Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Threat Intelligence

12:15 PM
Connect Directly

Malware Used In DNC Breach Found Tracking Ukraine Military

Russian 'Fancy Bear' now tied to Ukraine artillery Android app hack with the same malware used in breach of the Democratic National Committee.

Forget that 400-pound hacker sitting on his bed somewhere. Security researchers have discovered yet another link between the Russian military and the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC): this time, in an Android app used by Ukraine's military.

Security firm Crowdstrike, which previously had identified a Russian nation-state cyber espionage unit as the perpetrator behind the DNC data breach and leak of emails and other information in the run-up to the US presidential election, recently found the so-called Fancy Bear hacking team's signature spying malware embedded in an Android app originally created by a Ukrainian artillery officer to help calibrate its field artillery operation in the battle against Russian forces.

The Android version of the so-called X-Agent backdoor malware is able to track the location of Ukrainian artillery forces, and can hijack communications from the mobile devices running the malware. Crowdstrike found that X-Agent from late 2014 through 2016 had been surreptitiously injected into the legitimate app used by Ukrainian military to streamline the previously manual process of configuring their older Soviet-era D-30 Howitzer weapon systems, reducing the time to set a target from minutes to under 15 seconds. The app was available via various online forums and is used by more than 9,000 Ukrainian artillery soldiers.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and CTO of Crowdstrike, says the discovery provides "more conclusive" evidence of a connection between Fancy Bear and the GRU, Russia's military intelligence arm. "And it shows fascinating ways that Russia is using cyber to achieve an affect on the battlefield in Ukraine," he says.

A Windows version of X-Agent was used in the DNC hack, allowing the attackers to remotely control the organization's servers and to steal documents and data, such as the internal emails that were later leaked online. Crowdstrike also has seen iOS versions of the malware, all of which have been only used by Fancy Bear.

"The source code is not publicly available, and we've never seen it before in any public or private" forum, Alperovitch says, which led Crowdstrike to conclude X-Agent is the handiwork of Fancy Bear.

"We have high confidence that it's evident that whoever did the DNC hack is very closely and operationally linked to the Russian military, and most likely, the GRU," he says.

Crowdstrike's new report comes amid a dispute between the incoming administration and the CIA and FBI, which have concluded that Russia was behind the DNC and other hacks and leaks in an effort to influence the outcome of the US presidential election. President-Elect Donald Trump has repeatedly dismissed reports from the US intelligence and cybersecurity communities that Russia was behind the DNC hacks, and maintaining that it could be anyone behind the breaches, including "somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds."

Alperovitch says with the same group of hackers targeting the Ukraine artillery and the DNC, the source is obvious: "One would have to ask the question, who would have an interest in that? It inevitably comes back to the Russian government," he says.

The Cyber Battlefield

The hijacked Android app basically lets Ukrainian artillery soldiers automate the process of determining settings for the older Howitzer weaponry, such as wind speed and elevation, in order to more accurately and rapidly operate them. "It was a pen-and-paper process that took minutes [to set up] before you could fire," Alperovitch says. The app lets them plug in the coordinates, and it calculates the settings automatically.

"Russia backdoored the app with X-Agent, giving them the location of anyone using the app" and engage them militarily, he says.

According to Crowdstrike's report, publicly sourced reports show that Ukrainian artillery forces have suffered some major losses in the conflict with Russia. "Open source reporting indicates that Ukrainian artillery forces have lost over 50% of their weapons in the 2 years of conflict and over 80% of D-30 howitzers, the highest percentage of loss of any other artillery pieces in Ukraine's arsenal," the report said.

"It's interesting that cyber is now migrating this way to the battlefield," Alperovitch says, and it's a "sign of more to come."

Related Content:

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor 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 ... View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Apprentice
1/4/2017 | 1:10:00 PM
Re: CrowdStrike Conclusions from Forensics Findings
It is pointless to throw around your CISSP numbers when they cannot be verified. If you care to throw your last names out there I will verify them, but that would be illadvised. Otherwise, just keep your CISSPs in your pockets.
User Rank: Strategist
1/3/2017 | 11:36:21 AM
Re: Cryptolocker decryption tool
Losses over 80% of D-30 howitzers - are numbers from Russian propaganda websites, which is definitely not an "open source reporting". When you manipulate with figures in this way people can have big doubts about the rest in the report.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/29/2016 | 11:41:02 AM
Re: CrowdStrike Conclusions from Forensics Findings
@DMBA - since I am actively engaged in on-going security incident response efforts for one of the largest electric and gas utilities in the U.S., my comments questioning the report conclusions of CrowdStrike stand. When CrowdStrike - specifically, Dmitri Alperovitch - update the findings and conclusions of their report, I would be glad to adjust my current questioning of those conclusions. I would also be more then willing to enter into any direct discussions with either Dmitri, CrowdStrike, or any other party looking to discuss this highly important topic.


Alternately, as is done in any comprehensive incident response exercise impacting on matters of U.S. National security, I would highly advise the findings of CrowdStrike be made available to a broader community of cyber intelligence organizations, both public and private, for thorough scrutiny and analysis. Such an approach to forensics and intelligence analysis is a NIST 800-150 and ISO 27037 best practice.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/29/2016 | 10:32:14 AM
Re: CrowdStrike Conclusions from Forensics Findings
@ BruceR279, "as a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (#351086)".... Please allow the real intrusion and incident response experts do their job. Thank you.
User Rank: Strategist
12/29/2016 | 10:17:36 AM
Although How may be common, Who relates to Why
Our expectations are shaped by our experience and given the straitjacket that the national security apparatus places on technical development in the US the idea that this is ordered up by a monolithic government may be a logical conclusion. But in a less free society where the security apparatus relies on personal fear as its restraints it is quite possible that malware as a service is a viable industry and the orders come from a variety of sources.
User Rank: Apprentice
12/29/2016 | 8:07:04 AM
CrowdStrike Conclusions from Forensics Findings
The conclusion of CrowdStrike derived from their forensics findings of the work they performed for the DNC are overly stated. The conclusion is that clear ad obvious signs of malware campaign signatures attributable to two threat actors - FancyBear and CozyBear - require further scrutiny. Mandatory audit steps which need to be performed by an independent forensics auditor include identifying and enumerating every instance of the malware signature that CrowdStrike researchers are using as the direct attribution to FancyBear and CozyBear. I.e. a listing of every other threat agent that has also used the malware campaign signatures that CorwdStrike detected. This is, frankly, very basic foresnics analysis that is completely lacking in the CrowdStrike reports and throws significant flags and clouds over the efficacy of the CrowdStrike work.

Also lacking in the CrowdStrike report is a thorough discussion of the inadequate if not completely missing basic cyber security protections and controls on the DNC systems which left those systems completely exposed to not only direct human-to-machine encroachments but, even more importantly, bot-net cyber encroachment campaigns that would make direct attribution to any specific threat agent quite tenuous.

My comments here should not be construed as indicating that I reject the attribution claims to FancyBear and/or CozyBear made in the CrowdStrike report. Rather, as a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (#351086), I am concerned about the professionalism of their report which does not include analysis of probabilities of attributions to other known threat actors or threat mechanisms.
Inside the Ransomware Campaigns Targeting Exchange Servers
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  4/2/2021
Beyond MITRE ATT&CK: The Case for a New Cyber Kill Chain
Rik Turner, Principal Analyst, Infrastructure Solutions, Omdia,  3/30/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-16
jose-node-esm-runtime is an npm package which provides a number of cryptographic functions. In versions prior to 3.11.4 the AES_CBC_HMAC_SHA2 Algorithm (A128CBC-HS256, A192CBC-HS384, A256CBC-HS512) decryption would always execute both HMAC tag verification and CBC decryption, if either failed `JWEDe...
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-16
jose-node-cjs-runtime is an npm package which provides a number of cryptographic functions. In versions prior to 3.11.4 the AES_CBC_HMAC_SHA2 Algorithm (A128CBC-HS256, A192CBC-HS384, A256CBC-HS512) decryption would always execute both HMAC tag verification and CBC decryption, if either failed `JWEDe...
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-16
Portofino is an open source web development framework. Portofino before version 5.2.1 did not properly verify the signature of JSON Web Tokens. This allows forging a valid JWT. The issue will be patched in the upcoming 5.2.1 release.
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-16
a12n-server is an npm package which aims to provide a simple authentication system. A new HAL-Form was added to allow editing users in version 0.18.0. This feature should only have been accessible to admins. Unfortunately, privileges were incorrectly checked allowing any logged in user to make this ...
PUBLISHED: 2021-04-16
jose-browser-runtime is an npm package which provides a number of cryptographic functions. In versions prior to 3.11.4 the AES_CBC_HMAC_SHA2 Algorithm (A128CBC-HS256, A192CBC-HS384, A256CBC-HS512) decryption would always execute both HMAC tag verification and CBC decryption, if either failed `JWEDec...