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APT trends report Q2 2020
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For more than three years, the Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT) at Kaspersky has been publishing quarterly summaries of advanced persistent threat (APT) activity. The summaries are based on our threat intelligence research and provide a representative snapshot of what we have published and discussed in greater detail in our private APT reports. They are designed to highlight the significant events and findings that we feel people should be aware of.

This is our latest installment, focusing on activities that we observed during Q2 2020.

Readers who would like to learn more about our intelligence reports or request more information on a specific report are encouraged to contact ‘intelreports@kaspersky.com‘.

The most remarkable findings

On May 11, the UK-based supercomputing center, ARCHER, announced that it would shut down access to its network while it investigated a security incident. The website stated that the “ARCHER facility is based around a Cray XC30 supercomputer (with 4920 nodes) that provides the central computational resource”. At the same time, the German-based bwHPC also announced a security incident and decided to restrict access to its resources. The Swiss National Supercomputing Centre, at the time involved in a project to study the small membrane protein of the coronavirus, confirmed that it, and other European high-performance computer facilities, had been attacked and that it had temporarily closed.

On May 15, the EGI Computer Security and Incident Response Team (EGI-CSIRT) published an alert covering two incidents that, according to its report, may or may not be related. Both incidents describe the targeting of academic data centers for “CPU mining purposes”. The alert includes a number of IoCs, which complement other OSINT (open-source intelligence) observations. Although we weren’t able to establish with a high degree of certitude that the ARCHER hack and the incidents described by EGI-CSIRT are related, we suspect they might be. Some media speculated that all these attacks might be related to COVID-19 research being carried out at the supercomputing centers.

Interestingly, last July 16th 2020, NCSC published an advisory describing malicious activity targeting institutions related to research to find a vaccine for COVID-19. In this case, the malware used in the attacks belongs to a family called WellMess, as originally described by LAC Co back in 2018. Until recently, this malware was not believed to be related to any APT activity. Surprisingly, NCSC attributes this activity to the APT-29 threat actor. However, it does not provide any public proof.

From our own research, we can confirm that WellMess’s activity seems to follow a cycle, being used in campaigns every three months or so since its discovery. We observed a peak of activity in fall of 2019, followed by an increase in the number of C2s in February 2020. We also observed high-profile targeting, including telcos, government and contractors in MENA and the EU. However, from our side we cannot confirm attribution or targeting of health institutions at the moment.

For more details about WellMess, you can check our presentation from GReAT ideas here: https://youtu.be/xeTYLRCwnFo

Russian-speaking activity

In May, researchers at Leonardo published a report about “Penquin_x64”, a previously undocumented variant of Turla’s Penquin GNU/Linux backdoor. Kaspersky has publicly documented the Penquin family, tracing it back to its Unix ancestors in the Moonlight Maze operation of the 1990s. We followed up on this latest research by generating network probes that detect Penquin_x64 infected hosts at scale, allowing us to discover that tens of internet hoster’s servers in Europe and the US are still compromised today. We think it’s possible that, following public disclosure of Turla’s GNU/Linux tools, the Turla threat actor may have been repurposing Penquin to conduct operations other than traditional intelligence.

In June, we discovered two different domain names, “emro-who[.]in” and “emro-who[.]org”, typo-squatting the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO). These domains, registered on June 21 using the Njalla.no registrar, seem to be used as sender domains for a spear-phishing campaign. This type of typo-squatting is reminiscent of Sofacy campaigns against other international organizations. Moreover, we have seen Njalla.no recently used to register SPLM and XTUNNEL C2 (command-and-control) servers and we have seen this autonomous system used by Sofacy in the past for a SPLM C2.

Hades is an elusive, highly dynamic threat actor that commonly engages in tailored hacking and special access operations, such as the OlympicDestroyer attack or the ExPetr (aka NotPetya) and Badrabbit attacks. On May 28, the US National Security Agency (NSA) published an alert detailing the use by Hades of an Exim vulnerability (CVE-2019-10149) for what appears to be a potentially large hacking operation designed for mass access. Our own report expanded on the scripts used in this operation, as well as providing other IoCs that we discovered.
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