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.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

12:45 PM
Dark Reading
Dark Reading
Products and Releases

Infamous Hacker-for-Hire Group DeathStalker Hits the Americas & Europe With New PowerPepper Malware

Woburn, MA – December 3, 2020 – Kaspersky researchers have spotted new malware activity in the wild from DeathStalker, the advanced persistent threat (APT) actor known for offering hacking-for-hire services targeting companies in the financial and legal sectors. The group was found using a new malware implant and delivery tactics involving a backdoor Kaspersky has dubbed PowerPepper.

The backdoor is used to remotely take control of victim devices. It leverages DNS over HTTPS as a communication channel, in order to hide communications with the control server behind legitimate-looking traffic. PowerPepper also uses several evasion techniques, including steganography, a method for disguising data.

DeathStalker is a highly unusual APT actor. Active since at least 2012, the group conducts espionage campaigns against small and medium-sized businesses, particularly law firms and financial services organizations. Unlike other APT groups, it doesn’t appear to be politically motivated or seek financial gain from the companies they target. Rather, they act as mercenaries, offering their hacking services for a price.

Kaspersky researchers have recently uncovered new malicious campaigns from DeathStalker.  Like other malware strains associated with the group, PowerPepper is typically spread via spearphishing emails with the malicious files delivered via the email body or within a malicious link. The group has exploited international events, carbon emission regulations, and even the pandemic to trick their victims into opening the malicious documents.

The main malicious payload is disguised using steganography, a process that allows attackers to hide data amid legitimate content. In the case of PowerPepper, the malicious code is embedded in what appears to be regular pictures of ferns or peppers (hence the name) and is then extracted by a loader script. Once that happens, PowerPepper begins to execute remote shell commands sent by DeathStalker operators, which are aimed at stealing sensitive business information. The malware can carry out any shell command on the targeted system, including those for standard data reconnaissance, such as gathering the computer’s user and file information, browsing network file shares, and downloading additional binaries or copy content to remote locations. The commands are obtained from the control server though DNS over HTTPS communications, an effective way to disguise malicious communications behind legitimate server name queries.

The use of steganography is just one of several obfuscation and evasion techniques employed by the malware. The loader is disguised as a verification tool from identity services provider GlobalSign. It uses custom obfuscation, and parts of the malicious delivery scripts are hidden in Word-embedded objects. Communications with the implant and servers are encrypted and, thanks to the use of trusted, signed scripts, antivirus software won’t necessarily recognize the implant as malicious at startup.  

PowerPepper has been seen in attacks across Europe primarily, but also in the Americas and Asia. In previously described campaigns, DeathStalker mainly targeted law consultancy firms and organizations that provide financial or cryptocurrency services.

“PowerPepper once again proves that DeathStalker is a creative threat actor: one capable of consistently developing new implants and toolchains in a short period of time,” said Pierre Delcher, security expert at Kaspersky. “PowerPepper is already the fourth malware strain affiliated with the actor, and we have discovered a potential fifth strain. Even though they are not particularly sophisticated, DeathStalker’s malware has proven to be quite effective, perhaps because their primary targets are small and medium-sized organizations—organizations that tend to have less robust security programs. We expect DeathStalker to remain active, and we will continue to monitor its campaigns.”

PowerPepper was part of the most recent GReAT Ideas: Powered by Croissant. Baguette Edition. You can watch the recording, as well as other presentations on the latest threat developments by Kaspersky’s top-level experts here:   

Read more about PowerPepper and its evasion techniques at Securelist.

To protect your organizations from attacks like PowerPepper, Kaspersky experts recommend: 

  • Provide your SOC team with access to the latest threat intelligence (TI). The Kaspersky Threat Intelligence Portal is a single point of access for the company’s TI, providing cyberattack data and insights gathered by Kaspersky over more than 20 years.
  • To minimize the risk of infection through phishing emails, companies should educate their employees with basic cybersecurity hygiene training to be wary of emails from unknown senders. If they receive such letters, they shouldn’t open attachments or click any links in them before making sure the letter is legitimate.
  • To protect medium-sized businesses from such advanced attacks, it’s better to use endpoint security solutions with EDR functionality. Kaspersky’s Integrated Endpoint Security solution detects an attack and provides a wide range of response actions optimized for IT and security teams of mid-sized companies.

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
How SolarWinds Busted Up Our Assumptions About Code Signing
Dr. Jethro Beekman, Technical Director,  3/3/2021
'ObliqueRAT' Now Hides Behind Images on Compromised Websites
Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer,  3/2/2021
Attackers Turn Struggling Software Projects Into Trojan Horses
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  2/26/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: George has not accepted that the technology age has come to an end.
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: 2021-03-06
Wazuh API in Wazuh from 4.0.0 to 4.0.3 allows authenticated users to execute arbitrary code with administrative privileges via /manager/files URI. An authenticated user to the service may exploit incomplete input validation on the /manager/files API to inject arbitrary code within the API service sc...
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-05
The Blog module in Kentico CMS 5.5 R2 build 5.5.3996 allows SQL injection via the tagname parameter.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-05
Deutsche Post Mailoptimizer 4.3 before 2020-11-09 allows Directory Traversal via a crafted ZIP archive to the Upload feature or the MO Connect component. This can lead to remote code execution.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-05
ssh-agent in OpenSSH before 8.5 has a double free that may be relevant in a few less-common scenarios, such as unconstrained agent-socket access on a legacy operating system, or the forwarding of an agent to an attacker-controlled host.
PUBLISHED: 2021-03-05
The npm package ansi_up converts ANSI escape codes into HTML. In ansi_up v4, ANSI escape codes can be used to create HTML hyperlinks. Due to insufficient URL sanitization, this feature is affected by a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability. This issue is fixed in v5.0.0.