Nation-state sponsored cyber-espionage attacks are becoming more sophisticated, targeting carefully defined users with complex, modular tools, and keeping well under the radar of increasingly effective detection systems, Kaspersky Lab experts reveal.
This new trend was confirmed during a detailed analysis of the EquationDrug cyber-espionage platform - the main espionage platform developed by the Equation Group. Kaspersky Lab specialists found that, following the industry’s growing success in exposing Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups, the most sophisticated threat actors now focus on increasing the number of components in their malicious platform in order to reduce their visibility and enhance stealth.
The latest platforms now carry many plugin modules that allow them to select and perform a wide range of different functions, depending on their target victim and information they hold. Kaspersky Lab estimates that EquationDrug includes 116 different plugins.
“Nation-state attackers are looking to create more stable, invisible, reliable and universal cyber-espionage tools. They are focused on creating frameworks for wrapping such code into something that can be customised on live systems and provide a reliable way to store all components and data in encrypted form, inaccessible to regular users,” explains Costin Raiu, Director of Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team.
“Sophistication of the framework makes this type of actor different from traditional cybercriminals, who prefer to focus on payload and malware capabilities designed for direct financial gains.”
“It may seem unusual that a cyber-espionage platform as powerful as EquationDrug doesn't provide all stealing capability as standard in its malware core. The answer is that they prefer to customise the attack for each one of their victims,” Raiu said.
“Only if they have chosen to actively monitor you and the security products on your machines have been disarmed, will you receive a plugin for the live tracking of your conversations or other specific functions related to your activities. We believe modularity and customisation will become a unique trademark of nation-state attackers in the future.”
Other ways in which nation-state attackers differentiate their tactics from traditional cybercriminals include:
EquationDrug has been in use for more than a decade although it is now largely being replaced by the even more sophisticated GrayFish platform. The tactical trends confirmed by the analysis of EquationDrug were first observed by Kaspersky Lab during its research into the cyber-espionage campaigns Careto and Regin, among others.
Kaspersky Lab products detected a number of attempts to attack its users with exploits used by the Equation group in their malware. Many of these attacks were not successful due to Automatic Exploit Prevention technology which generically detects and blocks exploitation of unknown vulnerabilities. The Fanny worm presumably compiled in July 2008 and being a part of the Equation platform, was first detected and blacklisted by our automatic systems in December 2008.