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Extensive hacking operation discovered in Kazakhstan



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.

Image: Qihoo 360

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.


Image: Qihoo 360

Features include:

  • Keylogging
  • 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
  • Self-destruct

Most of the features listed above are the norm for most high-level backdoor trojans, usually encountered in nation-state level cyber-espionage.

Mobile malware

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.


Image: Qihoo 360

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.


Image: Qihoo 360

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.

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Managing Vulnerabilities in a Cloud Native World



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Security Tools Help Bring Dev and Security Teams Together



Software development teams are increasingly focused on identifying and mitigating any issues as quickly and completely as possible. This relates not only to software quality but also software security. Different organizations are at different levels when it comes to having their development teams and security teams working in concert, but the simple fact remains that there are far more developers out there than security engineers.

Those factors are leading organizations to consider security tooling and automation to proactively discover and resolve any software security issues throughout the development process. In the recent report, “GigaOm Radar for Developer Security Tools,” Shea Stewart examines a roundup of security tools aimed at software development teams.

Stewart identified three critical criteria to bear in mind when evaluating developer security tools. These include:

  • Vendors providing tools to improve application security can and should also enhance an organization’s overall security posture.
  • The prevailing “shift-left” mindset doesn’t necessarily mean the responsibility for reducing risk should shift to development, but instead focusing on security earlier in the process and continuing to do so throughout the development process will reduce risk and the need for extensive rework.
  • Security throughout the entire software development lifecycle (SDLC) is critical for any organization focused on reducing risk.

Figure 1. How Cybersecurity Applies Across Each Stage of the Software Development Lifecycle *Note: This report focuses only on the Developer Security Tooling area

Individual vendors have made varying levels of progress and innovation toward enhancing developer security. Following several acquisitions, Red Hat, Palo Alto Networks, and Rapid7 have all added tooling for developer security to their platforms. Stewart sees a couple of the smaller vendors like JFrog and Sonatype as continuing to innovate to remain ahead of the market.

Vendors delving into this category and moving deeper into “DevSecOps” all seem to be taking different approaches to their enhanced security tooling. While they are involving security in every aspect of the development process, some tend to be moving more quickly to match the pace of the SDLC. Others are trying to shore up existing platforms by adding functionality through acquisition. Both infrastructure and software developers are now sharing toolsets and processes, so these development security tools must account for the requirements of both groups.

While none of the 12 vendors evaluated in this report can provide comprehensive security throughout the entire SDLC, they all have their particular strengths and areas of focus. It is therefore incumbent upon the organization to fully and accurately assess its SDLC, involve the development and security teams, and match the unique requirements with the functionality provided by these tools. Even if it involves using more than one at different points throughout the process, focus on striking a balance between stringent security and simplifying the development process.

Read more: Key Criteria for Evaluating Developer Security Tools, and the Gigaom Radar for Developer Security Tool Companies.

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Key Criteria for Evaluating User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA)



Cybersecurity is a multidisciplinary practice that not only grows in complexity annually but evolves nearly as quickly. A survey of the security landscape today would reveal concerns ranging from the classic compromised servers to the relatively new DevSecOps practices aimed at securing the rapid deployment of new code and infrastructure. However, some things remain constant no matter how much change is introduced. While technology evolves and complexity varies, there is almost always a human component in
risks presented to an organization.

User Behavior Analysis (UBA) was designed to analyze the actions of users in an organization and attempt to identify normal and abnormal behaviors. From this analysis, malicious or risky behaviors can be detected. UBA solutions identify events that are not detectable using other methods because, unlike classic security tools (an IDS or SIEM for example), UBA does not simply pattern match or apply rule sets to data to identify security events. Instead, it looks for any and all deviations from baseline user activity.

As technology advanced and evolved, and the scope of what is connected to the network grew, the need to analyze entities other than users emerged. In response, entity analysis has been added to UBA to create UEBA or User and Entity Behavior Analysis. The strategy remains the same, but the scope of analysis has expanded to include entities involving things like daemons, processes, infrastructure, and so on.

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.

Solution 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.

The post Key Criteria for Evaluating User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) appeared first on Gigaom.

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