Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Attacks/Breaches

8/21/2015
08:00 AM
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

AlienSpy RAT Resurfaces In Case Of Real-Life Political Intrigue

Mysterious death of Argentinian politician potentially tied to his phone's infection with popular remote access tool.

It's a storyline that sounds ripped right from the pages of a spy novel. An Argentinian prosecutor dies in his apartment under mysterious circumstances. The death happens the day before he's due to testify to his country's legislature—he's going to claim a cover-up by the Argentinian president of details about a bombing that happened decades ago. Just a day prior he tells a journalist he fears for his life.

And now, months after his death, cybersecurity researchers are finding details falling into place that show his phone was completely owned by a unique version of the AlienSpy remote access tool (RAT). The circumstances around the infection of Alberto Nisman's Motorola phone were sussed out by Morgan Marquis-Boire, the director of security at First Look Media, who at Black Hat USA last month reported publicly what he found. According to researchers following up this week with further analysis of this incarnation of AlienSpy, the whole situation shows the human significance that digital attacks can have in situations like these.

"Attacks in the digital world are often a consequence of ongoing events in the real world," says Thoufique Haq, security researcher for Proofpoint, which this week released some findings from its analysis of the payload that Marquis-Boire believes sat on Nisman's phone for 6 weeks. "It is unclear whether this attack payload has any relevance to death of Alberto Nisman, but the payload analyzed nonetheless shows how the immense capability that a malware payload provides."

First brought to the forefront of the security limelight last April, AlienSpy is a more advanced refinement of previous RATs like Frutus and Adwind. In addition to keeping the core ability of completely compromising remote systems and mobile devices, AlienSpy's differentiator for attackers has been its sandbox evasion and antimalware disabling features. According to experts at Fidelis who first brought attention to AlienSpy this spring, the tool was being used to deliver the Citadel banking Trojan and to maintain persistence particularly within targeted critical infrastructure companies.

In this specific instance, Marquis-Boire discovered the connection to AlienSpy after reading an account this summer that gave the full file name of a JAR file that seemed to be the payload that infected Nisman's phone. When Marquis-Boire looked it up on VirusTotal, the search came up with only a single instance of that file. According to Proofpoint, that file itself may not have even been the intended payload for the prosecutor's phone.

"Android payloads are typically APKs (Android Application Package) or native binaries compiled for ARM processors," Haq says. "While technically possible, it is not trivial to get JAR payloads to run on an Android operation system without installing a Java emulation engine. Instead, it is more likely that the payload was intended to be loaded on a desktop environment but may have been inadvertently downloaded on the Android phone, possibly through email or another vector."

Nevertheless, it did provide a valuable breadcrumb in the analysis of this particular instance of AlienSpy, which Haq reports packaged up that JAR in an additional layer of obfuscation that's not usually seen in most AlienSpy payloads in the wild. The payload showed a considerable range of features, says Haq, explaining that they were extensible through secondary plug-ins that could be pushed down to the targeted machine. While the analysis proved a good academic exercise, it is unlikely that any researcher will be able to use it to figure out who exactly placed it on Nisman's phone. But it does stand as yet another example in the growing cadre of RATs that are used both for political and economic espionage today.

"RATs such as AlienSpy constitute powerful surveillance tools that would enable them to observe and collect information on the communications and actions of adversaries," Haq says. "As we continue to observe ‘crossover’ in the traditional targeting of state actors and cybercriminals, public and private organizations need to be on alert for phishing and other attacks designed to deliver RATs such as AlienSpy onto client systems."

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
RetiredUser
50%
50%
RetiredUser,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2016 | 7:03:14 AM
Lesson to the Wise (or Less So)
Looking back on stories like this should be a reminder to anyone who works in a field that is related to secure information, political strategy or anything that requires you to stay off the grid.  While I don't condone this victim's actions, privacy and the ability to be anonymous are important to everyone.  Know your devices, wipe them regularly, interact with only secured and validated apps, turn off Bluetooth and wireless access unless exchanging encrypted data, and etc.  Look to this story if ever you doubt what is possible and what is being done now; educate yourself in privacy. 
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 10/23/2020
7 Tips for Choosing Security Metrics That Matter
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer,  10/19/2020
Russian Military Officers Unmasked, Indicted for High-Profile Cyberattack Campaigns
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  10/19/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-24847
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
A Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) vulnerability is identified in FruityWifi through 2.4. Due to a lack of CSRF protection in page_config_adv.php, an unauthenticated attacker can lure the victim to visit his website by social engineering or another attack vector. Due to this issue, an unauthenticat...
CVE-2020-24848
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
FruityWifi through 2.4 has an unsafe Sudo configuration [(ALL : ALL) NOPASSWD: ALL]. This allows an attacker to perform a system-level (root) local privilege escalation, allowing an attacker to gain complete persistent access to the local system.
CVE-2020-5990
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
NVIDIA GeForce Experience, all versions prior to 3.20.5.70, contains a vulnerability in the ShadowPlay component which may lead to local privilege escalation, code execution, denial of service or information disclosure.
CVE-2020-25483
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
An arbitrary command execution vulnerability exists in the fopen() function of file writes of UCMS v1.4.8, where an attacker can gain access to the server.
CVE-2020-5977
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
NVIDIA GeForce Experience, all versions prior to 3.20.5.70, contains a vulnerability in NVIDIA Web Helper NodeJS Web Server in which an uncontrolled search path is used to load a node module, which may lead to code execution, denial of service, escalation of privileges, and information disclosure.