Iran-Linked Malware Shared by USCYBERCOM First Seen in December 2016: Kaspersky

Iran-linked malware uploaded to VirusTotal last week by United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) was first observed in Dec 2016 and Jan 2017, according to security firm Kaspersky. 

The malware samples shared by USCYBERCOM have been linked to attacks in which the Iran-linked cyberespionage group tracked as APT33 leveraged the CVE-2017-11774 vulnerability for infection. 

According to Kaspersky, two of the files uploaded by USCYBERCOM were first observed two and a half years ago, and were mentioned in a private report shared with the security firm’s customers, detailing the activity of the NewsBeef threat actor (also known as Charming Kitten, Newscaster, and APT35).

The report analyzes the changes observed in the actor’s tactics in the 2015-2017 timeframe, including a 2016 departure from the Browser Exploitation Framework (BeEF) technology toward macro-enabled Office documents, PowerSploit, and the Pupy backdoor. 

Attacks observed at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 revealed the use of the new toolset in conjunction with spear-phishing emails, links in private messages, and watering hole attacks, and focused primarily on Saudi Arabian targets, Kaspersky reveals. 

The spear-phishing attacks relied on Office documents to deliver PowerShell scripts and download poisoned installers (such as Flash, Citrix Client, and Chrome) to run PowerSploit scripts and fetch a full-featured Pupy backdoor.

The compromised websites were injected with obfuscated JavaScript redirecting visitors to NewsBeef-controlled hosts that tracked victims and served malicious content. The actor compromised servers belonging to the Saudi Arabian government and other high-value organizational identities. 

As part of the campaign, the hackers targeted government financial and administrative organizations, government health organizations, engineering and technical organizations, and one British labor related government organization (targeted multiple times). 

The campaign was focused on infecting victims with Pupy, an open source, multi-platform (Windows, Linux, OSX, Android), multi-function backdoor. Mainly written in Python, the backdoor uses code from open source attack tools like PowerSploit, Mimikatz, laZagne, and more. 

Iran-linked cyber-spies were long said to be sharing malware code, and the USCYBERCOM uploads on VirusTotal, corroborated with Kaspersky’s report, confirm that once again. 

The Pupy backdoor is known to be part of the malware arsenal employed by APT33, which was recently observed updating its infrastructure following a March 2019 report detailing its activities.

The malware has also been associated with the COBALT GYPSY threat group, and linked to Shamoon through the use of a domain.

Related: U.S. Cyber Command Warns of Outlook Flaw Exploited by Iranian Hackers

Related: Source Code of New Iran-Linked Hacking Tool Posted Online

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Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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