Cyberwar heats up in the Middle East

Two new malware campaigns have been spotted in the Middle East, according to reports released this week, one targeting energy companies and the other going after political targets in Israel and Lebanon.

Oil, gas and helium

Symantec researchers observed a brand-new information-gathering tool, Trojan.Laziok, this January and February, targeting primarily oil, gas and helium companies in the Middle East.

The United Arab Emirates saw 25 percent of the infections, with other Middle East countries adding up to 30 percent more. Pakistan had 10 percent, and the U.S. and the U.K. had another 10 percent between them.

According to Symantec senior security response manager Satnam Narang, the infection begins with a phishing email that contains an infected attachment -- typically, an Excel file.

The attachment uses a known ActiveX exploit to get in, an exploit that has been patched in 2012.

"I know that zero-day vulnerabilities are the crown jewels but what often gets overlooked is that vulnerabilities that have been patched are still regularly leveraged by attackers," said Narang. "Attackers are banking that there are machines out there running unpatched applications, even though patches exist for them."

According to Philip Lieberman, president at Los Angeles-based security vendor Lieberman Software Corp., the recent drop in oil prices has led to a decrease in IT security investment in the oil and gas industry.

"This attack exploits an apparently well-known lack of investment by the oil and gas industry in keeping their Microsoft Office software up to date," he said.

Lieberman said that his company has seen this first-hand.

"In two recent requests for proposals we worked on, the petrochemical companies were unconcerned with the capabilities of the security products they were sourcing, and were only concerned about the price," he said. "In effect they were saying: 'We are from purchasing and we don't care if the solution works.' Unfortunately, security technology is not a commodity like oil."

The exploit code in the attachment then installs the Trojan.Laziok, which collects information about the computer and sends it back to the attackers. That includes information about what kind of anti-virus is present.

"It's a common tactic that we've seen for some time now," said Symantec's Narang. "It's very common for attackers to want to know what antivirus is running on a system. There are services they can go and check if their malware would be detected by a specific antivirus vendor."

Tools that enable malware to evade antivirus detection are easily available, confirmed Joe Barrett, senior security consultant at Lake Mary, Fla.-based Foreground Security. "It means that defense in-depth and the principle of 'least priviledge' are more important than ever."

Network defenders should watch for malicious traffic and be ready to isolate machines suspected of being infected.

"Relying on antivirus as the primary line of defense for your workstations is a losing proposition," he said.

Once the Trojan.Laziok attackers have a good picture of the system, they can customize additional tools to avoid detection, said Symantec's Narang. "The next step is a back door, Backdoor.Cyberat, and an information-stealing Trojan, Trojan.Zbot." he said.

This malware can monitor audio by turning on the audio on the computer, or capture video using the webcam. It can also log keystrokes and install additional malware.

There isn't enough information yet to determine whether the goal is espionage, sabotage, or cybercrime, said Narang.

Israel and Lebanon

The attacks against Israeli and Lebanese political groups, using malware code-named Volatile Cedar by its discovers, is probably unrelated, said Narang.

"That is a different attack group, with a different set of tools and processes that they were using. That group started earlier. And as far as our knowledge is, Trojan.Laziok only dates back to the beginning of the year."

According to researchers at Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., who released the Volatile Cedar report this week, that campaign dates all the way back to 2012.

It also uses a new, custom information-gathering Trojan, which Check Point named Explosive.

But while the Trojan.Laziok attack started with phishing emails, the Volatile Cedar attack began with publicly-facing web servers.

In addition, Check Point traced back the source of the Volatile Cedar attack to actors in Lebanon, and their targets were narrowly targeted political organizations in Israel and Lebanon. The targeting of organizations in Lebanon could be related to espionage among rival political groups, researchers said.

"Conventionally speaking, the Lebanese and the domestic terrorist organization Hezbollah can hardly compete with the Israeli military supremacy," said Rich Barger, chief intelligence officer and director of threat intelligence at Arlington, VA-based ThreatConnect, Inc. "However, cyberspace remains a new frontier full of rich exploits. It is hardly surprising that an APT group would seek to level the playing field by enhancing its cyber presence."

According to Barger, Middle East organizations -- both businesses and governments -- could benefit from sharing more cyberthreat information.

"Any region that is targeted as frequently as the Middle East can benefit from such threat intelligence sharing to better protect their networks," he said. "Additionally, many nations in the region are only just beginning to set up connectivity in their country, which means that both the network and novice users are much more vulnerable to common exploits, such as spearphishing."

According to Barger, energy is a prime target both for cyber criminals seeking to turn a quick profit and for more advanced actors seeking to cause serious economic damage to their targets.

One possible indication that the Trojan.Laziok is not politically motivated is that the malware -- which is also known as the Kraken Remote Access Trojan -- has been spotted stealing Bitcoin wallets.

"It is unknown who is actually behind the attacks using Kraken," said Jeremy Scott, senior research analyst at Omaha-based security firm Solutionary, Inc. "However... Kraken is far from an 'espionage' malware unless the attackers behind it are more sophisticated than researchers are aware of."

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Tags symantecsecurityadvanced persistent threatsgovernmentLieberman Software

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