Attacks/Breaches

10/10/2018
05:19 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

New Threat Group Conducts Malwareless Cyber Espionage

Gallmaker group is relying exclusively on legitimate tools and living-off-the-land tactics to make detection very difficult.

Cybercriminals seeking to avoid detection by antimalware defenses have increasingly begun using legitimate hacking tools and tactics — in addition to their own malware — to break into enterprise networks and literally hide in plain sight. Now a new and likely state-sponsored threat group has emerged that isn't using any custom malware at all.

Instead, the group is exclusively relying on publicly available hacking tools and living-off-the-land tactics to conduct an especially stealthy and hard-to-detect cyber espionage campaign.

Symantec, which was the first to spot the group, has named it Gallmaker. In a report this week, the security vendor described Gallmaker as targeting government and military organizations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The group's targets have included several overseas embassies of a country in Eastern Europe, and also a defense contractor in the Middle East.

Gallmaker's targeting and its use of political- and diplomatic-themed lure documents to gather information from victims suggests it is an espionage-motivated group says Jon DiMaggio, senior threat intelligence analyst at Symantec.

"The type of targets seen in the attacks really fit that of what an espionage group would be interested in," DiMaggio says. "If simply for financial gain, it would be odd [for Gallmaker] to restrict targets to diplomatic, military, and defense personnel."

Gallmaker appears to have started operations in December 2017 and its most recently observed campaign was in June 2018. What makes the group interesting is the fact that it does not use malware at all in carrying out operations. Rather, Gallmaker exclusively has been using only tools and protocols that many organizations use for benign purposes, such as for penetration testing and for data archiving and compression.

"Gallmaker takes advantage of legitimate protocols and uses them in a manner that they were not designed for," DiMaggio says.

The group's modus operandi has been to send Office lure documents to individuals at targeted organizations which when opened give the attackers a way to remotely execute commands in the victim system's memory using Microsoft's Office Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) protocol.

Once on a system, the attackers have then been executing various tools in memory on the victim system, making their activities hard to spot and to stop.

DDE is a protocol that enables messages to be sent between Microsoft apps that share data, such as between Word and Excel. Microsoft issued an update last December that disabled DDE by default after several malicious campaigns in which attackers executed malicious code on systems via Word and Excel. The victims of the Gallmaker campaign do not appear to have installed the patch and are therefore still vulnerable to attack via DDE, Symantec said in its report.

Gallmaker has been using DDE "to effectively run Rex Powershell scripts, which then allow the attacker to make a reverse TCP shell connection via the publicly available Metaspolit pen test tool," DiMaggio says.

Once the attackers have gained remote control of a system, they have been downloading a legitimate WinZip console for packing and compressing data of interest for exfiltration, he notes. The command-and-control servers used by Gallmaker have all been IP addresses and not domain names.

One reason such activity can be hard to spot is because it can appear very much like legitimate processes. Rex Powershell for instance is a library that is designed to interact with the Metasploit penetration testing suite, DiMaggio says. Metasploit is the go-to tool for legitimate pen testers and its presence on a network may not always been seen as a sign of malicious activity. Similarly, WinZip is a legitimate archive and file compression tool that is commonly found in many organizations.

In fact, the only way that Symantec itself discovered Gallmaker's activity was when one of the company's security tools identified the execution of DDE followed by Powershell commands at a customer site. Symantec's investigation of the activity quickly revealed that it was not legitimate, DiMaggio says.

"Living off the land is definitely on the rise as a tactic," he says. Cybercriminals are adopting the tactic to make it harder for defenders to identify and mitigate their malicious activity. "Often this activity will blend in with legitimate operational activity conducted by administrators," he says.

The trend highlights the need for a multi-tiered defensive strategy that combines the use of firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, and endpoint protection tools. Enterprises also need to make sure to monitor and restrict the use of administrative tools on their networks, he adds.

Threat intelligence sharing can help enable better defenses as well, says Neil Jenkins, chief analytic officer at the Cyber Threat Alliance (CTA), a group of about 20 security vendors committed to sharing threat data with each other. Symantec, which is a member of CTA, for instance, shared indicators of compromise and other Gallmaker-related data with other members of the group before releasing the data publicly.

Such sharing can give security vendors access to a broader set of data than that to which they normally have access, thereby enabling better defenses, Jenkins says.

"Our members acknowledge that they cannot see the full picture when it comes to cybersecurity and that it takes a community approach," he says. "Sharing information enables our members to see the big picture and then compete on the effectiveness on how they use this information."

Related Content:

 

 

Black Hat Europe returns to London Dec 3-6 2018  with hands-on technical Trainings, cutting-edge Briefings, Arsenal open-source tool demonstrations, top-tier security solutions and service providers in the Business Hall. Click for information on the conference and to register.

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Valentine's Emails Laced with Gandcrab Ransomware
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  2/14/2019
High Stress Levels Impacting CISOs Physically, Mentally
Jai Vijayan, Freelance writer,  2/14/2019
Mozilla, Internet Society and Others Pressure Retailers to Demand Secure IoT Products
Curtis Franklin Jr., Senior Editor at Dark Reading,  2/14/2019
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
5 Emerging Cyber Threats to Watch for in 2019
Online attackers are constantly developing new, innovative ways to break into the enterprise. This Dark Reading Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at five emerging attack trends and exploits your security team should look out for, along with helpful recommendations on how you can prevent your organization from falling victim.
Flash Poll
How Enterprises Are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How Enterprises Are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
Data breach fears and the need to comply with regulations such as GDPR are two major drivers increased spending on security products and technologies. But other factors are contributing to the trend as well. Find out more about how enterprises are attacking the cybersecurity problem by reading our report today.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-7629
PUBLISHED: 2019-02-18
Stack-based buffer overflow in the strip_vt102_codes function in TinTin++ 2.01.6 and WinTin++ 2.01.6 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code by sending a long message to the client.
CVE-2019-8919
PUBLISHED: 2019-02-18
The seadroid (aka Seafile Android Client) application through 2.2.13 for Android always uses the same Initialization Vector (IV) with Cipher Block Chaining (CBC) Mode to encrypt private data, making it easier to conduct chosen-plaintext attacks or dictionary attacks.
CVE-2019-8917
PUBLISHED: 2019-02-18
SolarWinds Orion NPM before 12.4 suffers from a SYSTEM remote code execution vulnerability in the OrionModuleEngine service. This service establishes a NetTcpBinding endpoint that allows remote, unauthenticated clients to connect and call publicly exposed methods. The InvokeActionMethod method may b...
CVE-2019-8908
PUBLISHED: 2019-02-18
An issue was discovered in WTCMS 1.0. It allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary PHP code by going to the "Setting -> Mailbox configuration -> Registration email template" screen, and uploading an image file, as demonstrated by a .php filename and the "Content-Type: image/g...
CVE-2019-8909
PUBLISHED: 2019-02-18
An issue was discovered in WTCMS 1.0. It allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service (resource consumption) via crafted dimensions for the verification code image.