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Poison Ivy RAT becoming the AK-47 of cyber-espionage attacks

Just because it's simple to use doesn't mean the user is low-rent

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The Poison Ivy Remote Access Tool (RAT) - often considered a tool for novice "script kiddies" - has become a ubiquitous feature of cyber-espionage campaigns, according to experts.

Research by malware protection firm FireEye has revealed that the tool served as lynchpin of many sophisticated cyber attacks, including the compromise of RSA SecurID data in 2011 and the "Nitro" assault against chemical makers, government offices, defence firms and human-rights groups last year.

A Peeping Tom webcam sextortionist has been jailed for six years in the US after targeting several young women in attacks that relied on a modified version of Poison Ivy, an incident which shows that the tool has malign uses beyond cyber-espionage.

Poison Ivy remains popular and effective eight years after its original release. FireEye has compiled a list of nation state-type attackers making use of the utility. These include a group called admin@338, which specialises in attacks targeting the financial services industry; th3bug, who have been hammering universities and healthcare facilities since 2009, and menuPass, a group that has run cyberespionage attacks against defence contractors over the last four years.

Poison Ivy is the preferred RAT of several threat actors located in China. Over recent months other attackers elsewhere in the world have begun adopting the same methodology.

A campaign by a Middle East hacking group called “Molerats” (AKA Gaza Hackers Team) switched during June and July to using Poison Ivy to attack Israeli government targets. The latest malware was signed with a fake Microsoft certificate, similar to earlier attacks using the XtremeRat trojan.

FireEye has also intercepted Egyptian- and Middle Eastern-themed attacks using decoy content in Arabic whose targets remain uncertain but may include targets in the Palestinian authority.

"The cyber attacks against Israeli and Palestinian targets that were first documented last year are ongoing," FireEye concludes. "The attackers, which we have called 'Molerats', have also targeted government entities in the UK and in the US. In addition to using XtremeRAT, which is popular among Middle Eastern attackers, we have found that Molerats have adopted the use of Poison Ivy RAT, which is traditionally favoured by Chinese attackers."

"We do not know if this is an intentional attempt by MoleRats to deflect attribution to China-based threat actors, or if they have simply added another, effective, publicly-available RAT to their arsenal. However, this development should raise a warning flag for those who attribute all Poison Ivy attacks to threat actors based in China. The ubiquity of off-the-shelf RATs makes determining positive attribution an increasing challenge," it adds.

More details on the Molerats' cyber-espionage campaign can be found in a blog post, featuring diagrams, screen shots and charts, and put together by three FireEye researchers (Nart Villeneuve, Ned Moran and Thoufique Haq) here.

"You can download the default version of Poison Ivy from poisonivy-rat.com," explained FireEye's Ned Moran. "However, each of these groups are using a custom version of Poison Ivy. We do not believe these specific custom versions are available for sale."

RATs such as Poison Ivy require little technical savvy while offering unfettered access to compromised machines, hence their use by even well resourced professional cyber-ninja types. It can be considered as the easy to use front end of attacks that might be actually quite sophisticated when viewed as a whole.

"They [RATs] are often delivered as a key component of coordinated attacks that use previously unknown (zero-day) software flaws and clever social engineering," explained Darien Kindlund, manager of threat intelligence at FireEye in a blog post. "Attackers can point and click their way through the target’s network to steal data and intellectual property," using tools such as Poison Ivy, he added.

FireEye released its a white paper on its research into the hacker tool along with Calamine, a set of free tools to help organisations to detect possible Poison Ivy infections. ®

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