fi access point.

“I would bet mundanely the password stuff is just plain phishing. You go to some site, it asks for your Google account, you type it in without looking closely at the address bar.

“But the WhatsApp stuff manifestly should not be vulnerable like that. Interesting.”

Neither WhatsApp nor the crypto whizz behind Signal, Moxie Marlinspike, were happy to comment unless more specific details were revealed about the tool’s capability. Either Wintego is embellishing what its real capability is, or it has a set of exploits that the rest of the world doesn’t yet know about.

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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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