The masterminds behind MiniDuke may be sponsored by the Russian Federation and have been operating since at least 2008, according to a report released today by F-Secure.
Researchers at the Finnish security firm stop short of officially assigning attribution, though. "We are unable to conclusively prove responsibility of any specific country for the Dukes. All of the available evidence however does in our opinion suggest that the group operates on behalf of the Russian Federation. Further, we are currently unaware of any evidence disproving this theory," the F-Secure report says.
Researchers deduce that "the Dukes" are state-sponsored because their activities suggest they have been stealing information and have had significant, stable financial backing over the past seven years. Over this time, the group has developed an entire portfolio of sophisticated infostealing malware (with variants), and used them concurrently or in cooperation with one another. The portfolio includes:
- PinchDuke, infostealer in operation from 2008-2010, based on Pinch credential stealer
- GeminiDuke, infostealer that mostly looks for system configuration data, in operation from 2009-2012
- CosmicDuke, infostealer that includes privilege escalation exploits, in operation since 2010
- MiniDuke, backdoor and loader, which sometimes uses Twitter for command-and-control, in operation since 2010
- CozyDuke, modular malware platform that attackers can use to adapt malware to their mission, by downloading modules from command-and-control server, in operation since 2010
- OnionDuke, modular malware platform, spread via malicious TOR exit node and torrent sites, in operation since 2013
- SeaDuke, a backdoor, spread only via CozyDuke, written in Python, in operation since 2014
- HammerDuke (AKA HammerToss, NetDuke), another backdoor spread via CozyDuke, this one written in .NET, in operation since January
- CloudDuke, a malware toolset with two backdoor variants -- one that retrieves commands from a command-and-control server, and one that uses Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage to communicate with its masters -- in operation since June.
Over the past seven years, the Dukes' work was sometimes revealed by security researchers and reported by the media, but as F-Secure points out, the Dukes did not seem particularly concerned. Instead of going underground, entirely retiring attack tools, or employing greater stealth mechanisms, the Dukes chose continued operations over stealth, according to F-Secure.
"This apparent disregard for publicity suggests, in our opinion, that the benefactors of the Dukes is so powerful and so tightly connected to the group that they are able to operate with no apparent fear of repercussions on getting caught," F-Secure says in its report. "We believe the only benefactor with the power to offer such comprehensive protection would be the government of the nation from which the group operates. We therefore believe the Dukes to work either within or directly for a government, thus ruling out the possibility of a criminal gang or another third party."
If state-sponsored, then what state? According to researchers, the targets are all of interest to Russian foreign policy, and the decoy documents used in spearphishing messages against attack targets support that.
For example, shortly after the U.S. declared its intent to establish a missile defense base in Poland, a PinchDuke campaign targeted Poland, the Czech Republich, and an American think tank, and used decoys related to NATO exercises. Leading up to -- but not after -- the Ukrainian revolution in early 2014, the decoys were largely related to Ukraine, including letters undersigned by the First Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, a letter from the embassy of the Netherlands in Ukraine to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign affairs and a document titled “Ukraine’s Search for a Regional Foreign Policy."
The authors of the malware also appeared to work primarily between the hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Moscow time.
"The research details the connections between the malware and tactics used in these attacks to what we understand to be Russian resources and interests," says Artturi Lehtiö, an F-Secure researcher. "These connections provide evidence that helps establish where the attacks originated from, what they were after, how they were executed, and what the objectives were. And all the signs point back to Russian state-sponsorship."