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For at least five years the Sednit group has been relentlessly attacking various institutions, most notably in Eastern Europe. The group used several advanced pieces of malware for these targeted attacks, in particular the one we named Win32/Sednit, also known as Sofacy.
We recently came across cases of legitimate financial websites being redirected to a custom exploit kit. Based on our research and on some information provided by the Google Security Team, we were able to establish that it is used by the Sednit group. This is a new strategy for this group which has relied mostly on spear-phishing emails up until now.
In this blog, we will first examine on recent cases of spear-phishing emails using the CVE-2014-1761 Microsoft Word exploit. We will then focus on the exploit kit, which appears to still be in development and testing phase, and briefly describe the actual payload.
Back in April 2014, the Win32/Sednit malware was being delivered through a 0-day vulnerability in Microsoft Word RTF documents, CVE-2014-1761. It was amongst a small number of malware families being delivered through this vulnerability, like BlackEnergy and MiniDuke, which are also used for targeted attacks.
Here are two decoy documents showed to the victims while the vulnerability was silently exploited on their computer. Both of these documents present NATO views on the Ukrainian conflict.
We observed redirections to the exploit kit from websites belonging to a large financial institution in Poland. The exploit kit is loaded through a simple IFRAME that is added near the end of the HTML document; for example hXXp://defenceiq.us/2rfKZL_BGwEQ in the screenshot below. We can also see a very similar looking IFRAME loading the URL hXXp://cntt.akcdndata.com/gpw?file=stat.js, whose domain name was registered on September 18th. We were not able to retrieve the content of this page but we suspect that its purpose is to collect statistics about the number of redirections.
When directly visiting the URL hXXp://defenceiq.us, we were redirected to defenceiq.com, a legitimate website that describes itself as “an authoritative news source for high quality and exclusive commentary and analysis on global defense and military-related topics”.
The domain defenceiq.us was found to resolve to 126.96.36.199. Other suspicious domains also resolved to this IP address and displayed the same redirection behavior when visited, which is a strong indication of the sectors the group is currently targeting. The redirection from Polish financial websites to a defense-related domain name seems less than optimal for a targeted attack and was probably due to the mixing of two ongoing campaigns.
|Exploit kit domain||Redirects to||Website content|
|mfapress.org||foreignaffairs.com||Foreign Affairs magazine|
|mfapress.com||foreignaffairs.com||Foreign Affairs magazine|
|caciltd.com||caci.com||CACI International, defense & cyber security contractor|
Interestingly we can see that the call to DetectJavaForMSIE() is commented out. This follows the current trend in exploit kits of not targeting Java, because recent versions of Java and browsers warnings before loading applets. At the moment only Internet Explorer seems to be targeted: when we tested with Chrome and Firefox we were always redirected to localhost.
The browser then sends back the plugin information via a POST request. Based on this information, the exploit kit redirects the browser either to another URL containing an exploit, or to http://localhost. The kit only attempts one exploit per visit.
We recovered 3 different exploits used by the kit, all targeting Internet Explorer. They are listed below, with the specific version of IE each one targets. Interestingly, CVE-2014-1776 has not yet been seen in any popular exploit kits, and the other two have also seen only limited adoption.
|CVE||Targeted IE version||Microsoft Security Bulletin|
|CVE-2013-1347||Internet Explorer 8||MS13-038|
|CVE-2013-3897||Internet Explorer 8||MS13-080|
|CVE-2014-1776||Internet Explorer 11||MS14-021|
When uncompressing the Flash file used for the CVE-2014-1776, a path is visible. This information is not found in previous samples of this exploit in our collection.
Upon successful exploitation the payload is downloaded; whether it is encrypted depends on the exploit.
The binary deployed on the infected machine is named “runrun.exe”. Its sole purpose is to deploy a second program – initially encrypted and compressed — on the machine and ensure its persistence on the system. The second program is a Windows library named “splm.dll”. According to our data, this malware has been employed in targeted attacks since at least 2009.
Roughly summarized, this payload has been created with a C++ framework. Thanks to the Run-Time Type Information (RTTI), a part of the program architecture can be reconstructed with the names chosen by the programmer. The malware contains agent modules implementing malicious activities, and channels for communications between modules and remote controllers. In this sample, we found the following agent modules, identified by a 16-bit ID:
|ModuleFileSystem||0x1102||File system accesses|
|ProcessRetranslatorModule||0x1302||Provides communication means|
It also instantiates one external communication channel named WinHttp, which decrypts three domain names used as command and control: msonlinelive.com, windows-updater.com and azureon-line.com.
In recent years, exploit kits have become a major method employed to spread crimeware, malware intended for mass-scale distribution to facilitate financial fraud and abuse of computing resources for purposes such as sending spam, bitcoin mining, credentials harvesting etc.
Since 2012, we observed this strategy being used for espionage purposes in what has become known as “watering-hole attacks” or “strategic web compromises”. A Watering-hole attack can be described is redirecting traffic from websites likely to be visited by members of a specific organization or industry being targeted. In ESET’s retrospective on Windows exploitation in 2013, Artem Baranov wrote “the past year can rightly be called the year of targeted attacks and watering hole attacks”.
While many instances of watering-hole attacks have been documented for related actors in cases such as noted by Symantec in their Elderwood Project report, we are now seeing this strategy being adopted by another group and it seems likely that others will follow them.
Here are some indicators that could help to identify the payload sample dropped by the exploit kit described in this blog post:
Author ESET Research, ESET