Russian cyberweapons cross-pollinating commercial malware, analysis claims

'Gyges' malware shows ominous mixing of forms

Sophisticated code of the sort used in Russian Government cyberweapons could be seeping into the commercial malware wielded by the country's criminals, a security firm has suggested after analysing the apparent cross-pollination in a previously unknown piece of malware called 'Gyges'.

Frustratingly, US security startup Sentinel Labs doesn't say where it encountered Gyges nor whom it was targeting, simply that it first encountered it in March 2014.

Gyges is certainly an oddity, showing a gap between the sophisticated code that allows it to bypass defences - the bit Sentinel ascribes to a possible government programme - and the more quick and dirty executable that directs the payload.

The clue is in the relatively complex and arcane techniques used by Gyges to beat sandboxing and security products that run or 'emulate' suspected malware to see what it does. It also includes code that makes it harder to reverse engineer or debug some of its inner workings.

Other parts of the 'government code' carry out data theft, screen capturing, credential keylogging and eavesdropping on network traffic while the commercial element of the programme executes ransomware, botnetting and online bank fraud.

How does the firm know the evasion code was used in government cybwerweapons? The firm doesn't go into much detail but says it detected it in previous targeted attacks, code for small-scale attacks carried out against specific organisations or individuals. It is also inference; no commercial malware would have access to such sophisticated mechanisms or would go to such lengths to use obscure, almost experimental techniques.

Gyges further uses what the firm calls a hooking bypass 'logic bug' in Windows 7 and 8, the sort of unusual exploit normally jealously guarded by the need-to-knows who write government malware.

If the analysis stands up - and the evidence presented by Sentinel Labs is still a bit thin - Russian Government malware has somehow escaped to be used by commercial malware writers, a slightly worrying trend although one that has long been predicted by security experts.

The implication is that the Russians outsource at least part of their cyberweapon development to commercial malware writers. If so, it's hard to believe they would be pleased that some of it has now turned up in a criminal campaign because government malware needs absolute secrecy to do its job.

"It comes as no surprise to us that this type of intelligence agency-grade malware would eventually fall into cybercriminals' hands," wrote Sentinel Labs research head, Udi Shamir.

"Gyges is an early example of how advanced techniques and code developed by governments for espionage are effectively being repurposed, modularized and coupled with other malware to commit cybercrime."

Russian state malware is still fairly poorly understood, drowned out by the raging fuss over alleged Chinese state attacks on US organisations. This seems to be part of the general dismissal of Russia as an opponent worth worrying about; the West, it seems, just doesn't rate Russia as a cyber-power.

This is starting to look pretty complacent. Evidence of fairy sophisticated attacks from within Russia has trickled out in recent months, in particular the 'Snake' (aka 'Turla' or 'Uroburos') malware that has been traced back as far as 2005. If the Russians have been hard at it in the cyberweapon stakes, their campaigns are not a new phenomenon.

Interestingly, earlier this month Finnish security firm F-Secure published an analysis of another piece of malware called Cosmu, which it suggested could be a Russian cyberweapon that had re-used ancient code from a commercial Trojan.

The inter-mixing of money-making malware and cyberweapons might, in fact, we quite well advanced without that being apparent until now.

Whether this matters is moot. If criminals can access advanced techniques then that makes them more potent. But if criminals can access advanced malware then that reduces the impact of government-level atttacks because they will be detected earlier.

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