The hacktivist group is ramping up its activities and ready to assault governments and businesses with escalating capabilities.

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The hacktivist group DragonForce Malaysia has released an exploit that allows Windows Server local privilege escalation (LPE) to grant access to local distribution router (LDR) capabilities. It also announced that it's adding ransomware attacks to its arsenal.

The group posted a proof of concept (PoC) of the exploit on its Telegram channel on June 23, which was subsequently analyzed by CloudSEK this week. While there's no known CVE for the bug, the group claims that the exploit can be used to bypass authentication "remotely in one second" in order to access the LDR layer, which is used to interconnect local networks at various locations of an organization.

The group says it would be using the exploit in campaigns targeted at businesses operating in India, which falls directly within its wheelhouse. During the past three months, DragonForce Malaysia has launched several campaigns targeting numerous government agencies and organizations across the Middle East and Asia.

“DragonForce Malaysia is adding to a year that will long be remembered for geopolitical unrest," says Daniel Smith, head of research for Radware’s cyber threat intelligence division. "In combination with other hacktivists, the threat group has successfully filled the void left by Anonymous while remaining independent during the resurgence of hacktivists related to the Russian/Ukrainian war."

The most recent, dubbed "OpsPatuk" and launched in June, has already seen several government agencies and organizations across the country targeted by data leaks and denial-of-service attacks, with the number of defacements topping 100 websites.

“DragonForce Malaysia is expected to continue defining and launching new reactionary campaigns based on their social, political, and religious affiliations for the foreseeable future," Smith says. "The recent operations by DragonForce Malaysia ... should remind organizations worldwide that they should remain vigilant during these times and aware that threats exist outside the current cyber conflict in Eastern Europe.”

Why LPE Should Be on the Patching Radar

While not as flashy as remote code execution (RCE), LPE exploits provide a path from a normal user to SYSTEM, essentially the highest privilege level in the Windows environment. If exploited, LPE vulnerabilities not only allow an attacker a step in the door but also provide local admin privileges — and access to the most sensitive data on the network.

With this heightened level of access, attackers can make system modifications, recover credentials from stored services, or recover credentials from other users who are using or have authenticated to that system. Recovering other users' credentials can allow an attacker to impersonate those users, providing paths for lateral movement on a network.

With escalated privileges, an attacker can also perform admin tasks, execute malware, steal data, execute a backdoor to gain persistent access, and much more.

Darshit Ashara, principal threat researcher for CloudSEK, offers one sample attack scenario.

“The attacker from the team can easily exploit any simple Web application-based vulnerability to gain aninitial foothold and place a Web-based backdoor,” Ashara says. “Usually, the machine on which Web server is hosted will have user privilege. That is where the LPE exploit will enable the threat actor to gain higher privileges and compromise not only a single website but other websites hosted on the server.”

LPE Exploits often Remain Unpatched

Tim McGuffin, director of adversarial engineering at LARES Consulting, an information-security consulting firm, explains that most organizations wait to patch LPE exploits because they typically require initial access to the network or endpoint in the first place.

“A lot of effort is placed on the initial prevention of access, but the further you move into the attack chain, the lesser effort is placed on tactics like privilege escalation, lateral movement, and persistence,” he says. “These patches are typically prioritized and patched on a quarterly basis and do not use an emergency 'patch now' process.”

Nicole Hoffman, senior cyber threat intelligence analyst at Digital Shadows, notes that the importance of every vulnerability is different, whether it's LPE or RCE.

“Not all vulnerabilities can be exploited, meaning not every vulnerability requires immediate attention. It is a case-by-case basis,” she says. “Several LPE vulnerabilities have other dependencies, such as needing a username and password to carry out the attack. That's not impossible to obtain but requires a higher level of sophistication.”

Many organizations also create local admin accounts for individual users, so they can carry out everyday IT functions such as installing their own software on their own machines, Hoffman adds.

“If many users have local admin privileges, it is more difficult to detect malicious local admin actions in a network,” she says. “It would be easy for an attacker to blend into normal operations due to poor security practices that are widely used.”

Any time an exploit is released into the wild, she explains, it doesn't take long before cybercriminals with varying levels of sophistication take advantage and perform opportunistic attacks.

“An exploit takes out some of this legwork,” she notes. “It is realistically possible mass scanning is already taking place for this vulnerability.”

Hoffman adds that vertical privilege escalation requires more sophistication and is typically more in line with advanced persistent threat (APT) methodologies.

DragonForce Plans Shift to Ransomware

In a video and through social-media channels, the hacktivist group also announced its plans to start conducting mass ransomware attacks. Researchers say this could be an adjunct to its hacktivist activities rather than a departure.

“DragonForce mentioned carrying out widespread ransomware attacks leveraging the exploit they created,” Hoffman explains. “The WannaCry ransomware attack was a great example of how widespread ransomware attacks all at the same time are challenging if financial gain is the end goal.”

She also points out that it is not uncommon to see these announcements from cybercriminal threat groups, as it draws attention to the group.

From the perspective of McGuffin, however, the public announcement of a shift in tactics is “a curiosity,” especially for a hacktivist group.

“Their motives may be more around destruction and denial of service and less around making a profit like typical ransomware groups, but they may be using the funding to enhance their hacktivist capabilities or awareness of their cause,” he says.

Ashara agrees that DragonForce’s planned shift is worth highlighting, as the group’s motive is to cause as much of an impact as possible, boost their ideology, and spread their message.

“Hence, the group's motivation with the announcement of ransomware is not for financial cause but to cause damage,” he says. “We have seen similar wiper malwares in the past where they would use ransomware and pretend the motivation is financial, but the root motivation is damage.”

About the Author(s)

Nathan Eddy, Contributing Writer

Nathan Eddy is a freelance journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker specializing in IT security, autonomous vehicle technology, customer experience technology, and architecture and urban planning. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Nathan currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

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