Who needs custom malware? 'Govt-backed' Gallmaker spy crew uses off-the-shelf wares

Likely state hackers make do with 'living off the land' and going after tardy Office patchers


A newly discovered spy gang is eschewing boutique attack tools to instead use publicly available exploits against unpatched systems.

Known as Gallmaker, the cyber-espionage group is said to be targeting the embassies of an unnamed eastern European country and military defense installations in the Middle East. According to researchers at Symantec today, the crew has been operating since December of last year, relying entirely on code scraped from the public internet. We're told the gang are "likely" to be backed by an unnamed government.

"This group eschews custom malware and uses living off the land (LotL) tactics and publicly available hack tools to carry out activities that bear all the hallmarks of a cyber espionage campaign," Symantec claimed.

"The most interesting aspect of Gallmaker’s approach is that the group doesn’t use malware in its operations. Rather, the attack activity we observed is carried out exclusively using LotL tactics and publicly available hack tools."

According to Symantec, the group feeds booby-trapped Microsoft Office documents to victims via email. These files, when opened, launch PowerShell scripts via Redmond's much decried Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) protocol. These scripts then open up connections to a remote control server, and from there, the attackers hope to siphon data from the infected machines and, in some cases, delete files to cover their tracks.

Note that these scripts exploit vulnerabilities in DDE that Microsoft patched in 2017 – so if you're up to date with your software, or better, turned off DDE support, you're all good for now. It's possible that the code could run anyway, even if you're patched, but only if a user or admin overrides the fix. In short, don't enable DDE, and don't allow users to reenable it.

old

Watch out for Microsoft Word DDE nasties: Now Freddie Mac menaced

READ MORE

Because the group appears to be targeting a specific country's embassies and a set of defense targets in the Middle East, Symantec believes the operation to be state-sponsored espionage.

"Gallmaker’s activity has been quite consistent since we started tracking it," Symantec said.

"The group has carried out attacks most months since December 2017. Its activity subsequently increased in the second quarter of 2018, with a particular spike in April 2018."

While the group is not using custom attack tools purpose built malware, researchers say that Gallmaker is in its own way a highly sophisticated operation.

By relying on publicly available tools, the group makes itself harder to detect in the wild and difficult to distinguish from "regular" cybercrime activity or even legitimate data traffic. Symantec said it only caught on to the group after noticing the suspicious PowerShell commands used to communicate with the control servers.

Researchers have been warning about the lowered barrier of entry for online espionage. Countries that were not thought to have the resources for sophisticated attacks have been able to repurpose other countries' tools or use public malware and leaked exploits for their own ends. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Symantec: More malware operators moving in to exploit Follina
    Meanwhile Microsoft still hasn't patched the fatal flaw

    While enterprises are still waiting for Microsoft to issue a fix for the critical "Follina" vulnerability in Windows, yet more malware operators are moving in to exploit it.

    Microsoft late last month acknowledged the remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability – tracked as CVE-2022-30190 – but has yet to deliver a patch for it. The company has outlined workarounds that can be used until a fix becomes available.

    In the meantime, reports of active exploits of the flaw continue to surface. Analysts with Proofpoint's Threat Insight team earlier this month tweeted about a phishing campaign, possibly aligned with a nation-state targeting US and European Union agencies, which uses Follina. The Proofpoint researchers said the malicious spam messages were sent to fewer than 10 Proofpoint product users.

    Continue reading
  • Clipminer rakes in $1.7m in crypto hijacking scam
    Crooks divert transactions to own wallets while running mining on the side

    A crew using malware that performs cryptomining and clipboard-hacking operations have made off with at least $1.7 million in stolen cryptocurrency.

    The malware, dubbed Trojan.Clipminer, leverages the compute power of compromised systems to mine for cryptocurrency as well as identify crypto-wallet addresses in clipboard text and replace it to redirect transactions, according to researchers with Symantec's Threat Intelligence Team.

    The first samples of the Windows malware appeared in January 2021 and began to accelerate in their spread the following month, the Symantec researchers wrote in a blog post this week. They also observed that there are several design similarities between Clipminer and KryptoCibule – another cryptomining trojan that, a few months before Clipminer hit the scene, was detected and written about by ESET analysts.

    Continue reading
  • Emotet malware gang re-emerges with Chrome-based credit card heistware
    Crimeware groups are re-inventing themselves

    The criminals behind the Emotet botnet – which rose to fame as a banking trojan before evolving into spamming and malware delivery – are now using it to target credit card information stored in the Chrome web browser.

    Once the data – including the user's name, the card's numbers and expiration information – is exfiltrated, the malware will send it to command-and-control (C2) servers that are different than the one that the card stealer module uses, according to researchers with cybersecurity vendor Proofpoint's Threat Insight team.

    The new card information module is the latest illustration of Emotet's Lazarus-like return. It's been more than a year since Europol and law enforcement from countries including the United States, the UK and Ukraine tore down the Emotet actors' infrastructure in January 2021 and – they hoped – put the malware threat to rest.

    Continue reading
  • Symbiote Linux malware spotted – and infections are 'very hard to detect'
    Performing live forensics on hijacked machine may not turn anything up, warn researchers

    Intezer security researcher Joakim Kennedy and the BlackBerry Threat Research and Intelligence Team have analyzed an unusual piece of Linux malware they say is unlike most seen before - it isn't a standalone executable file.

    Dubbed Symbiote, the badware instead hijacks the environment variable (LD_PRELOAD) the dynamic linker uses to load a shared object library and soon infects every single running process.

    The Intezer/BlackBerry team discovered Symbiote in November 2021, and said it appeared to have been written to target financial institutions in Latin America. Analysis of the Symbiote malware and its behavior suggest it may have been developed in Brazil. 

    Continue reading
  • Now Windows Follina zero-day exploited to infect PCs with Qbot
    Data-stealing malware also paired with Black Basta ransomware gang

    Miscreants are reportedly exploiting the recently disclosed critical Windows Follina zero-day flaw to infect PCs with Qbot, thus aggressively expanding their reach.

    The bot's operators are also working with the Black Basta gang to spread ransomware in yet another partnership in the underground world of cyber-crime, it is claimed.

    This combination of Follina exploitation and its use to extort organizations makes the malware an even larger threat for enterprises. Qbot started off as a software nasty that raided people's online bank accounts, and evolved to snoop on user keystrokes and steal sensitive information from machines. It can also deliver other malware payloads, such as backdoors and ransomware, onto infected Windows systems, and forms a remote-controllable botnet.

    Continue reading
  • Chinese-sponsored gang Gallium upgrades to sneaky PingPull RAT
    Broadens targets from telecoms to finance and government orgs

    The Gallium group, believed to be a Chinese state-sponsored team, is going on the warpath with an upgraded remote access trojan (RAT) that threat hunters say is difficult to detect.

    The deployment of this "PingPull" RAT comes as the gang is broadening the types of organizations in its sights from telecommunications companies to financial services firms and government entities across Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa, according to researchers with Palo Alto Networks' Unit 42 threat intelligence group.

    The backdoor, once in a compromised system, comes in three variants, each of which can communicate with the command-and-control (C2) system in one of three protocols: ICMP, HTTPS and raw TCP. All three PingPull variants have the same functionality, but each creates a custom string of code that it sends to the C2 server, which will use the unique string to identify the compromised system.

    Continue reading
  • EnemyBot malware adds enterprise flaws to exploit arsenal
    Fast-evolving botnet targets critical VMware, F5 BIG-IP bugs, we're told

    The botnet malware EnemyBot has added exploits to its arsenal, allowing it to infect and spread from enterprise-grade gear.

    What's worse, EnemyBot's core source code, minus its exploits, can be found on GitHub, so any miscreant can use the malware to start crafting their own outbreaks of this software nasty.

    The group behind EnemyBot is Keksec, a collection of experienced developers, also known as Nero and Freakout, that have been around since 2016 and have launched a number of Linux- and Windows-based bots capable of launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and possibly mining cryptocurrency. Securonix first wrote about EnemyBot in March.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022