Google TAG Warns on Emerging Heliconia Exploit Framework for RCE

The framework has ties back to a Spanish exploit broker called Variston IT, and offers a one-stop shop for compromising Chrome, Defender and Firefox.

maginfying glass over computer code revealing the word "exploit"
Source: Tiny Ivan via Alamy Stock Photo

Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG) has discovered a cyberattack framework dubbed Heliconia, built to exploit zero-day and n-day vulnerabilities in Chrome, Firefox, and Microsoft Defender. It likely has connections to a gray-market spyware broker called Variston IT, which highlights how this shadowy segment is flourishing.

The Heliconia threat consists of three modules:

  • Heliconia Noise for compromising the Chrome browser, escaping the sandbox, and installing malware;

  • Heliconia Soft, a Web framework that deploys a PDF containing a Windows Defender exploit for CVE-2021-42298 that allows privilege escalation to SYSTEM and remote code execution (RCE);

  • And the Heliconia Files package which contains a fully documented Firefox exploit chain for Windows and Linux, including CVE-2022-26485 for RCE.

TAG became aware of the threat after receiving an anonymous submission to the Chrome bug reporting program. Upon further investigation, the Heliconia framework's source code was found to contain a script that points back to Variston IT, a Barcelona-headquartered entity that claims to provide "custom security solutions."

Commercial spyware is often sold by organizations claiming to be legitimate companies, for "use by law enforcement." However, mounting evidence shows that too often, these brokers don't vet their clients, "putting advanced surveillance capabilities in the hands of governments who use them to spy on journalists, human rights activists, political opposition and dissidents," according to a TAG posting on Wednesday.

Researchers noted that Variston IT is firmly in the middle of this proliferating market — a space that has seen sanctioning by the United States and others against organizations like the infamous NSO Group, creator of the Pegasus spyware.

"The commercial surveillance industry is thriving and has expanded significantly in recent years, creating risk for Internet users around the globe," TAG researchers added. "While surveillance technology may be legal under national or international laws, they are often used in harmful ways to conduct digital espionage against a range of groups."

So far, none of the modules has been seen in current attacks in the wild, but TAG researchers noted that they've likely been deployed in the past, including using the exploits they contain as zero-days before they were fixed.

About the Author(s)

Tara Seals, Managing Editor, News, Dark Reading

Tara Seals has 20+ years of experience as a journalist, analyst and editor in the cybersecurity, communications and technology space. Prior to Dark Reading, Tara was Editor in Chief at Threatpost, and prior to that, the North American news lead for Infosecurity Magazine. She also spent 13 years working for Informa (formerly Virgo Publishing), as executive editor and editor-in-chief at publications focused on both the service provider and the enterprise arenas. A Texas native, she holds a B.A. from Columbia University, lives in Western Massachusetts with her family and is on a never-ending quest for good Mexican food in the Northeast.

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