At least one advanced persistent threat (APT) is actively attacking many US interests. And succeeding.
APT threat actors have been attacking energy, water, aviation, nuclear, and critical manufacturing sectors, along with government entities since at least May 2017.
Analysis shows that they are using similar tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) as many well-known attacks.
Joint Technical Alert (TA17-293A)
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently published a joint Technical Alert describing this threat. They indicate that the APT has successfully compromised many networks and the campaign is ongoing.
It also helps reiterate the old maxim “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Similarly, the IT security of an organization is only as strong as its most uneducated user that has access to email.
One Click Lets Them In
The joint alert indicates that attackers use a variety of TPPs including spear-phishing. If you’re into IT security, you probably know that you should not open any attachments from unknown sources, or click on any links within emails from unknown sources.
However, do all the users in your organization know that?
In one spear-phishing attack, the email included a Microsoft Word document as an attachment. If the user clicked it, the document attempted to download a Word template (normal.dotm) from a remote server using the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. This sent the user’s credentials to a remote server.
In another attack, the subject line was “AGREEMENT & Confidential” and it included a PDF attachment named simply document.pdf. While the PDF document wasn’t malicious, it prompted the user to click on a link. If the user opened the document and clicked on the link, it attempted a drive-by download to infect the user’s system.
Spearphishing emails often made used of stacked URL shortening links. For example, the link to the malicious site was shortened using a tinyurl shortened link and the tinyurl lnik was shortened using a bitly shortened link.
This blog post on Russian Malicious Cyber Activity discusses how Cozy Bear (APT 29) and Fancy Bear (APT 28) exploited entire networks after a single user clicked on a malicious link.
Note that the alert doesn’t indicate the country launching these attacks and I have no insight into the country of origin. In other words, I’m not referencing the blog post on Russian Malicious Cyber Activity to indicate that the current attacks are from APT 28 and APT 29.
The most important point here is that users are repeating common errors.
The alert indicates that attackers are using similar behavior as Dragonfly threat actors. Symantec wrote about how Dragonfly 2.0 has been attacking the energy sector in Europe and North America since 2015.
Cisco reported in July 2017 that some attacks on the energy sector were using a well-known toolkit called Phishery. The same tactic is being used in current attacks reported by the joint technical alert.
Attacks on the energy sector have been getting more and more interest lately, by both attackers and security experts. As an example, Cyber attackers disrupted Ukraine’s power system in 2015 and 2016 causing power outages affecting hundreds of thousands of people. While it’s not known if Dragonfly was involved in the Ukraine attacks, it does illustrate what can happen if attackers infiltrate US power distribution networks.
Details on APT Attacks
After the initial exploit, attackers typically ran scripts to gain more control. As an example, one script created a user account, disabled the host-based firewall, and opened port 3389 to enable Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) access. This gave them remote access to the infected computer.
They used various privilege escalation techniques to gain more privileges. One way was to add a new account to the Administrators group. When successful, this gave them full control of the remote computer and allowed them to perform reconnaissance on the entire network.
In some attacks, they created as many as four accounts including one on the Microsoft Exchange Server (email server) and a local administrator account. They used the newly created administrator account to delete several key logs.
Alert – APT Attacking Summary
APTs continue attacking targets around the world, including US targets. They are currently attacking many infrastructure targets such as energy, water, aviation, nuclear, and critical manufacturing sectors, and they continue to attack US government entities. Uneducated users typically grant APTs access to their computer and entire organizational networks by responding to malicious spear phishing emails.