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Malicious snoopware targeting India found at tiny Midwest ISP

'Official' decoys hide potential espionage campaign

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Security researchers have uncovered what appears to be a malware-based attack targeting Indian military or government entities and designed to steal information.

The malware linked to the attack "contains specific artifacts that [link it] to a commercial Pakistani entity," according to security intelligence firm ThreatConnect.

The malware samples - which come in the guise of either a booby-trapped PDF supposedly containing pension information from the Indian government or a Flash video file - were discovered on the systems of a small US Midwest ISP.

On the same subnet in Kansas City, Missouri, researchers found a .zip file full of malware under the guise of a decoy document detailing alleged Pakistani incompetence in locating Osama Bin Laden.

"There are several different self-extracting archive samples (likely targeting campaigns) which used two different decoy methods. One of the decoy methods used PDFs, the second decoy method was Flash videos," said Rich Barger, director of the ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team (TCIRT).

"In all instances the malware was shrouded within India/Pakistan-themed content and was hosted with a small subnet that doubled as a command-and-control point."

The security researchers say words hidden in the malware binaries refer to an infosec company called Tranchulas, as well as one of its employees. The Register points out that the presence of the words does not mean the company is responsible for, or even aware of, the creation of the malware. Writing your name or Twitter handle in the binaries would be akin to scrawling your name at a crime scene.

El Reg contacted Tranchulas, which does consultancy work for the Pakistani government and Telenor Pakistan, and it denied any involvement. The firm told us it had been framed by the writers of the malware.

The infosec company said it had contacted the hosting company of the server where the malware was found to seek an explanation.

In a blog post, ThreatConnect agreed that Tranchulas may well have been framed for involvement in the attack. It also floated the idea that the whole exercise was a penetration test by the Indian government.

"We are not in a position to definitively determine attribution based on the information available to us at this time," Barger told El Reg. "We will continue to work with the ThreatConnect community to obtain more details and update as appropriate."

Tranchulas made a lengthy statement denying any involvement in the APT attack:

ThreatConnect published a detailed analysis report on 2nd August 2013 on the malware which uses HTTP service to "collect and exfiltrate documents from victim's network." As per subject report, this malware uses aliases that belong to Tranchulas and one of its employees.

The report published in the ThreatConnect has been made on assumptions without thorough investigation concluding that Tranchulas is involved directly or indirectly in the activity of cyber espionage.

The most important and intriguing part of the report emphasizes on the results of the malware analysis that shows the aliases used to build the binaries. The analysis shows two aliases, "Tranchulas" and "umairaziz27". This has been done by developer of malware to portray wrong impression about Tranchulas and mislead malware analysts. The author of article has overlooked the other aliases used for the binaries i.e. "Cath" and "CERT-India". These two aliases show how the malware developer is using different aliases each time intelligently to portray different sources.

Tranchulas' research team was already aware of this incident before publication of this report. Our team contacted hosting company of server to seek an explanation.

Cyber-espionage has hit south Asia – researchers

China is frequently blamed for online attacks that use malware and spear phishing to extract information and are normally geared towards stealing blueprints from key industries such as aerospace and clean energy. But ThreatConnect's research, though inconclusive about who might be responsible, suggests that regional tensions between India and Pakistan are beginning to spawn so-called APT attacks of their own.

Back in May, Norwegian anti-malware firm Norman AS published a report (PDF) linking India with a cyber-espionage campaign targeting business, government and political organisations in China, Pakistan and other countries for over three years.

Targets included the Pakistani subsidiary of Norwegian telco Telenor, which had reported (in Norwegian) a network breach two months earlier.

Norman's report at the time noted the word “Appin” cropping up in malware file names, and speculated some actor may be deliberately trying to implicate Indian security company Appin Security Group in the attacks. As we reported at the time, Appin denied any involvement, posting a warning on its home page urging surfers “not to be misled by any communication received through fictitious domains which are purportedly being made by, or on behalf of, our company”.

Appin criticised Norman AS for naming it in its reports.

Reasons why cyberspies would wish to target Telenor Pakistan are not hard to work out, as ThreatConnect explains.

"Telenor Pakistan provides voice, data content and mobile communications to more than 3,500 cities and towns within Pakistan. Persistent remote Indian access to a strategic communications service provider, such as Telenor Pakistan, would certainly yield unparalleled signals intelligence collection capability." ®

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