Cyberespionage malware targets U.S., other countries

A cyberespionage operation that uses well-crafted PDF documents to trick recipients into opening the malicious files has targeted government entities and institutions in 23 countries, including the U.S., security vendors reported Wednesday.

The malware used in the spy operation, dubbed MiniDuke, was created as recently as Feb. 20, an indication that the attackers are still active, said Kaspersky Lab, which uncovered the criminal activity with its partner CrySyS. The cyberspies' location and identity is not known.

Targets of the attackers included 59 institutions and government offices. In the U.S., victims included think tanks, a research institute and a healthcare provider, Kaspersky said.

The security companies named the malware MiniDuke because it reminded them of Duqu, another data-gathering app that some researchers have linked to Stuxnet. Discovered in 2010, Stuxnet was used to damage centrifuges in Iran's nuclear facilities. The U.S. and Israeli governments developed the malware, according to media reports.

Despite some similarities, there's no evidence MiniDuke is connected to Duqu. Nevertheless, the newly discovered malware has some interesting characteristics.

For one, the attackers targeted recipients with malicious PDF files containing fabricated content designed to appeal to the recipients' interests. The documents included human rights seminar information, Ukraine's foreign policy and membership plans for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

"To compromise the victims, the attackers used extremely effective social engineering techniques," Kaspersky's Global Research & Analysis Team said in a blog post.

The files were rigged to exploit an Adobe Reader vulnerability patched this month. FireEye had discovered the previously unknown flaw Feb. 12. The vulnerability, which is in Adobe Reader versions 9, 10 and 11, enables an attack to bypass the software's sandbox.

Another interesting element is in the way the malware makes contact with its command and control servers. The app drops into the victim's hard drive a downloader that is only 20KB in size, is unique for every computer and contains a customized backdoor. The downloader uses a set of mathematical calculations to determine the host's unique fingerprint and then uses that data to encrypt its communications.

Once installed, the malware heads to Twitter in search of specific tweets in accounts created by the attackers. The tweets include tags with encrypted URLs that provide access to the C&C servers, which upload additional backdoors disguised as GIF picture files.

[Also see: U.S. urged to take comprehensive action on Chinese cyberespionage]

If Twitter is not working or the accounts are taken down, the malware uses Google search to find encrypted URLs. "This model is flexible and enables the operators to constantly change how their backdoors retrieve further commands or malcode as needed," Kaspersky said.

Once the additional backdoors are installed, they fetch a larger backdoor that carries out the cyberespionage activities. Those activities include copying, moving and removing files, making a directory, setting up a kill process and downloading and executing new malware. The backdoor receives instructions from two servers, one in Panama and the other in Turkey.

Countries with government agencies and institutions targeted by the attackers included Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Montenegro, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States.

Cyberespionage is rising as countries and cybercriminals use sophisticated malware to steal valuable information from government entities, institutions and large corporations. While not alone in cyberspying, China is believed to have one of the most extensive cyberintelligence operations.

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags applicationsData Protection | MalwarePDF flawMiniDukelegalvulnerabilitysoftwaredata protectioncybercrime

More about Adobe SystemsFireEyeGoogleKasperskyKasperskyNATO

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Antone Gonsalves

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place