'Commercialized' Cyberespionage Attacks Out Of India Targeting U.S., Pakistan, China, And Others

Operation Hangover signals new franchise model in cyberespionage with cyberspying services for hire

No zero days, no confirmation of nation-state sponsorship, but a diverse cyberespionage campaign out of India for at least three or more years has been targeting multiple national-interest and industrial entities around the globe, mostly Pakistan and U.S. organizations, but also Norwegian telecom provider Telenor and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Researchers from Norman Security today released a detailed report on the so-called Operation Hangover campaign that security experts say appears to be run by an independent cyberespionage organization-for-hire organization and demonstrates the vast and potentially lucrative nature of cyberspying in the global market. Norman Security says this is the same group of actors behind the cyberespionage attacks on Pakistan recently spotted by Eset that used Indian military "secrets" as a lure, with 80 percent of the infections in Pakistan.

The group behind Operation Hangover appears to represent a new advanced persistent threat (APT) model, or at the very least one that has been publicly uncloaked and possibly implicates a commercial Indian security firm, according to security researchers. Unlike the constant and ubiquitous wave of cyberespionage attacks against U.S. interests by China, Operation Hangover has more global and for-hire characteristics, according to Norman, which says thus far it's inconclusive whether the operation is a nation-state endeavor.

"This is a model that is different from what we've seen before ... it's a lot more difficult to track," says Snorre Fagerland, principal security researcher in the malware detection team at Norman Security's Shark team. "My concern is that this shows just how commercialized this seems to have been and how lucrative it possibly is. So you get these APTs growing up everywhere."

Hangover appears to be a more "standardized" or franchised operation, with freelancers writing code and regular patterns of establishing domains and placing images on them, he says. "It's like one of the call centers of the APT," Fagerland says. "There are indications to some extent that the attack may be contracted -- it might be a service provided to somebody."

Fagerland says it's possible the organization is actually working on a global basis. The recent hacking into an Angolan dissident's computer and dropping Mac spyware that was detailed by F-Secure, for example, was the handiwork of Operation Hangover, according to Norman.

Eset security researcher Cameron Camp concurs that while the attacks appear to be originating out of India and by "private individuals," it would be "speculative" to say it's an actual nation-state operation.

At the core of the findings is whether an Indian security firm called Appin Security Group might be linked to the operation. According to Norman, Appin Security Group is mentioned by the attackers: The word "Appin" and "AppinSecurity Group" regularly appear inside the executables, and Norman also found an alleged Hangover coder's professional profile on an online employment website for freelance programmers, which says he works for the security firm.

Norman says it's unclear just what these references to Appin really mean: "Maybe someone has tried to hurt Appin by falsifying evidence to implicate them. Maybe some rogue agent within Appin Security Group is involved, or maybe there are other explanations," Norman says in its report.

But Adam Meyers, director of intelligence at CrowdStrike, which has been studying the same attacks but under the moniker of Viceroy Tiger, says it's no accident Appin's name is implicated in the attacks. "I think it is highly unlikely Appin is not involved," Meyers says.

Meyers, whose company has studied the malware in the attacks, says it's unclear whether Appin is directing or just part of the operation. "But it would be extremely unlikely that they are innocent victims in this. The likelihood that they developed and were using the software is extremely high," he says.

But an Appin spokesperson reached by Dark Reading disputed any wrongdoing and said the company had initiated legal action against Norman for the report. "The truth as it stands is that Norman didn't verify anything. They don't have proof of anything," he said, noting that someone could have been attempting to smear Appin and that the report "was shocking" to the firm.

In a subsequent email, the spokesperson said: "The Appin Security Group is no manner connected or involved with the activities as sought to be implied in the alleged report. As is apparent from the alleged report itself, the same is only a marketing gimmick on the part of Norman AS."

Operation Hangover, meanwhile, targets various entities and industries -- mainly in Pakistan and some in the U.S., but also in Norway, Iran, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Jordan, Indonesia, the U.K., Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, and other countries. Aside from the obvious military- and government-type espionage, the group also has targeted the mining, telecommunications, law firms (in the U.S. as well), food and restaurants, and manufacturing industries.

The targeted attacks appear to have been created starting in September 2010 and continue today, according to Norman. Last year was the most active time frame, with more malware creation and additions in targets. Researchers say it's likely the attackers were contracted by the Indian government in some of the attacks.

[Another reminder that cyberespionage isn't all about China targeting the U.S.: Information-stealing malware campaign spreads via phishing email attachments posing as Indian military secrets. See Pakistan Hit By Targeted Attack Out Of India.]

The Tools
Meanwhile, as Eset first had noted in its report, this campaign out of India appears oddly rudimentary, with publicly available tools and basic obfuscation methods. It doesn't bother to encrypt its command-and-control communications, either. Norman pointed out that the group doesn't use zero-day vulnerabilities in its attacks, exploiting only known and fixed vulnerabilities in Java, Word documents, and Web browsers like Internet Explorer.

The attackers employ typical phishing ploys, with rigged attachments or URLs that include C++ or Visual Basic-based malware that installs downloaders, keyloggers, and data-stealing programs. "Some of the shellcode involved was quite well-made, very tight code," Norman's Fagerland says. "We documented that, in some cases, they use custom malware for their targets ... such as in the Telanor case," which is where Norman first discovered signs of Operation Hangover, he says.

There's also a worm element used in some cases to help spread within a targeted organization and designed to coexist with an information-stealer, he says.

Mobile malware may also be part of the Operation Hangover arsenal, Fagerland says, although Norman itself didn't find evidence of it. "Some of the forums posting on this indicate, they might be involved with" malware used to record background noise from calls or other information, he says.

"We think that there's more and there are aspects that have not been unmasked" yet on the hacker group's activities, he says.

Among the organizations Norman spotted as being targeted by the group: Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), Indonesia-based Bumi PLC, Austria-based Porsche Informatik, U.K.-based BlueBird Restaurant, and two U.S. law firms.

Still unclear is whether the phishing attack aimed at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was about intelligence-gathering or financial theft. "We don't know what they were looking for," Fagerland says, although a WIPO complaint appears to indicate the attackers used a suspicious domain to grab investment information, he says.

The full Norman Security report is available here for download.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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