Posts Tagged: Dmitri Alperovitch

Dec 14

The Case for N. Korea’s Role in Sony Hack

There are still many unanswered questions about the recent attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, such as how the attackers broke in, how long they were inside Sony’s network, whether they had inside help, and how the attackers managed to steal terabytes of data without notice. To date, a sizable number of readers remain unconvinced about the one conclusion that many security experts and the U.S. government now agree upon: That North Korea was to blame. This post examines some compelling evidence from past such attacks that has helped inform that conclusion.

An image from HP, captioned "North Korean students training for cyberwar."

An image from HP, captioned “North Korean students training for cyberwar.”

The last time the world saw an attack like the one that slammed SPE was on March 20, 2013, when computer networks running three major South Korean banks and two of the country’s largest television broadcasters were hit with crippling attacks that knocked them offline and left many South Koreans unable to withdraw money from ATMs. The attacks came as American and South Korean military forces were conducting joint exercises in the Korean Peninsula.

That attack relied in part on malware dubbed “Dark Seoul,” which was designed to overwrite the initial sections of an infected computer’s hard drive. The data wiping component used in the attack overwrote information on infected hard drives by repeating the words “hastati” or “principes,” depending on which version of the wiper malware was uploaded to the compromised host.

Both of those terms reference the military classes of ancient Rome: “hastati” were the younger, poorer soldiers typically on the front lines; the “principes” referred to more hardened, seasoned soldiers. According to a detailed white paper from McAfee, the attackers left a calling card a day after the attacks in the form of a web pop-up message claiming that the NewRomanic Cyber Army Team was responsible and had leaked private information from several banks and media companies and destroyed data on a large number of machines.

The message read:

“Hi, Dear Friends, We are very happy to inform you the following news. We, NewRomanic Cyber Army Team, verified our #OPFuckKorea2003. We have now a great deal of personal information in our hands. Those includes; 2.49M of [redacted by Mcafee] member table data, cms_info more than 50M from [redacted]. Much information from [redacted] Bank. We destroyed more than 0.18M of PCs. Many auth Hope you are lucky. 11th, 12th, 13th, 21st, 23rd and 27th HASTATI Detachment. Part of PRINCIPES Elements. p.s For more information, please visit login with$RFV. Please also visit”

The McAfee report, and a similarly in-depth report from HP Security, mentions that another group calling itself the Whois Team — which defaced a South Korean network provider during the attack — also took responsibility for the destructive Dark Seoul attacks in 2013. But both companies say they believe the NewRomanic Cyber Army Team and the Whois Team are essentially the same group. As Russian security firm Kaspersky notes, the images used by the WhoisTeam and the warning messages left for Sony are remarkably similar:

The defacement message left by the Whois Team in the 2013 Dark Seoul attacks (left) and the message left for Sony (right).

The defacement message left by the Whois Team in the 2013 Dark Seoul attacks (left) and the message left for Sony (right).

Interestingly, the attacks on Sony also were preceded by the theft of data that was later leaked on Pastebin and via Dropbox. But how long were the attackers in the Sony case inside Sony’s network before they began wiping drives? And how did they move tens of terabytes of data off of Sony’s network without notice? Those questions remain unanswered, but the McAfee paper holds a few possible clues. Continue reading →

Jul 14

Microsoft Darkens 4MM Sites in Malware Fight

Millions of Web sites were shuttered Monday morning after Microsoft executed a legal sneak attack against a malware network thought to be responsible for more than 7.4 million infections of Windows PCs worldwide.

A diagram showing how crooks abused's services to control malware networks. Source: Microsoft.

A diagram showing how crooks abused’s services to control malware networks. Source: Microsoft.

In its latest bid to harness the power of the U.S. legal system to combat malicious software and cybercrooks, Microsoft convinced a Nevada court to grant the software giant authority over nearly two dozen domains belonging to, a company that provides dynamic domain name services.

Dynamic DNS services are used to map domain names to numeric Internet address that may change frequently. Typically, the biggest users of dynamic DNS services are home Internet users who wish to have a domain name that will always point back to their home computer, no matter how many times their ISP changes the numeric Internet address assigned to that computer.

In this case, however, the attackers responsible for leveraging two malware families — remote-access Trojans known as “njrat” and “njw0rm” — were using’s services to guarantee that PCs they infected would always be able to reach the Internet servers.

Microsoft told the court that miscreants who were using these two malware strains were leveraging more than 18,400 hostnames that belonged to On June 26, the court granted Microsoft the authority to temporarily seize control over 23 domains owned by — essentially all of the domains that power’s free dynamic DNS services.

Microsoft was supposed to filter out the traffic flowing to and from those 18,400+ hostnames, and allow the remaining, harmless traffic to flow through to its rightful destination. But according to marketing manager Natalie Goguen, that’s not at all what happened.

“They made comments that they’d only taken down bad hostnames and were supposedly redirecting all good traffic through to users, but it’s not happening, and they’re not able to handle our traffic volumes,” Goguen said. “Many legitimate users that use our services have been down all day.”

Goguen said while Microsoft claimed that there were more than 18,000 malicious hostnames involved, could only find a little more than 2,000 from that list that were still active as of Monday morning. Meanwhile, some four million hostnames remain offline, with customer support requests piling up.

“So, to go after 2,000 or so bad sites, [Microsoft] has taken down four million,” Goguen said. Continue reading →

Jan 14

A Closer Look at the Target Malware, Part II

Yesterday’s story about the point-of-sale malware used in the Target attack has prompted a flood of analysis and reporting from antivirus and security vendors about related malware. Buried within those reports are some interesting details that speak to possible actors involved and to the timing and discovery of this breach.

targetsmashAs is the case with many data breaches, the attackers in this attack used a virtual toolbox of crimeware to get the job done. As I noted in a Tweet shortly after filing my story Wednesday, at least one of those malware samples includes the text string “Rescator.” Loyal readers of this blog will probably find this name familiar. That’s because Rescator was the subject of a blog post that I published on Dec. 24, 2013, titled “Who is Selling Cards from Target?“.

In that post, I examined a network of underground cybercrime shops that were selling almost exclusively credit and debit card accounts stolen from Target stores. I showed how those underground stores all traced back to a miscreant who uses the nickname Rescator, and how clues about Rescator’s real-life identity suggested he might be a particular young man in Odessa, Ukraine.

This afternoon, McAfee published a blog post confirming many of the findings in my story yesterday, including that two malware uploaders used in connection with the Target attack contained the Rescator string:


A private message on cpro[dot]su between Rescator and a member interested in his card shop. Notice the ad for Rescator's email flood service at the bottom.

A private message on cpro[dot]su between Rescator and a member interested in his card shop. Notice the ad for Rescator’s email flood service at the bottom.

Earlier this morning, Seculert posted an analysis that confirmed my reporting that the thieves used a central server within Target to aggregate the data hoovered up by the point-of-sale malware installed at Target. According to Seculert, the attack consisted of two stages.

“First, the malware that infected Target’s checkout counters (PoS) extracted credit numbers and sensitive personal details. Then, after staying undetected for 6 days, the malware started transmitting the stolen data to an external FTP server, using another infected machine within the Target network.”

Continue reading →

May 12

At the Crossroads of eThieves and Cyberspies

Lost in the annals of campy commercials from the 1980s is a series of ads that featured improbable scenes between two young people (usually of the opposite sex) who always somehow caused the inadvertent collision of peanut butter and chocolate. After the mishap, one would complain, “Hey you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!,” and the other would shout, “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!” The youngsters would then sample the product of their happy accident and be amazed to find someone had already combined the two flavors into a sweet and salty treat that is commercially available.

It may be that the Internet security industry is long overdue for its own “Reese’s moment.” Many security experts who got their start analyzing malware and tracking traditional cybercrime recently have transitioned to investigating malware and attacks associated with so-called advanced persistent threat (APT) incidents. The former centers on the theft of financial data that can be used to quickly extract cash from victims; the latter refers to often prolonged attacks involving a hunt for more strategic information, such as intellectual property, trade secrets and data related to national security and defense.

Experts steeped in both areas seem to agree that there is little overlap between the two realms, neither in the tools the two sets of attackers use, their methods, nor in their motivations or rewards. Nevertheless, I’ve heard some of these same experts remark that traditional cyber thieves could dramatically increase their fortunes if they only took the time to better understand the full value of the PCs that get ensnared in their botnets.

In such a future, Chinese nationalistic hackers, for example, could avoid spending weeks or months trying to break into Fortune 500 companies using carefully targeted emails or zero-day software vulnerabilities; instead, they could just purchase access to PCs at these companies that are already under control of traditional hacker groups.

Every now and then, evidence surfaces to suggest that bridges between these two disparate worlds are under construction. Last month, I had the opportunity to peer into a botnet of more than 3,400 PCs — most of them in the United States. The systems were infected with a new variant of the Citadel Trojan, an offshoot of the ZeuS Trojan whose chief distinguishing feature is a community of users who interact with one another in a kind of online social network. This botnet was used to conduct cyberheists against several victims, but it was a curious set of scripts designed to run on each infected PC that caught my eye.

Continue reading →

Oct 10

Spam Volumes Dip After Closure

Spam trackers are seeing a fairly dramatic drop in junk e-mail sent over the past few days, specifically spam relayed by one of the world’s largest spam botnets – although security experts disagree on exactly which botnet may be throttling back or experiencing problems.

According to M86 Security Labs, the volume of spam has dipped quite a bit, approximately 40 percent since the beginning of the month by the looks of the graphic the company publishes on its site (pictured at right).

M86 says the decrease in spam is due to a rapid drop in activity from the Rustock botnet (see graphic below left), a collection of spam-spewing zombie PCs that experts say is responsible for relaying about 40 percent of all junk e-mail on any given day.

The decline in spam volume comes at about the same time that the world’s largest spam affiliate program — — said it would stop paying affiliates to promote its online pharmacy Web sites — on Oct. 1.

Bradley Anstis, vice president of technical strategy for M86, said the most likely explanation is that the person(s) operating Rustock rented the botnet to a number of affiliates, and many of those affiliates have not yet switched over to another pharmacy affiliate program.

“To me, that’s the most logical explanation,” Anstis said. “The timing certainly hooks up well, because we started seeing this decline right around the first of October.”

Continue reading →