Russia-backed crew's latest malware has discerning taste – when screening visitors to poisoned watering holes

Previously unseen nasty spotted lurking in Armenian government websites

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Russia's infamous Turla hacking crew looks to be gearing up for a new offensive, according to researchers with ESET.

The European security firm said that the fingerprints of the state-backed crew have been found all over previously unseen malware samples collected from compromised government websites in Armenia.

Data from ESET telemetry suggests that, for this campaign, only a very limited number of visitors were considered interesting by Turla's operators

Though only recently discovered, the attack may have been active for some time and appears to be highly focused. The two compromised government websites and another pair of poisoned civilian websites have been active since early 2019.

Part of the reason the attack may have gone unnoticed for so long is the discerning nature of the infections. In the watering-hole attacks, the compromised sites carefully collect information on each user and only attempt to place the malware on the systems of high-value users like government officials.

"If the visitor is deemed interesting, the C&C [command-and-control] server replies with a piece of JavaScript code that creates an IFrame," explained ESET researcher Matthieu Faou.

"Data from ESET telemetry suggests that, for this campaign, only a very limited number of visitors were considered interesting by Turla's operators."

Once the target is singled out, the infection attempt itself is rather unremarkable. The trojan is delivered as a fake Flash Player update, a common but tried-and-true method of getting malware up and running on targeted PCs.

"A fake Adobe Flash update pop-up window warning to the user is displayed in order to trick them into downloading a malicious Flash installer," said Faou.

"The compromise attempt relies solely on this social engineering trick."

While a small, localised attack against an Eastern European government isn't particularly earth-shattering news, given Turla's history and reputation, it could be a sign of larger operations to come. The group has in the past targeted bigger fish, such as the US and Czech Republic, with similar operations.

The Turla crew, believed to be connected to Russian military and intelligence operations, has been active for more than a decade, carrying out targeted malware attacks and network intrusions.

The group is particularly well-versed in social engineering and manipulation, relying mostly on tricks such as the mentioned watering-hole attacks and fake installers, rather than complex technical operations.

Indeed, last year the crew was found trying to throw investigators off its trail by disguising one of its intelligence operations as an Iranian hacking campaign. ®

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