SenseCy 2014 Annual Cyber Intelligence Report

Written and prepared by SenseCy’s Cyber Intelligence analysts.

Executive Summary

Clearly, 2014 was an important year in the cyber arena. The technical level of the attacks, the variety of tools and methods used and the destructive results achieved have proven, yet again, that cyber is a cross-border tool that is rapidly gaining momentum.

This year, we witnessed attacks on key vectors: cyber criminals setting their sights on targets in the private sector, hacktivists using cyber tools for their ideological struggles, state-sponsored campaigns to facilitate spying on high-profile targets, and cyber conflicts between countries.

The following is an excerpt from an annual report prepared by our Cyber Intelligence analysts. To receive a copy, please send a request to: info@sensecy.com

Insights

Below are several of our insights regarding cyber activity this past year:

  • The financial sector was and continues to be a key target for cyber criminals, with most of the corporations hacked this year in the U.S. being attacked through infection of Point-of-Sale (POS) systems. Despite the high level of awareness as to the vulnerability of these systems following the Target breach at the end of 2013, ever more organizations are continuing to fall victim to these types of attacks, as the cybercrime community develops and sells dedicated tools for these systems.
  • In 2014, we saw another step up in the use of cyber as a cross-border weapon, the use of which can be highly destructive. This was evidenced in the attack on JPMorgan, which according to reports was a response to sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Russia. The ensuing Sony breach and threats to peoples’ lives should the movie The Interview be screened exacerbated the state of asymmetrical war in cyber space, where on the one hand, we see countries attacking companies, and on the other, groups of hackers attacking countries. This trend becomes even more concerning following the reports of the deaths of three workers at a nuclear reactor in South Korea, after it became the target of a targeted cyber-attack, evidently by North Korean entities.
  • This past year was rife with campaigns by anti-Israel hacktivist campaigns, whose motivation for attacking Israel’s cyber networks was especially strong. Again, it was clearly demonstrated that the relationship between physical and virtual space is particularly strong, when alongside Operation Protective Edge (July-August 2014), we witnessed a targeted cyber campaign by hacktivist organizations from throughout the Muslim world (but not only) and by cyber terror groups, which in some cases were able to score significant successes. We believe that in 2015, attacks by hacktivist groups will become higher quality (DDoS attacks at high bandwidth, for example) and the use of vectors, which to date have been less common, such as attacks against mobile devices, will become increasingly frequent.
  • Involvement of the internal factor in cyber-attacks: According to some speculations published recently in the global media regarding the massive Sony breach, former company employees  may have abused their positions and status to steal confidential information and try to harm the organization. This underscores the importance of information security and internal compartmentalization in organizations with databases containing sensitive information.

The Past Year on the Russian Underground

In 2014, we saw active underground trading of malware and exploits, with some of them being used in attacks inside and outside Russia that gained widespread media coverage in sources dealing with information security.

The following is a list of categories of malware and the main services offered for sale in 2014 on the Russian-speaking underground forums. Note that in this analysis, we only included important tools that were well-received by the buyers, which indicates their reliability and level of professionalism. Additionally, only tools that were sold for over a month were included. Let us also note that the analysis does not include special PoS firmware, but only programs designed to facilitate remote information theft through takeover of the terminal.

Malware_Russian Underground

Prices

The average price of a tool offered for sale in 2014 was $1,500. Since 2013, the average price has increased by $500. The following graph lists the average price in each of the categories outlined above (in USD):

Average_Price_by_Category

Key Trends Observed on the Russian Underground this Past Year

Trojan Horses for the Financial Sector

Malware designed to target financial institutions is a highly sought-after product on the Russian underground, and this past year we observed the development of malware based on Kronos source code – Zeus, Chthonic (called Udacha by the seller) and Dyre malware. Additionally, the sale of tools designed to sell login details for banking sites via mobile devices were also observed.

In this context, it should be noted that the modular structure of many types of financial malware allows flexibility by both the seller and the buyer. Most financial malware is sold in this format – meaning, various modules responsible for the malware’s activity can be purchased separately: Formgrabber module, Web-Injections module and more.

MitM Attacks

This type of attack vector, known to cyber criminals as Web injections, is most common as a module in Trojan horses for the financial sector. Members of many forums offer their services as injection writers, referring to creation of malware designed to be integrated into a specific banking Trojan horse (generally based on Zeus), tailored to the specific bank, which imitates the design of its windows, etc. In 2014, we saw this field prosper, with at least seven similar services offered on the various forums.

Ransomware

This year we witnessed a not insignificant amount of ransomware for sale on Russian-speaking forums. It would appear that the forums see a strong potential for profit through this attack vector and therefore invest in the development of ransomware. Furthermore, note that some of the ransomware uses the Tor network to better conceal the command and control servers. Since CryptoLocker was discovered in September 2013, we have seen numerous attempts at developing similar malware both for PCs and laptops.

Additional trends and insights are detailed in the full report.

Understanding the Cyber Intelligence Ecosystem

Technology Evolution

The intelligence world has undergone dramatic change in recent years. The growth in traffic, online platforms, applications, devices and users has made the intelligence gathering process much more complex and challenging.

Today, each individual makes multiple simultaneous online appearances. We operate social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter (in Russia there is VK and Odnoklassniki and in China RenRen and QZone). We are also active on professional networks, such as LinkedIn. We participate in discussion groups and forums. We share pictures and videos via dedicated websites, and we process transactions by way of ecommerce sites, etc. This makes it much harder today to track the online footsteps of an individual and connect the dots between his diverse online representations, especially if he uses multiple aliases and email addresses.

Man versus Machine

In today’s virtual world, web-crawlers and automated collection tools have limitations. Don’t get me wrong – they are very important and we are dependent on automated tools in our daily work, but in some areas they simply cannot compete with a human analyst.

I will give you an example – in order to access a particular Russian closed hacking forum, you must write 100 posts, receive a recommendation from the administrator of the forum and finally, pay 50 dollars in Bitcoin. Such a task cannot be accomplished by a crawler or an automated tool. You must have an analyst that understands the relevant ecosystem and who is also familiar with the specific slang or lingo of the forum members. You must know that “Kaptoxa” (“Potato” in Russian) on a deep-web hacking forum does not really mean “Potato”, but rather refers to the BlackPOS – a Point-of-Sale (POS) malware used in the Target attack at the end of last year.

BlackPOS is offered for sale on a Russian closed hacking forum (February 2013)
BlackPOS is offered for sale on a Russian closed hacking forum (February 2013)

Cyber Activity Areas

If we take a look at the threat actors in the world of cyber security, we can roughly divide them into four categories: hacktivists (such as Anonymous-affiliated groups around the world); cyber terrorists (for example, the cyber unit of Hezbollah, and lately we have seen clear indications of al-Qaeda (AQ) attempts to develop a cyber unit within their organization).

Collaboration between Al-Qaeda and Tunisian hackers
Collaboration between Al-Qaeda and Tunisian hackers

A third category is cyber criminals (we have recently heard about cybercrime activities organized by groups in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, China and Latin America). The final category is governments, or state-sponsored groups (such as the Chinese PLA Unit 61398, also known as APT1, or the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, an Iranian hacker group that launched “Operation Ababil” two years ago against the American financial sector).

Today, it is clear that every industry or sector is a potential target for cyber attack, or, as the Director of the FBI said two years ago, “There are only two types of companies: those that have been hacked and those that will be.”

And indeed, we are witnessing attacks on media organizations, public records (and in recent months attacks against healthcare services, mainly for the purpose of extortion), academic institutions, banks, the energy sector, and, of course, government agencies.

These diverse threat actors use the Internet to chat, plan their attacks, publish target lists, and even upload and share attack tools. But where can we find them? They have different online platforms.

Unlike APT campaigns that have almost no online footprint, the strength of hacktivism is its capability to recruit large masses for its operations, using social networks. In recent hacktivist campaigns we have identified Facebook as a “Command and Control” (C&C) platform for the attackers, where they plan the operation, publish a target list and share attack tools.

OpFIFA 2014 Campaign
OpFIFA 2014 Campaign

Cyber terrorists are mostly active on closed, dedicated forums where you must login with a username and password after receiving admin approval. We have experience with such forums in Arabic, Persian and even Turkish.

Cyber criminals, on the other hand, can be found on Darknet platforms, where you need to use a special browser to gain access. They can also be found on password-protected forums that sometimes require an entrance fee, payable in Bitcoin or other crypto-currencies. On these platforms we can find sophisticated attack tools for sale, pieces of advanced code, zero-day exploits, stolen data dumps and more.

Silk Road - the infamous online market on Darknet
Silk Road – the infamous online market on Darknet

Regarding governments or state-sponsored groups, I do not believe that they chat online, and generally speaking they do not leave footprints on the Web. However, we occasionally uncover activities by nation-state actors, such as the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) or Iranian-affiliated groups.

I would like to argue that in today’s world we must use traditional methods of intelligence gathering, specifically operating covert agents, or virtual spies, throughout the Web – in closed discussion rooms, on secret Facebook pages, in the deep-web and Darknet platforms – in order to obtain quality, relevant and real-time intelligence.

Cyber Threats to Oil and Gas Industry

Recent years have witnessed an increase in the number of cyber attacks against the energy sector. This sector’s main vulnerability is its reliance on ICS/SCADA systems, which have been causing serious concern for the security community for the past years.

The Oil and Gas Industry is considered privileged targets for different adversaries such as nation-state actors, cyber terrorists, hacktivists and even cyber criminals that sell stolen sensitive data in the underground market. In 2012, for example, energy companies were targeted in 41% of the malware-attack cases reported to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And, vulnerabilities in this industry have skyrocketed 600% since 2010, according to data reported in an NSS Labs’ Vulnerability Threat Report.

Here are some examples of significant attacks pertaining to the energy sector:

State-Sponsored

In August 2012, Saudi Aramco was hit by a computer virus that wiped data from 30,000 computers. Although the attack did not have an impact on the oil production, it disrupted Saudi Aramco’s internal communications. The virus, termed ‘Shamoon’, was inserted to the company’s network via a USB stick. The US government has blamed Iran for the attack, and the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that it was “probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date”.

Hacktivism

On June 20, 2013, the hacktivist collective Anonymous launched a cyber operation dubbed #OpPetrol planned to target various oil companies around the world. The operation was not a success, but it emphasized the fact that the oil and gas industry represents an attractive target for attackers with different agendas and motivations, including sabotage, cyber espionage, financial, political, and more.

OpPetrol_2

Terrorist Groups

In Tunisia the hacker group Tunisian Cyber Army (TCA) is joining forces with the Electronic Army of al-Qaeda (AQEA). The groups had already carried out cyber attacks against Western targets and they definitely pose an emerging threat in the cyber domain.

Conclusion

We believe that the threat to the Oil and Gas industry will grow in the near future, as the hunt for vulnerabilities in SCADA systems has increased. A couple of weeks ago it was reported that Kaspersky experts discovered a java version of Icefog espionage campaign that targeted at least three US oil and gas companies. According to Symantec, the energy sector was the second most targeted vertical in the last six months of 2012, with only the government/public sector exceeding it with 25.4 percent of all attacks. With millions of threats of varying complexity experienced by the industry on weekly basis, it is not surprising that by 2018 the oil and gas industry will be spending up to $1.87 billion on cyber security.