‘Red October’ malware has snooped governments, diplomats since 2007

Labour intensive malware framework has over 1,000 modules for unique attack on each target.

Image credit: Kaspersky

Security researchers have outed a malware espionage network believed to have been collecting documents from hundreds of high profile victims at government agencies, embassies and research organisations since 2007.

Researchers at Russian security vendor Kaspersky Lab have dubbed the espionage network “Red October”, a still-active operation it says has targeted governments of 39 countries and appears to be aimed at gathering classified information and geopolitical intelligence.

It cannot confirm whether the network is run by a government or state-sponsored operation, but said the configuration of its network of command and control servers rivalled the complexity of infrastructure used in the Flame espionage attacks -- malware that contained a highly prized exploit that only “elite” hackers could have created, experts said at the time.

Australia was among the list of nations where Kaspersky had detected an infection at an unknown organisation, however most were concentrated at agencies and embassies around Eastern Europe, the former USSR, and Central Asia. Kaspersky notes there were also infections in Western Europe and North America.

Kaspersky had not seen any infections in China and North Korea, however it did not find any in the UK, Germany, or nations from South East Asia and, except Finland, Scandinavia.

Red October, which was more of a "framework" than a single piece of malware, according to Kaspersky, uses exploits created by Chinese hackers. The add-on malware modules that do the leg work, such as information gathering, were most likely created by Russian-speaking hackers, it said.

The three exploits it is known to use are for a Microsoft Excel flaw that was used in 2010 and two Word flaws that appeared in 2012, and most likely were received as email attachments.

The attackers even recycled exploits from Word documents that were used in spearphishing campaigns against Tibetan activists.

“The only thing that was changed is the executable which was embedded in the document; the attackers replaced it with their own code,” Kaspersky explained, noting this could have been done to complicate identifying the source of the attack.

A notable feature of Red October is the sheer volume of malware modules, currently numbering 1,000, which complete tasks such as stealing passwords, retrieving emails from Outlook, USB stealers, spreading functions, exfiltration and data theft from iPhone, Nokia and Windows Mobile devices. Some are permanent features of the malware, while others are one-off pieces.

“All the attacks are carefully tuned to the specifics of the victims. For instance, the initial documents are customised to make them more appealing and every single module is specifically compiled for the victim with a unique victim ID inside,” Kaspersky explains in its report.

Customisation extends to the victim’s system configuration, which type of documents they use, installed software and native language, it adds.

Some of the tasks include siphoning data from devices connected to an infected machine, installing a backdoor plugin for Adobe Reader, and stealing data from network drives and dumping network configuration data gleaned from Cisco routers, according to Kaspersky.

Mobile devices the malware aims to steal information from include Nokia, Windows Mobile and iPhone, however the device needs to be connected to an infected PC, and malware was not designed infect the devices themselves.

Kaspersky intends on releasing a report detailing the modules later this week.

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