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Cyber-espionage attacks are more sophisticated than ever

By Catherine Knowles
Thu 12 Mar 2015
FYI, this story is more than a year old

New cyber-espionage attacks are becoming more sophisticated and are flying under the radar of increasingly effective detection systems, Kaspersky Lab experts have found.

This finding is the result of detailed analysis of the EquationDrug cyber-espionage platform - the main espionage platform developed by the Equation Group.

Kaspersky Lab experts note that the industry is experiencing growing success in exposing Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups, and in turn more sophisticated threat actors now focus on increasing the number of components in their malicious platform in order to reduce their visibility and enhance stealth.

The latest platforms now carry many plugin modules that allow them to select and perform a wide range of different functions, depending on their target victim and information they hold.

Kaspersky Lab estimates that EquationDrug alone includes 116 different plugins.

Costin Raiu, Kaspersky Lab director of the global research and analysis team, says, “Nation-state attackers are looking to create more stable, invisible, reliable and universal cyber-espionage tools.

“They are focused on creating frameworks for wrapping such code into something that can be customised on live systems and provide a reliable way to store all components and data in encrypted form, inaccessible to regular users.”

“Sophistication of the framework makes this type of actor different from traditional cybercriminals, who prefer to focus on payload and malware capabilities designed for direct financial gains,” Raiu says.

The experts have identified other ways in which nation-state attackers differentiate their tactics from traditional cybercriminals.

For one, traditional cybercriminals mass-distribute emails with malicious attachments or infect websites on a large scale, but nation-state actors prefer highly targeted, surgical strikes, infecting just a handful of selected users, according to Kaspersky Lab.

Furthermore, traditional cybercriminals typically reuse publicly available source code such as that of the infamous Zeus or Carberb Trojans, whereas nation-state actors build unique, customised malware, and even implement restrictions that prevent decryption and execution outside of the target computer.

Extracting valuable information is another key differentiating factor.

Cybercriminals in general attempt to infect as many users as possible. However they lack the time and storage space to manually check all the machines they infect and to analyse who owns them, what data is stored on them and what software they run.

As a result, they code all-in-one malware stealers that will extract only the most valuable data such as passwords and credit card numbers from victims’ machines – activity that could quickly bring them to the attention of any security software installed.

Nation-state attackers, on the other hand, have the resources to store as much data as they want.

To escape attention and remain invisible to security software they try to avoid infecting random users and instead rely on a generic remote system management tool that can copy any information they might need and in any volumes. 

However, Kaspersky Lab says this could work against them as moving a large volume of data could slow down the network connection and arouse suspicion.

“It may seem unusual that a cyber-espionage platform as powerful as EquationDrug doesn't provide all stealing capability as standard in its malware core.

“The answer is that they prefer to customise the attack for each one of their victims,” Raiu says.

“Only if they have chosen to actively monitor you and the security products on your machines have been disarmed, will you receive a plugin for the live tracking of your conversations or other specific functions related to your activities.

“We believe modularity and customisation will become a unique trademark of nation-state attackers in the future,” says Raiu. 

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