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North Korea's Lazarus Group Developing Cross-Platform Malware Framework

The APT group, known for its attack on Sony Pictures in 2014, has created an "advanced malware framework" that can launch and manage attacks against systems running Windows, MacOS, and Linux.

The Lazarus Group, an advanced persistent threat (APT) group linked to North Korea, has developed an "advance malware framework" that has been used to launch and manage attacks against Windows, MacOS, and Linux systems in at least a dozen organizations, according to an analysis published by security firm Kaspersky on July 22.

The framework has been used against victims in Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, Poland, and Turkey, according to Kaspersky. The attacks have focused on e-commerce businesses, Internet service providers, and software developers. 

The fact that the group has created a single framework to handle compromises across operating systems indicates a significant amount of resources have been invested in the toolset, says Yury Namestnikov, a security expert at Kaspersky.

"It's not a common thing to implement a consistent modular framework that supports all popular operating systems," he says. "The orchestrator is designed in a way that it can load up to 15 plug-ins at the same time. Plug-ins that are known to us gives general-purpose backdoor functionality."

Operating for more than a decade, the Lazarus group — also known as Hidden Cobra — is a well-known group linked to North Korea and credited with a significant number of major attacks. For example, the attack on Sony Pictures in November 2014, which resulted in the release of confidential data, prerelease movies, and copies of scripts, has been credited to the group. In 2019, the United States imposed further sanctions against North Korea for its hacking and cyber-espionage activities.

Unlike many nation-state groups, North Korean cyber-espionage operations often have a strong financial goal. In 2017, researchers linked Lazarus with the WannaCry ransomware worm that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage worldwide. Most recently, Lazarus has been linked to credit-card skimming, stealing credit-card data from the websites of online retailers.

In the latest development, the Lazarus group created a framework, dubbed MATA, that has been used to steal customer databases and distribute ransomware, according to Kaspersky. 

"This series of attacks indicates that Lazarus was willing to invest significant resources into developing this toolset and widening the reach of organizations targeted – particularly in hunting for both money and data," said Seongsu Park, a senior security researcher for the company, in a statement sent to Dark Reading. 

Kaspersky was able to identified about a dozen companies that appeared to be infected with the MATA framework since 2018. The main management component, or orchestrator, is called MataNet by the developers, and each module includes the prefix "mata_", Kaspersky says.

The framework appears to use code from an open source proxy server that Lazarus has further developed. Among other features, the framework appears architected to work on connected Linux devices, raising the possibility that Internet of Things devices could be on the list of future targets.

"Regarding motive of the actor behind the attack, from one victim we identified one of their intentions," Kaspersky's Namestnikov says. "After deploying MATA malware and its plug-ins, the actor attempted to find the victim's databases and execute several database queries to acquire customer lists."

The MataNet orchestrator uses Transport Layer Security 1.2 (TLS1.2) to encrypt communications. Some components of the software were found on legitimate software distribution sites, indicating that such services may be used to allow infected machines to download additional software modules. 

Because of similarities in the code, file names, and global configuration data between MATA and other Lazarus-attributed attacks, Kaspersky considers the framework to be the work of the North Korean group. 

While the bespoke framework allows the group a great deal of flexibility, the cyber-espionage actors are not above using cybercriminals' tools as well. In late 2019, the Lazarus Group became an early customer of the Trickbot cybercriminal group, which apparently sold access to high-value networks through a tool known as Anchor.

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