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Middle East cyber-espionage is heating up with a new group joining the fold



The Middle East cyber-espionage scene has gotten a little bit more crowded this month with the discovery of a new hacking group that’s been targeting the region since mid-2018.

Tracked by cyber-security firms under names such as Lyceum (Secureworks naming) and Hexane (Dragos naming), this new group has primarily focused on the local energy sector.

In a report published earlier this month, ICS security firm Dragos said that Lyceum (Hexane) had repeatedly targeted oil and gas companies in the Middle East, with “Kuwait as a primary operating region.”

But while the bulk of Lyceum attacks were aimed at companies in the energy sector, the group also targeted telecommunication providers in the greater Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, Dragos said, “potentially as a stepping stone to network-focused man-in-the-middle and related attacks.”

But setting aside these rare attacks, the bulk of Lyceum’s activity has been focused on companies in the energy sector.

In a report published today and shared with ZDNet, Secureworks said that it detected a spike in Lyceum activity targeting oil and gas companies in May this year, a spike that came after “a sharp uptick in development and testing of their toolkit against a public multi-vendor malware scanning service in February 2019.”

Lyceum attacks follow a similar pattern

These attacks followed a simple, yet very effective pattern, Secureworks explained. First, Lyceum members would utilize techniques such as password spraying and brute-force attacks to breach individual email accounts at target organizations.

One successful, in the second stage of these attacks, Lyceum members would use the compromised email accounts to send spear-phishing emails to the victim’s colleagues. These emails would deliver malicious Excel files that would attempt to infect other users in the same organization with malware.

The primary targets of these second-stage spear-phishing campaigns would be executives, HR staff, and IT personnel in the same organization.

The Excel files would contain a payload named DanDrop, a VBA macro script that would infect the victim with DanBot, a C# remote access trojan (RAT).

Lyceum hackers would then use the DanBot RAT to download and run additional malware on the victims’ systems, most of which were PowerShell scripts with password-dumping, later movement, or keylogging functionality.

Lyceum modus operandi is similar to other Iranian groups

This modus operandi isn’t anything new or groundbreaking and has been seen used before by many other hacking groups, both financial and espionage-focused.

Both Dragos and Secureworks have abstained from linking the group to any specific country’s cyber-espionage apparatus.

Nevertheless, both Dragos and Secureworks have gone on the record and said that the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) used by Lyceum resemble APT33 and APT34, two cyber-espionage groups that have been historically linked to Iran.

“We’re keeping an open mind on attribution,” Rafe Pilling, senior security researcher, Secureworks Counter Threat Unit, told ZDNet in an email this week.

“We used the term ‘stylistically’ similar as we have no specific technical evidence linking LYCEUM to other known threat groups, including those attributed to Iran, such as COBALT TRINITY (aka APT33) or COBALT GYPSY (related to APT34).

“However, LYCEUM use a combination of password spraying, custom malware, DNS tunneling, spearphishing thematics and scripts taken from red teaming frameworks, in a way that is reminiscent of what we have observed from Iranian groups,” Pilling said.

Until cyber-security firms gather more evidence to link Lyceum to a specific country, the group’s focus is expected to remain on the energy sector, the bread and butter of most cyber-espionage groups targeting the Middle East.

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Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise



This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.

Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.

In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.

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CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions



Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.

Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.

“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”

As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.

Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.

“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.

So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:

“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”

Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.

“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”

Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast

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Phish Fight: Securing Enterprise Communications



Yes, much of the world may have moved on from email to social media and culturally dubious TikTok dances, yet traditional electronic mail remains a foundation of business communication. And sadly, it remains a prime vector for malware, data leakage, and phishing attacks that can undermine enterprise protections. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In a just released report titled “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” GigaOm Analyst Simon Gibson surveyed more than a dozen enterprise-focused email security solutions. He found a range of approaches to securing communications that often can be fitted together to provide critical, defense-in-depth protection against even determined attackers.

Figure 1. GigaOm Radar for Email Phishing Prevention and Detection

“When evaluating these vendors and their solutions, it is important to consider your own business and workflow,” Gibson writes in the report, stressing the need to deploy solutions that best address your organization’s business workflow and email traffic. “For some it may be preferable to settle on one comprehensive solution, while for others building a best-of-breed architecture from multiple vendors may be preferable.”

In a field of competent solutions, Gibson found that Forcepoint, purchased recently by Raytheon, stood apart thanks to the layered protections provided by its Advanced Classification Engine. Area 1 and Zimperium, meanwhile, are both leaders that exhibit significant momentum, with Area 1 boosted by its recent solution partnership with Virtru, and Zimperium excelling in its deep commitment to mobile message security.

A mobile focus is timely, Gibson says in a video interview for GigaOm. He says companies are “tuning the spigot on” and enabling unprecedented access and reliance on mobile devices, which is creating an urgent need to get ahead of threats.

Gibson’s conclusion in the report? He singles out three things: Defense in depth, awareness of existing patterns and infrastructure, and a healthy respect for the “human factor” that can make security so hard to lock down.

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