Researchers in Norway have uncovered evidence of a vast Middle Eastern espionage network that for the past year has deployed malicious software to spy on Israeli and Palestinian targets.
The discovery, by Oslo-based antivirus and security firm Norman ASA, is the latest in a series of revelations involving digital surveillance activity of unknown origin that appears designed to gather intelligence from specific targets in the Middle East.
Norman’s experts say the true extent of the spy network came into focus after news of a cyber attack in late October 2012 that caused Israeli authorities to shut down Internet access for its police force. According to press reports, that incursion was spearheaded by a booby-trapped email that was made to look as if it was sent by Benny Gantz, the chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
Security vendor Trend Micro suggested that the initial target of that attack were systems within the Israeli Customs agency, and said the malware deployed was a version of Xtreme RAT, a Remote Access Trojan that can be used to steal information and receive commands from a remote attacker. According to Trend, the latest iterations of Xtreme Rat have Windows 8 compatibility, improved Chrome and Firefox password grabbing, and improved audio and desktop capture capabilities features.
Snorre Fagerland, a senior virus researcher at Norman, said he examined a sample of the Trojan used to deploy the malware in that attack, and found that it included a rather telltale trait: It was signed with a digital certificate that was spoofed to appear as though it had been digitally signed by Microsoft.
The faked digital certificate would not stand up to validation by Windows– or anyone who cared to verify it with the trusted root certificates shipped with Windows PCs. But it proved to be a convenient marker for Fagerland, who’s been scouring malware databases for other samples that used the same phony certificate ever since. So far, he’s mapped out an expanding network of malware and control servers that have been used in dozens of targeted email attacks (see graphic below).
“These malwares are set up to use the same framework, talk to same control servers, and have same spoofed digital certificate,” Fagerland said in an interview with KrebsOnSecurity. “In my view, they are same attackers.”
Fagerland found that the oldest of the malicious files bearing the forged Microsoft certificate were created back in October 2011, and that the Arabic language email lures used in tandem with those samples highlighted Palestinian news issues. He observed that the attackers used dynamic DNS providers to periodically shift the Internet addresses of their control networks, but that those addresses nearly always traced back to networks in Gaza assigned to a hosting provider in Ramallah in the West Bank.
After about eight months of this activity, the focus of the malware operation pivoted to attacking Israeli targets, Fagerland discovered. When that happened, the attackers shifted the location of their control servers to networks in the United States.