APT33 Group Targeting Aerospace and Energy Sectors with Spear Phishing

A threat actor known as APT33 is actively targeting organizations in the aerospace and energy sectors with spear phishing campaigns.Between mid-2016 and early 2017, the suspected Iranian digital espionage group attacked a U.S. organization in the aerospace sector, a Saudi Arabian conglomerate with aviation holdings, and a South Korean company known for its business in oil refining and petrochemicals. FireEye’s threat researchers Jaqueline O’Leary, Josiah Kimble, Kelli Vanderlee, and Nalani Fraser believe APT33 targeted these organizations in an effort to advance Iran’s regional interests. As they explain in a blog post:“We assess the targeting of multiple companies with aviation-related partnerships to Saudi Arabia indicates that APT33 may possibly be looking to gain insights on Saudi Arabia’s military aviation capabilities to enhance Iran’s domestic aviation capabilities or to support Iran’s military and strategic decision making vis a vis Saudi Arabia.“We believe the targeting of the Saudi organization may have been an attempt to gain insight into regional rivals, while the targeting of South Korean companies may be due to South Korea’s recent partnerships with Iran’s petrochemical industry as well as South Korea’s relationships with Saudi petrochemical companies. Iran has expressed interest in growing their petrochemical industry and often posited this expansion in competition to Saudi petrochemical companies. APT33 may have targeted these organizations as a result of Iran’s desire to expand its own petrochemical production and improve its competitiveness within the region.”

Figure 1: Scope of APT33 Targeting. (Source: FireEye)To infiltrate its targets, APT33 sent out spear-phishing emails to organizations in the aviation sector using fake website domains designed to masquerade as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other well-known aviation and military support organizations based in Saudi Arabia and the Western world. The emails lured in the recipient with fake job postings and tricked them into clicking on a link to a malicious HTML application (.hta) file, a type of file which other attackers have leveraged to distribute ransomware. The HTA file, in turn, executed code that downloaded a customized APT33 backdoor.There are several pieces of evidence that link APT33 to the Iranian government. First, an actor operating under the handle “xman_1365_x” was at one point a community manager in the Barnamenevis Iranian programming and software engineering forum before they developed APT33’s TURNEUP backdoor. They’re also linked to the Nasr Institute, which is believed to be the Iranian government’s “cyber army.”Additionally, the threat group conducted its attacks in alliance with Iran’s regional interests, operated according to Iran’s workweek (Saturday-Wednesday), and used hacker tools that are popular in Iran.That’s not all. FireEye’s threat research team also found evidence linking APT33 to other attack campaigns:“One of the droppers used by APT33, which we refer to as DROPSHOT, has been linked to the wiper malware SHAPESHIFT. Open source research indicates SHAPESHIFT may have been used to target organizations in Saudi Arabia.”In March 2017, Kasperksy compared DROPSHOT (which they call Stonedrill) with the Shamoon 2.0 attacks. They stated in their report (PDF) that both wipers employ anti-emulation techniques and targeted organizations in Saudi Arabia.To protect against threat groups like APT33, aerospace and energy companies should familiarize their employees with some of the most common types of phishing attacks. They should also consider investing a solution that automates their detection of digital threats via continuous monitoring and change tracking.For information on how Tripwire can protect your organization operating in the energy sector, click here.

Apache flaw could be exploited to steal secrets

Security researcher Hanno Böck declared on Monday that a program called httpd, probably better known as the Apache Web Server, and officially called the Apache HTTP Server Project, can leak server memory content via a vulnerability called Optionsbleed — tracked as CVE-2017-9798. The vulnerability can allow attackers to access secret data from other customers’ hosts on the same system.
By using ‘options’ you can avoid hammering a web server with requests that are never going to work, thus avoiding frustration at your end of the connection, and saving the server from a wasted effort at the other. 
Apache servers can be configured by putting files called .htaccess into the directory tree of content that is stored on the server.
Each .htaccess file sets configuration options for the directory it’s in and all the others below it, unless their settings are overridden by another .htaccess file lower down, and so on.
The vulnerability is similar to other bugs that leak server memory, including Heartbleed, in the way that attackers can query servers and trick Apache in responding with more data than it intended. Heartbleed was exploited by hackers to steal passwords from Yahoo and other sites.
Böck says Optionsbleed is not as severe as Heartbleed because it leaks content processed by the Apache web server process only and not memory content from the underlying machine, including other applications. This means the leaked data is limited to whatever Apache is processing, which is mostly the content of web pages only available to authenticated users.
Fortunately, Apache has patched the vulnerability. According to Yann Ylavic, member of the Apache HTTP Server Project Management Committee, the risk of leaks is limited as affected configurations also see only a few bytes of data leaking. Ylavic told Threatpost that there is no indication yet of any sensitive data having been disclosed.

Equifax Breach: Setting the Record Straight

Bloomberg published a story this week citing three unnamed sources who told the publication that Equifax experienced a breach earlier this year which predated the intrusion that the big-three credit bureau announced on Sept. 7. To be clear, this earlier breach at Equifax is not a new finding and has been a matter of public record for months. Furthermore, it was first reported on this Web site in May 2017.

In my initial Sept. 7 story about the Equifax breach affecting more than 140 million Americans, I noted that this was hardly the first time Equifax or another major credit bureau has experienced a breach impacting a significant number of Americans.

On May 17, KrebsOnSecurity reported that fraudsters exploited lax security at Equifax’s TALX payroll division, which provides online payroll, HR and tax services.

That story was about how Equifax’s TALX division let customers who use the firm’s payroll management services authenticate to the service with little more than a 4-digit personal identification number (PIN).

Identity thieves who specialize in perpetrating tax refund fraud figured out that they could reset the PINs of payroll managers at various companies just by answering some multiple-guess questions — known as “knowledge-based authentication” or KBA questions — such as previous addresses and dates that past home or car loans were granted.

On Tuesday, Sept. 18, Bloomberg ran a piece with reporting from no fewer than five journalists there who relied on information provided by three anonymous sources. Those sources reportedly spoke in broad terms about an earlier breach at Equifax, and told the publication that these two incidents were thought to have been perpetrated by the same group of hackers.

The Bloomberg story did not name TALX. Only post-publication did Bloomberg reporters update the piece to include a statement from Equifax saying the breach was unrelated to the hack announced on Sept. 7, and that it had to do with a security incident involving a payroll-related service during the 2016 tax year.

I have thus far seen zero evidence that these two incidents are related. Equifax has said the unauthorized access to customers’ employee tax records (we’ll call this “the March breach” from here on) happened between April 17, 2016 and March 29, 2017.

The criminals responsible for unauthorized activity in the March breach were participating in an insidious but common form of cybercrime known as tax refund fraud, which involves filing phony tax refund requests with the IRS and state tax authorities using the personal information from identity theft victims.

My original report on the March breach was based on public breach disclosures that Equifax was required by law to file with several state attorneys general.

Because the TALX incident exposed the tax and payroll records of its customers’ employees, the victim customers were in turn required to notify their employees as well. That story referenced public breach disclosures from five companies that used TALX, including defense contractor giant Northrop Grumman; staffing firm Allegis GroupSaint-Gobain Corp.; Erickson Living; and the University of Louisville.

When asked Tuesday about previous media coverage of the March breach, Equifax pointed National Public Radio (NPR) to coverage in KrebsonSecurity.

One more thing before I move on to the analysis. For more information on why KBA is a woefully ineffective method of stopping fraudsters, see this story from 2013 about how some of the biggest vendors of these KBA questions were all hacked by criminals running an identity theft service online.

Or, check out these stories about how tax refund fraudsters used weak KBA questions to steal personal data on hundreds of thousands of taxpayers directly from the Internal Revenue Service‘s own Web site. It’s probably worth mentioning that Equifax provided those KBA questions as well.

ANALYSIS

Over the past two weeks, KrebsOnSecurity has received an unusually large number of inquiries from reporters at major publications who were seeking background interviews so that they could get up to speed on Equifax’s spotty security history (sadly, Bloomberg was not among them).

These informational interviews — in which I agree to provide context and am asked to speak mainly on background — are not unusual; I sometimes field two or three of these requests a month, and very often more when time permits. And for the most part I am always happy to help fellow journalists make sure they get the facts straight before publishing them.

But I do find it slightly disturbing that there appear to be so many reporters on the tech and security beats who apparently lack basic knowledge about what these companies do and their roles in perpetuating — not fighting — identity theft.

It seems to me that some of the world’s most influential publications have for too long given Equifax and the rest of the credit reporting industry a free pass — perhaps because of the complexities involved in succinctly explaining the issues to consumers. Indeed, I would argue the mainstream media has largely failed to hold these companies’ feet to the fire over a pattern of lax security and a complete disregard for securing the very sensitive consumer data that drives their core businesses.

To be sure, Equifax has dug themselves into a giant public relations hole, and they just keep right on digging. On Sept. 8, I published a story equating Equifax’s breach response to a dumpster fire, noting that it could hardly have been more haphazard and ill-conceived.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Since then, Equifax’s response to this incident has been even more astonishingly poor.

EQUIPHISH

On Tuesday, the official Equifax account on Twitter replied to a tweet requesting the Web address of the site that the company set up to give away its free one-year of credit monitoring service. That site is https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, but the company’s Twitter account told users to instead visit securityequifax2017[dot]com, which is currently blocked by multiple browsers as a phishing site.

equiphish

FREEZING UP

Under intense public pressure from federal lawmakers and regulators, Equifax said that for 30 days it would waive the fee it charges for placing a security freeze on one’s credit file (for more on what a security freeze entails and why you and your family should be freezing their files, please see The Equifax Breach: What You Should Know).

Unfortunately, the free freeze offer from Equifax doesn’t mean much if consumers can’t actually request one via the company’s freeze page; I have lost count of how many comments have been left here by readers over the past week complaining of being unable to load the site, let alone successfully obtain a freeze. Instead, consumers have been told to submit the requests and freeze fees in writing and to include copies of identity documents to validate the requests.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) recently introduced a measure that would force the bureaus to eliminate the freeze fees and to streamline the entire process. To my mind, that bill could not get passed soon enough.

Understand that each credit bureau has a legal right to charge up to $20 in some states to freeze a credit file, and in many states they are allowed to charge additional fees if consumers later wish to lift or temporarily thaw a freeze. This is especially rich given that credit bureaus earn roughly $1 every time a potential creditor (or identity thief) inquires about your creditworthiness, according to Avivah Litan, a fraud analyst with Gartner Inc.

In light of this, it’s difficult to view these freeze fees as anything other than a bid to discourage consumers from filing them.

The Web sites where consumers can go to file freezes at the other major bureaus — including TransUnion and Experian — have hardly fared any better since Equifax announced the breach on Sept. 7. Currently, if you attempt to freeze your credit file at TransUnion, the company’s site is relentless in trying to steer you away from a freeze and toward the company’s free “credit lock” service.

That service, called TrueIdentity, claims to allow consumers to lock or unlock their credit files for free as often as they like with the touch of a button. But readers who take the bait probably won’t notice or read the terms of service for TrueIdentity, which has the consumer agree to a class action waiver, a mandatory arbitration clause, and something called ‘targeted marketing’ from TransUnion and their myriad partners.

The agreement also states TransUnion may share the data with other companies:

“If you indicated to us when you registered, placed an order or updated your account that you were interested in receiving information about products and services provided by TransUnion Interactive and its marketing partners, or if you opted for the free membership option, your name and email address may be shared with a third party in order to present these offers to you. These entities are only allowed to use shared information for the intended purpose only and will be monitored in accordance with our security and confidentiality policies. In the event you indicate that you want to receive offers from TransUnion Interactive and its marketing partners, your information may be used to serve relevant ads to you when you visit the site and to send you targeted offers.  For the avoidance of doubt, you understand that in order to receive the free membership, you must agree to receive targeted offers.

TransUnion then encourages consumers who are persuaded to use the “free” service to subscribe to “premium” services for a monthly fee with a perpetual auto-renewal.

In short, TransUnion’s credit lock service (and a similarly named service from Experian) doesn’t prevent potential creditors from accessing your files, and these dubious services allow the credit bureaus to keep selling your credit history to lenders (or identity thieves) as they see fit.

As I wrote in a Sept. 11 Q&A about the Equifax breach, I take strong exception to the credit bureaus’ increasing use of the term “credit lock” to divert people away from freezes. Their motives for saddling consumers with even more confusing terminology are suspect, and I would not count on a credit lock to take the place of a credit freeze, regardless of what these companies claim (consider the source).

Experian’s freeze Web site has performed little better since Sept. 7. Several readers pinged KrebsOnSecurity via email and Twitter to complain that while Experian’s freeze site repeatedly returned error messages stating that the freeze did not go through, these readers’ credit cards were nonetheless charged $15 freeze fees multiple times.

If the above facts are not enough to make your blood boil, consider that Equifax and other bureaus have been lobbying lawmakers in Congress to pass legislation that would dramatically limit the ability of consumers to sue credit bureaus for sloppy security, and cap damages in related class action lawsuits to $500,000.

If ever there was an industry that deserved obsolescence or at least more regulation, it is the credit bureaus. If either of those outcomes are to become reality, it is going to take much more attentive and relentless coverage on the part of the world’s top news publications. That’s because there’s a lot at stake here for an industry that lobbies heavily (and successfully) against any new laws that may restrict their businesses.

Here’s hoping the media can get up to speed quickly on this vitally important topic, and help lead the debate over legal and regulatory changes that are sorely needed.

Tags: , , , , ,