Stealthy cyberespionage malware targets energy companies

The threat uses sophisticated techniques to evade detection and prepares the ground for more malware components

Security researchers have discovered a new malware threat that goes to great lengths to remain undetected while targeting energy companies.

The malware program, which researchers from security firm SentinelOne have dubbed Furtim’s Parent, is a so-called dropper -- a program designed to download and install additional malware components and tools. The researchers believe it was released in May and was created by state-sponsored attackers.

The goal of droppers is to prepare the field for the installation of other malware components that can perform specialized tasks. Their priority is to remain undetected, gain privileged access, and disable existing protections. These are all tasks that Furtim’s Parent does well.

When it's first executed on a system, the malware tests the environment for virtual machines, sandboxes, antivirus programs, firewalls, tools used by malware analysts, and even biometrics software.

The tests are extensive. They involve checking against blacklists of CPU IDs, hostnames, file names, DLL libraries, directories, CPU core info, kernel drivers, running processes, hard disk vendor information, network cards, MAC addresses, and BIOS information -- artifacts left by known virtualization and security applications.

In some cases, if such software is detected the malware will terminate itself. In others, it will continue to run, but will limit its functionality and in the case of antivirus programs, it will try to disable them.

The depth and complexity of these tests suggest that the malware's creators have a good understanding of Windows and security products. This led researchers to believe Furtim's Parent is the work of multiple developers with high-level skills and access to considerable resources.

The malware doesn't install itself a regular file on disk, but as an NTFS alternative data stream (ADS). It starts early in the computer boot-up process and calls low-level undocumented Windows APIs in order to bypass the behavioral detection routines used by security products.

"The use of indirect subroutine calls make manual static analysis nearly impossible, and manual dynamic analysis painful and slow," the SentinelOne researchers said in a blog post Tuesday. "The author took special care to keep this sample undetected for as long as possible."

The malware uses two Windows privilege escalation exploits, one patched by Microsoft in 2014 and one in 2015, as well as a known user account control (UAC) bypass technique to obtain administrator privileges. If this access is obtained, it adds the current user to the Administrators group to avoid running under a different account and raising suspicion.

Once it's installed, the malware silently disables the protection layers of several antivirus products and hijacks the system's DNS settings to prevent access to specific antivirus update servers. This ensures that the ground is set for the download and execution of its payloads.

One payload observed by the SentinelOne researchers was used to gather information from infected systems and to send it back to a command-and-control server. This was most likely a reconnaissance tool, but the dropper could also be used to download components designed to extract sensitive data or to perform destructive actions.

Energy production and distribution companies are an attractive target for state-sponsored cyberattackers because their systems can potentially be used to cause physical damage. This is what happened in December in Ukraine, when hackers used malware to break into utilities and cause large-scale blackouts.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

More about MicrosoftUAC

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Lucian Constantin

Latest Videos

  • 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

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place