05:30 PM

'Chafer' Uses Open Source Tools to Target Iran's Enemies

Symantec details operations of Iranian hacking group mainly attacking air transportation targets in the Middle East.

Iran's hacking activity has increased against targets in its geographical neighborhood and one group has taken aim at commercial air travel and transport in the region.

Symantec says the group, which it calls Chafer, has increased both its level of activity and the number of tools used against organizations in the Middle East.

Chafer is not a new group: Reports of its activities go back more than two years. And according to Symantec, in addition to air travel, Chafer's hit list includes airlines, aircraft services, software and IT services companies serving the air and sea transport sectors, telecom services, payroll services, engineering consultancies, and document management software.

Vikram Thakur, technical director and a lead researcher at Symantec, says that Chafer thus far has been engaged in intelligence-gathering activities rather than any activity that could be seen as directly disruptive. "Chafer is looking for information on how the airlines work; what things cost, the process, how to acquire things. We don’t have any insight on precisely what they want," Thakur says, emphasizing that there are many different uses for the kind of information harvested by the group.

Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike, says that the motivation behind the information-gathering may not be economic. "The thing that you need to keep in mind is that regionally there have been a lot of issues around air traffic, for example some of the kerfuffle between the UAE and Qatari aircraft," he explains. "So understanding who's traveling where is important."

Equally important is understanding the tools Chafer (which Crowdstrike calls Helix Kitten, and others call Oil Rig) is now using for its attacks. "Malware authors and attackers are making much higher use of open source and multi-purpose tools," Thakur says, including several that companies could find themselves using as part of their legitimate network and application delivery infrastructures.

According to the Symantec's research, among the new tools Chafer uses are:

  • Remcom: An open-source alternative to PsExec, which is a Microsoft Sysinternals tool used for executing processes on other systems.
  • Non-sucking Service Manager (NSSM): An open-source alternative to the Windows Service Manager which can be used to install and remove services and will restart services if they crash.
  • GNU HTTPTunnel: An open-source tool that can create a bidirectional HTTP tunnel on Linux computers, potentially allowing communication beyond a restrictive firewall.
  • UltraVNC: An open-source remote administration tool for Microsoft Windows.
  • NBTScan: A free tool for scanning IP networks for NetBIOS name information.

These are in addition to other open source tools, such as Pwdump and Plink, that the group has been using for some time.

"Companies should be looking at these tools on a case-by-case basis to see if they're being used by their administrators or have been put in place by hackers," Thakur says. "They need to look at their own network to see if [these tools are] out there."

Chafer's most recent attacks are based on spear-phishing techniques that entice victims to open an Excel spreadsheet with a malicious VBS file which runs a PowerShell script. Once opened, the script installs several data-gathering applications and begins the process of spreading laterally through the network. The attack makes use of the helminth malware that has been used, and continues to be developed, by Chafer and related groups.

While Chafer so far has limited its attention to targets in the Middle East, those limits are based on organizational limits, not technical walls. "There's no technological barrier that they can't cross to expand their target list. It's very doable," Takur says. "If you compare their activity today versus three years ago, they've already expanded their mandate. We feel that, with a little time, they could easily expand out of the Middle East."

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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