Researchers at Kaspersky Lab announced the discovery of a precursor to the Turla APT campaign called Epic. The attacks are known to use a cocktail of zero-days and off-the-shelf exploits against previously unknown and patched vulnerabilities to compromise victims.
Peaking during the first two months of the year, the Turla APT campaign, one of the most sophisticated ongoing cyber-espionage campaigns, has targeted municipal governments, embassies, militaries and other high-value targets worldwide in more than 45 countries.
The first research conducted on Turla however, did not reveal a vital element of the cyber-espionage campaign; the question of how victims get infected. The latest Kaspersky Lab research on this operation reveals that Epic is in fact the initial stage of the Turla victim infection mechanism.
Turla’s first stage:
During the analysis, Kaspersky Lab researchers observed the attackers using the Epic malware to deploy a more sophisticated backdoor known as the “Cobra/Carbon system”, also named “Pfinet” by some anti-virus products.
After some time, the attackers went further and used the Epic implant to update the “Carbon” configuration file with a different set of C&C servers. The unique knowledge to operate these two backdoors indicates a clear and direct connection between each other.
“The configuration updates for the ‘Carbon system’ malware are interesting, because this is another project from the Turla actor. This indicates that we are dealing with a multi-stage infection that begins with Epic Turla. The Epic Turla is used to gain a foothold and validate the high profile victim. If the victim is interesting, it gets upgraded to the full Turla Carbon system.” explains Costin Raiu, Director of the Global Research and Analysis Team at Kaspersky Lab.
· Epic Turla / Tavdig: The early-stage infection mechanism.
· Cobra Carbon system/ Pfinet (+others): Intermediary upgrades and communication plugins.
· Snake / Uroburos: High-grade malware platform that includes a rootkit and virtual file systems.
The “Epic” project has been used since at least 2012, with the highest volume of activity observed in January-February 2014. More recently, Kaspersky Lab detected this attack against one of its users on August 5, 2014.
Using zero-day exploits, social engineering and watering hole techniques attacks to infect victims, the attackers aim to gain immediate and full control over the target system.
Links with other threat actors:
Interestingly, possible connections with different cyber-espionage campaigns have been observed. In February 2014, Kaspersky Lab experts observed that the threat actor known as Miniduke was using the same web-shells to manage infected web servers as the Epic team did.
With some of the backdoors compiled using the Russian language, as well as the use of Cyrillic characters, the attackers are likely to be of Russian-speaking origin.