The busiest threat actor groups of 2017 were Sofacy (otherwise known as Fancy Bear or APT28) and the Lazarus Group, security experts report. As these groups ramped up activity, threat actors operating out of China became quiet.
Analysts at AlienVault leveraged data from its Open Threat Exchange (OTX) threat intelligence sharing platform to take a broad look at threat patterns from last year. They found the most frequently referenced threat group in 2017 was Sofacy.
Ten years ago, Sofacy primarily targeted NATO and defense ministries. Over the past three years its operations have expanded to target businesses, individuals, and elections in the United States and France. Leaked information from the US government, and an official report from the German government, indicate the threat group is associated with Russian military intelligence.
The second most active group was Lazarus, which is believed to operate out of North Korea (or Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK).
"In the past, security researchers thought DPRK cyber adversaries were unsophisticated compared to more traditional nation-state adversary groups, like China or Russia," says Dmitri Alperovitch, cofounder and CTO at CrowdStrike.
"However, the North Korea regime has invested significant resources in training and development in recent years and their cyber capabilities have matured significantly as a result." Alperovitch points out that in 2017, cyber operations were linked to DPRK almost monthly. Lazarus was linked to WannaCry and has hacked into banks and cryptocurrency exchanges.
Crowdstrike found Lazarus is comprised of four groups: Silent Chollima, Stardust Chollima, Labyrinth Chollima, and Ricochet Chollima. Most adversaries focus on targeted attacks or cyberespionage; DPRK threat actors aren't as particular. While they primarily focused on South Korean targets in 2017, they have been known to hit organizations in other regions.
What usually motivates these groups? John Bambenek, manager of threat systems at Fidelis Cybersecurity, says financial gain is often a driver. "You're dealing with organized crime, in essence," he explains. "There's a payday at the end of it."
Attackers, specifically those in North Korea, have begun turning to cryptocurrency. More are targeting consumer devices and leveraging their computing power to mine crypto. "For a nation that is highly sanctioned with currency requirements, Bitcoin and its related cousins provided great means to capitalize," Bambenek points out.
The goals of nation-state threat actors will vary from group to group. Those looking for money could target cryptocurrency exchanges while those seeking to disrupt election cycles could target social media to spread disinformation. "It depends on the geopolitical circumstances," he says.
Why Chinese threat groups fell silent
AlienVault's data shows Stone Panda, also known as APT10 or CloudHopper, fell in tenth place for 2017 activity. This is the highest-ranked group operating out of China, and AlienVault threat engineer Chris Doman notes its ranking "would have been very different three years ago."
The last year saw a significant decrease in the number of targeted attacks from China-based threat groups against Western businesses. While this followed political pressure and agreements to stop activity, it's also possible their attacks have become tougher to detect. CloudHopper is known to hit targets by compromising major IT service providers, a method that's difficult to detect for vendors and government agencies.
"We may continue to see reported activity from groups in China drop further," Doman writes, adding that UPS (also known as Boyusec or APT3) switched from Western to domestic targets.
What should you worry about?
Alperovitch warns businesses to worry about the danger North Korean threat groups pose to their brands and networks. "These adversaries have demonstrated a degree of unpredictability about what they may try to do next," he says. "It is important for organizations to continually hunt their systems for potential intrusions and swiftly remediate before any damage is done."
Bambenek acknowledges the potential for ICS-based attacks, which he says will be a growing area of focus for threat groups. "Someone will take a utility hostage for ransom," he says. "With Triton getting published to GitHub, we've drastically lowered the bar for ICS attacks."