4/10/2017
03:30 PM
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CIA-Linked Hacking Tools Tied to Longhorn Cyber Espionage Group

Symantec matches tools exposed in Vault 7 documents leak reportedly from the CIA with those used by cyber espionage group that has been targeting governments and private businesses.



Researchers at Symantec have established a connection between the Vault 7 documents released by WikiLeaks and a cyberespionage group with a multi-year history of targeting governments and private companies. WikiLeaks says the tools in Vault 7 are from the CIA.

Symantec has been watching this group, nicknamed Longhorn, since 2014. The group has been active since at least 2011, with evidence of activity dating back to 2007.

In that time, it has used a range of methods, from backdoor Trojans to zero-day vulnerabilities, to compromise 40 targets in at least 16 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Researchers discovered one attack hit a computer in the US, but an uninstaller was immediately launched following the event -- a sign it was unintentional.

While Symantec didn't explicitly say Longhorn is the CIA, it concluded the group's tools bear similarities to those in the Vault 7 documents.

"Given the close similarities between the tools and techniques, there can be little doubt that Longhorn's activities and the Vault 7 documents are the work of the same group," the company wrote in a blog post.

For example, Vault 7 contains notes and feature release dates for a piece of malware called Fluxwire. The timeline is similar to Corentry, a Longhorn tool tracked by Symantec. According to samples obtained by Symantec, Corentry was consistently updated with new features on the same dates, or several days after, the dates listed in Vault 7.

"That's the biggest piece of evidence," says Eric Chien, director of Symantec Security Response, of the matching timelines. "It's sort of hard to argue with."

Another similarity was found between Vault 7 document Fire and Forget, a specification for installing malware modules through a tool called ArchAngel. The specification and interface used to load modules closely match a Longhorn tool called Plexor.

A third Vault 7 document includes cryptographic protocols for other malware tools, including the use of cryptography within SSL to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, use of AES with a 32-bit key, and key exchange once per connections. All of these requirements are similar to cryptographic rules found in Longhorn.

Chien says the malware attack tools were built to spy on other countries. "Look at them as all-purpose backdoors," he says. "They can do anything on a machine that they would want with it."

The attacks have affected organizations in the energy, financial, telecom, aerospace, education, information technology, natural resources, and education industries. There is no trend indicating one type of industry is at greater risk, but they all have a common similarity.

"We're not seeing anything like financial attackers transferring money. Everything looks to be very espionage-related and state-espionage related," Chien says.

The activity recorded here is different from that exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, he continues. NSA aimed to gain access to infrastructure; for example, by compromising mail servers or DNS servers.

Longhorn's toolsets are designed differently. They use "human assets," or commissioned insiders, to launch attacks within an organization. Chien cites the example of a VLC multimedia application modified to accept commands and seek documents. The application would be given to an insider who would enter the business and launch the app so the hackers could seek documents of interest.

"They wouldn't use it unknowingly," he notes. "It was designed to give to someone who knew something was going on," but didn't know what was happening behind the scenes.

Following the Vault 7 leak, Chien says it's unlikely these specific tools will be deployed again by the cyber espionage group. He says the group will revamp their toolsets and come back.

Chien emphasizes that for businesses, this is "not just another threat." Businesses need to understand the dangers, revisit their threat models, and implement a comprehensive incident response procedure for such advanced attacks.

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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

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