Cybersecurity and intelligence firm AdvIntel, which likes to call itself "boutique," has reported about a trend it has seen happening in the ransomware arena.
Drawing on some previous work it has done on this topic, they draw the overall malware community as consisting of two orthogonally aligned crimeware approaches: artisan and commercial. They find this divide to be very prevalent in the Russian malware community.
Artisans are, according to the report, "talented individuals who can meticulously develop attack frameworks, steadily apply social engineering, and persistently lurk from the periphery to the center. These operations are similar to art, while efforts, time, and investments put into them will only be justified in case there is a powerful buyer who knows the real value of such work."
The commercials just want money with little investment on their part. But the ransomware crowd is smart enough to back with money the actors that, in turn, will make them more money.
Both groups seem to have found a sort of common ground in supply-chain attacks. Supply-chain techniques are complicated, and arise from complicated situations. Spray-and-pay techniques commonly used to disseminate ransomware by commercials may not be able to ascertain which particular target offers them the best chance of reward. And why perform a crime without a realistic chance of payout?
An artisan may know how to get a payload somewhere, but the payload has to pay off handsomely for them to see any benefit for their efforts. There is a self-interested mutual need and dynamic between the artisans and commercials in such a situation.
AdvIntel found specific examples in recent months of attempts at cooperation between the two groups. They found in September and October 2019, Russian-speaking ransomware developers and RaaS affiliate program managers talked to China-based "bc.monster" who may be currently working as an affiliate of at least two RaaS commercial groups.
They also itemize how a Russian-speaking hacker "x444x0" was also a participant of the BURAN RaaS team. The actor obtained access to a segment of a telecommunication network and began navigating through it, escalating the group's privileges, all the while trying to sell them their own access.
Of course, they also note the exceptions. They found that some prefer to accomplish the supply-chain attacks all by themselves. "amiak" a Russian-speaking ransomware collective formed in June 2015 which specializes in targeting corporations, refuses to rely on others, even though third-party attacks and other offensive operations requiring persistency are their ultimate specialization.
A supply-chain attack unites the seemingly ununitable in AdvIntel's view: massive scale-based automated dissemination of ransomware and selectively targeted attacks requiring the persistent presence and protracted recognizance. They also think the unifying trend will persist in the future.
— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.