Cybercriminal By Day, Cyber Spy By Night?

New research shows a link between espionage malware and Black Hat SEO -- and with the RSA attackers

RSA CONFERENCE 2012 -- San Francisco, Calif. -- New research appears to raise questions over the conventional wisdom that pure nation-state cyberspies rarely, if ever, dabble in traditional financial cybercrime. Dell SecureWorks here yesterday shared details of a complex study it conducted of two families of espionage malware that have infected government ministry computers in Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar, Europe, as well as an embassy in China.

Joe Stewart, director of malware research for the SecureWorks counter threat unit research team, and his team dug into the domains shared by these malware families, which appear to have been registered by an individual whose physical address they traced to a P.O. box in the fictional location of "Sin Digoo," Calif.

The domains were registered under the names of "Tawyna Grilth" and "Eric Charles" with a specific Hotmail address during 2004 and 2011. Malware samples using the Tawyna Grilth domains are tied to advanced persistent threat (APT) activity, according to SecureWorks. But the researchers also found that "Tawnya's" domain hosted a Black Hat search engine optimization service.

"I can't see the same person as a spy by night and an SEO [attacker] by day. But could the two worlds combine?" Stewart says.

Stewart says given that they found it was the same person who registered these domains over the years, he or she could possibly have been freelancing for a nation-state organization or dabbling in Black Hat SEO on the side. But there was, indeed, a connection.

"He's got domains used for espionage. That's not to say he's the one hacking into those governments and companies. But he seems to have registered those domains," Stewart says. The researchers found that the attacker had also written an attack tool, but can't prove whether he's using it or providing it to others.

Just how the cyberespionage and Black Hat SEO activities are related is unclear, he says. "We can only speculate from there," Stewart says.

There's also the possibility that it was a phony trail aimed at obfuscating the real attacker, he adds.

What was even more interesting, Stewart says, is that the attacks were targeting ministries and companies in Southeast Asia. Around 95 percent of the traffic on one of the malicious domains was traced to Vietnam. "Vietnam, in particular, is not something we have seen as a major target in the past," Stewart says.

The IPs that were infected were not only government ministries there, but oil exploration companies and a law firm. In Europe, a nuclear safety agency was infected with the cyberespionage malware, and an embassy in China as well. SecureWorks contacted the local CERTs in those regions to alert the victim organizations.

Meanwhile, SecureWorks also detailed in its Sin Digoo report a connection with the malware to the targeted attack on RSA that exposed its SecurID servers last year. Stewart says he found circumstantial evidence that there's a link: The attackers who hit RSA shared the same infrastructure as that of the malware used in the Sin Digoo attacks.

"Somebody [with Sin Digoo] knows somebody involved with the RSA [attack]," he says. "It's too much of a coincidence that they were hosted on the same network."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights