The Elderwood platform, a two-year-old package of exploits that attackers can buy off the shelf, is at the heart of several recent zero-day attacks, researchers said.
In a blog posted Friday by researchers at Symantec, several recent zero-day attacks -- including the exploits against Internet Explorer, CVE-2014-0322 and CVE-2014-0324 -- were linked together. The researchers noted that the exploits have several common features, including common shellcode, which suggests that they may have all been created via the Elderwood Platform.
The Elderwood platform, a set of exploits that have been engineered and packaged in a "consumer-friendly" way, was first discovered in 2012, but appears to have been updated with some of the latest zero-day exploits, the researchers said. This allows even non-technical attackers to use the most current exploits easily against their targets, they said.
"Initially, our research suggested that the Elderwood platform was being used by a single attack group," the blog stated. "Our latest research leads us to believe that several groups could be using this platform. The evidence suggests that either one distributor is responsible for selling the platform, or one major organization developed the exploit set for its in-house attack teams. Either scenario could shed light on how some of the biggest attack groups in action today get such early access to zero-day exploits."
Symantec has developed two theories on who might have developed the Elderwood platform, and who might be distributing it. In the first scenario, "there is a single parent organization broken into a number of subgroups," the blog said. "Each subgroup is tasked with targeting a particular industry. They each use individually developed malware families and operate their own network infrastructure. The parent organization obtains the zero-day exploits and coordinates the distribution and utilization of these exploits amongst the subgroups."
The second theory involves less organization. In this scenario, "the attack groups are separate entities with their own agendas. These groups all have contact with a single zero-day exploit supplier which delivers the exploits to the groups at the same time. The supplier may give certain groups preferential treatment, offering zero-day exploits to some attack groups a few days before others."
The Elderwood platform offers a peek at the evolving development and distribution mechanism for malware, which could be backed by organized, well-funded organizations, Symantec said. "Based on our evidence, it seems likely that someone is supplying various Internet Explorer and Adobe Flash zero-day exploits to an intermediate organization or directly to the various groups," the blog said. "This alone is a sign of the level of resources available to these attackers."