September, 2012


26
Sep 12

Chinese Hackers Blamed for Intrusion at Energy Industry Giant Telvent

A company whose software and services are used to remotely administer and monitor large sections of the energy industry began warning customers last week that it is investigating a sophisticated hacker attack spanning its operations in the United States, Canada and Spain. Experts say digital fingerprints left behind by attackers point to a Chinese hacking group tied to repeated cyber-espionage campaigns against key Western interests.

The attack comes as U.S. policymakers remain gridlocked over legislation designed to beef up the cybersecurity posture of energy companies and other industries that maintain some of the world’s most vital information networks.

In letters sent to customers last week, Telvent Canada Ltd. said that on Sept. 10, 2012 it learned of a breach of its internal firewall and security systems. Telvent said the attacker(s) installed malicious software and stole project files related to one of its core offerings — OASyS SCADA — a product that helps energy firms mesh older IT assets with more advanced “smart grid” technologies.

The firm said it was still investigating the incident, but that as a precautionary measure, it had disconnected the usual data links between clients and affected portions of its internal networks.

“In order to be able to continue to provide remote support services to our customers in a secure manner, we have established new procedures to be followed until such time as we are sure that there are not further intrusions into the Telvent network and that all virus or malware files have been eliminated,” the company said in a letter mailed to customers this week, a copy of which was obtained by KrebsOnSecurity.com. “Although we do not have any reason to believe that the intruder(s) acquired any information that would enable them to gain access to a customer system or that any of the compromised computers have been connected to a customer system, as a further precautionary measure, we indefinitely terminated any customer system access by Telvent.”

The incident is the latest reminder of problems that can occur when corporate computer systems at critical networks are connected to sensitive control systems that were never designed with security in mind. Security experts have long worried about vulnerabilities being introduced into the systems that regulate the electrical grid as power companies transferred control of generation and distribution equipment from internal networks to so-called “supervisory control and data acquisition,” or SCADA, systems that can be accessed through the Internet or by phone lines. The move to SCADA systems boosts efficiency at utilities because it allows workers to operate equipment remotely, but experts say it also exposes these once-closed systems to cyber attacks.

Telvent did not respond to several requests for comment. But in a series of written communications to clients, the company detailed ongoing efforts to ascertain the scope and duration of the breach. In those communications, Telvent said it was working with law enforcement and a task force of representatives from its parent firm, Schneider Electric, a French energy conglomerate that employs 130,000 and has operations across the Americas, Western Europe and Asia. Telvent reportedly employs about 6,000 people in at least 19 countries around the world.

The disclosure comes just days after Telvent announced it was partnering with Foxborough, Mass. based Industrial Defender to expand its cybersecurity capabilities within Telvent’s key utility and critical infrastructure solutions. A spokesperson for Industrial Defender said the company does not comment about existing customers. Continue reading →


25
Sep 12

Espionage Hackers Target ‘Watering Hole’ Sites

Security experts are accustomed to direct attacks, but some of today’s more insidious incursions succeed in a roundabout way — by planting malware at sites deemed most likely to be visited by the targets of interest. New research suggests these so-called “watering hole” tactics recently have been used as stepping stones to conduct espionage attacks against a host of targets across a variety of industries, including the defense, government, academia, financial services, healthcare and utilities sectors.

Espionage attackers increasingly are setting traps at “watering hole” sites, those frequented by individuals and organizations being targeted.

Some of the earliest details of this trend came in late July 2012 from RSA FirstWatch, which warned of an increasingly common attack technique involving the compromise of legitimate websites specific to a geographic area which the attacker believes will be visited by end users who belong to the organization they wish to penetrate.

At the time, RSA declined to individually name the Web sites used in the attack. But the company shifted course somewhat after researchers from Symantec this month published their own report on the trend (see The Elderwood Project). Taken together, the body of evidence supports multiple, strong connections between these recent watering hole attacks and the Aurora intrusions perpetrated in late 2009 against Google and a number of other high-profile targets.

In a report released today, RSA’s experts hint at — but don’t explicitly name — some of the watering hole sites. Rather, the report redacts the full URLs of the hacked sites that were redirecting to exploit sites in this campaign. However, through  Google and its propensity to cache content, we can see firsthand the names of the sites that were compromised in this campaign.

According to RSA, one of the key watering hole sites was “a website of enthusiasts of a lesser known sport,” hxxp://xxxxxxxcurling.com. Later in the paper, RSA lists some of the individual pages at this mystery sporting domain that were involved in the attack (e..g, http://www.xxxxxxxcurling.com/Results/cx/magma/iframe.js). As it happens, running a search on any of these pages turns up a number recent visitor logs for this site — torontocurling.com. Google cached several of the access logs from this site during the time of the compromise cited in RSA’s paper, and those logs help to fill in the blanks intentionally left by RSA’s research team, or more likely, the lawyers at RSA parent EMC Corp. (those access logs also contain interesting clues about potential victims of this attack as well).

From cached copies of dozens of torontocurling.com access logs, we can see the full URLs of some of the watering hole sites used in this campaign:

  • http://cartercenter.org
  • http://princegeorgescountymd.gov
  • http://rocklandtrust.com (Massachusetts Bank)
  • http://ndi.org (National Democratic Institute)
  • http://www.rferl.org (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

According to RSA, the sites in question were hacked between June and July 2012  and were silently redirecting visitors to exploit pages on torontocurling.com. Among the exploits served by the latter include a then-unpatched zero-day vulnerability in Microsoft Windows (XML Core Services/CVE-2012-1889). In that attack, the hacked sites foisted a Trojan horse program named “VPTray.exe” (made to disguise itself as an update from Symantec, which uses the same name for one of its program components). Continue reading →


21
Sep 12

Microsoft Fixes Zero-Day, Four Other Flaws in IE

Microsoft has released an emergency update for Internet Explorer that fixes at least five vulnerabilities in the default Web browser on Windows, including a zero-day flaw that miscreants have been using to break into vulnerable systems.

The patch, MS12-063, is available through Windows Update or via Automatic Update. If you installed the stopgap “fix it” tool that Microsoft released earlier this week to blunt the threat from the zero-day bug, you need not reverse or remove that fix it before applying this update. The vulnerability resides in IE 7, 8, and 9, on nearly all supported versions of Windows, apart from certain installations of Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2012.

Separately, Microsoft issued an update for vulnerabilities in Adobe Flash Player in Internet Explorer 10 on all supported versions of Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012. The update addresses the vulnerabilities in Adobe Flash Player by updating the affected Adobe Flash libraries contained within Internet Explorer 10. Adobe addressed these in two separate Flash updates last month, including a fix for Flash zero-day that has been under active attack.


19
Sep 12

Microsoft Issues Stopgap Fix for IE 0-Day Flaw

Microsoft today released a stopgap fix for a critical security flaw in most versions of Internet Explorer that hackers have been exploiting to break into Windows systems. The company said it expects to issue an official patch (MS12-063) for the vulnerability on Friday, Sept. 21.

The company released a “fix it” tool, available from this link, designed to blunt the threat of attack on this flaw for users of IE 7, 8 and 9. In a blog post, Microsoft’s Yunsun Wee said the one-click solution should not affect users’ ability to browse the Web, and it does not require the reboot of your computer. Users should not need to uninstall the fix to apply the full security patch when Microsoft releases it.

I’m glad to see Microsoft take this step. The company keeps downplaying the threat, stating that “there have been an extremely limited number of attacks,” against that this flaw and that “the vast majority of Internet Explorer users have not been impacted.” Nevertheless, as I noted in previous stories this week, a reliable exploit for this vulnerability has already been rolled into free, easy-to-use attack tools, so IE users should not delay in applying this fix-it tool.

For more information on how to harden IE against attacks, see Internet Explorer Users, Please Read This.


19
Sep 12

Malware Dragnet Snags Millions of Infected PCs

Last week, Microsoft Corp. made headlines when it scored an unconventional if not unprecedented legal victory: Convincing a U.S. court to let it seize control of a Chinese Internet service provider’s network as part of a crackdown on piracy.

I caught up with Microsoft’s chief legal strategist shortly after that order was executed, in a bid to better understand what they were seeing after seizing control over more than 70,000 domains that were closely associated with distributing hundreds of strains of malware. Microsoft said that within hours of the takeover order being granted, it saw more than 35 million unique Internet addresses phoning home to those 70,000 malicious domains.

First, the short version of how we got here: Microsoft investigators found that computer stores in China were selling PCs equipped with Windows operating system versions that were pre-loaded with the “Nitol” malware, and that these systems were phoning home to subdomains at 3322.org. The software giant subsequently identified thousands of sites at 3322.org that were serving Nitol and hundreds of other malware strains, and convinced a federal court in Virginia to grant it temporary control over portions of the dynamic DNS provider.

Microsoft was able to do that because – while 3322.org is owned by a firm in China — the dot-org registry is run by a company based in Virginia. Yet, as we can see from the graphic above provided by Microsoft, Nitol infections were actually the least of the problems hosted at 3322.org (more on this later).

To learn more about the outcome of the seizure, I spoke with Richard Boscovich, a senior attorney with the company’s digital crimes unit (DCU) who helped to coordinate this action and previous legal sneak attacks against malware havens. Our interview came just hours after Microsoft had been cleared to seize control over the 70,000+ subdomains at 3322.org. I asked Boscovich to describe what the company was seeing.

“The numbers are quite large,” he said. “Just a quick view of what we’ve been seeing so far is upwards of 35 million unique IP [addresses] trying to connect with the 70,000 subdomains.”

Certainly IP addresses can be very dynamic — a single computer can have multiple IP addresses over a period of a few days, for example. But even if there were half as many infected PCs than unique IPs that Microsoft observed reporting to those 70,000 domains, we’d still be talking about an amalgamation of compromised PCs that is far larger than any known botnet on the planet today.  So how certain was Microsoft that these 35 million unique IPs were in fact infected computers?

“We started identifying what our AV company blocks,” Boscovich explained. “We saw a lot of different types of malware, from keyloggers to DDoS tools and botnets going back there. Our position would be if you’re reaching out to these 70,000 subdomains, that the purpose would be you’re directed there to be infected or you are already infected with something. And that something was up to 560 or so malware strains we identified [tracing back] to 3322.org.”

COLLATERAL DAMAGE?

Microsoft’s past unilateral actions against malware purveyors and botnets have engendered their share of harsh reactions from members of the security community, and I fully expected this one also would be controversial. I wasn’t disappointed: Writing for Internet policy news site CircleID, longtime antispam activist Suresh Ramasubramanian warned that Microsoft’s action would cause “extremely high collateral damage,” both to innocent sites and to ongoing investigations.

“So, in the medium to long term run …all that Microsoft DCU and Mr. Boscovich have achieved are laudatory quotes in various newspapers and a public image as fearless and indefatigable fighters waging a lone battle against cybercrime,” Ramasubramanian wrote. “That manifestly is not the case. There are several other organizations (corporations, independent security researchers, law enforcement across several countries) that are involved in studying and mitigating botnets, and a lot of their work just gets abruptly disrupted (jeopardizing ongoing investigations, destroying evidence and carefully planted monitoring).”

Continue reading →


18
Sep 12

Internet Explorer Users: Please Read This

Microsoft is urging Windows users who browse the Web with Internet Explorer to use a free tool called EMET to block attacks against a newly-discovered and unpatched critical security hole in IE versions 7, 8 and 9. But some experts say that advice falls short, and that users can better protect themselves by surfing with an alternative browser until Microsoft issues a proper patch for the vulnerability.

The application page of EMET.

EMET, short for the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit, is a tool that can help Windows users beef up the security of commonly used applications, whether they are made by a third-party vendor or by Microsoft. EMET allows users to force applications to use one or both of two key security defenses built into Windows Vista and Windows 7 — Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) and Data Execution Prevention (DEP).

Put very simply, DEP is designed to make it harder to exploit security vulnerabilities on Windows, and ASLR makes it more difficult for exploits and malware to find the specific places in a system’s memory that they need to do their dirty work.

Before I get into the how-tos on EMET, a few caveats. EMET is a great layer of security that Windows users can and should use to enhance the security of applications. But EMET may not block the exploit code now publicly available through the Metasploit framework. In fact, Tod Beardlsey, an engineering manager with Rapid7, the security firm that manages Metasploit, told The Associated Press that EMET does not appear to be completely effective against this exploit.

I asked Metasploit founder HD Moore what he thought was the best way to block this exploit, and he pointed out that the exploit available through Metasploit requires the presence of Java on the host machine in order to execute properly on IE 8/9 on Windows 7 and Vista systems (the exploit works fine without Java against IE7 on XP/Vista and IE8 on XP). Obviously, while the lack of Java on a Windows machine may not prevent other exploits against this flaw, it is a great first start. I have consistently urged computer users of all stripes to uninstall Java if they have no specific use for it.

Continue reading →


17
Sep 12

Exploit Released for Zero-Day in Internet Explorer

A working exploit that takes advantage of a previously unknown critical security hole in Internet Explorer has been published online. Experts say the vulnerability is being actively exploited in the wild, and that it appears to be connected to the same group of Chinese hackers responsible for unleashing a pair of Java zero-day exploits late last month.

Researchers at security vulnerability testing firm Rapid7 have added a new module to the company’s free Metasploit framework that allows users to successfully attack the vulnerability on Internet Explorer versions 7, 8 and 9 on Windows XP, Vista and 7.

“Computers can get compromised simply by visiting a malicious website, which gives the attacker the same privileges as the current user,” Rapid7 researcher “sinn3r” wrote on the firm’s blog. “Since Microsoft has not released a patch for this vulnerability yet, Internet users are strongly advised to switch to other browsers, such as Chrome or Firefox, until a security update becomes available. The exploit had already been used by malicious attackers in the wild before it was published in Metasploit. The associated vulnerability puts about 41% of Internet users in North America and 32% world-wide at risk.”

News of the IE exploit surfaced at the blog of security researcher and blogger Eric Romang, who said he discovered the attack code while examining a Web server recently used by Chinese hackers to launch targeted attacks via zero-day Java vulnerabilities that were patched by Oracle last month. Romang and other experts have connected the sites serving those Java exploits to the Nitro attacks of 2011, espionage attacks directed against at least 48 chemical and defense companies.

I pinged Microsoft for a comment but have not yet heard back from them. I suspect they are preparing an advisory about this threat, and will update this post when I receive a response. Until an official fix is available, IE users would be wise to surf with another browser.


17
Sep 12

ID Theft Service Tied to Payday Loan Sites

A Web site that sells Social Security numbers, bank account information and other sensitive data on millions of Americans appears to be obtaining at least some of its records from a network of hacked or complicit payday loan sites.

Usearching.info sells sensitive data taken from payday loan networks.

Usearching.info boasts the “most updated database about USA,” and offers the ability to purchase personal information on countless Americans, including SSN, mother’s maiden name, date of birth, email address, and physical address, as well as and driver license data for approximately 75 million citizens in Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

Users can search for an individual’s information by name, city and state (for .3 credits per search), and from there it costs 2.7 credits per SSN or DOB record (between $1.61 to $2.24 per record, depending on the volume of credits purchased). This portion of the service is remarkably similar to an underground site I profiled last year which sold the same type of information, even offering a reseller plan.

What sets this service apart is the addition of more than 330,000 records (plus more being added each day) that appear to be connected to a satellite of Web sites that negotiate with a variety of lenders to offer payday loans.

I first began to suspect the information was coming from loan sites when I had a look at the data fields available in each record. A trusted source opened and funded an account at Usearching.info, and purchased 80 of these records, at a total cost of about $20. Each includes the following data: A record number, date of record acquisition, status of application (rejected/appproved/pending), applicant’s name, email address, physical address, phone number, Social Security number, date of birth, bank name, account and routing number, employer name, and the length of time at the current job. These records are sold in bulk, with per-record prices ranging from 16 to 25 cents depending on volume.

But it wasn’t until I started calling the people listed in the records that a clearer picture began to emerge. I spoke with more than a dozen individuals whose data was being sold, and found that all had applied for payday loans on or around the date in their respective records. The trouble was, the records my source obtained were all dated October 2011, and almost nobody I spoke with could recall the name of the site they’d used to apply for the loan. All said, however, that they’d initially provided their information to one site, and then were redirected to a number of different payday loan options.

Continue reading →


13
Sep 12

Microsoft Disrupts ‘Nitol’ Botnet in Piracy Sweep

Microsoft said Thursday that it convinced a U.S. federal court to grant it control over a botnet believed to be closely linked to counterfeit versions Windows that were sold in various computer stores across China. The legal victory also highlights a Chinese Internet service that experts say has long been associated with targeted, espionage attacks against U.S. and European corporations.

Source: Microsoft.com

Microsoft said it sought to disrupt a counterfeit supply-chain operation that sold knockoff versions of Windows PCs that came pre-loaded with a strain of malware called “Nitol,” which lets attackers control the systems from afar for a variety of nefarious purposes.

In legal filings unsealed Thursday by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Microsoft described how its researchers purchased computers from various cities in China, and found that approximately 20 percent of them were already infected with Nitol.

It’s not clear precisely how many systems are infected with Nitol, but it does not appear to be a particularly major threat. Microsoft told the court that it had detected nearly 4,000 instances of Windows computers infected with some version of the malware, but that this number likely represented “only a subset of the number of infected computers.” The company said the majority of Nitol infections and Internet servers used to control the botnet were centered around China, although several U.S. states — including California, New York and Pennsylvania — were home to significant numbers of compromised hosts.

Dubbed “Operation b70” by Microsoft, the courtroom maneuvers are the latest in a series of legal stealth attacks that the software giant has executed against large-scale cybercrime operations. Previous targets included the Waledac, Rustock, Kelihos and ZeuS botnets.

Continue reading →


12
Sep 12

Researchers: Chip and PIN Enables ‘Chip and Skim’

Researchers in the United Kingdom say they’ve discovered mounting evidence that thieves have been quietly exploiting design flaws in a security system widely used in Europe to prevent credit and debit card fraud at cash machines and point-of-sale devices.

The innards of a chip-and-PIN enabled card.

At issue is an anti-fraud system called EMV (short for Europay, MasterCard and Visa), more commonly known as “chip-and-PIN.” Most European banks have EMV-enabled cards, which include a secret algorithm embedded in a chip that encodes the card data, making it more difficult for fraudsters to clone the cards for use at EMV-compliant terminals. Chip-and-PIN is not yet widely supported in the United States, but the major card brands are pushing banks and ATM makers to support the technology within the next two to three years.

EMV standards call for cards to be authenticated to a payment terminal or ATM by computing several bits of information, including the charge or withdrawal amount, the date, and a so-called “unpredictable number”. But researchers from the computer laboratory at Cambridge University say they discovered that some payment terminals and ATMs rely on little more than simple counters, or incrementing numbers that are quite predictable.

“The current problem is that instead of having the random number generated by the bank, it’s generated by the merchant terminal,” said Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, and an author of a paper being released this week titled, “Chip and Skim: Cloning EMV cards with the Pre-Play Attack.”

Anderson said that the failure to specify that merchant terminals should insist on truly *random* numbers, instead of merely non-repeating numbers — is at the crux of the problem.

“This leads to two potential failures: If the merchant terminal doesn’t a generate random number, you’re stuffed,” he said in an interview. “And the second is if there is some wicked interception device between the merchant terminal and the bank, such as malware on the merchant’s server, then you’re also stuffed.”

The “pre-play” aspect of the attack mentioned in the title of their paper refers to the ability to predict the unpredictable number, which theoretically allows an attacker to record everything from the card transaction and to play it back and impersonate the card in additional transactions at a future date and location.

Anderson and a team of other researchers at Cambridge launched their research more than nine months ago, when they first began hearing from European bank card users who said they’d been victimized by fraud — even though they had not shared their PIN with anyone. The victims’ banks refused to reimburse the losses, arguing that the EMV technology made the claimed fraud impossible. But the researchers suspected that fraudsters had discovered a method of predicting the supposedly unpredictable number implementation used by specific point-of-sale devices or ATMs models.

Continue reading →