Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Threat Intelligence

2/10/2020
05:35 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
Google+
RSS
E-Mail
100%
0%

How North Korea's Senior Leaders Harness the Internet

Researchers learn how North Korea is expanding its Internet use in order to generate revenue and bypass international sanctions.

A new report sheds light on how North Korea's senior leadership is changing how it uses the Internet, which has evolved into a professional tool its leaders use to generate revenue and evade international sanctions and controls meant to block certain technologies and operations.

Recorded Future researchers have seen a 300% increase in the volume of activity to and from North Korean networks since 2017. They attribute the spike to multiple drivers: greater use of the Russian-routed TransTelekom infrastructure, use of previously unresolved North Korean IP space, and new mail servers, FTP servers, and DNS name servers to maintain higher traffic flow.

Few people in North Korea are permitted direct access to the global Internet. This research is focused on the activities of these few people, primarily government leaders and ruling elite. It's believed the observed changes in network administration over the past six months are likely in response to higher Internet demand from North Korean users both at home and abroad. An Internet-enabled mail server, for example, indicates need for people to remotely access email.

It's clear, the researchers report, that the Internet has shifted from a "fascination" or "leisure activity" to a serious revenue-generation tool. Weekdays are now the most popular time for Internet use, compared with weekends and evenings in 2017. This, combined with the 300% increase in activity and higher bandwidth, denotes greater focus on harnessing the Internet.

The regime has tried to hide its increased Internet use with operational security technologies like virtual private networks, virtual private servers, transport layer security, and the Tor browser, among others. In 2019 it introduced DNS tunneling and demonstrated just how tech-savvy North Korea's leaders are. Researchers expect they're using DNS tunneling to hide data exfiltration from target networks, and/or to evade government security controls and limits.

There are three key ways North Korea uses the Internet to bypass sanctions and generate revenue: online bank theft, cryptomining, and low-level IT and financial crime. The UN reports North Korean cyber activities have targeted financial organizations and cryptocurrency exchanges in at least 35 countries, generating up to $2 billion for the regime. Attackers have also used illegal access to the SWIFT banking network; after they gain initial entry, they execute fraudulent transactions and transfer stolen funds to dummy accounts under their control.

"We assess that these banking operations are well researched and resourced by the North Koreans," Recorded Future's Insikt group explains in a writeup of their findings. "Attackers likely spent anywhere from nine to 18 months inside of a target network conducting further reconnaissance, moving laterally, escalating privileges, studying each organization's specific SWIFT instance, and disabling security procedures."

Researchers have consistently observed small-scale Bitcoin mining as of November 2019. Monero mining, however, has increased tenfold since October 2018, when it reflected activity similar to Bitcoin's. Unlike Bitcoin, they say, Monero is truly anonymous and all transactions are encrypted so only the sender or receiver involved can find the other.

"We assess that cryptocurrencies are a valuable tool for North Korea as an independent, loosely regulated source of revenue generation, but also as a means for moving and using illicitly obtained funds," researchers say.

Learning Prohibited Skills Abroad
People who have defected from North Korea have described a process in which operators and programmers overseas earn money and send it back to the regime. Some have created counterfeit video games and developed bots to steal digital items (weapons, gear, etc.) and resell them for profit. Some sell vulnerabilities in gaming software or target online casinos. One defector said these operators were required to earn nearly $100,000 per year, with 80% sent back to North Korea.

Many defectors have also shared how North Korea exploits other countries to train and host its state-sponsored operators. People are sent to countries including China, Russia, and India so they can gain advanced cyber training. Researchers say this activity is growing harder to track as North Koreans, and all Internet users, place a greater focus on cybersecurity.

"At its most basic, North Korea has developed a model that leverages the internet as a mechanism for sanctions circumvention that is distinctive but not exceptional," researchers write. These techniques for gaining block knowledge and generating revenue can be repeated, driving concern for how the regime can serve as an example to other financially isolated countries eager to bypass their own sanctions.

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "What Is a Privileged Access Workstation (PAW)?."

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio
 

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 8/10/2020
Researcher Finds New Office Macro Attacks for MacOS
Curtis Franklin Jr., Senior Editor at Dark Reading,  8/7/2020
Healthcare Industry Sees Respite From Attacks in First Half of 2020
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  8/13/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win an Amazon Gift Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: It's a technique known as breaking out of the sandbox kids.
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal, a Dark Reading Perspective
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
The Changing Face of Threat Intelligence
The Changing Face of Threat Intelligence
This special report takes a look at how enterprises are using threat intelligence, as well as emerging best practices for integrating threat intel into security operations and incident response. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-20383
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-13
ABBYY network license server in ABBYY FineReader 15 before Release 4 (aka 15.0.112.2130) allows escalation of privileges by local users via manipulations involving files and using symbolic links.
CVE-2020-24348
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-13
njs through 0.4.3, used in NGINX, has an out-of-bounds read in njs_json_stringify_iterator in njs_json.c.
CVE-2020-24349
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-13
njs through 0.4.3, used in NGINX, allows control-flow hijack in njs_value_property in njs_value.c. NOTE: the vendor considers the issue to be "fluff" in the NGINX use case because there is no remote attack surface.
CVE-2020-7360
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-13
An Uncontrolled Search Path Element (CWE-427) vulnerability in SmartControl version 4.3.15 and versions released before April 15, 2020 may allow an authenticated user to escalate privileges by placing a specially crafted DLL file in the search path. This issue was fixed in version 1.0.7, which was r...
CVE-2020-24342
PUBLISHED: 2020-08-13
Lua through 5.4.0 allows a stack redzone cross in luaO_pushvfstring because a protection mechanism wrongly calls luaD_callnoyield twice in a row.