Attacks/Breaches

9/20/2017
06:30 PM
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Iranian Cyberspy Group Targets Aerospace, Energy Firms

APT33 focused on gathering information to bolster Iran's aviation industry and military decision-making capability, FireEye says.

An Iranian APT group with the ability to carry out destructive attacks has been waging a sophisticated cyber espionage campaign against organizations in the aerospace and energy sectors in the US, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

APT33 has been active since at least 2013 and appears focused on gathering information that could help Iran bolster its capabilities in the aviation and petrochemical industries, FireEye said in an advisory Wednesday.

The threat group's particular emphasis on organizations with aviation-related partnerships with Saudi Arabia also suggests that APT33 is gathering information to bolster the Iranian government's strategic and military decision making capabilities with regard to Saudi Arabia, the security vendor said.

FireEye security analyst Jacqueline O'Leary says the security vendor has evidence showing that at least six organizations were targeted between May 2016 and August 2017. The targets included a US aerospace company, a Saudi Arabian business conglomerate with interests in the aviation sector, and a South Korean company with stakes in petrochemicals and oil.

It is likely that more organizations were targeted based on additional infrastructure that FireEye identified and attributed to APT33, she says.

In some cases, FireEye observed APT33 related spearphishing activity result in compromise of the target organization. In other cases, the company observed APT33 conduct spearphishing on targets, although it has no evidence whether those campaigns resulted in a compromise.

So far, APT33 does not appear to have carried out any destructive attacks and appears focused only on cyber espionage activity.

But somewhat ominously, one of the droppers used by APT33 — dubbed DROPSHOT — has links to SHAPESHIFT, a destructive Shamoon-like disk-, file-and configuration-erasing tool that has been used in attacks against Saudi Arabian targets. Shamoon was malware that was used to brick some 35,000 Windows PCs at Saudi Arabian oil giant Saudi Aramco about five years ago.

FireEye said it has not seen APT33 actually use SHAPESHIFT to carry out any destructive attacks.  At the same time, APT33 is the only group known to be using DROPSHOT, the company cautioned.

Like many other threat groups, APT33 has been using spearphising to try and get an initial foothold in target networks. Its spearphising emails have contained recruitment-themed lures with links to malicious HTML application files with job descriptions and links to legitimate job postings on legitimate employment websites.

Many of the phishing emails have appeared legitimate, and referenced specific job opportunities and salaries and have even included the spoofed company's Equal Opportunity Employer disclosure, FireEye said. However, if a user opens one of these documents, it would silently drop an APT33 custom backdoor on the victim's machine.

As part of its spear phishing campaign, APT33 also registered multiple websites that masqueraded as domains for organizations such as Boeing, Alsalam Aircraft Company, and Northrop Grumman Aviation Arabia.

There are multiple pointers to APT33's links to Iran and to the country's government. Code in the malware used by the group contains artifacts written in Farsi, Iran's official language, FireEye said. Many of the publicly available tools and backdoors that APT33 has used in its campaign so far are available on Iranian threat actor websites. The group's targeting of organizations suggests it is aligned with Iranian nation-state interests and the timing of its activities coincides with Iran's workweek and working hours, the security vendor noted.

Code in one of the malware samples that the group has used indicates that it may have been developed and deployed by an individual who was previously employed by the government of Iran, FireEye said.

"APT33 shares some similarities with other nation-state groups in that they rely on publicly available tools with some use of custom malware development, potentially suggesting the threat actors are a part of a greater capability," says Josiah Kimble, a security analyst with FireEye.

"Like most suspected state sponsored actors, APT33's targeting of organizations, most closely aligns with nation-state interests," he says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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