The Pawn Storm cyberespionage group -- known for showing off custom, high-end criminal tradecraft -- is using a unique Adobe Flash zero-day to attack foreign affairs ministries across the globe, according to researchers at Trend Micro.
Pawn Storm, which has been active since at least 2007, is thought to operate out of Russia -- and some researchers have suggested it is backed by the Russian government itself. In the past, the group has targeted Russian dissidents and journalists critical of Russia: personnel at the White House, the U.S. military, American embassies, and U.S. defense contractors; agencies related to member nations of NATO; and other government agencies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle-East.
The group has sophisticated tools and techniques at its disposal. This summer they were found with the first Java zero-day seen in the wild in years, and this winter it was iOS spyware that stole text messages, pictures, geolocation data and contact lists, and recorded voice conversations. They've set up fake Outlook Web Access servers to lift targets' email credentials. According to Trend Micro this week, "One Ministry of Foreign Affairs got its DNS settings for incoming mail compromised. This means that Pawn Storm has been intercepting incoming e-mail to this organization for an extended period of time in 2015."
These latest attacks are targeting a variety of foreign affairs ministries by way of spear-phishing messages with links to sites hosting the exploit. The lures all claim to be news stories related to political conflicts, including: “Suicide car bomb targets NATO troop convoy Kabul,” "Syrian troops make gains as Putin defends air strikes,” “Israel launches airstrikes on targets in Gaza,” “Russia warns of response to reported US nuke buildup in Turkey, Europe,” and “US military reports 75 US-trained rebels return Syria.”
The malware exploits CVE-2015-7645, a critical vulnerability affecting Adobe Flash versions 126.96.36.199 and earlier for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It was not patched by any of the updates released by Adobe Tuesday. Adobe issued an advisory Wednesday, saying it expected to release a patch next week. The advisory gives very few details, but states, "Successful exploitation could cause a crash and potentially allow an attacker to take control of the affected system."
“This latest vulnerability gives us an idea as to the level of sophistication of the Pawn Storm group," says Ken Westin, security analyst for Tripwire. "It is not known if the vulnerability was discovered and exploited by the group, or purchased from a third party. At this time, they have been the only group exploiting this 0-day vulnerability.”