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Tibetan activists' Macs targeted using trojan-laden MS Office files

Backdoors popped by unusually sophisticated methods

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A string of booby-trapped Microsoft Office files that plant malware in Apple Macs via rarely abused vulnerabilities have been detected in the wild.

The malicious documents were uncovered in a run of spam messages sent by pro-Chinese hackers to Tibetan activists, security tools biz AlienVault reports. It said the assault was much more sophisticated than the previous malware-based attacks against pro-Tibet sympathisers that it has tracked over recent weeks.

The vector used by the so-called MacControl Trojan in the latest phase of the attack is highly unusual, according to AlienVault.

"This is one of the few times we have ever seen a malicious Office file used to deliver malware on to the Apple Mac platform and which exploits a remote code execution vulnerability that exists in the way that Microsoft Word handles a specially crafted file that includes a malformed record."

The targeted attack relies upon a critical security vulnerability discovered in Microsoft Word back in 2009, Sophos adds. Mac users, even those logged in as non-administrators, who open the booby-trapped file - which poses as a letter about about human rights abuses by China in Tibet - end up loading a Trojan that gives backdoor access to their compromised machine.

China has previously been accused of using the internet to spy on pro-Tibet organisations on several occasions, including one instance when it was blamed for a cyber-espionage attack on the Tibetan government-in-exile and on the private office of the Dalai Lama in the so-called GhostNet operation.

Tibetan activists are on a long hit list uncovered by Trend Micro and dubbed the Luckycat campaign; it uses spear-phishing to inject Windows malware, and targets military and other sensitive entities in India and Japan as well as Tibetan activists.

Luckycat, which has been active since June 2011, has been linked by Trend to 90 attacks in India and Japan against aerospace, energy, shipping, military research and activists. Luckycat uses targeted emails that are contextually relevant and are attached with a malicious document. Many of the attacks share the same infrastructure, which is hosted in China. Circumstantial evidence links at least some of the hacks to Xfocus, a hacker forum in China, Trend Micro reports.

Trend's research builds on earlier probing by Symantec into the same set of attacks. ®

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