Data Wiper Malware Disguised As Ransomware Targets Israeli Entities


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Researchers on Tuesday disclosed a new espionage campaign that resorts to destructive data-wiping attacks targeting Israeli entities at least since December 2020 that camouflage the malicious activity as ransomware extortions.

Cybersecurity firm SentinelOne attributed the attacks to a nation-state actor affiliated with Iran it tracks under the moniker “Agrius.”

“An analysis of what at first sight appeared to be a ransomware attack revealed new variants of wipers that were deployed in a set of destructive attacks against Israeli targets,” the researchers said. “The operators behind the attacks intentionally masked their activity as ransomware attacks, an uncommon behavior for financially motivated groups.”

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The group’s modus operandi involves deploying a custom .NET malware called Apostle that has evolved to become fully functional ransomware, supplanting its prior wiper capabilities, while some of the attacks have been carried out using a second wiper named DEADWOOD (aka Detbosit) after a logic flaw in early versions of Apostle prevented data from being erased.

In addition, the Agrius actors drop a .NET implant called IPsec Helper that can be used to exfiltrate data or deploy additional malware. What’s more, the threat actor’s tactics have also witnessed a shift from espionage to demanding ransoms from its victims to recover access to encrypted data, only to have them actually destroyed in a wiping attack.

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Besides using ProtonVPN for anonymization, the Agrius attack cycle leverages 1-day vulnerabilities in web-based applications, including CVE-2018-13379, to gain an initial foothold and subsequently deliver ASPXSpy web shells to maintain remote access to compromised systems and run arbitrary commands.

If anything, the research adds to evidence that state-sponsored actors with ties to the Iranian government are increasingly looking at ransomware operations as a subterfuge technique to mimic other financially motivated cybercriminal ransomware groups.

Recently leaked documents by Lab Dookhtegan revealed an initiative called “Project Signal” that linked Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to a ransomware operation through a contracting company.

“While being disruptive and effective, ransomware activities provide deniability, allowing states to send a message without taking direct blame,” the researchers said. “Similar strategies have been used with devastating effect by other nation-state sponsored actors.”



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