Malware is Coming to the Trusted Software Near to You – Trade in Code Signing Certificates is on the Rise on the Russian Underground

Written by Tanya Koyfman

Instead of spending days and nights coding, crypting and modifying the malware to avoid AV detection, the underground market offers to sign it by a digital certificate issued for a legitimate entity.

While monitoring our Russian-speaking sources, we identified a Russian forum member offering code signing certificates issued by one of the largest CAs for sale.

The forum thread was opened on a Russian password-protected forum that serves as an illegal platform for cybercrime related discussions. On the forum, one can find sales of financial malware, stolen databases and exploits, as well as technical discussions regarding hacking and programming.

The post about the sale of certificates was initially published two months ago, and the topic is still updated regularly. In the first message, the post author offered one certificate for sale in exchange for almost $1000. According to the seller, the certificate can be used to sign exe files. Forum members who are interested in purchasing are requested to connect via Jabber (an instant messaging service based on XMPP protocol, highly popular among Russian cybercriminals).

The next day, the author published another post claiming that the certificate had been sold. He said that he could obtain 1-2 certificates per week, and that if there was a demand he could get his hands on also driver signing certificates.

The thread also included feedback messages from buyers, who testified that the certificates were useful in avoiding AV detection, but only for a specific malware infection. In a case of a mass distribution of malware programs, the certificate would be cancelled within days.

During the forum discussion, the seller mentioned that signing an exe file by certificate helped avoid detection by all AV pro-active detection mechanisms, except for one. He also clarified that the certificates could be used for .exe, .dll, .jar and .doc files, but not for .sys files (drivers).

To date, after almost two months of sales, at least 7-10 certificates have been sold (providing a profit of $10,000 for the seller).

The first message regarding the sale of the certificates

The first message regarding the sale of the certificates

Taking into account that the above forum member has regular access to legitimately issued certificates from one of the top five Certificate Authorities (CA) in the world, the above case is probably only the tip of a slippery slope. We may soon witness an increase in malware distribution attacks based on using genuine code signing certificates. The $1,000 paid for the certificates is an incredibly low price for the hacker to pay, compared to the large sums of money he can earn using these certificates in his attacks. While we do not know the precise origin of the certificates (a breach in an organization that purchases certificates, a breach in a reseller supplying the CA certificates or simply an “illegal” reselling or legally purchased certificates), the volume of certificates that the seller is supplying is reminiscent of the DigiNotar case.

The Case of DigiNotar (July-August 2011)

DigiNotar was a Dutch Certificate Authority company owned by VASCO Data Security International. DigiNotar went bankrupt following a security breach that resulted in the fraudulent issuing of CA certificates on September 3, 2011. DigiNotar hosted a number of CA’s and issued certificates including default SSL certificates, Qualified Certificates and ‘PKIoverheid’ – government accredited certificates.

In August 2011, a rogue certificate for *.google.com signed by DigiNotar was revoked by several Internet user browsers in Iran. Fox-IT conducted an investigation of the events in their report ‘Operation Black Tulip’ and found that a total of 531 fraudulent certificates had been issued. They identified around 300,000 requests to google.com with IPs originating from Iran that used the rogue certificate before it was revoked. The attack lasted nearly six weeks.

The compromised IP users might have had their emails intercepted, and their login cookie could have been intercepted making the attacker able to enter their Gmail accounts and all other services offered by Google. Having access to the e-mail account, the attacker is also able to reset passwords of other services with the lost password button. Fox-IT further examined the hacking tools and found some of them to be amateurish and some very advanced, some were published hacking tools and some specifically developed.

8 thoughts on “Malware is Coming to the Trusted Software Near to You – Trade in Code Signing Certificates is on the Rise on the Russian Underground

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