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North Korea’s APT38 hacking group behind bank heists of over $100 million

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According to a new report published today by US cyber-security firm FireEye, there’s a clear and visible distinction between North Korea’s hacking units –with two groups specialized in political cyber-espionage, and a third focused only in cyber-heists at banks and financial institutions.

For the past four years, ever since the Sony hack of 2014, when the world realized North Korea was a serious player on the cyber-espionage scene, all three groups have been incessantly covered by news media under the umbrella term of Lazarus Group.

But in a report released today, FireEye’s experts believe there should be made a clear distinction between the three groups, and especially between the ones focused on cyber-espionage (TEMP.Hermit and Lazarus Group), and the one focused on financial crime (APT38).


Image: FireEye

The activities of the first two have been tracked and analyzed for a long time, and have been the subject of tens of reports from both the private security industry and government agencies, but little is known about the third.

Many of the third group’s financially-motivated hacking tools have often been included in Lazarus Group reports, where they stuck out like a sore thumb when looked at together with malware designed for cyber-espionage.

But when you isolate all these financially-motivated tools and track down the incidents where they’ve been spotted, you get a clear picture of completely separate hacking group that seems to operate on its own, on a separate agenda from most of the Lazarus Group operations.

This group, according to FireEye, doesn’t operate by a quick smash-and-grab strategy specific to day-to-day cyber-crime groups, but with the patience of a nation-state threat actor that has the time and tools to wait for the perfect time to pull off an attack.

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Image: FireEye

FireEye said that when it put all these tools and past incidents together, it tracked down APT38’s first signs of activity going back to 2014, about the same time that all the Lazarus Group-associated divisions started operating.

But the company doesn’t blame the Sony hack and the release of “The Interview” movie release on the group’s apparent rise. According to FireEye’s experts, it was UN economic sanctions levied against North Korea after a suite of nuclear tests carried out in 2013.

Experts believe –and FireEye isn’t the only one, with other sources reporting the same thing– that in the face of dwindling state revenues, North Korea turned to its military state hacking divisions for help in bringing in funds from external sources through unorthodox methods.

These methods relied on hacking banks, financial institutions, and cryptocurrency exchanges. Target geography didn’t matter, and no area was safe from APT38 hackers, according to FireEye, which reported smaller hacks all over the world, in countries such as Poland, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others.

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Image: FireEye

FireEye’s “APT38: Un-usual Suspects” report details a timeline of past hacks and important milestones in the group’s evolution.

  • February 2014 – Start of first known operation by APT38
  • December 2015 – Attempted heist at TPBank
  • January 2016 – APT38 is engaged in compromises at multiple international banks concurrently
  • February 2016 – Heist at Bangladesh Bank (intrusion via SWIFT inter-banking system)
  • October 2016 – Reported beginning of APT38 watering hole attacks orchestrated on government and media sites
  • March 2017 – SWIFT bans all North Korean banks under UN sanctions from access
  • September 2017 – Several Chinese banks restrict financial activities of North Korean individuals and entities
  • October 2017 – Heist at Far Eastern International Bank in Taiwan (ATM cash-out scheme)
  • January 2018 – Attempted heist at Bancomext in Mexico
  • May 2018 – Heist at Banco de Chile

All in all, FireEye believes APT38 tried to steal over $1.1 billion, but made off with roughly $100 million, based on the company’s conservative estimates.

The security firms says that all the bank cyber-heists, successful or not, revealed a complex modus operandi, one that followed patterns previous seen with nation-state attackers, and not with regular cyber-criminals.

The main giveaway is their patience and willingness to wait for months, if not years, to pull off a hack, during which time they carried out extensive reconnaissance and surveillance of the compromised target or they created target-specific tools.

“APT38 operators put significant effort into understanding their environments and ensuring successful deployment of tools against targeted systems,” FireEye experts wrote in their report. “The group has demonstrated a desire to maintain access to a victim environment for as long as necessary to understand the network layout, necessary permissions, and system technologies to achieve its goals.”

“APT38 also takes steps to make sure they remain undetected while they are conducting their internal reconnaissance,” they added. “On average, we have observed APT38 remain within a victim network approximately 155 days, with the longest time within a compromised system believed to be 678 days (almost two years).”

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Image: FireEye

But the group also stood out because it did what very few others financially-motivated groups did. It destroyed evidence when in danger of getting caught, or after a hack, as a diversionary tactic.

In cases where the group believed they left too much forensic data behind, they didn’t bother cleaning the logs of each computer in part but often deployed ransomware or disk-wiping malware instead.

Some argue that this was done on purpose to put investigators on the wrong trail, which is a valid argument, especially since it almost worked in some cases.

For example, APT38 deployed the Hermes ransomware on the network of Far Eastern International Bank (FEIB) in Taiwan shortly after they withdrew large sums of money from the bank’s ATMs, in an attempt to divert IT teams to data recovery efforts instead of paying attention to ATM monitoring systems.

APT38 also deployed the KillDisk disk-wiping malware on the network of Bancomext after a failed attempt of stealing over $110 million from the bank’s accounts, and also on the network of Banco de Chile after APT38 successfully stole $10 million from its systems.

Initially, these hacks were reported as IT system failures, but through the collective efforts of experts around the world [1, 2, 3] and thanks to clues in the malware’s source, experts linked these hacks to North Korea’s hacking units.

But while the FireEye report is the first step into separating North Korea’s hacking units from one another, it will be a hard thing to pull off, and the main reason is because all of North Korea’s hacking infrastructure appears to heavily overlap, with agents sometimes reusing malware and online infrastructure for all sorts of operations.

This problem was more than evident last month when the US Department of Justice indicted a North Korean hacker named Park Jin Hyok with every North Korean hack under the sun, ranging from both cyber-espionage operations (Sony Pictures hack, WannaCry, Lockheed Martin hack) to financially-motivated hacks (Bangladesh Bank heist).

But while companies like FireEye continue to pull on the string of North Korean hacking efforts in an effort to shed some light on past attacks, the Pyongyang regime doesn’t seem to be interested in reining in APT38, despite some recent positive developments in diplomatic talks.

“We believe APT38’s operations will continue in the future,” FireEye said. “In particular, the number of SWIFT heists that have been ultimately thwarted in recent years coupled with growing awareness for security around the financial messaging system could drive APT38 to employ new tactics to obtain funds especially if North Korea’s access to currency continues to deteriorate.”

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GigaOm Radar for Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR)

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Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) emerged as a product category in the mid-2010s. At that point, SOAR solutions were very much an automation and orchestration engine based on playbooks and integrations. Since then, the platforms have developed beyond the initial core SOAR capabilities to offer more holistic experiences to security analysts, with the aim of developing SOAR as the main workspace for practitioners.

Newer features offered by this holistic experience include case management, collaboration, simulations, threat enrichment, and visual correlations. Additionally, SOAR vendors have gradually implemented artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies to enable their platforms to learn from past events and fine-tune existing processes. This is where evolving threat categorization and autonomous improvement become differentiators in the space. While these two metrics are not critical for a SOAR platform, they may offer advantages in terms of reduced mean time to resolution (MTTR), resilience against employee turnover, and overall flexibility.

We’ve observed a lot of acquisition activity in the SOAR space. This was to be expected considering that, after 2015, a sizable number of pure-play SOAR vendors entered the market. Larger players with a wider security portfolio are acquiring these SOAR-specific vendors in order to enter the automation and orchestration market. We expect to see more SOAR acquisitions as the security tools converge, very likely into next-generation Security Information & Event Management products and services (SIEMs).

SIEM is a great candidate for a central management platform for security activities. It was designed to be a single source of truth, an aggregator of multiple security logs, but has been limited historically in its ability to carry out actions. In the past few years, however, SIEMs have either started developing their own automation and orchestration engines or integrated with third-party SOAR vendors. Through a number of acquisitions and developments, multiple players with wider security portfolios have begun to offer SOAR capabilities natively as part of other security solutions.

Going forward, we expect SOAR solutions to be further integrated into other products. This will include not only SIEM, but also solutions such as Extended Detection and Response (XDR) and IT automation. The number of pure-play SOAR vendors is unlikely to increase, although a handful may remain as fully agnostic solutions that enterprises can leverage in instances when their existing next-generation SIEM platforms do not meet all their use cases. However, for pure-play SOAR vendors to remain competitive, they will need to either expand into other security areas or consistently outperform their integrated counterparts.

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 GigaOm Radar for Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) appeared first on Gigaom.

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GigaOm Radar for Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS)

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Very few organizations see disaster recovery (DR) for their IT systems as a business differentiator, so they often prefer to outsource the process and consume it as a service (DRaaS) that’s billed monthly. There are many DRaaS providers with varying backgrounds, whose services are often shaped by that background. Products that started as customer-managed DR applications tend to have the most mature orchestration and automation, but vendors may face challenges transforming their application into a consumable service. Backup as a Service (BaaS) providers typically have great consumption models and off-site data protection, but they might be lacking in rich orchestration for failover. Other DRaaS providers come from IaaS backgrounds, with well-developed, on-demand resource deployment for recovery and often a broader platform with automation capabilities.

Before you invest in a DRaaS solution, you should attempt to be clear on what you see as its value. If your motivation is simply not to operate a recovery site, you probably want a service that uses technology similar to what you’re using at the protected site. If the objective is to spend less effort on DR protection, you will be less concerned about similarity and more with simplicity. And if you want to enable regular and granular testing of application recovery with on-demand resources, advanced failover automation and sandboxing will be vital features.

Be clear as well on the scale of disaster you are protecting against. On-premises recovery will protect against shared component failure in your data center. A DRaaS location in the same city will allow a lower RPO and provide lower latency after failover, but might be affected by the same disaster as your on-premises data center. A more distant DR location would be immune to your local disaster, but what about the rest of your business? It doesn’t help to have operational IT in another city if your only factory is under six feet of water.

DR services are designed to protect enterprise application architectures that are centered on VMs with persistent data and configuration. A lift-and-shift cloud adoption strategy leads to enterprise applications in the cloud, requiring cloud-to-cloud DR that is very similar to DRaaS from on-premises. Keep in mind, however, that cloud-native applications have different DR requirements.

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 GigaOm Radar for Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS) appeared first on Gigaom.

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GigaOm Radar for DDoS Protection

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With ransomware getting all the news coverage when it comes to internet threats, it is easy to lose sight of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks even as these attacks become more frequent and aggressive. In fact, the two threats have recently been combined in a DDoS ransom attack, in which a company is hit with a DDoS and then a ransom demanded in exchange for not launching a larger DDoS. Clearly, a solid mechanism for thwarting such attacks is needed, and that is exactly what a good DDoS protection product will include. This will allow users, both staff and customers, to access their applications with no indication that a DDoS attack is underway. To achieve this, the DDoS protection product needs to know about your applications and, most importantly, have the capability to absorb the massive bandwidth generated by botnet attacks.

All the DDoS protection vendors we evaluated have a cloud-service element in their products. The scale-out nature of cloud platforms is the right response to the scale-out nature of DDoS attacks using botnets, thousands of compromised computers, and/or embedded devices. A DDoS protection network that is larger, faster, and more distributed will defend better against larger DDoS attacks.

Two public cloud platforms we review have their own DDoS protection, both providing it for applications running on their public cloud and offering only cloud-based protection. We also look at two content delivery networks (CDNs) that offer only cloud-based protection but also have a large network of locations for distributed protection. Many of the other vendors offer both on-premises and cloud-based services that are integrated to provide unified protection against the various attack vectors that target the network and application layers.

Some of the vendors have been protecting applications since the early days of the commercial internet. These vendors tend to have products with strong on-premises protection and integration with a web application firewall or application delivery capabilities. These companies may not have developed their cloud-based protections as fully as the born-in-the-cloud DDoS vendors.

In the end, you need a DDoS protection platform equal to the DDoS threat that faces your business, keeping in mind that such threats are on the rise.

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.

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