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'Slingshot' Cyber Espionage Campaign Hacks Network Routers

Advanced hacking group appears to be native English speakers targeting Africa, Middle East.

KASPERSKY SECURITY ANALYST SUMMIT 2018 – Cancun, Mexico – A newly discovered nation-state cyber espionage campaign targeting Africa and the Middle East infects network routers in order to snare administrative credentials from its targets and then move freely throughout the network.

Kaspersky Lab researchers unearthed the stealthy and highly sophisticated operation - named "Slingshot" after a word found in the attack code – that has infected at least 100 victims since at least 2012, with nearly half in Kenya, and the rest in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tanzania, Greece, Jordan, Somalia, Tunisia, Turkey, Mauritius, and the United Arab Emirates. The attackers ultimately gain kernel-mode access to victim machines where they then gather screenshots, network information, keyboard data, passwords, USB connections, and other activity and data.

Just how Slingshot initially compromises the target's network routers is unclear, but Kaspersky researchers say the goal is to gain access to valuable systems admin credentials that then give the attackers a foothold in the network. Slingshot targets MikroTik routers, dropping a malicious dynamic link library (DLL) on the devices that serves as a downloader for other malware. Then when a router admin accesses the router, his or her machine gets silently compromised via the infected router. 

Router hacking is a relatively rare attack vector, but it's an effective one for hackers. Malicious code can sit on these perimeter devices unnoticed because few security tools can detect it. "We think the developers of the malware decided to infect the victims from routers because they wanted to stay undetected," said Alexey Shulmin, lead malware analyst, Kaspersky Lab, in an interview. "A compromised router can be very hard to detect … During the past years, we have seen several high-profile cases where router malware was involved."

Shulmin said router security is typically a "blind spot" for organizations. "We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg" in router compromises, he said.

In the case of Slingshot, the attackers appear to have been fishing for systems admins to infect and then use their credentials to move laterally. "Once you infect the systems admin, then it becomes quite easy to move through the network. They have access to everything," said Costin Raiu, head of Kaspersky Lab's global research and analysis team.

Just how the Slingshot attackers actually infected the routers remains a mystery, but the researchers believe an exploit was used to abuse a vulnerability in the MikroTik router software. Once it infects the system admin and spreads to victim machines, it embeds malware in the kernel of the operating system. MikroTik has patched the flaw, so updated routers aren't vulnerable to this particular attack.

That method indicates that it's an especially well-resourced and advanced attack group behind the attack. "Nowadays, it's getting harder and harder to get into kernel mode because most [OSes] support technologies where you can't load a driver into kernel mode," Shulmin noted.

The attackers also install code that allows them to store their stolen data such as keylogger files, system information, and other data encrypted on the victim's hard drive for convenient access.

Slingshot also encrypts and hides its network traffic among legitimate network traffic using a so-called passive network-driven backdoor, typically a server directly connected to the Internet that sits there silently awaiting remote instructions from the attackers. "We've seen this [method] before with the Lamberts family," namely the White Lambert and Grey Lambert hacking teams, Raiu said.

The researchers aren't sure who is behind the attacks, but there are some intriguing clues they found: Slingshot appears to be a native English-speaking group that employs techniques reminiscent of the Russian-speaking Turla, Equation Group's (aka the NSA)'s Grayfish platform, and tools from White Lambert, thought to be a CIA hacking team. "Both the White Lambert and Grey Lambert threats use the same mechanism as Slingshot; they try to exploit vulnerable drivers to deliver their code into kernel mode," Shulmin said.

Even so, the researcher said there's no solid link between Slingshot and the Lamberts. "We have no solid links with Equation Group and the Lamberts," Raiu said.

Another fun fact: the attackers appear to be fans of "Lord of the Rings," given the names Gollum and Smeagol found in malware modules.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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