Hidden Cobra, a threat group that the US government previously has linked to North Korea, appears to have turned its sights on financial institutions in Turkey.
Security vendor McAfee Thursday reported finding malware associated with the group surfacing on systems belonging to three large financial organizations and at least two major government-controlled entities involved in finance and trade in Turkey.
The malware, dubbed Bankshot, was last seen in 2017 and is designed to persist on compromised systems for further exploits. Its presence on the systems in Turkey suggests the Hidden Cobra operation is intended to gather specific information that can be used to launch more damaging attacks later, McAfee said.
"While we can't definitively establish motivations, it's likely these attacks are part of an ongoing effort on the part of the attackers to compromise major financial institutions," says Ryan Sherstobitoff, McAfee's senior analyst of major campaigns. The goal could be to "surveil their operations, establish functions of their processes, and ultimately compromise funds," he says.
Hidden Cobra, also referred to as the Lazarus Group and Guardians of Peace, is believed responsible for the attacks on the SWIFT financial network in 2016 that resulted in over $80 million being looted from the Bangladesh Bank. It has also been linked to numerous other attacks on media, aerospace, and critical infrastructure organizations in recent years.
The FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security have described the group as being sponsored by the North Korean government and having a wide array of attack tools at its disposal, including distributed denial-of-service botnets, wiper malware, and remote access Trojans. Tools associated with the group include Destover, a wiper malware used in the 2014 attacks on Sony Pictures, and Hangman, a malware used in targeted attacks.
Bankshot, the group's tool of choice in the Turkey campaign, was previously used in a major Korean bank attack and has been seen on documents purportedly from banks in Latin America.
McAfee's investigation shows that the Bankshot implants that Hidden Cobra is using in its campaign against Turkish financial institutions were distributed via sophisticated phishing emails. The emails have contained a malicious Word document with an embedded exploit for a recently disclosed Adobe Flash vulnerability.
The exploit basically allows an attacker to execute arbitrary code — Bankshot, in this case — on compromised systems. Available telemetry shows that that first infections in Turkey happened around March 2 and March 3, McAfee said.
Sherstobitoff says this is the first time McAfee has observed Hidden Cobra deploying Bankshot in Turkey. It is also the first time that McAfee has seen an entire country's financial system being targeted so systematically.
"Bankshot is a fully capable implant which grants attackers full capability on a victim's system. It is possible the attackers are in an early data-gathering stage for future heists," he says. In addition to stealing data, Bankshot also has a function to wipe files that can be remotely executed to erase evidence he says.
North Korea threat actors have been linked to a recent string of attacks — including numerous cryptocurrency mining campaigns and ransomware campaigns such as WannaCry. Many believe the campaigns are state sponsored and are likely designed to raise money for a government under increasing economic pressure from sanctions.
There are some, though, who believe that at least some of the attacks have involved false-flag campaigns. The most notable example is an attack on networks and servers during the opening of the Winter Olympics in South Korea that originally appeared to be the handiwork of North Korea but which many believe actually originated in Russia.
According to Sherstobitoff, however, there appears to be little doubt about who is behind the campaign in Turkey. "McAfee takes attribution very seriously. As such, McAfee Advanced Threat Research analysis and conclusions are based on multiple indicators," he says.
While 100% attribution is always going to be hard, the code and target similarities between the malicious files uncovered in this campaign and earlier attacks publicly attributed to Hidden Cobra are strong indicators of North Korean involvement, he says.
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