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Securo-boffins uncover new GLOBAL cyber-espionage operation

Two-pronged attack hits victims in 100 countries

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Government ministries, technology firms, media outlets, academic research institutions and non-governmental organisations have all fallen victim to an ongoing cyberespionage operation with tendrils all over the world, according to researchers.

Infosec researchers have uncovered SafeNet in as many as 100 countries.

SafeNet targets potential marks using spear-phishing emails featuring a malicious attachment that exploits a Microsoft Office vulnerability that was patched last year (CVE-2012-0158).

The operation appears to involve two campaigns linked together by the use of the same strain of malware and differentiated by the use of different command-and-control infrastructures.

One strand of the operation uses spear-phishing emails with subject lines related to either Tibet or Mongolia. The topic of emails in the second part of the campaign is yet to be identified but appears to have broader appeal since this strand of the operation has claimed victims in countries ranging from India to the US, China, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia and Brazil. Entities in India appear to have been hit hardest by the malware.

Sloppy coding on one of the campaign's command servers allowed researchers to extract reams of information about the attack, as Trend Micro researchers explain in a white paper (PDF) on the attack.

One of the C&C servers was set up in such a way that the contents of the directories were viewable to anyone who accessed them. As a result, not only were we able to determine who the campaign’s victims were, but we were also able to download backup archives that contained the PHP source code the attackers used for the C&C server and the C code they used to generate the malware used in attacks.

It seems like nearly 12,000 unique IP addresses spread over more than 100 countries were connected to two sets of command-and-control (C&C) infrastructures related to the SafeNet malware.

Trend's researchers reckon the average number of actual victims remained at 71 per day, with few if any changes from day to day. "This indicates that the actual number of victims is far less than the number of unique IP addresses," according to the security researchers.

The people behind the attack are connecting to command servers using VPN technology and the Tor anonymiser network. This means that little evidence about where the attackers are based can be obtained from the command nodes running the campaign. However clues in the coding have led Trend's researchers to speculate the malware at least was brewed in China.

"While determining the intent and identity of the attackers remains difficult, we assessed that this campaign is targeted and uses malware developed by a professional software engineer who may be connected to the cybercriminal underground in China," writes Trend Micro threat researcher Nart Villeneuve in a blog post on the campaign.

"However, the relationship between the malware developers and the campaign operators themselves remains unclear." ®

Bootnote

Trend Micro notes that there is no link between the the attack and SafeNet, Inc, a reputable information security firm. The "SafeNet" name comes from references within the malware itself.

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