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9/3/2013
04:18 PM
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Chinese Cyberspies Enlist Java Exploit

A nearly decade-old cyberespionage program out of China that was outed earlier this summer shifts gears with new attack methods

The so-called NetTraveler targeted attack campaign discovered earlier this year by Kaspersky Lab is now employing an exploit that takes advantage of a just-patched Java bug, and is also adopting the increasingly popular waterholing technique to infect targets.

NetTraveler, a.k.a. Red Star, Travnet, and Netfile, is a less sophisticated but persistent attack campaign with uncanny longevity: For nearly 10 years, it has targeted hundreds of victims in 40 different countries across governments, embassies, oil and gas, military contractors, activists, and universities. The APT group is made up of some 50 members and has traditionally employed patched Office exploits -- namely CVE-2012-0158.

"All APT crews seem to be slowly moving away from worn-out exploit variations abusing CVE-2012-0158, or the Office vulnerabilities. The decreasing effectiveness of these exploits pushed NetTraveler into using a new exploit," says Kurt Baumgartner, senior security researcher for the Americas on the Global Research and Analysis Team at Kaspersky Lab, in an email interview.

The Java Runtime Environment flaw in Java versions 5, 6, and 7 was patched by Oracle in June. Kaspersky Lab researchers saw an exploit for the flaw included in several spearphishing emails sent to Uyghur activists.

NetTraveler also has hacked Uyghur websites and planted malware in so-called "waterholing" attacks in hopes of snaring more victims quickly. Among the sites that appear to have been rigged with malware was the Islamic Association of Eastern Turkistan website, according to Kaspersky Lab.

Baumgartner says Kaspersky Lab only saw the attacks on Uyghur activists, but there could be other attacks it has not seen.

"Not only has the NetTraveler crew spearphished Uyghur activists with Java exploits, but to ensure infiltration of their victim resources, they compromised Uyghur websites and used them to attack activists and other visitors with Java exploits," he says.

[Nearly decade-old attack also has links to other APT groups, infrastructure. See 'NetTraveler' Cyberespionage Campaign Uncovered .]

Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab's global research and analysis team, says the attack group took offline the command-and-control (C&C) servers that Kaspersky outed back in June and moved those operations to new servers in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. "However, they also continued the attacks unhindered, just like the current case shows it," Raiu said in a blog post today describing the newest moves by the group.

It's likely that the group will continue to add newer exploits in its targeted attacks, he wrote.

The group isn't known for employing zero-day attacks, and traditionally has relied on tried-and-true methods of attack. Regular patching, application whitelisting, and attack-mitigation techniques are the best defense, according to security experts.

"The group does not seem to be actively developing 0-day themselves, and heavily relies on the same techniques and ready-made kits to attack multiple victims," Kaspersky's Baumgartner says. "There is not much offensive variety or technical skill set depth here."

Kaspersky Lab in June announced that it had discovered more than 22 gigabytes of stolen data on 30 NetTraveler C&C servers -- everything from file system listings, key logs, PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, and Word documents. NetTraveler also has the capability to target computer-aided design files. Among the intelligence topics the group has targeted are space exploration, nanotechnology, energy production, nuclear power, laser technology, medicine, and communications.

Raui's full post on the new NetTraveler developments -- including screenshots and code samples -- is here.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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