A new campaign of exploits and malware has hit Pakistan's Air Force, and it shows signs of being the work of a sophisticated state-sponsored actor in the Middle East. It also has implications for governments and organizations far from Pakistan's borders, according to Cylance researchers.
The espionage campaign has been named "Operation Shaheen" in reference to the Shaheen Falcon that is the symbol of Pakistan's Air Force. According to Kevin Livelli, director of threat intelligence at Cylance and one of three authors of three bundled reports detailing the operation, Shaheen is frequently invoked in the phishing email messages used as launch vectors for the attacks.
After the email messages, though, the campaign quickly becomes highly sophisticated. The threat actor, dubbed the "White Company" by the Cylance researchers, uses an array of evasion and obfuscation techniques to hide the presence and operation of malware.
"The White Company is the first threat actor of any kind that we've encountered that targets and effectively evades no fewer than eight different antivirus products," Livelli says. Those eight products — from Sophos, ESET, Kaspersky, Bitdefender, Avira, Avast, AVG, and Quick Heal — were then turned against their owners when the malware "surrendered" to the antivirus software on a specific date. The surrender, he says, seems intended to distract, delay, and divert the target's resources after the espionage package had achieved persistence on the victim's systems.
According to Livelli, the White Company's campaign is notable not just for the sophistication of its evasion techniques, but for the many layers of obfuscation employed. As Tom Pace, senior director of consulting services at Cylance and another report author, explains, "One of the techniques is packing the malware, which is a common technique. They're packing it in five different layers, which is pretty significant." That's because with each level of packing, there's a risk of corrupting the exfiltrated data, making it unusable, he says.
"For the White Group to risk packing five times is indicative of a very good familiarity with leveraging this kind of tool, and it's something we don't really see very often," Pace says. Most threat actors might pack their malware once or even twice, but five-level packing is "... both impressive technically, and something we don't see," he adds.
Operation Shaheen is not the only White Group campaign under way, either, though Cylance hasn't yet completed the research to say who the other targets are. Even for those not currently in the group's crosshairs, though, there are reasons to be concerned by this activity.
"If you apply the traditional techniques of investigating these kinds of incidents, you would have missed most of the key takeaways here and not really understood what was going on in the campaign," Livelli says. "If [traditional techniques are] applied in another context, and you're following the tried-and-true methods, you're not going to learn the right answers."
As for what to do with that concern, both Livelli and Pace suggest a redoubling of basic efforts. "Even people that are incredibly sophisticated, with no technical limitations to their skills, are still just sending emails," Pace says.
And users can be trained to avoid those emails, he adds. "If you look at some of the titles of documents there, they are like a perfect example of things that you see in most companies' security awareness program training," he explains.
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