A reason to update? 23 nations, 10 days, one Reader exploit

A week-long campaign used foreign policy, human rights and NATO documents to lure would-be victims into opening a malicious PDF attachment
  • Liam Tung (CSO Online)
  • — 28 February, 2013 12:30

A malware assault on several governments, exploiting a recently closed Adobe Reader flaw, highlight the importance of applying software updates swiftly -- particularly for government staff, if they're under attack.

According to researchers at Kaspersky Lab, a [[xref:http://www.cso.com.au/article/455015/researchers_discover_new_global_cyber-espionage_campaign/|targeted malware attack on governments and think-tanks[[ has netted 59 victims across 23 countries in 10 days with an exploit for a Reader/Acrobat flaw (CVE-2013-0641) that Adobe patched on February 20.

That’s not many victims, but it was a week-long targeted campaign, which used foreign policy, human rights and NATO documents dating between 2013 and 2005 to lure would-be victims into opening a malicious PDF attachment.

The “dropper” for the lightweight, “old school” malware Kaspersky has called MiniDuke was created as recently as the day Adobe released a patch -- seven days after security firm FireEye discovered the original zero day exploit that piggy-backed a malicious PDF labelled “Visaform Turkey.pdf”.

The original exploit PDF could have targeted any non-Turkish citizen planning to travel to the country, and there was not much people could do besides hope that security software picked up the threat. But victims of the second campaign aimed at government employees after February 20 at least had a patch.

The command servers Kaspersky researchers analysed showed were communicating with government networks in the Ukraine, Belgium, Portugal, Romania, Czech Republic and Ireland as well as a research institute and think tanks in the US.

Separate to the MiniDuke campaign, two days after Adobe released a patch, security researchers at Symantec and Seculert discovered that hackers were bundling the PDF exploit in a fake version of the recent Mandiant report on Chinese hacking. These attacks targeted Chinese journalists and Japanese speakers.

Kaspersky dismissed the malicious Mandiant PDFs as just crude and “dirty hacks” of the original exploit. “These newer attacks appear to have been created by a 0-day toolkit that was used to build the original “Visaform Tukey.pdf” discovered by FireEye,” the Russian security firm notes (PDF).

It's not known if it the new attacks were by the same group with a new target, or a new group that had bought the exploit or somehow “captured” it.

On the other hand, originality and elegance may not be necessary for a successful campaign. The “Red October” campaign, which Kaspersky found had hit governments and other organisations in 39 nations, replaced executables in old Chinese-made exploits designed for Office and Java flaws that had long since been patched by Microsoft and Oracle.

The company’s recent research on government attacks show that targeted attackers are more than willing to reuse older exploits and target flaws for which patches exist. And its advice is pretty much what every security expert already suggests: update Adobe Reader, remove Java if it’s not used, update to the latest version of Windows and Office, and of course, use up to date antivirus and scan incoming documents.

Tags: adobe acrobat, security, adobe

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