RSA SecureID Attack Began With Excel File Rigged With Flash Zero-Day

Phishing email titled '2011 Recruitment Plan' hit RSA user inboxes, stole user credentials -- but no word on exactly what the attackers grabbed

Turns out the targeted attack that exposed RSA's SecurID technology started with one of the oldest tricks in the book: a phishing email with an infected attachment, according to new details revealed today by RSA and security analysts.

This is the first public word from RSA, which has been extremely tight-lipped about details since it went public with an announcement of what it described as an advanced persistent threat (APT)-type attack. RSA today stopped short of telling just what information or technology was taken by the attackers, however.

RSA said two different phishing emails were sent to two small groups of low-level users who received emails with the subject line "2011 Recruitment Plan." The messages came with an Excel attachment that was rigged with the newly patched Adobe Flash zero-day, which was seen in limited targeted attacks earlier this month by Adobe.

"The email was crafted well enough to trick one of the employees to retrieve it from their Junk mail folder, and open the attached excel file," said Uri River, head of new technologies, consumer identity protection at RSA, EMC's security division, in a blog post today.

The attack then installed a Poison Ivy variant for remotely controlling the infected machine "in a reverse-connect mode that makes it more difficult to detect as the PC reaches out to the command and control rather than the other way around," River blogged.

The exploit, a Trojan, stole user credentials from RSA employees, including IT staff, and eventually gained privileged access to the targeted system, according to Avivah Litan, vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner.

Security researcher Dan Kaminsky says details of the attack without information on what was lost and what it specifically means to SecurID customers is not all that helpful. "The fundamental question of, 'What can an attacker do today that he couldn't do yesterday, for what class attacker, to what class customer' has not been addressed. So as far as I'm concerned, no actionable intelligence has been disclosed," Kaminsky says. "That being said, this nasty habit of blaming the victim from a position of moral superiority has to stop. We're all in trouble, and anyone who thinks they're not potentially compromised today is fooling themselves."

RSA's River said the attacker first harvested access credentials -- user, domain admin, and service accounts. "They performed privilege escalation on non-administrative users in the targeted systems, and then moved on to gain access to key high value targets, which included process experts and IT and Non-IT specific server administrators," he blogged.

"The attacker in the RSA case established access to staging servers at key aggregation points; this was done to get ready for extraction. Then they went into the servers of interest, removed data and moved it to internal staging servers where the data was aggregated, compressed and encrypted for extraction," he said.

Password-protected RAR files were transferred via FTP from the RSA file server to an external machine that had been compromised at a hosting service provider. "The files were subsequently pulled by the attacker and removed from the external compromised host to remove any traces of the attack," he said.

Gartner's Litan says RSA said it relied on its NetWitness tools to detect the attack in real time. But the company didn't react to the attack in real time, she says. "They didn’t rely as they should have -- also on user profiling, account profiling used in conjunction with fraud detection rules, and models that run in-line with the transaction stream, which could then trigger a real-time intervention back to the user to verify the user’s legitimacy," Litan says.

RSA could have implemented a rule that would signal an alert if "User X pulls more than five records in 15 minutes," for example, Litan says. "[The alert] then automatically goes back to User X out-of-band with SMS or an automated call, [for example], and asks User X to verify the transaction ... These are the kinds of systems RSA sells to the banks."

While RSA gets kudos for alerting customers quickly about the attack, Litan says RSA should have known better and doesn't appear to be using its own fraud detection technology. "They relied on yesterday's best of breed tools to prevent and detect the attack. They gave a lot of credit to NetWitness for helping them find the attack in real time but they obviously weren't able to stop the attack in real time, which means the signals and scores weren’t high enough to cause a person to shut down the attack immediately," she wrote in her blog on the analyst call.

"RSA sells its own fraud detection systems based on user and account profiling which use statistical Beysian models to spot abnormal behavior and intervene in real time to re-authenticate users and verify the authenticity of suspect access, behavior, or transactions. They should have applied these techniques to their own internal systems. They need to stay innovative and apply the lessons learned from serving their clients to their own internal enterprise systems. They have not done that," Litan wrote.

Meanwhile, the only hint River provided about how RSA is shoring up his defenses was that the company is "making both small-term hardening moves and giant strides toward establishing a whole new defense doctrine. We’re implementing techniques that just a couple of weeks ago I thought were in the realm of long-term road maps."

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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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