Chinese cyber-security vendor Qihoo 360 published a report on Friday exposing an extensive hacking operation targeting the country of Kazakhstan.
Targets included individuals and organizations involving all walks of life, such as government agencies, military personnel, foreign diplomats, researchers, journalists, private companies, the educational sector, religious figures, government dissidents, and foreign diplomats alike.
The campaign, Qihoo 360 said, was broad, and appears to have been carried by a threat actor with considerable resources, and one who had the ability to develop their private hacking tools, buy expensive spyware off the surveillance market, and even invest in radio communications interception hardware.
Signs point that some attacks relied on sending targets carefully crafted emails carrying malicious attachments (spear-phishing), while others relied on getting physical access to devices, suggesting the use of on-the-ground operatives deployed in Kazakhstan.
Meet Golden Falcon
Qihoo researchers named the group behind this extensive campaign Golden Falcon (or APT-C-34). The Chinese security vendor claimed the group was new, but when ZDNet reached out to Kaspersky, we were told Golden Falcon appears to be another name for DustSquad, a cyber-espionage entity that has been active since 2017.
The only report detailing its previous hacking operations dates back to 2018 when it was seen using spear-phishing emails that lead users to a malware-laced version of Telegram.
Just like the attacks documented by Qihoo this week, the 2018 attacks also focused on Kazakhstan but had used a different malware strain.
Qihoo’s new report is primarily based on data the Chinese company obtained after it gained access to one of Golden Falcon’s command and control (C&C) server, from where they retrieved operational data about the group’s activities.
Here, the Chinese firm said it found data retrieved from infected victims. Collected data involved primarily office documents, taken from hacked computers.
All the stolen information was arranged in per-city folders, with each city folder containing data on each infected host. Researchers said they found data from victims located in Kazakhstan 13 largest cities, and more.
The data was encrypted, but researchers said they were able to decrypt it. Inside, they also found evidence that Golden Falcon was also spying on foreign nationals in the country — with Qihoo naming Chinese international students and Chinese diplomats as targets.
Expensive hacking tools
Files on the C&C server revealed what types of hacking tools this group was using. Two tools stood out. The first was a version of RCS (Remote Control System), a surveillance kit sold by Italian vendor HackingTeam. The second was a backdoor trojan named Harpoon (Garpun in the Russian language) that appears to have been developed by the group itself.
In regards to its use of RCS, what stood out was that Golden Falcon was using a new version of RCS. The RCS version number is important because, in 2015, a hacker breached and then leaked all the HackingTeam’s internal files, including the source code for RCS.
At the time, the RCS version number was 9.6. According to Qihoo, the version number for the RCS instances they found in Golden Falcon’s possession was 10.3, a newer version, meaning the group most likely bought a newer version from its distributor.
But Golden Falcon was also in the possession of another potent tool. Qihoo says the group was using a unique backdoor that hasn’t been seen outside the group’s operations and was most likely their own creation.
The Chinese vendor said it obtained a copy of this tool’s manual. It is unclear if they found the manual on the group’s C&C server, or if they obtained it from another source. The manual, however, shows a well-developed tool with a large feature-set, on par with many of today’s top existing backdoor trojans.
- Steal clipboard data
- Take screenshot of the active window at predetermined intervals
- List the contents of a given directory
- Get Skype login name, contact list, and chat message history
- Get Skype and Google Hangouts contacts and voice recordings
- Record sound via the microphone, eavesdropping
- Copy a specified file from the target computer
- Automatically copy files from removable media
- Store all intercepted data in an encrypted data file, inside a specified directory
- Send stolen data to a specified FTP server
- Run a program or operating system command
- Download files from a given FTP into a specific directory
- Remotely reconfigure and update components
- Receive data files from a given FTP and automatically extract the files to a specified directory
Most of the features listed above are the norm for most high-level backdoor trojans, usually encountered in nation-state level cyber-espionage.
But Qihoo researchers also found additional files, such as contracts, supposedly signed by the group.
It is important to point out that cyber-espionage groups don’t leave contracts sitting around on C&C servers. It is unclear if these contracts were found on Golden Falcon’s C&C server, or were retrieved from other sources. Qihoo didn’t say.
One of these contracts appears to be for the procurement of a mobile surveillance toolkit known as Pegasus. This is a powerful mobile hacking tool, with Android and iOS versions, sold by NSO Group.
The contract suggests that Golden Eagle had, at least, shown interest in acquiring NSO’s Android and iOS surveillance tools. It is unclear if the contract was ever completed with a sale, as Qihoo didn’t find any evidence of NSO’s Pegasus beyond the contract.
Either way, Golden Eagle did have mobile hacking capabilities. This capability was provided via Android malware supplied by the HackingTeam.
Qihoo said the malware they analyzed included 17 modules with features ranging from audio eavesdropping to browser history tracking, and from stealing IM chat logs to tracking a victim’s geo-location.
Radio interception hardware
A second set of contracts showed that Golden Falcon had also acquired equipment from Yurion, a Moscow-based defense contractor that’s specialized in radio monitoring, eavesdropping, and other communications equipment.
Again, Qihoo only shared details about the contract’s existence, but could not say if the equipment was bought or used — as such capabilities go beyond the tools at the disposal of a regular security software company.
Tracking down members?
The Chinese cyber-security firm also said it tracked down several Golden Falcon members through details left in legal digital signatures, supposedly found inside the contracts they discovered.
Researchers said they tracked four Golden Falcon members and one organization.
Using data that was left uncensored in a screenshot shared by Qihoo, we were able to track one of the group’s members to a LinkedIn profile belonging to a Moscow area-based programmer that the Chinese firm described as “a technical engineer” for Golden Falcon.
No official attribution — but plenty of theories
Neither Qihoo nor Kaspersky, in its 2018 report, make any formal attribution for this group. The only detail the two shared was that this was a Russian-speaking APT (advanced persistent threat — a technical term used to describe advanced, nation-state backed hacking units).
During research for this article, ZDNet asked a few analysts for their opinions. The most common theories we heard were that this “looks” to be (1) a Russian APT, (2) a Kazakh intelligence agency spying on its citizens, (3) a Russian mercenary group doing on-demand spying for the Kazakh government — with the last two being the most common answer.
However, it should be noted that these arguments are subjective and not based on any actual substantial proof.
The use of HackingTeam surveillance software, and the inquiry into buying NSO Group mobile hacking capabilities does show that this could be, indeed, an authorized law enforcement agency. However, Qihoo also pointed out that some of the targets/victims of this hacking campaign were also Chinese government officials in north-west China — meaning that if this was a Kazakh law enforcement agency, then they seriously overstepped their jurisdiction.
The Qihoo Golden Falcon report is available here, in Chinese, and here, translated with Google Translate. The report contains additional technical information about the malware used in these attacks, information that we didn’t include in our coverage because it was too technical.
Work from Home Security
Spin Master is a leading global children’s entertainment company that invents toys and games, produces dozens of television and studio series that are distributed in 160 countries, and creates a variety of digital games played by more than 30 million children. What was once a small private company founded by childhood friends is now a public global supply chain with over 1,500 employees and 28 offices around the world.
Like most organizations in 2020, Spin Master had to adapt quickly to the new normal of remote work, shifting most of its production from cubicles in regional and head offices to hundreds of employees working from home and other remote locations.
This dramatic shift created potential security risks, as most employees were no longer behind the firewall on the corporate network. Without the implementation of hardened endpoint security, the door would be open for bad actors to infiltrate the organization, acquire intellectual property, and ransom customer information. Additionally, the potential downtime caused by a security breach could harm the global supply chain. With that in mind, Spin Master created a self-imposed 30-day deadline to extend its network protection capabilities to the edge.
- Think Long Term: The initial goal of establishing a stop-gap work-from-home (WFH) and work-from-anywhere (WFA) strategy has since morphed into a permanent strategy, requiring long-term solutions.
- Gather Skills: The real urgency posed by the global pandemic made forging partnerships with providers that could fill all the required skill sets a top priority.
- Build Momentum: The compressed timeline left no room for delay or error. The Board of Directors threw its support behind the implementation team and gave it broad budget authority to ensure rapid action, while providing active guidance to align strategy with action.
- Deliver Value: The team established two key requirements that the selected partner must deliver: implementation support and establishing an ongoing managed security operations center (SOC).
Key Criteria for Evaluating Privileged Access Management
Privileged Access Management (PAM) enables administrative access to critical IT systems while minimizing the chances of security compromises through monitoring, policy enforcement, and credential management.
A key operating principle of all PAM systems is the separation of user credentials for individual staff members from the system administration credentials they are permitted to use. PAM solutions store and manage all of the privileged credentials, providing system access without requiring users to remember, or even know, the privileged password. Of course, all staff have their own unique user ID and password that they use to complete everyday tasks such as accessing email and writing documents. Users who are permitted to handle system administration tasks that require privileged credentials log into the PAM solution, which provides and controls such access according to predefined security policies. These policies control who is allowed to use which privileged credentials when, where, and for what tasks. An organization’s policy may also require logging and recording of the actions undertaken with the privileged credentials.
Once implemented, PAM will improve your security posture in several ways. The first is by segregating day-to-day duties from duties that require elevated access, reducing the risk of accidental privileged actions. Secondly, automated password management reduces the possibility that credentials will be shared while also lowering the risk if credentials are accidentally exposed. Finally, extensive logging and activity recording in PAM solutions aids audits of critical system access for both preventative and forensic security.
How to Read this Report
This GigaOm report is one of a series of documents that helps IT organizations assess competing solutions in the context of well-defined features and criteria. For a fuller understanding consider reviewing the following reports:
Key Criteria report: A detailed market sector analysis that assesses the impact that key product features and criteria have on top-line solution characteristics—such as scalability, performance, and TCO—that drive purchase decisions.
GigaOm Radar report: A forward-looking analysis that plots the relative value and progression of vendor solutions along multiple axes based on strategy and execution. The Radar report includes a breakdown of each vendor’s offering in the sector.
Vendor Profile: An in-depth vendor analysis that builds on the framework developed in the Key Criteria and Radar reports to assess a company’s engagement within a technology sector. This analysis includes forward-looking guidance around both strategy and product.
Adventist Risk Management Data Protection Infrastructure
Companies always want to enhance their ability to quickly address pressing business needs. Toward that end, they look for new ways to make their IT infrastructures more efficient—and more cost effective. Today, those pressing needs often center around data protection and regulatory compliance, which was certainly the case for Adventist Risk Management. What they wanted was an end-to-end, best-in-class solution to meet their needs. After trying several others, they found the perfect combination with HYCU and Nutanix, which provided:
- Ease of deployment
- Outstanding ROI
- Overall TCO improvement
Nutanix Cloud Platform provides a software-defined hyperconverged infrastructure, while HYCU offers purpose-built backup and recovery for Nutanix. Compared to the previous traditional infrastructure and data protection solutions in use at Adventist Risk Management, Nutanix and HYCU simplified processes, speeding day-to-day operations up to 75%. Now, migration and update activities typically scheduled for weekends can be performed during working hours and help to increase IT staff and management quality of life. HYCU further increased savings by providing faster and more frequent points of recovery as well as better DR Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO) by increasing the ability to do daily backups from one to four per day.
Furthermore, the recent adoption of Nutanix Objects, which provides secure and performant S3 storage capabilities, enhanced the infrastructure by:
- Improving overall performance for backups
- Adding security against potential ransomware attacks
- Replacing components difficult to manage and support
In the end, Nutanix and HYCU enabled their customer to save money, improve the existing environment, and, above all, meet regulatory compliance requirements without any struggle.
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